The editors of a recent collection of essays entitled Accumulating Insecurity: Violence and Dispossession in the Making of Everyday Life begin their study with the following observation concerning the general state of political economy in the world today: “There is a growing consensus that the world today is in dire social and economic crisis that extends to housing, personal financial debt, and the absence of adequate health care and education, a crisis that finds increasing numbers of people vulnerable to dearth and death as the ability to secure daily life is eroded” (2011, p.1). In the book, scholars working in the fields of sociology, political science, and law examine the various ways that the recent financial crisis has contributed to an escalation of political violence that is not taking place primarily through acts of war or terrorism, but rather through a form of political violence that is being executed through the appropriation and privatization of society’s basic means of social reproduction. They define social reproduction as “the historically contingent processes by which we reproduce the conditions and relations of economic and social security. These include not only the technical means of reproducing the physical integrity of our bodies, but also the methods by which we reproduce ourselves as political subjects—that is the relations we legitimate” (2011, p.2). Although this crisis of reproduction is a global phenomenon, in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, it is primarily being advanced through the ongoing implementation of a politics of austerity that has effectively shifted the financial burdens of the private banking and finance sector onto the wider population. Despite the fact that a number of economists have challenged the logic of austerity as a pathway to recovery, the narrative of profligate public spending and the need for greater sacrifices on the part of the average citizen continues to be a regular feature of the current government’s public discourse. What is perhaps most worrying about the ways that the crisis of social reproduction is currently taking place is the extent to which the underlying narrative of financial scarcity has become so difficult for many to contest.
For an outsider, finding a point of entry into the world of economic theory is no mean feat. Although there are countless introductory texts for the subject, macroeconomic theory often begins by elaborating a theoretical language that relies very heavily upon terminological agreement. As it turns out, like so many other disciplines, economists fail to agree upon the definitions of some of their most fundamental terms and concepts. Likewise, texts written from the perspective of micro-economics tend to move very quickly into the baffling world of econometrics and mathematical formulas that are also highly debated by experts in the field. Fortunately, the economic historian Mary S. Morgan has offered those of us who are less mathematically proficient a way of approaching the discipline through her assertion that economic theory is primarily a modelling science that relies upon visual and literary representations of the world which are essentially fictional. Although the curved lines in a classic econometric diagram of supply and demand may be based upon personal experiences of purchasing and some casual observation of market behaviours, according to Morgan, the lines of course do not reflect actual observations of supply and demand because such invisible phenomena are not there to be seen in the world. Instead, as Morgan suggests, “Each curve shows how economists imagine what consumers and producers imagine they might buy and supply at different prices; and what might cause these curves to shift.” There is therefore a double-layer of imagination reflected in these diagrams which reflects the highly speculative and fictional nature of economic modelling. According to Morgan, the answer to the question, “How do economists use models? is, in one sense, easy to answer: they ask questions with them and tell stories! Or more exactly: they ask questions, use the resources of the model to demonstrate something, and tell stories in the process” (2012, p.217-18). The narrative power of these fictive models enables them to function as epistemic instruments which present and represent the world to minds of those who rely upon them for evaluating and predicting behaviour in the so-called “real world.” There is a striking similarity between the way that Morgan describes the hermeneutic operations which characterize the ways that economists interpret their models and the notion of the self-interpreting bible which emerged during the time of the Reformation. When economists read their own diagrams, they entertain the illusion of self-mastery and self-presencing that accompanies the experience of reading an all too human text that has nonetheless been imbued with divine powers.
In addition to the fictive quality of the ways that economists visually represent economic behaviour, at a philosophical level, modern economic theory also relies upon a certain fictional description of human nature—the figure of “man” the rational maximizer of economic satisfaction also known as homo economicus. According to Morgan, this simplified depiction of the human in economic theory developed as the discipline became increasingly concerned with constructing explanatory models. Although the figure of homo economicus has been criticized and assailed from practically every vantage point in the humanities, and it has even been challenged by economists themselves who acknowledge it as an oversimplification of human behaviour, this fictional character remains popular, particularly among scholars of a distinctly neoliberal persuasion. In his book Economic Analysis of Law, the ever-prolific legal scholar Richard Posner begins his study with the assertion that “economics is the science of rational choice in a world—our world—in which resources are limited in relation to human wants. The task of economics, so defined, is to explore the implications of assuming that man is a rational maximizer of his ends in life, his satisfactions—what we shall call his ‘self-interest’”(2003, p.3). (It is worth noting that Posner insists on using masculine pronouns throughout his study; problematically, he claims that they “are used in a generic rather than a gendered sense.”)
In an effort to respond to one of the common criticisms of rational choice theory, which is that human consumption is rarely motivated by conscious calculation, Posner claims that “Economics is not a theory about consciousness. Behavior is rational when it conforms to the model of rational choice, whatever the state of mind of the chooser” (2003, p.3). It appears that Posner is capable of disregarding the fictional nature of economic analysis through his uncritical acceptance of the myth of homo economicus. The appeal of this myth for Posner as well as other advocates of law and economics is that it offers a simplified narrative of human behaviour which allows for a supposedly scientific approach to making legal decisions that may otherwise appear ethically complex when considered within the larger context of human social interactions. But when the maxim that what is economically efficient is most beneficial for society is introduced as a hermeneutic framework for making legal decisions such ethical and moral complexities apparently recede from view. Like lines upon a graph, the creation and application of law comes to represent a theoretical model of human life that exists in a supposedly scientific vacuum that is increasingly isolated from the complexities of everyday life and the reality human suffering.
The fact that theoretical abstractions have a tendency to disguise or otherwise disregard the complexities of human life is of course not a new insight for those working in fields which take seriously the particularity human subjectivity. And for scholars working in the fields of theology and religious studies, this has meant challenging in theory and in practice a great number of dogmas and philosophical traditions which have historically sacrificed the irreducible complexity of human life for the sake of elaborating highly debatable answers to life’s most perplexing questions. From the perspective of Christian theology, questions concerning the meaning and sources of human suffering, poverty, and evil have led many to abandon the project of theodicy altogether. And yet still others set out from strong ideological or theological positions to wager conclusive answers to such questions. Frankly, these people scare me.
Following David Cameron’s rather infamous opening speech at the annual Downing Street Easter reception, many Christians were troubled by his assertion that the Big Society was in fact invented by Jesus; others took issue with his proclamation that Britain is in fact a Christian country. Although I find both of these statements troubling, Cameron made another point that I find both insightful and disturbing. Commenting on the similarities between the challenges that churches face in Britain and the challenges facing political institutions, he suggests:
“We both sometimes can get wrapped up in bureaucracy; we both sometimes can talk endlessly about policies and programmes and plans without explaining what that really means for people’s lives. We can sometimes get obsessed by statistics and figures and how to measure things. Whereas actually, what we both need more of is evangelism. More belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives and make a difference and improve both the spiritual, physical and moral state of our country, and we should be unashamed and clear about wanting to do that.”
It feels strange to say that I mainly agree with the Prime Minister on this point. The only problem of course is that the world that he wants to create and the one that so many who are opposed to him would like to create are so very different. Perhaps it would serve Mr. Cameron well to remember that evangelism is not simply a matter of ideological fervour, it is a matter of sharing good news; in terms of the gospel story which presumably forms the basis of his notion of spiritual and moral health, to use the Greek term, it is a good news that is directed specifically at the anawim, who, as Terry Eagleton provocatively suggests, are “the dispossessed or shit of the earth who have not stake in the present set-up, and who thus symbolize the possibility of new life in their very dissolution” (2001, p.114). The good news means loving your neighbour as yourself, even when that neighbour fails to reciprocate in kind. The fact that the Prime Minister would have us disregard statistics and instead allow ourselves to be swept away by the spirit of philanthropy is an all too convenient ploy. When we look at the consequences of austerity for those who are most vulnerable in society, the numbers and graphs do tell a story that is worth reading. They tell a story of shifting geo-political relations, desperate attempts at securing the stability of a faltering banking and finance industry, concerted efforts at privatizing health care, education, and public housing, and most importantly a strategic attack on the advances made by labour movements throughout the twentieth century. Narratives of economic crisis and the myth of homo economicus have largely supplanted the narratives of equality, human rights, and social responsibility which emerged in the wake of the First and Second World Wars. Challenging the politics of austerity requires a thoroughgoing reassessment of the values that have thus far shaped the notion of political liberalism in western society and a re-examination of the fictions which necessarily bind us to the neighbour we so rarely see.
Eagleton, Terry. 2001. The Gatekeeper: A Memoir. London: Penguin.
Feldman, Shelley, Charles C. Geisler, and Gayatri A. Menon, eds. 2011. Accumulating Insecurity: Violence and Dispossession in the Making of Everyday Life. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Morgan, Mary S. 2012. The World in the Model: How Economists Work and Think. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Posner, Richard A. 2003. Economic Analysis of Law. New York: Aspen Law.