The Economy is not Society

by GYANENDRA PANDEY

Powerful hurricanes and disasters can actually increase economic activity, we are told. The point could be made in relation to Katrina and Andrew – and now it may be repeated with Sandy. One economist notes that this is “a problematic aspect of how we account for economic output.” It’s terrible when there is destruction on such a scale.And yet lost houses and property, not to say lives, do not show up in calculations of economic output, whereas a rebuilt house does!

Numbers dominate the airwaves and the political conversation in much of the world today. Gross Domestic Product, unemployment figures, interest rates, inflation, deficits, share markets.Something called the market rules, and mysteriously provides standards of growth, decline or stagnation in the economy. And governments exist to respond to market forces, maintain appropriate levels of investment and interest, and seek out profit at every opportunity. For that mysterious thing called the economy.

There is more to it. Our ruling elites seem completely at ease with Milton Friedman’s argument, “The only social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Let markets rule! Let the economy grow!

As the Republican nominee for the US Presidency has it, “I know how to grow the economy. I’ve done it myself. I’d let the market do its job.” He elaborates the claim:he wouldn’t raise taxes for anyone (not even for those who don’t earn enough to pay any). He’d even lower the tax rate for the rich, who will invest in the economy. As it happens, there isn’t any serious challengingof this view from other quarters either. The economy itself has become the society,one might think. That is the new common-sense in influential quarters.

This ruling common-sense forgets what so-called free markets and free speculation have done to produce the present global economic crisis. It forgets too that the majority of the world’s people continue to live in deeply unequal and often impoverished conditions.

Consider how the ruling slogans of today might sound to the 2.8 million people – more than half the city’s population – who live in Hyderabad’s 1,600 slums, most of them living in extreme povertywithout access to medical services or basic civic amenities: that is, the majority of citizens in one of the fastest growing cities in one of the fastest growing economies in the world, India.

The United States and Western Europe provide parallel cases. But it may help totake a rather different example. Cynthia Gallegos, a public school teacher and executive director of Focus Points Family Resource Center, a minority outreach project in Denver, notes that she and others like her could never have got to where they are but for the help they got, including grants to go to college: “Nobody can do it by themselves.” Except, one might say for accuracy, those who inherit their wealth and backing.

Something that we have not fully grasped as yet seems to be happening to our notions of democracy. The rule of numbers concerned primarily with economic and financial indices, only marginally related to the immediate concerns or living standards of the people, is only a sign of new trends. What is called political democracy has been reduced to a counting of votes – although even that process is put in doubt by the incidence of voter intimidation, fraud and misinformation, in this country as in many other parts of the democratic world. And the overwhelming power of states to control opposition (in the national interest), and of the state and the big business media to spread information or disinformation, has reduced the capacity of ordinary citizens to act on behalf of their own, their community’s and a wider common good.

In 2012, we need to remind ourselves and our political leaders of another history. The celebration of free markets and the percentage of growth is a far cry from stirring declarations of democracy as a government of, by and for the people. And a world removed from long fought for, and now long-established, notions of the rights of all, irrespective of caste, class, ethnicity, religious belief or sexual orientation; of human dignity as the founding principle of any democratic regime; and social justice as the measure of the good society.

Recall the International Declaration of Universal Rights, made at Philadelphia on May 10, 1944, in the wake of half a century (and more) of devastating war and imperialist plunder: “all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity.” And – lest we forget – Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: of speech and religion, but (no less important) from want and from fear.

Numbers, statistics, graphs of economic growth and financial risk and investment opportunities, are not substitutes for people. And let us reiterate the obvious. In a democracy, it is the majority of citizens who shouldrule: that is to say, think, deliberate, determine their own and their society’s future. That is surely central to the vision of a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Gyanendra Pandey is the Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor at Emory University. One of the founders of the Subaltern Studies Collective, his most recent book is A History of Prejudice: Race, Caste and Difference in India and the USA (Cambridge University Press, 2012). He can be reached atgpande2@emory.edu

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Binoy Kampmark
Live Death on Air: The Killings at WDBJ
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire
Halyna Mokrushyna
Decentralization Reform in Ukraine
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Norman Pollack
World Capitalism, a Basket Case: A Layman’s View
Sarah Lazare
Listening to Iraq
John Laforge
NSP/Xcel Energy Falsified Welding Test Documents on Rad Waste Casks
Wendell G Bradley
Drilling for Wattenberg Oil is Not Profitable
Joy First
Wisconsin Walk for Peace and Justice: Nine Arrested at Volk Field
Mel Gurtov
China’s Insecurity
Mateo Pimentel
An Operator’s Guide to Trump’s Racism
Yves Engler
Harper Conservatives and Abuse of Power
Michael Dickinson
Police Guns of Brixton: Another Unarmed Black Shot by London Cops
Ron Jacobs
Daydream Sunset: a Playlist
Charles R. Larson
The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”
David Yearsley
A Rising Star Over a Dark Forest
August 27, 2015
Sam Husseini
Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention
Brad Evans – Henry A. Giroux
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman