Before I dive into the meat of this blog post, I want to quickly introduce myself and offer myself as a resource to the class. Like Jenna, the material I’ve studied in my other major has provided me with a knowledge base that some of you might find useful once we delve into some of the more technical causes of the 2008 housing crisis. I’m an English and Economics double major, so if anyone feels that they would like to better understand the economic aspects of the crisis, feel free to ask me during or after class and I’ll explain if I know the answer to your question.
Along with that invitation, I would also like to offer some encouragement: don’t let the language of economics intimidate you. Many people tell me that learning about economic problems makes them feel very anxious because of all the jargon, but as someone who embarked on an economics degree with only a knowledge base in English literature to rely upon, let me reassure you that the language of economics is not as confusing and impenetrable as it can sometimes seem. You can get it! And not only can you, I argue that you have an obligation to. The language of economics and finance can serve as a tool of obfuscation that intimidates laypeople from engaging with them. Yet, as we will see later in the semester, financial developments affect all our lives profoundly, both individually and in our collective life. I urge you not to allow the language to become a tool of power against you.
That said, I would like to turn to a different problem of language. In class on 2/3, I used the term “anthropological economics” to describe the ideas of the famous Marxist thinker David Harvey. The discipline of economics is usually considered to have begun with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which argued that self interest (“the invisible hand”) guides markets to distribute goods efficiently. As defined by Wikipedia (which is nearly as accurate as the Encyclopedia Brittanica) , the economics “is a social science concerned with the factors that determine the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.” That definition is as good as any because the field is so broad. The difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics alone is vast, and there also exist distinctions between rational economics and behavioral economics, mainstream economics and heterodox economics. Excepting some of the more obscure heterodox disciplines, these varying types of economics are unified by methodology. Economists theorize social and material relations through the construction of mathematical models, and the best of them are able to develop these models from empirical data. This approach has its limitations (I’m sure I will get into those later in the semester), but it can also be immensely powerful in understanding the parts of our lives that have to do with worldly value. Because of the rigorous and robust nature of their methodology, economists have also felt justified in turning their analysis on subjects that seem unrelated to “production,” “distribution,” or “consumption.” For example, this semester I chose between courses in Economics of Law and the Economics of Sports to fulfill one of my electives.
However expansive the discipline of economics has become in our society, however, economists are not the only ones concerned with relations of production, consumption, and accumulation. These relations are an important organizing principle for societies more broadly, and anthropologists have developed their own school of study of them that applies their methodologies. This includes studies of market exchange as well as alternatives to it such as reciprocity. In one interesting study, anthropologists documented Colombian peasants trying to understand how money could grow (by accruing interest). It would probably be more accurate to label this field of thought “economic anthropology,” and I may have misspoken.
When I used the term in class, it was to make a connection between what Roach’s description of Bataille’s thoughts on the pressure created by excess accumulation and the work of David Harvey, who discusses how capital becomes unstable as it accumulates and therefore tries to reorganize and spread itself geographically beyond the place it was produced (“the spatial fix”). The idea of the spatial fix is important to understanding the housing crisis only insofar as the capital structures holding up the economy proved incapable of reorganizing themselves in 2007 under the weight of accumulation, thus precipitating the crash. The notion of capital overaccumulation is an important one however, and we will certainly return to it later in the semester.
David Harvey is a perfect example of the disciplinary confusion that can arise when discussing capitalism. I first encountered his work in a geography class I took in London—he holds positions in both the departments of geography and anthropology at the CUNY Center for Graduate Studies. Also importantly, he is known as a thinker heavily influenced by Marx, who is an important contributor to the fields of sociology, anthropology, and economics. So even though Harvey belongs to other disciplinary traditions through his methodology, some of his intellectual heritage connects him to the field of economics in a convoluted fashion. From this example we can see that knowledge is rarely autochthonous, which is a lesson that will probably serve us well throughout the semester.