Question: What does the economy look like?…
The mainstream economist’s answer: ‘Why! GDP, of course!
‘An economy,’ a mainstream economist might retort, ‘is nothing more than the combined economic activity of all ‘households’ in any given location – say, a region, a nation, the world. So, if you want to see what an economy looks like, consult the charts that portray these aggregated numbers’. The specific chart that visually depicts our national economy is, of course, that portraying ‘GDP’ (Gross Domestic Product).1
To be fair to mainstream economists, the GDP figure and chart does spur subsequent investigations into, and depictions of, other, subsidiary sectors: trade, manufacturing, consumption, employment, etc. But, it remains the case that were one to ask most economists what the economy looks like they’d probably show you the GDP chart.
The supply-demand curve
The historical GDP chart tracks our interminable quest for that holy grail – economic growth. If economic growth is the proclaimed overarching objective of our society then the path to this objective lies through the venerated ‘market’. Aesthetically, the sanctity of the market is revealed to us in the ‘supply-demand curve’. This simple two line chart shows us how the Lord weaves his miracles daily, bringing forth social order and justice from atomised chaos with each wave of his ‘invisible hand’. For atheist free-marketeers, God is the market itself.
This sanctification of the market serves as a foundational myth of our economic religion – established in the ‘scriptures’ of founding texts, peddled by the priesthood, and reinforced and institutionalised in schools, universities, TV programmes and films every day of our lives.
The minimalist aesthetic of hegemonic microeconomics
This is not a blogpost debunking the preposterous myth of the free market. It is a post focused on how our economy is portrayed aesthetically. From this perspective, then, I think it is safe to share Susan Buck-Morss’ conclusion that that the hegemonic economics of today, neoclassical economics, is ‘microeconomics’…
‘Minimalism is characteristic of the supply-demand curve, none of the substantive problems of political economy are resolved, while the social whole simply disappears from sight. Once this happens, critical reflection on the exogenous conditions of a ‘given’ market situation becomes impossible, and the philosophy of political economy become so theoretically impoverished that it can be said to come to an end.’
What does this all mean? As I understand it, a central political function of neoclassical economics is to depoliticise our society. By using their technical equations and graphs to depict the economy, economists perplex us into accepting that the status quo is the natural and only possible social order. They also point our attention to exchange and consumption away from the politics of production and work. Neoclassical economists, the aspiring physicists of the social sciences, using their ‘scientific expertise’ to close down political possibilities.2
Only by reducing the complexity of individual and social life to this degree can one create an aesthetic as minimalist as the GDP or supply-demand curve chart to represent the ‘economy’ – an entity that structures, and is structured by, millions, indeed billions, of human beings.
This is not to dismiss the usefulness of using graphs and charts to reveal important economic trends and factors. It is, instead, to argue that when economists reduce the aesthetic portrayal of the economy to such graphs they render invisible the social and close the politically possible, making those exploited within the current economic system invisible and silent.
Seeing the unseeable
Visibility and invisibility are at the very heart of the issue here, for repoliticising our economy means attempting to somehow show that it comprises billions of unique human lives connected and structured through social relations of power. Above all, a political economic attempt to answer the question of what the economy looks like must try to show that what is invisible when we try to see the economy is just as real as the visible, if not more so. This, on first consideration, shouldn’t be that hard. We all believe in the existence of things we can’t see: electricity, gravity, microorganisms even. But, the complexity and dynamism of social systems and structures mean that their existence can’t be scientifically seen or aesthetically represented in similar ways. They are, as Karl Marx put it, ‘real abstractions’.
Gratuitous Turkish food porn!
Take a look at your next plate of food. Now try to think of all the human beings, animals, and natural contributions involved in ensuring its presence on your table. When you really start to work it through, you soon realise that we’re talking about countless combinations of literally millions of human beings and living creatures. Just because we have not met them does it mean we have no relation to and with them? Their labour, their very lives, have played a vital role in sustaining our own. There can be no more materially real relation than this, yet, no visible trace of this collective labour, energy, life can be seen on our plates. An understandable response to this is to feign blindness. But, if we remain blind to our place within the complex social system that we call our economy how can we see beyond the end of our own forks? How can we how to change our economy, our society, for the better if we can’t or won’t see it?
‘Cartographies of the Absolute’!
This is the dilemma admirably addressed by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkel in their recent book Cartographies of the Absolute. When one gets past the intellectually terrifying title, one finds, in many places, some no less terrifying prose. Yet, Toscano and Kinkel’s contribution to our question is important.
This graphic was produced by William Bunge as appears on the front cover of Toscano & Kinkle’s book ‘Cartographies of the Absolute’
Writing in the Marxist tradition, and taking us on a wonderful tour of contemporary art and film, the ‘absolute’ that the authors confront is none other than capital itself – the entity, the force that binds us all in relations of coercion, exploitation, and alienation each day, each very minute. Capital is everywhere, pulsing ceaselessly through our transplanetary and biological veins, making our very world go round, making and remaking our very selves. Capital produces us and we produce capital. And, as Toscano and Kinkel rightly emphasise, since capitalism is full of antagonisms and contradictions, we are too. Capital is, then, for the vast majority of humanity, the ‘absolute’ force shaping our lives and fates. And, yet, its very absoluteness, its ubiquity, makes it unseen, ‘hidden in plain view’. This is why we can’t realistically hope to see ‘the economy’ – the economy is the totality of global class relations within which we ourselves are immersed. Ultimately, as Frederic Jameson puts it, any attempts at mapping the whole economy ‘disorient under the banner of orientation’.
The view from below
There is no need, however, as Toscano and Kinkel themselves emphasise, to let this conclusion paralyse us intellectually or politically. Though we must discard any efforts to map this absolute, we still need some kind of cognitive mapping to inform our political understanding and our strategic actions. Frederic Jameson contends that ‘the view from the top is epistemologically crippling’.3Let’s proceed instead then from the bottom. If the dominant way that our economy is aesthetically depicted serves to render silent and invisible its greatest victims then let us listen to those rendered silent and let us find out what economy they can see.
So, what does the economy look like from below? Here’s one view. Dear readers, I proudly present what I call the ‘Flo Chart’!
The ‘Flo Chart’!
This picture was drawn by me, but it’s reproduced from memory of the original which was drawn by a wonderful woman called Flo during the first PPE (People’s Political Economy) learning group I ran at The Hub, a community centre in Hodge Hill, Birmingham back in the Autumn of last year. I asked the group to express in any way they wanted what they thought and felt when they heard the word ‘economy’. This is the picture that Flo produced in response to that question. Flo is an older woman who, by her own admission, has no formal understanding of economics or what an economy is. Listening to her tell us all, quite openly, the extreme challenges that life has thrown at her, it was clear where Flo saw herself and others at The Hub within her Flo Chart: very much at the bottom.
It’s an amazing picture to analyse. What I see I’m tempted to call ‘the absolute’. I see everything, everyone contained within this balloon (this bubble?). I see a few on top and others falling down to join ‘the masses’ at the bottom. I see the huddled folk at the bottom keeping the air in the whole thing by plugging up the balloon. The Flo Chart shows our ultimate interdependence – those on the top need those on the bottom. They would quickly fall to Earth if those below were to unplug the balloon.
Clearly, the Flo Chart makes no scientific representation. No data is being displayed here. But, if the GDP chart shows us an economy then the Flo Chart shows us the politics of, the unequal social relations structuring, that economy. Moreover, the Flo Chart shows us the artistry, the eloquence, the intellectual and creative power (and potential) of the dispossessed. The view from below isn’t just indispensable for getting a better view of (understanding) our economy, our society, it’s indispensable because the process by which people at the bottom of our economy, our society are invited to share their vision is, when it’s done right, a process of intellectual and, ultimately, political empowerment. In short, working with people at the bottom is central to building our democracy and democratising our economy.
Re-envisioning our economy
People are intelligent, insightful, and creative. Without knowledge of social theory, they might not always have the words or concepts to articulate their intelligence, but, still, their intelligence and creativity comes out, often with devastating power. The task of folk like me (I’m falling slowly in the middle), with knowledge of social theory, is to help people at the bottom to cultivate their own intelligence to see further. The word ‘theory’ comes from the Greek ‘theories’ meaning ‘to see’, ‘to behold’. When we combine the social knowledge that everyone has with the scientific knowledge that some are privileged to have then we can produce the transformational knowledge we need to reimagine and recreate our world.
The question of what our economy looks like is of fundamental, of foundational, importance. It’s the firm basis on which we can rebuild. Seeing our economy to the best of our abilities requires looking from multiple vantage points not least from below. We need to create a vision (or visions) of our economy that combine our shared experiential with our scientific/theoretical knowledge and, indeed, our emotions. It’s important because only from this foundation can we start to re-envision – to reimage and recreate an economy within our society – in a truly democratic fashion.
In the second part of this blog, I will offer some ideas, drawn from my own praxis of community education and theoretical work, for how we can generate collective visions of our economy as foundations for re-envisioning ourselves and our society.
1The Gross Domestic Product figure measures the total monetary value of all goods and services produced in an economy over a given period of time. It is usually expressed as a percentage rise or fall compared to the previous year or quarter.
2Although we see the establishment of a separate realm of human activity in classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Smith and Ricardo were still very much interested in understanding where economic value came from and, while they reduced social and political relationships to the bourgeois technical language of inputs/outputs, investments, profits, and returns, they did at least recognise that value was created by human labour. It was the ‘Marginalist Revolution’ of the final third of the 19th Century, lead by William Stanley Jevons in England, Carl Menger in Austria, and Leon Walras in Switzerland, that sought to bury any notion of the origin of value as somehow social and political, dethroning classical political economy with the theory of marginal utility. Instead of any consideration of social theory and value, economics became, and remains to this day, a consideration of utility and prices. The only social theory here is really that ‘man’ is out to satisfy his desires and minimise his work. This quest for ‘marginal’ utility (and avoidance of marginal disutility) – how much he will give for any additional unit of something he desires – combines with the positioning of the market as optimal mechanism for blindly, but efficiently, allocating scarce resources in the economy to form the cornerstones of the neoclassical economic religion.
3I understand this to mean that, rather than enhancing our understanding of our common humanity, our ability to see our planet the Earth from above, for example, has, conversely, increased our sense of bewilderment and powerlessness.