Sunday 19 June 2011

Listening to the Economy

At this time of economic crisis, the most obvious thing to do is to question our assumptions. Unfortunately, many of those assumptions are seen to be simply too difficult, or worse, simply too 'obvious' to be critiqued. We need powerful questions to kick-start a process of critique making what seems obvious less so. Here is my attempt:

1. What is property?
Our attachment to material artefacts, other people, intellectual ideas, religious belief, language, culture and personal habits are all considered factors which underpin economic behaviour. From Keynes's 'propensity to consume' to Sen's recent work on identity, it seems that the core of our values lies in attaching value to things external to us. In the case of people who we love, one set of economic behaviours arises: the provision of safety and opportunity, for example. In the case of material things, another set of economic behaviour arises: the exchange of goods and services, the management of money. When we get to intellectual ideas, it starts to get more confusing, and religious belief and culture are clearly more aligned to personal identity.

But Sen might be right in thinking that it all relates to identity in some way, and the essential balance with regard to property and identity fundamentally relates to peace and violence.

Our conventional view of property, and the related concepts of commodities, services, value, exchange, etc have received little attention since Marx, and indeed much of his thinking preserved basic assumptions by Smith and Locke.

But we are getting a feeling for how property and identity might be biological. The hints that this is so are coming particularly from our realisation of risk being a major factor in the organisation of our economy. Risk clearly has a bio-psychological component in the emotion of anxiety that associates with it.

That starts to open things up with regard to identity. For the function of property may be related to the management of anxiety in some way. I'm wondering if John Bowlby might characterise this as a form of 'attachment' - and that makes things really interesting for me because Bowlby is fundamentally cybernetic in his thinking.

If property relates to emotions of anxiety, then the question is 'how might it work?', and with a description of how it might work, we might be able to gain a deeper insight into an alternative view on property.

2. What is money and exchange?
This obviously is a fundamental question, although it has received rather more theoretical attention than property. However, if property is conceived in biological terms as feedback mechanisms, then money (which is also a kind of property) is there too.

The deeper question is to consider the nature of exchange, where property seen from a biological context is transferred from one person to another. Money, as an abstract medium for this transfer to take place, can also then be seen from a biological perspective. Such things as money, property, exchange, etc can all then be seen as regulating mechanisms.

3. What lies behind the 'propensity to consume' and the 'propensity to save'?
I'm tempted to give a simple answer to this: individual identity. If identity is constituted through relations with property (i.e. property is essentially something against which identity is established), then consumption is at once a process of adapting identity and regulating it.

The regulatory means by which this is conducted in society may require economies to ensure that the material constituents of identity are made available to individuals in society.

4. What are services?
Services are, I think, ways in which the biology of identity may be regulated without property being exchanged as such, but instead for the actual regulation that might be provided by property to be 'simulated' with something artificial.

Services have providers, and service provision tends to manipulate the provision of property so as to create the demand for the service where a property relation is prevented.

Our economy is increasingly organised in this way I think. It also explains the increasing gap between rich and poor, and indicates that this gap is only likely to increase: the service-providers will increase their capital assets - both to form a base for service provision and to deprive the masses from access to property, and thus drive up demand for the 'service alternative'.

5. What is education and capabilities?
Education can be fundamentally characterised as a service. To see it as a 'right' would have been to see it as property, but now education is not seen as a right, but a service. With the 'right' removed, the services of education are the substitute, and the demand for that substitute is only likely to increase.

Education is a way of managing risk and the anxiety that rises from it through the establishment of new capabilities (however, education may give rise to other risks and other anxieties.. so I'm not sure about this).

Education works by establishing property relations (attachments) to ideas, capabilities and to some extent people: cultural and social capital is one way of seeing this. Through establishing property relations to ideas, identity is formed, adapted, etc. Most parenting concerns the establishment of property relations with the world - the continual encouragement to greater independence is basically a way of nurturing more robust identities.

6. What is the market?
The market reflects a theory and a set of values. If the theory was changed, the market would change. Much of what the market does depends on people not understanding what it does. If we understood what it did better, it would do different things. It's interesting that as awareness of Marx's ideas grew, capitalists changed their practices of employment - frustrating Marxist predictions of worker unrest. Instead, we had a burgeoning middle class of consumers. Perhaps not such a great outcome, but it illustrates the point that theory is transformative (although often in unpredictable ways!).

It may be however that our current theory and the market upon which it is based is such a bad theory that it is a threat to our future survival.

A bad theory is an opportunity however. For it tells us what might really be going on.

Making a better theory might at least help us to see what we are doing to ourselves.

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