an ujamaa reunion (a prequel) / "by the 18th century, however, economists such as the english-born david ricardo & thomas malthus took license to declare that the earth's resources were simply insufficient to support human populations."
The Liberator Magazine 9.1 #24, 2010
(artwork: Robert Trujillo)
I am not an economist. This fact stalked the progress of this essay over the last year. I tried to cram semesters worth of economic minutia into evening sittings. I toyed around with statistical models and consulted several of my economist-trained friends routinely. In turn, they playfully reminded me of the length of time it took each of them to apprehend the questions with which I was grappling. Still, I labored on, determined to make sense of this financial mess our community finds itself. For months, there was no breakthrough, just me, surrounded by colorful books with catchy titles, plodding language and excess facts.
Wading tortuously through financial titles that promised accessibility for the general reader merely increased my self-doubt. Kevin Phillips' Bad Money, Reckless Finance and Charles R. Morris' The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown left me satisfied until a student group at Howard University I was lecturing to on the concept of Ujamaa requested that I "make it plain." The lecture was my first attempt to examine the macroeconomic aspects of today's financial crisis by grounding it in economic history. Tight on the generalities but wanting on the specifics, I embarrassingly resorted to citing specific sections that could be more useful than my awkward explanations (random aside: I was pleasantly surprised by how large of a hit Kevin Phillips' piece was in the Black Nationalist community). I even watched Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room at least three times before I fully understood just how the "smartest guys" were able to project non-existing profits and hijack their employees' pensions. Prepared to make peace that the subject area exceeded my reach, I shelved the notes from my presentation.
I was inspired to continue in the same moment I was scolded for my financial illiteracy. Matt Taibbi, author of the provocative Rolling Stones Magazine article, "The Big Takeover,"(fn.1) spelled out clearly and a tad bit uncomfortably, exactly how the United States took an economic nosedive within the past decade. His statement bears repeating in its entirety:
"How's this for a story: Millions of citizens in the most technologically sophisticated country in the world and top ranked schools are useless to stop a bunch of robber barons from stealing their wealth for one reason, and one reason only. They do not understand what is happening and are too ashamed to admit it."(fn.2)
Perhaps not convinced that his readers were truly absorbing his words, Taibbi selected an analogy guaranteed to stir up emotion in American discourse. "There is a reason it used to be a crime in the Confederate states to teach a slave to read: Literacy is power." (fn.3)
His words stung. My lack of understanding mirrored the political vapidity of an 18th century-bondsman. And yet, I felt vindicated by the fact that I was at least trying to understand.
Taibbi's article signaled an alternative course for this paper. I learned that the seeming complexity of economics is not the exclusive route one need travel to understand phenomenon related to or a consequence of what occurs in that domain. Prosaic truths are just as meaningful, if not more fundamental. His article was case-proof. Who couldn't be outraged by the vivid imagery he paints of "balding, middle-aged managers" literally "gang-raping" the "American Dream" using your tax dollars for lubrication? Seriously. Knowing the technical intricacies of credit-default swaps and collateralized-debt obligations are still important, especially if one is a recent victim of foreclosure. But, the larger point is emphasis on the uber-technical details conceal another story, one more resonant with the human condition. Freed from my ignorance, however temporarily, the proceeding paragraphs took form.
As my old man used to instruct me back in the day, "Pull it from the root, it's easier." Taking heed of these words led me to the first stop -- Merriam-Websters Dictionary. The first time around, like any typical Generation X cohort accustomed to lightening speed Google searches, I dutifully transcribed the first definition for economics. It came pretty stock, describing it as a "social science concerned chiefly with the description and analysis of the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services."
These words had a familiar ring. I was involved in a casual relationship with Marxist and Anarchist thought during my undergraduate years so concepts like production, distribution and consumption were easy to grasp. Still, I experienced discomfort. Each term appeared neutral, as if timeless truths. However, this neutrality collided with our current context. To be "concerned chiefly" with these terms was to privilege industrialism -- the period when hulking machines that coughed up coal and spat out steam dotted Western Europe's landscape. This emphasis is hardly surprising considering the bulk of Western scholars agree, "Before the 17th century, there is little worthy of the name economics." (fn.4)
So there was a history to this perplexing rhetoric. The architects of this confusing world of numbers and stats had actually invented this arcane language to accomplish precisely that. Indeed, it was in the industrial age that economics was first theorized as little more than "merchandising, bookkeeping … and the elaboration of a mathematical worldview." (fn.5) Needing to justify their value in the expanding European states, the "mercantilists (emerging bourgeoisie) invented a calculus whose mystique justified the privileging of incomes from trade, manufacture and finance above the economic consequences and social priorities of inherited wealth." (fn.6)
In so doing, economics was emptied of its practice of assigning spiritual and kinship value to items that prevented its commodification, a practice Marx attributed to "crude superstitions." (fn.7) As the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss observed, some societies operated on an exchange principle: There are things that are given, things that are sold, and things that must not be given or sold, but kept. This worldview prohibited the act of accumulation for accumulation's sake -- a view Aristotle thought inherently irrational. (fn.8) Understandings of value that suggested that things possess a spiritual character annoyed Enlightenment thinkers; as a result, these worldviews were repainted with a sleek, cold, scientism that scoffed at the notion of anyone other than merchants (and subsequently those operating in today's financial sector) could actually explain or apprehend how exchange works among humans.
So what were some of the other legacies these erudite and materially ambitious men bequeathed to us, those that have shaped and coddled our most basic assumptions of life in the last three centuries? Well, the first inheritance is the notion of scarcity, a theory that underpins modern economics. The evolution of the idea of scarcity is scarcely explained (pun intended). In the classical world, scarcity was defined in relationship to need. It functioned as a prediction of what was possible if these two variables became overly imbalanced. In fact, this definition resisted a comprehensive projection. Scarcity could mean both the insufficient availability of wheat for hungry farmers and the insufficiency of diamonds for wealthy merchants. It was all a matter of subjective desire and circumstance. It presumed the world possessed sufficient resources and it was only the irrational greed of man that threatened this fundamental fact.
By the 18th century, however, economists such as the English-born David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus took license to declare that the earth's resources were simply insufficient to support human populations. (fn.9) The concept of greed -- prominent in earlier considerations -- now could matter less. Ricardo and his gloomy analysis were not born in a vacuum. Residing in England at a time when the enclosure movement aggressively forced thousands of people their rural plots and drove them into congested cities where the only "value" they now possessed was the selling of their labor to factories clues us on how he arrived at such dark conclusions. (fn.10) Dark indeed, for the preoccupation with impending death defined economics for Ricardo and his intellectual comrades. Man labored under the threat of death, since in Ricardo's estimation, overpopulation (as observed by him in England) meant individuals and families were obliged to risk physical harm taking on increasingly difficult labor tasks to simply subsist. Combined with Malthusian dogma -- population growth threatens the supply of available finite resources -- scarcity was codified as a sacred canon of economics. One of the more powerful images today that captures this perspective is the stereotypical horde of Wall Street brokers clamoring to sell or purchase stock routinely depicted in Hollywood. The scene suggests brutal competition is not an option, but a social fact.
Scarcity also nurtured understandings of goods and services, those seemingly innocuous terms we encountered in Webster. Each term relies on scarcity for its value. Both goods and services are studied within context of their limited supply with a particular emphasis on how societies manage the allocation of these finite resources. Interestingly, Wikipedia asserts that the term 'goods' not only presume scarcity for economists, it occasions an entirely new name -- free goods -- if it is associated with abundance.
Another preoccupation of these theorists was use-value. (fn.11) Use-value, that is the assignment of coins (money) as wealth detached from any object, gradually displaced the exchange-value system. In scrambling for ways to legitimize the assignment of value for objects, these scholars leaped to esoteric realms. Use-value came packaged in the assumption that labor in and of itself was adequate to determine the price of an item. However, by abstracting value in this manner, it allowed the crude reduction of all items (and human beings) to be considered commodities. This price was set by the delicate dance between what is available for consumption and the intensity of the desire to consume the item. This "dance" continued until both parties were satisfied, and it is within that satisfaction, the price of an item was achieved.
But, as Dan Ariely demonstrates in his latest book, Predictably Irrational, most humans still don't get that value, as a rule, is relative. Most people, he illustrates, do not know what they want or what they would pay for absent of context. For instance, if presented with an item considered pleasurable that is not attached to a price, some are utterly confused on what "price-value" should be assigned to that object. The tragedy of this knowledge is that while economics suggests we are rational beings making rational decisions, our everyday behavior in terms of our spending habits contradicts this supposed truth. It is why, in the words of Ariely, a person has no problem "adding $200 to a $5,000 catering bill for a soup entrée, when the same person will clip coupons to save 25 cents on a one-dollar can of condensed soup." (fn.12) Our behavior is irrational precisely because we think it is rational! More fundamentally, the indoctrination of economics as a set of objective laws translates into an acute and costly ignorance of our subjective behaviors within this system.
Economics presents itself as a function of universal law, the gritty texture of the bottom-line we must all prostrate before at the end of the day. The "market" governs this world. Its [the market] national motto reads, "Fuck you. Pay me!" And yet, humans continue to adhere to social norms that mock the prescribed laws of the market. We understand that to offer "money" for an enjoyable dinner is a sign of disrespect. We volunteer our "services" freely, carving out time because the social benefits are inviting. Wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits -- how familiar are we with their central roles in organizing our lives? Whether people understand the history of these concepts (and they do have a history), we are obliged to appreciate how they function in our lives. Economists mistake this appreciation for reverence. In fact, social exchanges has proven to play an equally meaningful role in everyday life, if not more so. (fn.13) Market norms enjoy precedence in economic decisions for one reason and one reason only: they are based on what we remember. Ariely puts it this way: "the relationships set in the marketplace between supply and demand are not based on preferences but on memory." (fn.14) To be sure then, if our memory is extended beyond the established (industrial) border, the economic behaviors typically relegated to anthropology can be treated with proportionate seriousness.
From this bridge I was able to observe how economics was appropriated and recast in the 17th and 18th centuries. Now knowing there lurked a concealed past behind this representation of economics, I searched and found alternative representations, hidden, of course, in plain sight. In this case, it was the second definition listed in Webster's dictionary: "Of or relating to the household or its management."
The second definition, though brief, opens a world to us long buried under the preoccupations of self-righteous European men. The esteemed Greek philosopher Aristotle established the etymological origins of economics. It is broken down into two terms, oikos-nomy. Nomy, in Greek, is simply the law of. We are familiar with this term through most of the knowledge systems taken in formal schooling such as astronomy. Oikos is thus the crucial word. It translates into the transmission of property and thus clarifies the definition offered by "Mr. Webster."
At its root, economics is simply the laws that govern the transmission of property. Thus, the household was the economic unit. More intriguingly, the "managers" of the household, responsible for the production and distribution of goods (clothes and food) and services (cleaning and cooking) were, naturally, women. When I first presented this understanding to my colleagues, it raked some of them the wrong way. By choosing the term "natural," it appeared as if I was justifying the domestic role of women. However, to apprehend the significance of this role it is important to note that ancient households, unlike today's households, were not simply units of consumption. They were sites built for both production and consumption. Think of it as akin to the role of a manager at a small business rather than a modern housewife, especially considering that many of these households featured slaves and cheap migrant labor. Moreover, public duties included the maintenance of agricultural crops and the contracting of migrant and day laborers from available markets.
As Greek society transitioned its emphasis from the private to the public arenas, the role of women was dismissed and devalued. This is not to suggest that the administration of enslaved labor was a virtue due to its feminine face. I cite this fact because women (and male heads of the household) tended to operate from a basis of sufficiency, a consequence of the household as primary. Aristotle deliberately excluded men from his classical definition of economics despite his stated belief in the superiority of men. (fn.15) He disapprovingly cited their pursuit of unlimited wealth in the public sphere as unsustainable and disruptive of the stable household order that operated on the basis of self-sufficiency. (fn.16)
These social relations were converted to legend after the -polis was promoted as the ideal arena of human activity. Greek men conspired successfully to prevent women from holding property. Terrified of women's potential to betray their spouses and marry "strangers," thereby filching their property rights, women were recast as sinisterly secretive (witch-like). This assignment interestingly persisted up through the witch-hunts during the Middle Ages in Europe, a hysterical period not coincidentally driven by fear of the power female mystics welded in radical egalitarian movements. (fn.17) Because Aristotle located the household as the authentic site of economics, the majority of economists, given to the notion that capitalism and commerce are the staples of economic behavior (both public activities), disqualified him as an economist.
Robinson captures the true tragedy in this moment: "Economics as a science or as an historical subject [then and now], discounts whatever contributions or knowledge female household management might have accumulated." (fn.18) This accumulated knowledge spanned several millennia, which in essence, means Western males have been conducting science experiments in their backyard without the aid of established blueprints. And this cycle continues, evidenced not only by the fact economic science is viewed as the domain of males but also in the privileging of wage labor, also commonly understood to be a male preserve. It is one of the main reasons trade unions, despite the significant gains it has achieved for working-classes, is unable to transform the structures it rails against. Forged in the crucible of a racist and sexist state, it accommodates both racism (xenophobia) and sexism without self-awareness of the contradictions. (fn.19) This is precisely because the existing structures have long made peace with such contradictions, obsessively seeking rationales for its hypocrisy. If nothing else the investigation showed a new path, paradoxically old, beckons.
The frame is essential for any discussion for they are the invisible borders that govern what is allowed, and more importantly, those areas of discussion considered taboo. Political theorist George Lakoff puts it this way: “Framing is about getting the language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary -- and the language carries those ideas, evoke those ideas.” (fn.20) The standard definition Webster offers of economics is not simply descriptive. It proposes a worldview. That worldview arrogantly begins its narrative in the Industrial Age and consigns all manners of human exchange preceding it to the trashbin of history. It asserts in absolute terms that economics is merely the activities which occur in the public sphere (commerce/capitalism). Notwithstanding the aggressiveness and repetitiveness of this assertion, this article hopefully demonstrated that alternative understandings are available. In an era of excess and waste, the model of subsistence economics based around households as evidenced in Greek and early Roman societies invite us to "unthink" our assumptions of scarcity, price-value and the market. To unthink, however, requires more than mere deconstruction. (fn.21) It also demands the exploration and application of viable alternatives, the agenda I have set for the second part of this article in relation to the African Diaspora.
If there is one day earmarked for serious contemplation on the impact of economics in African American (and by extension African Diasporic) communities, it is without a doubt the fourth day of the week-long Kwanzaa holiday when the principle of Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) is celebrated. In these urgent times, it is safe to predict that the discussions held around this principle this coming January will largely focus on the dire state of the United States economy. And dire it is indeed. A report from the United for a Fair Economy published last year predicted that the subprime mortgage crisis will likely cause "people of color to lose up to $213 billion, a startling figure that ranks as the greatest loss of wealth in modern U.S. history."(fn.22) Even so, this statistic only clues us in on the stresses of the self-identified middle classes in our community. For the majority of black families left to eke out a living in apocalyptic conditions where housing buildings ceased being maintained (fn.23) and the crack epidemic spawned a fratricidal war of tremendous proportions yet to peter out, the scornful laughter of hardship has been echoing faintly for quite some time between empty factory walls and the invisible lines drawn and defended by working-class whites seeking nothing short of a permanent quarantine. (fn.24) Given these tragic histories, the coming Kwanzaa celebration, specifically the day Ujamaa is consecrated, offers a crucial opportunity for a national and global conversation on how best to begin the steep climb out of this financial mess. The framing of this discussion will prove even more crucial. -END-
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