The human economy in a revolutionary moment: political aspects of the economic crisis

Edited transcription of an improvised talk for a seminar, “Social movements and the solidarity economy”, organized by Jean-Louis Laville and Geoffrey Pleyers, EHESS, Paris, 2 February 2012.

I was asked to report on the project I am involved in which has the same name as The Human Economy book; but, given this course’s focus on social movements, I decided that I should try to insert the perspective on economy I have developed into contemporary political processes and events. I have been writing, editing and researching about alternative approaches to the economy for a long time and blogging about politics more recently, but never the two together. In the last year, as a result of the North African revolutions and then the Occupy movement, I have come to see that the economic and political arguments have to be brought much closer together. Taking our lead from this moment in world history, we need to ask how the work that Jean-Louis and I have long been engaged in – on human economy, économie solidaire, social economy – needs to be modified in order to lend support to what has become a serious political movement at the global level.

I entered our collaboration after Jean-Louis, with Antonio David Cattani, published an expanded version of the Dictionnaire de l’autre économie in 2006. I published an enthusiastic review essay about it. I was staggered by the range of analysis concerning economic and political development that it contained. I have been living in Paris for 15 years and I feel lucky to have been here during what I see as a Renaissance of French economic sociology. The book edited by Philippe Steiner and François Vatin, Traité de sociologie économique, is a testament to the constellation of brilliant economic sociologists that France has produced in the last decade or more. It was equally clear that this work was largely unknown in the English-speaking world and, increasingly under Chirac and Sarkozy, lacked a receptive audience in France as well. So, since my friends in this field were being frozen out of French politics to some extent, we had the idea of selling the project to the English-speakers or at least to those who speak English as a second language. Geoffrey has already introduced the result, The Human Economy: A Citizen’s Guide (2010).

All the predecessor volumes were called, in various languages, Dictionary of the Other Economy. We dropped that particular formulation for reasons that will become the main theme of my talk today. The difference between what are conventionally known as the extreme left and the centre left lies in the concept of change that each of them has. The extreme left conceives of the future as the negation of what it calls “capitalism” in a unitary way and imagines a radical rupture with that system in ways that are not always specified, but are thought to be revolutionary. The centre left, whether it relies on state intervention or the mobilization of voluntary associations of various kinds, tends to emphasize more gradual and continuous developments building on what people are doing already. We felt that labelling our intellectual work as “the other economy” lent itself too readily to radical utopias. Jean-Louis and I based our conversation on what Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi understood by economic change, since we were looking for a more positive construction than a simple negation; and this is where the idea of a human economy came from.

What makes an economy “human”? First, it privileges people before abstractions. People make and remake their economic lives and that has to be the basis for thinking about economy. Any economics has to be accessible to them as a practical guide to how they manage those lives. But the economy is human in another sense too in that we increasingly confront economic problems and dilemmas as humanity. The future of humanity as a whole is at stake in the economic crises that we face and not just the world seen through the blinkers of national politics and media. So the idea of a human economy points in these two directions: towards what people really do and extending our perspectives to a global level, if possible.

Since publishing the book, I have helped to set up a research program on the human economy at the University of Pretoria in South Africa’s capital. UP was an Afrikaner establishment close to government power in the apartheid period; but South Africa is on the move and has been for more than two decades, so the university wants to refurbish its image and expand in more progressive directions. They have generously funded a program of post-doctoral fellowships drawing initially from the global South (with fellows from Latin America and the Caribbean, South Asia and Southern Africa), but now linking researchers from North and South in a creative dialogue focused on South Africa. Volumes before The Human Economy were largely a Francophone and Latin American venture, so we widened the range of contributors to take in 15 countries, adding authors from Britain, North America and Scandinavia, as well as translating a selection from the Dictionnaire. But it soon became apparent that Asia and Africa – where most of the people live – were still missing from this impressively diverse international project. The series was launched in Brazil and Argentina soon after the millennium and it was always intended to advance collaboration between networks of researchers and activists. The books are a digest of existing knowledge and experience that might help to inform readers who wish to change the world in a progressive direction. Ours too did not offer much guidance for how to carry out active research on the human economy. So the Pretoria program aims to fill these two gaps: first, to enrol Africans and Asians, alongside Latin Americans and Europeans, into studying how to make a better economy; and second, to foster post-doctoral research that would help to inform and refine this program.

The Dictionnaire that Jean-Louis put together came out in the middle of the credit boom (2002, 2006). Very few people saw much prospect for economic and political change at that time. By the time we published The Human Economy in 2010, after the financial crisis had broken, it was clear that the ideas it contained should find a more fertile reception in the new climate of public opinion. At the very least, the absolute hegemony of mainstream economics has been damaged by the crisis. It really isn’t feasible to argue any longer – although many economists still do – that the best guarantee of improved human well-being is to leave markets free of political intervention and social control. Surely no-one believes that any more. Markets were never free, but the dominant ideology provided cover for siphoning wealth to the top; and that is now very much on the political agenda. Even the Financial Times publishes articles saying that we maybe need a new synthesis of anthropology, history and economics to replace the old discipline. So we were pretty sure that our ideas would meet a more favourable audience in this context.

Even so, we distanced ourselves, in the introduction and in our approach to editing the book, from any “revolutionary” eschatology that suggested society had reached the end of something rotten and would soon be launched on something quite new. The idea of a human economy rested on drawing attention to the fact that people do a lot more than might be imagined if we focus only on the dominant economic institutions. Against a singular notion of the economy as “capitalism”, we argued that all societies combine a plurality of economic forms and that several of these are universally distributed across history, even if their combination is strongly coloured by the dominant type of organization in particular times and places. For example, in his famous essay on The Gift (1925), Marcel Mauss tried to show that other economic principles were present in capitalist societies and understanding this would provide a sounder basis for building non-capitalist alternatives than the Bolshevik revolution’s attempt to break with markets and money. Karl Polanyi too, in his various writings, insisted that the human economy throughout history was made up of a number of mechanisms of which the market was only one. We argued therefore that the idea of radical transformation of an economy conceived of monolithically as capitalism into something regarded as its opposite was an inappropriate way to approach economic change. We should pay attention to the full range of what people are doing already and build economic initiatives around giving these a new direction, combination and emphasis, rather than suppose that economic change has to be invented from scratch. Although this might seem to be a gradualist approach to economic improvement, adopting such an approach on awide scale would in fact have revolutionary consequences.

I have been working quite closely for 5 or 6 years now with my friend and colleague at Goldsmiths, David Graeber. He is an anarchist who was prominent from the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. His book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, is a best-seller. His politics inform his economic analysis; and he has always taken an anti-statist and anti-capitalist position, with markets usually subsumed under the concept of capitalism. That is, he sees the future and the means of getting there as being based on the opposite of our capitalist states. The core of his politics is “direct action” which he has practised and written about as ethnography. I have always been centre-left with a liberal streak, but my mentor, the person from whom I have learned most, was the West Indian revolutionary, C.L.R. James and through him I gained a literary interest in the history of revolutions. In our book, Jean-Louis and I argued that people everywhere rely on a wide range of organizations in their economic lives: markets, nation-states, corporations, cities, voluntary associations, families, virtual networks, informal economies, crime and war. We should be looking for a more progressive mix of these things. We can’t afford to turn our backs on the institutions that have helped us make the modern transition to the world society that humanity now lives in. Large-scale bureaucracies co-exist with varieties of popular self-organization and we have to make them work together rather than at cross-purposes, as they often are now. All of these are responses to the challenges posed by the modern world and we need to combine them at a new and more inclusive level.

David and I agree on much of the economics. As anthropologists, we both claim inspiration from Marx and Mauss in departing from mainstream economics. Our theories of money are pretty close. Although he is less explicitly indebted to Polanyi, he too believes that economic life everywhere may be understood as a plural combination of moral principles – sharing or “communism”, reciprocity and hierarchy – which take on a different complexion when organized by dominant social forms. Thus helping each other as equals is essential to capitalist societies, but capitalism is a terrible way of bringing it out effectively. But at the same time he believes that a radical rupture with the norms of capitalist states is necessary if we are to realise out human potential through a new kind of political economy. At first, I saw our positions as being incompatible, but recent political developments now persuade me otherwise.

I would bet that 2011-2012 will turn out to be a revolutionary moment in world history comparable at least with the changes that took place in 1989-1990 and maybe more significant than that. The trigger for such a perception has been the so-called Arab Spring, the revolutions that deposed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt during early 2011. I am an Africanist and I have written about Tunisia online (e.g. Then uprisings followed in Europe (protests in Greece, Los Indignados in Madrid), the student protests and riots in Britain and the student movement in Chile before OWS captured the world’s attention in New York last September. I felt from the beginning that OWS, whatever its consequences for American society and politics and whether or not it could claim some long-term success there, had profound significance for the global movement. It showed that the American monolith was not fixed in stone and that revolts around the world had a counterpart within the US. We live after all in the American Empire and I always thought that the “Arab Spring” should be seen as a revolt against that Empire. Oil has succeeded gold as the world economy’s principal commodity and control of it underlies the dollar’s position as the world’s reserve currency. The Middle East, Israel and oil are so central to American influence in the world – not to mention the wars they have launched against Iraq, Afghanistan and maybe soon Iran from their bases and fleets there – that the sacking of Mubarak had immense significance in and beyond the region. But at first there was no sign that anything was moving in the US. All you had was the Tea Party and a stalemate in Congress.

CLR James came from Trinidad and died an old man in the late 1980s. He was saying after 1968 that there were only two world revolutions left – the second Russian revolution and the second American revolution. He wrote a book that I co-edited called American Civilization (1993 [1950]) in which he argued that the contradiction between totalitarian bureaucracy and the struggle to bring democracy into people’s lives was at its strongest in the United States. He always believed that American society must be central to any future world revolution. I am not predicting that the OWS movement will lead directly to mass insurrection in the US. But its cultural example was immediately taken up within the country and across the world; and this reflects the fact that we live in a world unified by the contradictions of American imperial power. I watched Tiananmen Square on TV with James in April 1989. He was 88 years old and died a few weeks later. If you recall, the students were protesting because of an international meeting there to which Gorbachev was invited. The whole world was gripped by the spectacle. He said that the Chinese Communist Party would put down this rebellion easily, but “The Russians will find it hard to hold onto Eastern Europe after this”. The Berlin Wall came down six months later and that was the start of what may or may not turn out to have been the second Russian revolution.

All of this led me to reconsider the perspective we adopted in the Human Economy volume. It now seems that the piecemeal reformist approach to economic change we took there needs to confront the world revolution that we may be living through. This morning, while I was contemplating my talk and wondering how I was going to deal with “Human Economy meets the Occupy Movement” for the first time ever, three documents landed in my lap, or rather in my laptop, and I wish to give you a chance to read excerpts from them. One was an article in Harper’s by Nathan Schneider, “Planet Occupy”, on the principles of the Occupy movement (; another was by the same author at Waging Non–Violence, “Is Anonymous our future?” ( ); this in turn was based on one by Gabriella Coleman at Triple Canopy, “Our weirdness is free: the logic of Anonymous–online army, agent of chaos, and seeker of justice” ( In addition, I am circulating among you something I wrote for a list on Lenin, James and revolution, since the perspective we operate with in normal times doesn’t really apply to revolutionary situations where timing is everything. James has a lecture, ‘Walter Rodney and the question of power’, given to California  students in 1981 He draws extensively on a letter written by Lenin in 1917 and later published as ‘Marxism and insurrection’:

In January 1917, Lenin gave a speech to Swiss socialists in Zurich where he said he did not expect revolution in his lifetime, but he hoped that the younger comrades would be able to fight in one. The Russian revolution got going in March, when the soviets took to the streets; in September, Lenin writes a letter seeking to justify why he called for revolution in September, but had not in July; and by October the revolution was a done deal. You should read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution: it takes 1300 pages to cover nine months and some events like a pivotal meeting in which the author’s intervention was decisive get 40 pages. We are talking about speed-up here. The normal pace of talking, writing and publishing that we worked with in our book can’t accommodate this reality. I don’t want to give all this up to join the barricades. I’m an intellectual who wants to train young people to study and work for economic progress, like this seminar. Nevertheless even this more sedate approach has to distinguish between the time frame of revolutionary insurrection and building a more effective economic platform to help people experience a measure of economic democracy in their lives. These piecemeal long-term projects are vital, but the premise of a revolutionary moment puts pressure on that work.

Gabriella Coleman is an anthropologist who has been a participant observer in Anonymous’ 4chan chat rooms since 2008. Anonymous is an occult organization of geeks, trolls and agitators who came to prominence in 2011 with attacks on government and corporate websites in defence of Wikileaks and other causes. If you haven’t heard of them, blame it on the French media who would rather that the digital revolution hadn’t happened. This is not all of France which, with Finland, Korea and Japan, is one of the four countries with the fastest and cheapest broadband and supports the largest blogosphere outside the US. Anonymous started out justifying opaque identities as a cloak for freedom of expression which at times meant being disruptive just for the fun of it. But it has since become an engaged force for social justice. There are important parallels between Anonymous and OWS, but their modus operandi is strikingly different in that one is clandestine and the other transparent. This might be thought to be a contradiction if it were not the case that the pursuit of openness as a political virtue requires a degree of closure also. We might want the banks to be more transparent, but which of us would like our own income an dexpenditure to be made public? So the open/closed dialectic may be less polarised than it is sometimes made out to be. The same may be said of freedom and necessity, perhaps also of revolution and reform. You can’t have one without both. Walk on two legs. It’s better than standing on one foot and falling over…

In winding up her argument, Coleman draws on Ernst Bloch, a favourite writer of mine too:

“Anonymous acts in a way that is irreverent, often destructive, occasionally vindictive, and generally disdainful of the law, but it also offers an object lesson in what Frankfurt School philosopher Ernst Bloch calls ‘the principle of hope.’ In his three-volume work Das Prinzip Hoffnung (1938-47), Bloch attends to a stunningly diverse number of signs, symbols, and artifacts from different historical eras, ranging from dreams to fairy tales, in order to remind us that the desire for a better world is always in our midst. Bloch works as a philosophical archaeologist, excavating forgotten messages in songs, poems, and rituals. They do not represent hope in the religious sense, or even utopia—there is no vision of transcending our institutions, much less history—but they do hold latent possibilities that in certain conditions can be activated and perhaps lead to new political realities. ‘The door that is at least half-open, when it appears to open onto pleasant objects, is marked hope,’ Bloch writes. The emergence of Anonymous from one of the seediest places on the Internet seems to me an enactment of Bloch’s principle of hope.”

So Bloch’s vision is that this aspiration for a better world is everywhere and inside us, an infrastructure always ready to be tapped into and given more concrete impression. It is similar, at the level of ideology, to what Jean-Louis and I are arguing for the economy – people have always had many different ways of organizing their economic lives and these make up a reservoir of knowledge and aspiration that, given appropriate direction, could lead us to a better economy.

The basic principles of the Occupy movement, as Schneider shows, are quite general and easily understood. One question that immediately comes to mind is how we might account for the similarities between so many movements that sprang up independently or soon after OWS. The Indignados of Madrid predated New York, yet their principles of organization are remarkably alike. Where did these principles come from? Are they an instinctive negation of mainstream political economy? Are they an innate expression of human democracy? Or were they diffused by the new digital media? Perhaps all three or none of these are relevant. Schneider has a good summary which is worth quoting at length:

“The Declaration of the Occupation is addressed not to governments—no hope there—but rather “to the people of the world,” urging communities everywhere to “assert your power.” “We are creating an exemplar society,” states Occupy Boston’s Declaration of Occupation… “No one’s human needs go unmet,” [it] continues. Planet Occupy, like last fall’s occupations, provides food and shelter for everyone, no questions asked. It also ensures health care, mutual education, childcare, legal representation, and a large, meticulously catalogued library. Sounds like a good social democracy—except that, in the words of Occupy Wall Street’s Principles of Solidarity, the basic unit of political life is not the ballot box but ‘autonomous political beings engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy.’ Though they might be wired to the teeth, the political beings of Planet Occupy carry out their democracy face to face, in well-coordinated small groups that operate by consensus. It’s ‘participatory as opposed to partisan,’ suggesting that the aim is for all voices to be heard, rather than for one party to prevail over others. Those with ‘inherent privilege’ defer whenever possible to others. The consolidation of power is discouraged, and resisted when necessary. Policing troublemakers becomes the job not of cops, but of assertive, well-trained listeners.

“Even with its inhabitants’ passion for local autonomy, though, Planet Occupy is a globalized place. People and their ideas travel freely, creating new opportunities and partnerships wherever they go. Assemblies share their plans and innovations over Interoccupy. (The movement’s conference-call network will have supplanted the original Internet, which was overrun by corporate advertising.) Following the urge in the Principles for ‘the broad application of open source,’ all ideas are common property, and these collective resources are, according to the Statement of Autonomy, valued more highly than money—if money still exists at all. SOPA-style censorship in the name of ownership is not okay. Also not okay is using violence to resolve conflicts. Almost every Occupy document makes some statement to this effect. Occupy Boston’s Memorandum of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples envisions ‘a new era of peace and cooperation that will work for everyone.’ When conflict occurs, as is inevitable, people resist injustice through ‘non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance and love,’ in accordance with the Principles. Every such struggle is both local and global.

“Is this anarchist utopia realistic, or even desirable? It’s at least a little out there, perhaps a lot out there. But the Declaration of the Rights of Man, drafted while Louis XVI still had his head, wasn’t easy to comprehend in its time. The circumstances of our world exceed the politics we’re used to imagining for it, and the politics that are really necessary might therefore seem impossible. ‘We have come to Wall Street as refugees from this native dreamland, seeking asylum in the actual,’ explains Communiqué 1, an article in the movement journal Tidal. ‘We seek to rediscover and reclaim the world.’

“The movement’s documents contain fewer hints about economy. The Principles of Solidarity calls for ‘redefining how labor is valued,’ which may look something like the worker-owned cooperatives currently being developed at the Freedom Plaza occupation in Washington, D.C. Broadly speaking, human needs prevail over claims on profit. Companies are chartered for the public good, not private gain. Participatory democracy prevails in workplaces, neighborhoods, and other productive groupings. Many aspects of the economy—food, especially—remain local. This is necessary partly in order to preserve and sustain the natural environment. Everyone on Planet Occupy knows, after all, that if they don’t protect the planet, there will be nothing left to occupy.”

There must be no divisions, no exclusions. Goods must be shared on the basis of to each according to their needs. There are obvious links in the above to économie solidaire or human economy. What we have here is a version of a common revolutionary eschatology based on the negation of how capitalist states appear to be run. Production is of public goods, not for profit. This contrasts quite starkly with our approach in the international human economy project. We believe that limited markets can be fair distributors of goods and that states are good for redistribution and guarantees of social rights, as long as they make room for people to help themselves drawing on the mutuality that comes from living together, not just contracts and citizenship. I have been impressed by recent developments in Brazil. Alternative economic organization in Europe tends to be conceived of as bottom up initiatives that are independent of government and large corporations or against them. The Brazilian government, however, has played a major role in promoting and coordinating the solidarity economy. They have introduced a system of community banks, for example, which is organized by the government, but combines community currencies and microcredit in a locally accountable and participatory way. It is possible to imagine something similar in France under a socialist president. We might call this social democracy revisited and it is not to be sniffed at.

We do not subscribe to the capitalist model of markets or to governments imposing themselves in undemocratic ways; but we do expect the movement from below to be supported and even coordinated by the powers. I have not yet come across a civil society movement capable of launching a communications satellite. So there probably will be room for mutual accommodation between large-scale and small-scale economic organization in any imaginable future. The political terms of their cooperation remain to be settled, of course and there lies the scope for revolution.

It is thus possible to discern in the Occupy movement and the work of their most visible spokesmen, such as David Graeber, two competing visions of economic change, each with its counterpart in constructions of the idea of a human economy. One is “the world turned upside down”, a complete break with the past which might be envisaged as a return to a simpler and more wholesome way of life before the state and capitalism. The other insists that we can rely on people to be who they are, to find ways to come together and develop their mutual interests without violence or coercion. These two visions are struggling with each other in the politics of this revolutionary moment. That is why we have to think seriously about what revolutionary situations are like. It’s a very different world from one where we plan and build programs that people can live by in the long run. That is why I refer to James’s remarks on Lenin in a speech to students about the Guyanese academic-turned-revolutionary, Walter Rodney (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa), who was blown up by an agent provocateur he trusted. He tells the students that they don’t understand what revolution is and neither did Rodney who lost his life as a result. No competent revolutionary organization should have left its leader unprotected in this way. (James himself was a Trotskyist dodging the bullets of Stalinist assassins while researching The Black Jacobins in Paris during the 1930s).

James quotes from Lenin’s letter of September 1917 where he talks about “insurrection”. It is important to have discriminating vocabulary rather than call everything a revolution. The events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt were insurrections, not revolutions. Lenin identifies three components of any revolution and the party has nothing to do with any of them. James lists these as “Firstly, there must be a clash, a revolutionary upsurge of the people. Then, secondly, there must be a turning point, when the activity of the advanced ranks is at its height; and thirdly, the enemy must be vacillating.” Lenin is often misrepresented as an advocate of the vanguard party, He himself abandoned all those ideas as soon as he arrived at the Finland station and found the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets in the streets. Until then, he said, I was just another bourgeois politician. Revolutions change people. Lenin also said that insurrection is an art, not a science. At the end of his speech, James recalls a conversation with Trotsky in Mexico in 1938: “But how come, time and again, the revolutionary party – this is the party, not the mass movement — was wrong in its analysis of the situation and Lenin turns out to be right and set it the correct way? How did that happen?” And I expected him to tell me how Lenin knew philosophy, how he knew political analysis, how he knew psychology, or how he knew the revolution. He did not. He said, “Lenin always had his eyes upon the mass of the population, and when he saw the way they were going, he knew that tomorrow this was what was going to happen.” The prophet as anthropologist! And Gabriella Coleman is there in these hackers’ conversation rooms trying to figure out what they are doing.

So what are the implications of all this for the idea of a human economy? Like Jean-Louis, I seem to have spent the last few years producing books. It is a very different enterprise writing for educational purposes in the long run from trying to understand the moment we are living through. The best methodological statement on this I know is by Marx in the introduction to Grundrisse, the notes he compiled from 15 years of reading in the British Museum library which he completed in 1859. We must start, he says, from our concrete moment in world history, whatever that is. We start with the conditions we encounter and study them. Then we build analytical concepts and propositions using the results of what we have studied. Analysis is making sense of what we find out there. Some people — Marx here nodding rather unfairly in my view towards Hegel — think that the task finishes there, with the ideas. Once you have the analysis, you can rest happy, publish your book and get tenure. But the point of the analytical tools we have developed is to insert them back into the moment we are living in; and you can do that in many ways, through writing, propaganda, political parties, controlled experiments, social networking, blogs, whatever. The test of their validity lies in this dialectical process. Only then might we generate an analytically informed and empirically tested account of our moment in history seen as a synthetic whole. He plans to do this in Capital; but actually he never got there. He lists five prospective volumes culminating in a historical account of the world economy as a whole; but he hardly made it to three.

We all, if we are honest and realistic, have to locate ourselves at some point along the path that Marx charted. The core of the human economy project lies in dealing with the two approaches I have mentioned. I find it really fertile to juxtapose my own work with that of David Graeber, taking account of the similarities and differences in ways that change subtly over time. David arrived at the term “human economy” more or less when I did, in the last decade. He uses it to refer to an earlier period of human history, the world we have lost that survives in ethnographic accounts of primitive, exotic peoples, when people were purer than we are, living in a natural state of humanity. It’s an old story, but a powerful one and he tells it well. For him, the human economy is one whose objective is the social reproduction of people. It takes the form in Africa, for example, of cows being exchanged for women in marriage as a source of legitimation for children. This version of the human economy is based on principles diametrically opposed to those of capitalism, the market and the state.

Jean-Louis and I take the view that the human economy exists everywhere in some kind of dialectical tension with the dominant economic institutions of our day. It is not incompatible with money and markets. These can be made to serve human interests and needs, as they always have in varying degree, and they don’t have to take the exploitive form that they currently do in our societies as a source of unequal power and wealth. I for one like ordering books and apps online and don’t want to spend my days haggling over my daily bread without a means of payment or standing in line for a handout. We take our lead from Mauss’s insistence that markets and money rest on what Durkheim called “the non-contractual element in the contract”, a body of customs, laws and history that is obscured, marginalized and repressed by bourgeois ideology, even as it contains the living potential to humanize our economic institutions.

A counterpart to these competing constructions of the human economy may be found in the two visions of revolution I touched on earlier – a digital one that envisages a radical switch to the negation of what we know and an analogue version that expects to mobilize people by building on what they know and do already. A lot hinges on our ability to see a way towards combining these approaches rather than opposing them. I would argue that David and I already do that, each in our own way. The tension between them is to be found in all the current protest movements from Tahrir Square to OWS and Anonymous. We cannot afford to go back to the polarized and often sectarian politics of the twentieth century, when “revolution” and “reform” defined opposite sides in a destructive and partisan conflict. If we were aiming for anything in articulating the human economy idea, it was to get beyond the extremes of state socialism and free enterprise that misleadingly identified the sides in the Cold War. What is the Pentagon after all if not the largest socialist collective in world history?

I sum this up in the chart below. The human economy is conceived of as mediating between two paired antinomies – state and market, home and world – which helped to define the twentieth century’s dominant social form, “national capitalism” — the attempt to manage money, markets and accumulation though central bureaucracy in the name of a cultural community of national citizens. The economic crisis of our time may be understood as the collapse of this system. Rather than oppose the poles of either pair to each other, the aim is to synthesize them through a pragmatic focus on what people really do.

Three things count in our societies — people, machines and money, in that order. But money buys the machines that control the people. Our political task – and I believe it was Marx’s too – is to reverse that order of priority, not to help people escape from machines and money, but to encourage them to develop themselves through machines and money. To the idea of economic crisis and its antidotes, we must now add that of political revolution. I have argued here that the dynamics of revolution require active consideration in this context. Revolutions give rise to digital contrasts and rightly so, but human societies are built on analogue processes. This is not just an academic debating point. A lot hinges on how humanity responds to the contradictions of the turbulence ahead.

                                                                                                       THE HUMAN ECONOMY


                                                                                EMPIRE                                                        GLOBALIZATION


                                                 STATE                                                      SOCIETY                                   MARKET

                                                                                                Machines                             Money

                                                                              NATION                                                           CAPITALISM


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