Monday, January 2, 2012

cracks in the economic monoculture

Two decades ago, the mischievous philosopher Paul Feyerabend predicted the difficulties now plaguing the Euro Zone:

The members of the European Community, those standard bearers of Civilization and the Free World, want to bring "backward" regions like Portugal, Greece, and the south of Italy up to their own high level of existence. How do they determine backwardness? By notions such as “gross national product,” “life expectancy,” “literacy rate,” and so on. This is their “reality.” “Raising the level of existence” means raising the gross national product and the other indicators. Action follows...: monocultures replace local production (for example: eucalyptus trees in Portugal), dams are built where people lived before (Greece), and so on. Entire communities are displaced, their ways of life destroyed just as they were in Ceausescu’s Romania, they are unhappy, they protest, even revolt—but this does not count. It is not as “real” as are the facts projected by an “objective” economic science. Is it not wise to be afraid of such a civilization?

(from 'Ethics as a Measure of Scientific Truth,' reprinted in Conquest of Abundance, 1999)

The force of Feyerabend's critique is still with us. The New York Times today quoted Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos asking for resolve in seeing reforms [aka cost cutting and belt tightening and increased suffering] through, "so that the sacrifices we have made up to now won’t be in vain." What better illustration can there be of the idea that economic ideals being treated as more important than the facts of everyday life. One economist quoted in the Times even called the austerity policy "sheer madness."

Which brings up possible System D responses to the crisis. This interesting essay, published in the aptly named Journal of Innovation Economics, starts the process of assessing if underground exchange networks, parallel currencies, and free bazaars or swap meets can impact economic life and recovery in Greece. Part of the point of these outside-the-system networks is that they reintroduce the concepts of community and social life into the economic arena. From the essay:
  • "Those economies comprise more than the transaction itself: it is cultivation, experimentation, creation of new household production and nutritional customs, education of adults and children, etc."
  • "They seek the realization of values that do not exist in the conventional economy, or they create a living example, even for just a day, of how it would be when many people can survive together without conventional economic constraints."
  • "They create several types of markets along or outside or in contradiction with the main market type."
Why are we so afraid of these parallel or separate or underground markets? As Feyerabend pointed out, we should be far more afraid of our own system.

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