The Economy Multiple

Caveat Lector: This post is a bit long and rambly, as close to stream-of-consciousness as I get.

In a previous post, I mentioned my confusion at the recent discussion of the financial crisis’ impact on the “real economy” and what the financial economy might be if it was not somehow part of the “real economy”. Today, I was fortunate enough to come across a great language for discussing this problem in a slightly unconventional source – Annemarie Mol’s The Body Multiple. The Body Multiple is a fascinating, interwoven story of medical sociology/anthropology/philosophy and ethnographic work Mol did working with doctors and patients suffering leg pain (artheroscleroses).

The book is unconventional in that the literature review/dialogue with other academics take place in the bottom half of the page, in a two-column format while the top half of the page is devoted to descriptions of her ethnographic work and reflections upon it. I was skeptical at first of the split format, but my love of Borges and Cortázar rapidly overcame my love of linearity. After all, what is linearity but an assumption we impose on the world to make it tractable, an assumption we relax as soon as we are able*? Mol relaxes this assumption of linearity, or, moreover, imposes two lines of thought on a single page and thus forces the reader to decide more consciously than usual how to read her text – much as Cortázar forced the readers of Hopscotch to choose their path.

While I have barely scratched the depths of the book, already the first chapter has inspired me. In “Doing Disease”, Mol lays out her agenda for understanding “the body multiple”:

“It is possible to refrain from understanding objects as the central points of focus of different people’s perspectives. It is possible to understand them instead as things manipulated in practices. If we do this – instead of bracketing the practices in which objects are handled we foreground them – this has far-reaching effect. Reality multiplies.” (p. 5)

She continues:

“This is the plot of my philosophical tale: that ontology is not given in the order of things, but that instead ontologies are brought into being, sustained, or allowed to wither away in common, day-to-day, sociomaterial practices.” (p. 6)

In reading these words (and the reflections below on their place in the broader place of medical sociology/etc.), I realized that my own confusion regarding the “real economy” and the “financial economy” came from a failure to question thoroughly the problematic unification impled by the economy. I was (and am) so fascinated by the construction of the economy as an object of knowledge that I missed the importance of constructing the economy as a unified object of knowledge. We lack a vocabulary for discussing different economies** precisely because the economy was constructed as unified. There can be only one. Etc.

By trying to understand the various indicators that play essential roles in the formation and reformation of the economy – the National Income and Product Accounts (now, GNP and GDP), unemployment figures, the consumer price index which measures inflation – I was and am trying to understand how the economy is done (in parallel to Mol’s investigations into how disease is done). But these indicators can only construct a single economy, with one unemployment rate, one inflation rate, one gross domestic product. And yet, the experience of those doing the economy – the economists constructing and refining our tools for seeing the economy writ large, policy-makers who use, misuse or ignore those tools in crafting policies, and everyone involved in some sort of production, distribution or exchange*** – necessarily multiplies it. We do not experience the unemployment rate directly, but we do experience it, and re-invent it. Someone unemployed in bad times (say, Michigan in the last 20 years) is a victim of a changing world, of international trade, of improved production technology. Someone unemployed in good times (say, a Silicon Valley resident in 1999) must have done something wrong, or be lazy, or interview poorly, etc. Our interpretations and reinterpretations of the economy interact with our decisions – to seek work in a sector or not, to move to a more favorable economy (within or between countries), to join a protest against free trade or a government bailout, or to retrain ourselves for the coming computerization of everything. The unified economy that exists in theory – that is the product of theory – falls apart when it is examined anywhere.

And right now, that unified economy is being examined everywhere, and thus is falling apart everywhere. Main St. and Wall St. no longer know how they fit together, how they form a unified whole. Unemployment in Wasilla and New York City both factor into the official statistics published by the BLS, but something’s been rearranged. We have forgotten how to see something unified, remembered how to see something multiple.

But, I bet this situation will not last. Economists will explain the crisis, banks will resume lending, the stock market will resume its climb, or at least flatten out. The pieces will be glued together again, differently, but into a recognizable whole. Entire professions depend on that unified construction, and policy-makers in turn depend on those professions. The economy may be multiple but our models of it cannot be. For to recognize the economy as multiple is to deny the economy as a unified thing, just as to recognize that diseases are done and not just out there waiting to be found but rather are the co-constructions of doctors, patients, sociologists, historians, cats and dogs and canes.

* I may or may not have spent most of yesterday working on econometrics problems.
** Except those that cover different geographical areas, as the modern conception of the economy (cf. MItchell 1998, 2002) concerns the totality of relations of production, distribution and exchange in a bounded geographical (or territorialized, like the internet) region. In other words, things thought of as spaces can have economies, but one space can’t have two economies.
*** So, basically everyone except Lloyd Dobbler: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”

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1 Comment

  1. Adam

     /  October 18, 2008

    Even your description of Annemarie Mol’s The Body Multiple irritated me. The book sounds like it tries too hard to be avant-garde. I hate avant-garde.

    Anyway, I have a few thoughts regarding “real economy/Main St.” vs. “financial markets/Wall St.”

    First, I think there is a sense, in much of the country, that people who work in the financial industry live in a different world. When fresh college grads can make middle six-figure salaries and seniors make middle seven-figure salaries, there is going to be a disconnect from the rest of the country. I’ve been working as a software engineer for 8 years and I’m only now getting close to the six-figure mark. My corporate law professor mentioned the NYC firm at which he worked doing M&A had trouble keeping senior lawyers. After 8 years they’d be making nearly $1mil/yr as a partner in the firm but if they jumped to the financial sector, as many did, they could clear $5-$10/mil per year. So part of the Main St/Wall St trope is distinguishing between the economies of most people, who make regular-sized salaries, and the economies of those other people, who make vastly more and have vastly different incentives and opportunities. This sense of Main St/Wall St is, I think, a way to talk about working class versus capitalist class without raising the specter of “class”.

    Second, I think the Main St/Wall St trope captures the fact that the technical and specialized knowledge of a profession is now being discussed in detail by most everyone. This is the sense that Business Prof. Jerry Davis is getting at. For example, I explained credit default swaps to my mother, a pediatric social worker, who then astonished her investment adviser when she went off on a rant about them. Professionals are not used to laypeople being in on the cant.

    Third, you ask: “it’s less clear to me what opposes “real economy”. “Fake” is the obvious opposite of real, but that seems to lack nuance and I don’t see it used. Is it the “financial markets” or “financial economy”? Is it just “Wall St.” with no real opposed term to “real economy”?”

    During the colonial period and the early republic, financial middlemen (bankers, speculators, stock traders, etc.) “were considered more or less parasitic. They did not produce goods or add to the nation’s stock of wealth.”* I think a part of the Main St/Wall St trope is a reemergence of that old view.

    * Lawrence Friedman, A History of American Law, 3ed. (Touchstone, 2005), 179. I should add that lawyers were often lumped into this parasitic non-productive group.