All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.
‘Growth’ is a term that we tend to use in any context wherein we see a measurable and visible form of proliferation. By this logic, we can thus have many different kinds of growth. We can have social growth. We can have demographic growth. We can have productivity growth. We can have personal growth.
Now, although the concept of ‘growth’ is demonstrably multifaceted, the kind of growth that seems to be on the tip of most modern policymakers’ tongues is just one kind of growth: economic growth. The purpose of this post is to try and a) highlight how the way the ‘economy’ is currently being defined in mainstream discourse is flawed, and b) convince you that a redefinition of what the ‘economy’ is will prove to be a crucial step in crafting a more sustainable and equitable world.
As you may well know, I’m not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, and so my understanding of what actually constitutes ‘economic growth’ is fairly rudimentary. Let me, therefore, first of all lay all of my cards on the table by telling you exactly what I think ‘economic growth’ is.
Economic growth, in its textbook form, simply refers to the relative increase in the amount of goods and services being produced and consumed per individual in a given population, over a given period of time. This seems like a fairly straightforward concept. To have economic growth, therefore, one needs to ensure that there is sustained developments taking place in the fields of industrial development, the consumption of goods and services, as well as in the production of said goods and services. In a world plagued by intense debates concerning the importance of austerity and the daresay Orientalised fascination that Western policymakers have with the unprecedented double-digit growth of countries like India and China, economic growth has come to indicate how healthy society is at a particular moment in time.
Economic growth, at its most fundamental level, is therefore something that can be quantified through statistical and mathematical means. In a world wherein socioeconomic governance relies upon the fetishisation of numeration and abstractive modelling, it comes as no surprise that policymakers use economic growth as a means for determining whether the population-as-economy is thriving appropriately or not.
One could almost view the concept of economic growth (and all the elaborate means of modelling future growth trajectories) as the preferred diagnostic tool of the economist. When economic growth becomes negative, as it almost inevitably does in the context of perpetual economic booms and busts, mainstream discourse will declare that society-as-economy is sick; or, (in more technical language) that is has entered into a ‘recession’. Policy objectives such as austerity, currency devaluation, structural adjustment, and the manipulation of trade tariffs should therefore be thought of as remedial measures that policymakers invoke so as to ‘cure’ the economy, and to get it back on its intended growth trajectory.
Pushing the definition of growth beyond that of the mere material economy
Now let me tell you what my own definition of growth is, bearing in mind that society should not only be thought of as an arena of economic behaviour but also as a forum wherein social, cultural, religious, racial, ideological, ontological, and existential considerations also intersect. In the context of societies (in all their complex social intersectionality), my personal definition of growth translates into something that sounds deceptively straightforward: progress.
This should not, however, be a conflation of economic growth and some kind of civilisational progress. ‘Progress’ here translates into optimised collective welfare, wherein the near-institutionalised cult of the individual is challenged by considerations for those with whom we share this planet. ‘Progress’ translates into a heightened collective capacity to be able to achieve all those things that we aspire to achieve in our most mesmerising of daydreams. ‘Progress’ translates into the minimisation of socioeconomic inequities and the impediments to politico-economic agency so that we can increase the degree of inclusivity with which we distribute the fruits of this evermore intensely interconnected and globalised world (a vision that prominent economists Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson also discuss in their stellar 2012 book Why Nations Fail).
Now, again, remember that I am not an economist, and so I’m not qualified to comment on the intricacies with which economists have come to measure economic growth beyond that which my GCSE economics qualification affords. But as an anthropologist, what I am qualified to do is to describe and analyse the ramifications that obsessive fixations on maximising economic growth during a time of extreme austerity has on the lived experience of those who must endure the hardships that come with this neoliberal form of governance. Although I recognise that we as anthropologists need to immerse ourselves more in the world of economics so as to be able to engage in a constructive and interdisciplinary dialogue with economists, it is also time for economists to start listening to anthropologists when it comes to conceptualising what the ‘economy’ actually is and the role that it plays in shaping the lived experience of individual human beings.
These factory workers serve as an emblematisation of how we currently understand the role of the material economy in consolidating the prosperity of society. But is there more to the problem than what meets the eye?
Allow me to therefore put forward the following argument. In much the same vein that anthropologists like Laura Bear, Sylvia Yanagisako, Carla Freeman, Karen Ho, Anna Tsing, David Graeber, and Keith Hart have all convincingly argued, the economy needs to be thought of as two intimately interconnected systems through which we come to make sense of our position within this world (for a brilliant synopsis of this argument, you can refer to the Gens Manifesto, which provides an outline for a more socially-aware approach to the study of contemporary capitalism).
On the one hand, we have the material economy that economists are very adept at analysing and modelling. On the other hand, we also have an economy that adopts multiple kinds of nomenclature in anthropological writing, and so I will allude to the one that I feel resonates with my own understanding of the subject the most: the affective economy.
‘Affect’ is one of anthropology’s most rudimentary yet fundamental analytical concepts. It should, at its most basic level, be thought of as the emotion and sentiment that arises within an individual in the face of some kind of interaction or social experience. Affective responses and experiences are therefore those that incite powerful emotional states within us, which then provide our behaviour and experience of the world with significant meaning and formative prominence.
So how are the affective and material economies related to one another? I would argue that people participate in economic behaviour because of the affective experiences and forms of socio-cultural capital that said participation is able to generate within and for the individual. The neoliberal entrepreneurial drive that Yanagisako chronicles amongst male entrepreneurs in the silk manufacturing industry of Northern Italy is driven by the need to use one’s self-entrepreneurialism so as to accumulate the social capital required for successfully performing hegemonic masculinity. The work enthusiasm of the working-class female data input workers that Freeman engaged with in Barbados is another good example. Here, said work enthusiasm is driven by a desire to save oneself from outdoor manual labour by opting to work in an indoor, modern, and air-conditioned environment. In so doing, this emergent digital proletariat is able to feel included in the globalised flows of capital, labour, and aspiration; all for a meagre minimum wage that is not enough to live on. The courage that the male Bengali precariat (chronicled in Bear’s study of navigating the lived experience of austerity along the Hooghly River) use so as to work in the dangerously dilapidated ship yards that have mushroomed along the banks of the infamous waterway in post-liberalisation India is driven by how the script of Bengali masculinity necessitates a relentless rejection of submission in the face of the truly petrifying.
What I am trying to do here is to use various ethnographic examples so as to make a simple point: nothing can manifest in the material economy without the affective dynamics through which that material manifestation is made meaningful by the lived experience of individual people. For the male silk industrialists, owning and running a business was made meaningful by the way that it projected one’s masculinity. For the female data inputters, working with computers in an offshore data bank was made meaningful by the way it allowed them to feel included in the emergent global middle class. For the Bengali precariat,producing ships for large international clients in the dangerous and deadly conditions of the private shipyards was made meaningful not only by the way this labour allowed them to project their masculinity, but also in the way that said labour allowed them to create a sense of camaraderie amongst an otherwise precarious and unstable male labour force. Any future propositions surrounding the role that ‘economic growth’ plays in any form of social diagnostics must therefore begin understanding how growth can be made socially, economically, politically, ontologically, as well as existentially meaningful to all those that do and will dwell upon this planet.
Why does the relationship between the affective and material economy matter?
Although it seems as though human beings have an intrinsic drive towards meaning-making even in the most exploitative and unjust of situations (as can arguably be seen in the below-minimum-wage labour conducted by the Barbadian female data inputters or in the life-threatening and precarious working conditions of the male Bengali shipbuilders), sustainable forms of societal progress can only be guaranteed if we begin viewing the material and affective economies as being co-constitutive of one another.
As Dr. Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank told us at the LSE during his visit to our campus a couple of months ago, the world, particularly in relation to those who currently live in the Global South, is full of people whose aspirations are growing at an exponentially fast rate (a recording of the lecture can be found here). Yet, these very same people are also faced with a very depressing reality, wherein the socioeconomic circumstances that they find themselves in are not conducive for making these aspirations a reality.
Dr. Kim has forewarned humanity of the dangers that we face if the growing aspirations of the world’s socioeconomically disenfranchised populations are not supported and fostered by future policymakers
Although Dr. Kim was making this sound like a relatively new phenomenon, this is in fact something that was already being proposed by Émile Durkheim in his pioneering sociological study of suicide back in 1897. Durkheim argued that if society was not able to regulate and temper the aspirations of its members based on their socioeconomic capabilities and circumstances, this would result in a state of purposelessness (or ‘anomie’) within the individual. The deeper one’s immersion within anomie becomes, the more fraught an individual’s relationship to society will be. If left unaddressed, this anomie can drive individuals into a state of complete social meaninglessness.
The vision of an evermore connected world wherein the aspirations and dreams of the masses are compromised because of how our current growth strategies, in their insistence upon the maximisation of economic growth and the resettlement of sovereign debt across the world by any means necessary, do not regard affective drivers as constituents of the economy effectively means that we are on a path to a globalised form of anomie; a fact that cannot bode well for the future of humanity. The fact that we have taken affective considerations out of how we are to manage the growth of economy-as-society has led to such controversially destabilising political phenomena like Brexit and the presidential election of Donald Trump in the United States.
We need to embrace the notion that our greatest moral responsibility is to create equality of opportunity, so that everyone has a chance to achieve their highest aspirations. Here today, at the London School of Economics, I want to issue a challenge: to ourselves – the World Bank Group; to the entire development community; and to all the future economic and political leaders in this room – to act with the speed and the scale that these times require, and fundamentally change the way we do development. Aspirations are rising all around us; let’s see if we can raise our own to meet them.
Dr. Jim Yong Kim at the LSE in 2017 (transcript can be found here)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I definitely recognise the merits of traditional growth strategies being utilised to accelerate the pace with which people can be uplifted from poverty (China’s anti-poverty initiatives, for example, have been phenomenal in terms of how they have seen the lifting of over 700 million out of poverty through intense economic expansion, albeit with several human rights violations). What I am not advocating for, however, is for these initiatives to occur without acknowledging the importance of the affective economy. The formation of a sustainable socioeconomic framework that works throughout the world is not only going to arise as a result of quantifying the pace at which material economies are growing across the globe. Such a framework will also require us to innovate our methodological approaches so that we can also begin to understand how this kind of growth can be made meaningful to people across social interstices, and how everyone (and not just the privileged few) are able to develop with the proliferation of the material economy (for a brilliant discussion of this amongst academic anthropologists and economists, refer to the following podcast).
Fundamentally speaking, we need to come to a more concrete conclusion as to what kind of commonalities exist in the ways people derive meaning from the material economy. If we are able to do this, we will be able to form a more sustainable socioeconomic system that optimises collective social welfare, maximises economic and political agency, and (most importantly) allows people to manifest the dreams that they thought they never could.