In political parlance and mainstream media alike, the economy is often presented as an entity in its own right. It ‘can speed up, slow down, improve, decline, crash or recover, but no matter what it does, it must remain at the center of political attention’ (Earle, Moran & Ward-Perkins 2016: 7). Like the demigods of Greek mythology it is whimsical and moody, but since it is all powerful, we have to bow to its every whim at all times. If we treat it with respect it will award us with plenty, but if we anger it by regulating businesses, implementing ‘excessive’ taxation, raising minimum wages or nationalizing banks, we will suffer its wrath in the form of loss of production and competitiveness as well as rising unemployment.
We are so used to this narrative, that we hardly ever stop to reflect on how highly disconcerting the existence of such an entity actually is, as it implies nothing less than the creation of a monster. You would expect rational people in a democratic society to organize it in such a way that it best serves their needs and desires. And although capitalism may have served this goal once, it now is often experienced as standing over and above the society that gave rise to it while demanding obedience from its citizenry. If we serve it with great devotion and utter abandon, it may reward us with the revenue that enables us to pursue other goals such as equality, happiness, health, beauty or harmony with nature. Such goals thus become subservient ideals that always take second place on the list of priorities as we always have to make the money to buy these luxuries first. But as our demigod has an insatiable appetite, we will never feel we made enough money yet and thus will never take the giant leaps that climatologists, environmental specialists, political scientists, historians and sociologists alike are telling us are needed in order to save the planet and prevent social and political chaos.
Societal goals have thus been completely disconnected from the goals of its citizenry. If you ask people what they value most in life, you get a variety of answers, ranging from health, security, respect, personality (loosely the freedom to be and develop oneself), harmony with nature, family and friendship, to leisure (all called basic goods by Skidelsky and Skidelsky 2013; cf. world value survey (WVS)). All these answers have one thing in common: they are literally invaluable, priceless and cannot be traded in markets. A society whose success is measured in terms of the value of products and services traded in markets can therefore never really take people’s deepest desires and values to heart. I, for one, have never heard anyone say: ‘My goal in life is to consume as much as possible no matter what’.
Yet, we are to believe that the pursuit of the latter goal is central to a viable society and it is often added that if you feel ill at ease with this narrative, it is because you do not understand enough economics. Because if you did, you would see that ‘there is no alternative’ (known as the ‘TINA doctrine’). A society whose citizenry and politicians have largely fallen for the latter argument, can no longer be considered a democracy. After all, a democracy should try to serve the needs of its people, rather than bow to the wishes of an invisible idol that has goals that are different from and largely incompatible with those of the people it is supposed to serve. We have then entered an econocracy: ‘a society in which political goals are defined in terms of their effect on the economy, which is believed to be a distinct system with its own logic that requires experts to manage it’ (Earle, Moran & Ward-Perkins 2016: 7). The message is clear: how the economy affects society and the planet at large should not be of any concern to anyone but economists and if you do not speak economics, you should stay out of the debate. No wonder then that so many people feel powerless and complacent in the face of the many social, political and environmental crises that are happening (cf. Schouten in Tegenlicht).
But it doesn’t have to be like this. We can hold politicians and the economic experts advising them accountable by constantly asking them why the economy needs to grow, who benefits from that growth and how it will affect the environment, income distribution, job security or whatever other goal you hold dear and let your votes and public actions reflect your own values, rather than buying into the narrative that we have to make even more money and produce and trade even more goods and services, before we can even begin to contemplate the pursuit of higher and ethically more defendable ideals.
The economy is a monster of our own making. We created the institutions supporting and nourishing it, we monitor it, we manage it and we have the power to put it to work to achieve our rather than its ideals. An economic expert telling you otherwise, is like a car mechanic telling you that your car does not need breaks or a steering wheel for it is perfectly capable to determine where it needs to take us if we would just leave it alone. That would be a very scary mechanic and s/he would not be in business for long. Why then do so many people accept this narrative from economists? It is fine for economists to offer their expertise to help keep the economy going, but the direction it is going in and the speed at which it is doing so, should be determined by the people rather than economic experts.
Throughout the history of capitalism, we have dethroned kings and the clergy and ended fiefdom and slavery only to replace their reign with that of a new demigod that now presides over our minds and our lives and demands total obedience enslaving us all over again. But as it is a demigod of our own making, we can tame it, change it or kill it just as we have done with the other idols and institutions that prevented us from achieving our full potential. We can take the power back, but we have to be brave, critical of the status quo and stand up for what we believe in. The fact that most economists and politicians are not creative enough (or too corrupt) to envision an economy serving the people rather than enslaving them, does not justify complacency on the part of the rest of us.