David Warsh: Historicizing the economy

As a newspaperman, I’ve been writing about the global economy and its national components practically since I began. They’re familiar concepts. But where did such constructs come from? And what exactly do they mean? I was happy to have a couple of days to spend last week at a conference at Harvard University, “Historicizing ‘The Economy.’”

This was news to me.  Heretofore what time I’ve had I’ve spent historicizing economics – that is, following historians of the field. This was economics from the outside, an interdisciplinary group of scholars including many relatively recent arrivals: anthropologists, sociologists, ethnographers, philosophers. There were around 60 of them, one-third PhD students, one-third post-docs and junior faculty, one-third tenured professors.

Timothy Mitchell, a political theorist and historian in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University, was there.  In “Fixing the Economy,” in Critical Inquiry, in 1998, Mitchell argued that the concept of “the economy,” as a self-contained whole of production and consumption, as distinct from all the rest of life, emerged only in the years between the 1930s and 1950s, mostly in the form of systems of national income accounting. Others, including sociologist Michael Emmison, and philosophers Karl PolanyiMichel Foucault, and Ian Hacking had said as much before, dating the emergence of a disembodied economy somewhat earlier.

But Mitchell caught the wave, and since then a great deal of work has been done on the subject of national income accounting. Perhaps the best known consists of a trio of well-received books by Columbia University historian J. Adam Tooze:  Statistics and the German State 1900-1945: The Making of Modern Economic Knowledge (2001); Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2006); and The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (2014)

Margaret Schabas, of the University of British Columbia, was there as well.  In 2005, inThe Natural Origins of Economics (University of Chicago), Schabas argued that “the economy” in its present sense, as a creation of human agency, of selling and buying, began to enter economic discourse in the early years of the nineteenth century.  Before that, she wrote, most economic phenomena – money, trade, population growth – were understood as part of the natural order and were understood in terms of the ancient Greek notions of stewardship. This much now seems inarguable.

A collection of interesting papers were presented: Adam Leeds on “The Socialist Origins of the Capitalist Economy” in the New Economic Policy of Bolshevik Russia; Hannah Appel on the discovery of “the economy” of Equatorial Guinea soon after oil was discovered off its shores in the 1990s; Timothy Shenk on the political origins of the American economy in the 1930s as discerned in sudden lexical shifts; Tripp Reprovick on the shift from “the market,” governed by rational laws about which merchants,  financiers and business people possessed special knowledge, to “the economy,” which requires measurement and management by the state. Quinn Slobodian supplied a benediction:  three different conceptions of “the economy” flourished within the “wild interdisciplinarity” of the conference: the economy as the object of expert management; the economy as the subject of discursive dualism; and the economy of modular types, of stages and differing scales.

This wasn’t economics as I usually understand it, a young science, conspicuously imperfect, but still better than any alternative body of knowledge at describing and analyzing changing patterns of the division of labor.  Nor was it economic history, meaning the history of the global division of labor. But it was certainly interesting.  I made a note to read historian Tooze (I’ve had that first book on my shelf for fifteen years!), and to write a column about him. Then, like everyone else, I went home to read about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

David Warsh is a longtime financial journalist and economic historian and proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this piece first ran.