10 May 2020

The house that economists (conveniently) forget

There’s something that is not taught in Advanced Level economics. Well, a lot of things are ignored, but there’s always the valid excuse ‘we can’t really teach everything in two years!’ This ‘something’ however is not taught in university either, not to undergraduates and not to postgraduate students (along with the many things left untouched because they can’t be quantified or categorized). I was lucky. It came up or rather was brought up in a political science class by one of the sharpest minds I’ve encountered, Susan Buck-Morss. 

Susan was discussing the history of capitalism with a small set of students. We read a bunch of books. The only author that I remember is Giovanni Arrighi. We read and discussed his ‘The Long Twentieth Century: money, power and the origins of our times.’

One day, speaking of industry, trade, ports and key players, Susan asked ‘what’s common about all these people?’ There was silence. Then an impish graduate student in all seriousness and (in his mind) with absolutely no intention of being witty, spoke the following words, tentatively, ‘they were all white….?’ The class broke into laughter. Susan laughed too. Then she said, firmly, ‘they were all families!’ That’s when the not-taught lesson was taught. 

She asked, ’What is the etymology of the word economics?’ And then she explained. Here’s the wikipedia entry which is more or less what Susan said long before Wikipedia came into being:

‘The English words "economy" and "economics" can be traced back to the Greek word οἰκονόμος (i.e. "household management"), a composite word derived from οἶκος (“house; household; home") and νέμω ("manage; distribute; to deal out; dispense") by way of οἰκονομία ("household management”).’

Makes sense doesn’t it? It is no coincidence that the richest individuals on the planet belong to extremely rich families, clans if you wish that are framed by particular business ventures. They are mostly white, but that’s another story. The point is that we have a system that enriches families (households, in fact) and ensures the sustained development of their enrichment. We don’t talk of families or households, but we talk of systems. The capitalist system. Trade regimes. Investment rules. It’s almost as though the bucks were going into the bank account belonging to those in a handful of families. Households, yes.

They’ve managed things well. Their households, I mean. And they’ve convinced a large number of people in decision-making roles that the only way that others can manage their own households is by protecting the system. The problem is that the vast majority of households don’t really have much of a say in household-management. They are reduced to fooling themselves with notions such as ‘home is a man’s castle and in it he is king.’ Unadulterated rubbish, of course.

We are slaves because we have willingly decided to inhabit other people’s versions of reality, because we have been lulled into believing that we have no choice left but to embrace and affirm in our every act the lies sugar-coated as impeccable theory, non-negotiable pathway to prosperity etc. We have the key to our houses, owned or rented, but the doors to control over our lives, our families and households are stout and locked. They keys are in safe places in those other households we are not told about where the lords and ladies of the global economy reside.

Now should we storm those mansions? That has been tried. Should we debunk theories that are nothing more than myths and legends disguised as academic treatises? That has been done. Superior logic is easily bested by institutional and legal arrangements in structures of power. States heavily subsidize capital and capital interests even as capitalists blast governments for the most pathetic of welfarist measures proposed or implemented. And then of course there are guns, the not-exactly-last-resort hardware at the disposal of those touting anti-intellectual drivel in the name of household-blind economics.  

Maybe we should return to the household, literally and metaphorically. We can reflect on lives led. We can ask ourselves how we’ve managed ‘household,’ and perhaps discover the extent to which those other households (well, mansions) managed us, imposed limitations, extracted surplus value and such. 

We are blinded or dulled by appearances. We talk of ‘our lives’ as though we own ourselves, our skills, our labor and even our thoughts. As though we are in control of our households. As though our decisions are our own. As though our minds and decisions cannot be manipulated. 

Here’s a recent example that Covid-19 generated. The economic pundits are raising fears of meltdowns. The specter of collapsing economies has been raised. The call is for stimulation packages. They won’t say ‘bail us out,’ of course. No, it’s not about falling profits. It’s about those poor employees (that sounds more respectable than the truth, i.e. ‘workers’) who might lose their jobs and therefore income-earning opportunities, resulting in households (THAT word again) being hit hard!”

I interject ‘wow!’ Right here.

Let me repeat. Wow! 

When were THOSE households ever interested in THESE households? Never. When was THAT class interested in the welfare of THIS class except to the extent that tidbits had to be offered to stop them this side of contemplating revolt?

THAT set of households, THAT class, was interested only in one thing. Profit. Wars, political machinations, talk about talk about talk about protocols pertaining to all manner of issues (environment, human rights, religious freedoms, democracy etc.). All these things were framed by one thing and one thing only: PROFIT.  Yes, the benefits that could accrue or rather the continued flow of benefits to THAT set of households. And lost in translations is the ‘from’ part of the process.  From THESE households. They want the workers back because if you take them out of the equation profit flies out of the window. Simple.

So, folks, maybe it is time to put our house in order. Maybe it is time to re-thinking households, the true character of our walls, the architecture of our lives, the interior decor of our minds. Economics or rather mainstream economics (which is what counts in the affairs of the world right now) is not the discipline that will inform us about what is what and what should be done about what. However, the moment we take a hard look at the bedrock of the discipline, i.e. ‘the household,’ things fall into place, the liars are called out and the lie becomes embarrassing. 

We’ve been spending too much time out of the house. Our eyes have been sore looking at mansions and are minds benumbed by the promise, ‘this is something you too can have.’ Time to go home, brothers and sisters.