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The Death of Homo Economicus

A review of Peter Fleming's latest book

Peter Fleming is surely an outlier in the cohort of university business school academics. A professor on the faculty of management at the Cass Business School, City University of London, Fleming is the author of The Mythology of Work and Contesting the Corporation, among other books, and a columnist for the left-leaning Guardian. Working in proximity to the City of London financial district, Fleming has developed his newest study, The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt, and the Myth of Endless Accumulation, as a polemic against mainstream economics in all its forms. Its thesis is that the notion of human species being — handed down to us from Adam Smith and David Ricardo through the Austrian and Chicago Schools — as one of self-interested rational calculation, continuously seeking to maximize utility and profit, has always been a falsehood. It has been propagated to hide capitalism’s true identity as an apparatus for exploiting the land and labor to the detriment of the vast majority of us for the advantage of a select few.

Fleming takes up the metaphor of the tsunami to describe the 2008-2009 financial crisis and its aftermath. The tsunami metaphor has been invoked, particularly in the media, Fleming notes, as a way to frame discussions of the economic devastation and subsequent austerity that the crash has wrought on economies around the world. There is a problem with the metaphor, however, in that it hasn’t been applied thoroughly enough. Typical evocation of the tsunami metaphor captures the first two elements: the cataclysmic triggering event — in this case, the subprime lending meltdown — and the wave of devastation — collapsing financial institutions, rising mortgage foreclosures, evaporating equity, the Great Recession — but misses the final stage, the backwash in which the receding deluge sucks back into the abyss all that was destroyed in its wake and more. It is this final stage of turbulence that we continue to endure whereby the neoliberal capitalist regime, which rightly should have disappeared in 2008, has perhaps mutated into something worse.

Fleming terms this something worse “wreckage economics.” It seeks to appropriate all aspects of what’s left of the commons, a twenty-first century enclosure of the already tattered public domain. It polices its economic pillaging assiduously, leaving no stone unturned in the interest of unlocking value. It disdains democracy. It perpetuates and exacerbates inequality — indeed, as opposed to the 1930s when the global elite lost a significant portion of its wealth, wreckage economics has enabled those at the very top to greatly expand their share at a rate that has only increased since 2008.

Fleming documents his thesis with examples taken mostly from around the English-speaking world. They include Dawn Amos, a 67-year old woman with chronic lung disease who was certified to return to work by the UK Department of Work and Pensions, only to receive that notification on the very day she died in the hospital from complications of her condition. Others include the rash of suicides that have occurred in the face of mounting debt. On a less fatal level is the plight of those members of the precariat who have been casualized, rendered redundant, and otherwise dispossessed from the means of making a decent living, much less securing a future. Through it all, homo economicus has roamed unchecked as a kind of undead, relentlessly devouring those who are least able to resist.

If the situation for the average worker is dire, the impact on the environment is of even greater concern. The environmental degradations visited upon the planet under capitalism are well documented and don’t need to be recounted here. Nature is retaliating against this threat by shutting down biodiversity, increasing climatic instability, and generally rendering the habitat ultimately uninhabitable.

Against the prospects of mass extinction, the left, in Fleming’s eyes, has offered some solutions that may be at least ineffective if not counter-productive. One of these is accelerationism, in particular as articulated by Steven Shaviro in his book No Speed Limit. Accelerationism of the left variety proposes to push the contradictions of capitalism to the point where they completely break down, thereby opening up a horizon of new possibilities. The problem with that idea, according to Fleming, is two-fold. First, history has shown that oppression can reach epic proportions without sparking violent revolt. (Indeed, the Frankfurt School of critical theory took up as one of its core agenda items the task of explaining why the revolution never took place in the advanced economies of the West even in the darkest days of the Great Depression.) Second, pushing the capitalist mode of production to its breaking point may well unleash an eco-apocalypse from which there would be no one left to fashion a brave new post-capitalist world.

Another apparently limited option is the politics of exodus, where the objective is not to exacerbate the contradictions of capitalism, but instead to collectively withdraw from them into networks of self-reliance and communal interdependence. (A model of this notion at the grassroots level can be found in Grace Lee Boggs’s book The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism in the Twenty-First Century.) While the outlines of how this might work can be discerned in some of the practices of the DIY movement, capitalism has proven time and again quite adept at capturing value in even these diffuse precincts, most recently through regimes of governmentality and biopower.

In lieu of these alternatives, the question becomes, to coin a phrase, “So then what is to be done?” The first step, according to Fleming, is to demonstrate the irrationality of so-called rational choice and its underlying free-market fundamentalism, which as evidence of the last few decades has shown does not lead to greater productivity and growth but only serves to redistribute economic gains upward. Second, the state must perforce be reinvigorated in order to restore a more just balance in the relationship between capital and labor and promote a revitalization of what constitutes the public good. While much has been done in terms of exposing the former, the latter, unhappily, appears to be receding farther and farther from view.

Vince Carducci has written for many publications over the last two-and-a-half decades, ranging from alternative weeklies and webzines to academic journals, anthologies, and encyclopedias. He is Dean of Undergraduate Studies at College for Creative Studies

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