If it is true that Human Economy is remedy-for/correction-to/victim-of our machine-like economy and machine-like conceptions of self and society, then there is something in these talks of Ian McGilChrist, someone I just stumbled upon, that needs to finds its way into stories I get to tell others about Human Economy, what it is, why it is, why they should care. I sense a powerful synthesis on the horizon, far beyond my ability to articulate it. I can simply hint at it by inviting you to view these. 

 

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Thanks for bringing this up, Boris. I have looked at the site and read the Introduction, but don't have the time to watch the videos yet. There is a remarkable synchrony in your initiative since I am planning to launch an online seminar Jan 30 to Feb 11 by Sacha Bourgeois-Gironde on perceptions of money seen in a perspective drawn from experimental economics and neuroscience, with a strong link to the archaeology of tool-use. The announcement will be coming in the next day or so in This Week on the main page and the paper available from the OAC Press. I hope you and anyone else interested in this topic will check it out.

McGilchrist admits that the meaning of the brain's hemispheric division has fallen out of fashion, to be replaced by small empirical studies by neuroscientists that don't address the big questions he hopes to revive here. The latter may also be the case with neuroanthropology. It is certainly so with ethnography in general. The situation today is similar to that in which the ethnographic revolution took place a century ago. Scientists sought to distance themselves from popular generalizations ("conjectural history") and in the process may have thrown out the baby with the bath water. It is true that we need to bring these trends together again, but doing so in an intellectually rigorous way is not easy.

I do not see the human economy idea as an antidote to a world made by machines and money. My interpretation of Marx is that he was saying three things matter in our world -- people, machines and money in that order. But the social reality is one in which this order of priority is reversed, with money calling the shots and people made subservient to machines. This leads to what Engels called utopian socialism, an attempt to escape into a world without machines and money, such as William Morris's revival of the aesthetic of the middle ages. To some extent, modern anthropology reproduced this vision by seeking out peoples living in exotic rural places conceived of as being outside contemporary world history. All this in a world of urbanization, empire and war.

So the idea of a human economy could speak to an alternative to industrial capitalism or it could be understood, following Durkheim, Mauss and Polanyi, as human aspects of capitalist societies made marginal, invisible or repressed by the dominant economic order. These two positions are not as separate as they may seem in ideology. McGilchrist may accept a division he sees as originating in the brain's make-up in order to advance the possibility of its more effective synthesis. In which case, you are right to point out possible parallels between the projects. It isn't obvious how we can take this further without considerable investment of intellectual energy. Perhaps you will have to say more explicitly what seem to you fruitful avenues to explore here and select something manageable to read.

My interpretation of Marx is that he was saying three things matter in our world -- people, machines and money in that order. But the social reality is one in which this order of priority is reversed, with money calling the shots and people made subservient to machines.

Now that is an elegant and memorable statement! To elaborate its significance a good place to begin would be Amartya Sen's Inequality Reexamined. Sen observes that all economic regimes claim to be fair, but they differ in how fairness is measured. When money calls the shots, the unit of fairness is the unit of wealth, for example, the US dollar. When fairness is measured in units of wealth, the wealthy are seen has having a natural right to greater power. When people are put first, the unit of fairness is human individuals. Inequalities in wealth are seen as wrong. 

As Sen goes on to point out, modern societies embrace both models. In corporate governance it is seen as fair that those who own the greater number of shares and have more units of wealth invested in the company have greater power. In politics, one voter-one vote is supposed to be the rule. Political economy becomes an on-going debate over the proper balance between these two ideals.

Brought back to human physiology/psychology, the debate is driven by conflict between dominance, the impulse to control, and nurturance, the desire to provide adequate care.

What I was trying to do was to make a bridge from the big picture (eg Marx) to what the human economy might be about and whteher this brain stuff helps. Human means putting people before ideas and yet it also refers to all people being in it together (humanity). I like Sen and these observations, but he is an economist and moral philosopher, so you don't see the people much in his accounts of economy. Also, at least in that statement, his frame is "society" as in India or the US. In the present case, what bugs me is the humanising and metaphorical depiction of the two halves of the brain struggling for dominance in a master/slave relationship where the latter turns the tables. It succeeds mainly as a pitch that most readers will be familiar with. But I guess it all depends on the detailed telling of the story and you have to buy the book for that.

John McCreery said:

My interpretation of Marx is that he was saying three things matter in our world -- people, machines and money in that order. But the social reality is one in which this order of priority is reversed, with money calling the shots and people made subservient to machines.

Now that is an elegant and memorable statement! To elaborate its significance a good place to begin would be Amartya Sen's Inequality Reexamined. Sen observes that all economic regimes claim to be fair, but they differ in how fairness is measured. When money calls the shots, the unit of fairness is the unit of wealth, for example, the US dollar. When fairness is measured in units of wealth, the wealthy are seen has having a natural right to greater power. When people are put first, the unit of fairness is human individuals. Inequalities in wealth are seen as wrong. 

As Sen goes on to point out, modern societies embrace both models. In corporate governance it is seen as fair that those who own the greater number of shares and have more units of wealth invested in the company have greater power. In politics, one voter-one vote is supposed to be the rule. Political economy becomes an on-going debate over the proper balance between these two ideals.

Brought back to human physiology/psychology, the debate is driven by conflict between dominance, the impulse to control, and nurturance, the desire to provide adequate care.

McGilchrist admits that the meaning of the brain's hemispheric division has fallen out of fashion, to be replaced by small empirical studies by neuroscientists that don't address the big questions he hopes to revive here.

Could it be that this statement misrepresents what McGilchrist is up to? Based on the RSA video, his argument is a good deal more sophisticated than grumbling about small empirical studies replacing ideas that address big questions. 

1. The first wave of enthusiasm about the divided brain led to people embracing simplistic ideas about brain function localization, left is to right as reason to emotion or language to visualization, that sort of thing. 

2. Empirical studies have demonstrated that the brain is more complex than that; both sides are involved in such functions as reason, emotion, language and visualization. The result has been a decline in interest in these big, i.e., overblown, ideas.

3. There remain, however, facts to be considered. The brain is anatomically asymmetrical, and the theory of evolution suggests that anatomical differences are likely to represent functional differentiation. 

4. Here, then, is where Gilchrist departs from the sort of argument that suggests revisiting old ideas to see what they might still offer. Instead, he proposes a new hypothesis for which the little bird pecking for seeds in the gravel provides an apt image. One side of the brain specializes in sharp focus, the clarity required to distinguish seeds from gravel. The other specializes in broad scanning, alert for dangers or opportunities lying outside the focus. The bird's survival depends on both. Without the sharp focus to distinguish seeds from gravel, the bird is likely to starve. Without the broad scanning that detects the threat of the cat on the fence, the bird is likely to become the cat's prey. 

This brings me, then, to your thoughts about Sen. Yes, he is a highly focused thinker—it goes with the territory of being an economist and moral philosopher. Yes, a broader perspective reveals all sorts of things, people in particular, omitted from that focus. But is broader perspective alone a useful alternative? If McGilchrist is right, it is both functions running in tandem that we need to survive and thrive.

I'm coming up with a semi-intelligent stream of thoughts on McGilchrist, HE and your thoughtful comments. In the meantime, as a placeholder, the latest from Colbert above. 

In the meantime, I have downloaded McGilchrist onto my Kindle, but God knows when I will read it. BBdeM is obviously very successful, but I can't say that the Colbert interlude rang many bells for me. The central point I suppose is that, if the human economy is to help people manage their economic problems, rather then being just a slogan or a feel good factor, perhaps it ought to make them make rational choices, whereupon game theory might or might not be relevant. It's not how I go about it, being more inclined to an institutional approach. But let's see.

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