ourEconomy: Opinion

The economy isn’t about money. It’s about putting food on the table

Our Enlightenment predecessors recognized not one but five economies – and the pandemic has reinvigorated our taste for them.

Michael Symons
19 June 2020
unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Political leaders and economic commentators pronounced the coronavirus crisis a balancing act between “lives” (on one hand) and “the economy” (on the other). To save lives, “the economy” would have to contract, until it, too, needed saving – when we might have to sacrifice lives.

But what is this singular “economy”?

Economists model “the economy” through the price mechanism, and evaluate it through such measures as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even many economists have grown restive, warning, for example, that the GDP is misleading, and recommend such non-financial indicators as “well-being”.

The deception goes much deeper. Broadly, “the economy” puts money in command. Under the guise of the old “laissez-faire”, then “free enterprise”, and more recently neoliberal “greed is good”, money funded its own self-aggrandizement. The resulting ideology handed enormous power to finance and business chiefs – and governments, often on money’s behalf.

As I set out in my new book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy, for two centuries, modern economists misappropriated Enlightenment ideas on behalf of money. Their distorted “economy” might have boosted productivity, but worsened inequality, demoralized democracy, and tipped the natural world towards disaster. Please, no more “business as usual”.

What is an economy? As those political leaders hobnobbing less with CEOs might readily accept, every economy centres on the distribution of nourishment. An actual economy puts food on the table. It’s life-giving, which is why care, health and food workers never stopped being “essential”.

Back when Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations launched modern economics in 1776, many writers well understood the gastronomic basis of economies. Even Smith argued that, through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes”, including the butcher, brewer, and baker, “we expect our dinner”.

More than that, Enlightenment philosophers recognized five, interconnected economies. Each type of economy supplies sustenance in a distinct way, with money surprisingly inessential. While side-lined by economists, these five are everyday realities for eaters. The lockdown renewed attention to all five, and dramatized the need to rebalance them.

First comes the domestic economy. Society’s “building-block” was the original oikonomia. Such ancient Greek writers as Xenophon instructed on the management of the family home (or oikos). Economics advised on housework, indoors and out. The family’s method of sharing food and its labour among themselves was defined by sociologist Max Weber a century ago as communist. Given the history of paternalism, Weber referred to what he called the “ideal-type”, but, most certainly, no money required.

The virus brought the domestic economy roaring back. Home offices, home schooling, and home cooking all expanded, complete with the widespread rediscovery of sourdough baking. Many predict that, having been rediscovered, this economy might not entirely snap back to “the economy”. For 51% of respondents of one U.S. survey (late-May 2020), the “new normal” would include continuing to cook more often at home. Together with more people preferring to work from there, cooking might now not go the way of home sewing – from commonplace to minority hobby.

In Adam Smith’s day, Enlightenment intellectuals were preoccupied with the political economy (from polis, the ancient Greek for “city”). This is a town, nation or similar conceived as a great household. Some central authority accepts responsibility for the distribution of nourishment, acquired through a community-wide division of labor. This method is food redistribution (although the term has come to mean transferring resources from the rich to the poor, or vice versa).

Since their earliest examples, temples and courts coordinated wide gathering and serving of food, centred on often ostentatious-seeming sacrifices and banquets. With increasing sophistication, redistribution seemed less directly nutritional. In a decisive development, authorities adopted money taxation and disbursement as an intermediary. As philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out in 1651, money became a more transportable and less perishable food substitute, which circulated like blood around the “body politic”, for conversion back to nourishment, when required.

Dramatized by the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, 1789, the French Revolution was meant to democratize the monarch’s role as “baker-king”, including Versailles banquets. On the Revolution’s first anniversary, General Lafayette supervised “endless tables” under Parisian trees for 22,000 provincial representatives, followed by 5,000 of the poor. However, attempts at literal feasting in the streets demonstrated the sophistication already attained by supply chains.

The modern banquet is an intricate affair, almost lost to view. Yet the coronavirus has brought this political economy to the fore, with governments directing social distancing, shifting resources to health, boosting emergency food and survival incomes, and also spending to save “the economy”.

When Hobbes imagined the political economy as a giant Leviathan with a crowed head over an agricultural nation, he saw a “body politic”, drawing an analogy with the human physiology. The terms “physiology” and “economy” were virtually interchangeable at the time. French économistes would gain the nick-name “physiocrats”, for example. Furthermore, Enlightenment intellectuals spoke of the person as an animal economy. Each of us can be viewed as an economy, centred on nutrient flows.

Liberal thinking emerged with Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson arguing every individual’s equal need, enforced by nature, for self-preservation, primarily through nutrition, and best served through a commonwealth of mutual support. They established a near-sacred right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The liberal response to the pandemic has underlined this social contracted care for the individual. By contrast, more authoritarian leaders have downplayed individual health for the sake of “the economy”. With the decline in the neoliberal promotion of liberty, rightwing leaders are increasingly inclined to identify “the economy” with “the nation”.

Typically of Enlightenment economists, François Quesnay was a medical professional – he was Madame de Pompadour’s physician. By 1747, when writing on the animal economy, he found parallels in the social distribution of primary production, notably the buying and selling of grain. Quesnay decided that, like the body, the market economy was preferably left to work “naturally”. Rather than the “baker-king” controlling prices, Quesnay saw benefits in market exchange. French économistes had a huge influence on Adam Smith, when he socialized with them while living in Paris during early free-market experimentation.

With the nineteenth-century rise of corporate capitalism, Smith’s early supporters promoted the market’s “invisible hand” as superior to any other economic coordinator, notably as much more efficient than democracy. They advocated liberty for money, while ignoring equality, life and happiness. Dropping “political” from their name, they imperiously proclaimed themselves “economists”.

Later in the nineteenth century, “marginalist” economists used the mathematical calculus to describe the behaviour of market prices, so mesmerizingly that they thought they studied nothing short of “the economy”. John Maynard Keynes became synonymous with some pushback within the ranks. However, again with the Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher era, neoliberal leaders obeyed economists’ fundamentals to restore supreme freedom to money.

Significantly, the virus exposed the hollowness of demands for “small government”. With budget deficits of lesser concern, given obvious government support for “the economy”, many citizens hope that democratic power might more forcefully save a fifth economy, the most essential of all.

The coronavirus starkly reminded that all economies depend on the intricate web of nutrient flows of the natural economy. Charles Darwin still used that term, “natural economy”, in his Origin of the Species in 1859 (German zoologist Ernst Haeckel introduced “ecology” ten years later). Undeniably, money’s ceaseless push for so-called “growth” has trampled on actual growth.

In summary, the present tumultuous rebalancing has demonstrated the market economy to be poorly-equipped to cope with viral attacks on the animal economy, leading to renewed reliance on the domestic economy, while governments at local, national and global levels have reasserted the political economy. Finally, as players at all levels must surely soon accept, the overall, natural economy must return urgently to prominence, or we’re all shut down.

Who's getting rich from COVID-19?

Boris Johnson's government stands accused of 'COVID cronyism', after handing out staggering sums of money to controversial private firms to fight COVID-19. Often the terms of these deals are kept secret, with no value-for-money checks or penalties for repeated failures which cost lives. And many major contracts have gone directly to key Tory donors and allies – without competition.

As COVID rates across the country surge, how can we hold our leaders accountable? Meet the lawyers, journalists and politicians leading the charge in our free live discussion on Thursday 1 October at 5pm UK time.

Hear from:

Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy, and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Jolyon Maugham Barrister and founder of the Good Law Project.

Layla Moran Liberal Democrat MP (TBC)

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief of openDemocracy

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