Revised excerpt from:
“Specbook.” AIME. The Blog. FNSP, 30 June 2015. Web. Available at http://modesofexistence.org/specbook/.
Among the various institutions that we submit to the inquiry, the Economy is in a very particular situation. If it now seems to have taken precedence over all other institutions to control our world, it is also the most modest size, the one that does not claim to defend our values, enter our anthropologies, do our politics. Minimalist in its claims, this institution is at the same time voracious consumer of human and material resources. It is the one that mobilizes an army of soldiers and displays a logistics at all times. Taking stock of the Economy and putting it to debate was not a trivial matter: we had to balance between not taking it too seriously (believing in the laws of the market) and not taking it too casually (denounce it as a vast illusion). Hence our hesitation to find the tone of our own discussions, and especially situate ourselves with respect to the economists, whom we never know if they do science or if they perform the “real” economy.
Not without some hesitation, we chose to take the gamble of a somewhat calculated ignorance. To forget for a moment the authors, leave out the frontal critic of theories, assume some naïveté. This may be the key that allows opening all issues, especially the ones that the economy prevents the formulation other than in its own terms. Even if it means to say thoughtless things here and there, this false innocence (or this real incompetence) seemed the right way to avoid falling into the trap of the economic evidence: “not considering what I say, is doing politics, philosophy, sociality, whatever you want, but without taking into account reality, and whatever you do, it will catch you! You cannot avoid me for a long time!” To address the economy otherwise we somehow reversed this blackmail: we considered very real the work of the economy, its tools, its measurements, its effects; and we quickly passed over the way it presents itself. The kitchen, rather than the menu!
This gave an offhand tone to our conversations, to which we gave free rein. We preferred to keep this spirit also in the writing of this report, rather than hide it by stuffing it with explicit references and adopting a more balanced tone of a scientific debate: a bit of disrespect helps better unmask the blind spots of this discipline of evidence. It was also a way for us to inscribe our conversations directly in dialogue with the Inquiry by somehow presenting, on the one hand, the army of economists — all these professionals we refer to in the text —, and on the other hand, the modes of existence, Gaia's representatives, the non-moderns, and Gaia herself. We hope that by avoiding the rigidity and fixity of a certain writing style, the conversational tone adopted in the text will help to recreate this ‘middle ground’ and invite for contestation.
We Moderns do not believe that we should have to economize on the economy. By this we do not wish to say that the economy is indispensable (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t…) but that ‘there will always be a price to pay’ for all economization. ‘You don’t get something for nothing,’ so the saying goes, and this applies to the economy too: Everything that goes into the economy is work; in other words, everything has a ‘cost’ – the quotation marks are here to show that prior to this work, these costs are only metaphorically economic: they are attachments that haven't yet been economized. That is, neither, calculated, evaluated nor managed, and this implies a lot of effort. So much the better, since it is these costs that reveal that there are choices, other possible paths, other winners and losers, and beings and potentialities that either flounder or flourish.
It is the existence of these choices, these other possibilities, that reveals that there is no Economy, in the sense of substance. There is only economizing, in the sense of existence. Up until now, we have had a tendency to privilege an economy-as-substance, formulated in terms of rules or laws. This obsession has led us astray, it has given rise to a confusion of categories and pathways, it has set us firmly, first on the path of productivity, then on the path of obesity (located in the forest of poverty). The argument for substance is though not a viable one … not until we have addressed the possibilities of destruction that weigh so heavily on Gaia. The substance-economy is a way of keeping everyone else at bay while the experts remain in charge.
We thus need to move on from an Economy seen as the Way the World Works — as light and abstract as it is imperative, doing nothing yet still running everything — towards multiple tentative economizations that need to be revised and remade. Only then we can leave behind the image of a smooth economic space where articulations among orders of reality are neatly delineated in favour of a different kind of movement, like navigating among tectonic plates or polar ice floes. So the question that emerges here is the same as the one that concerns the other modes of existence: How do we ‘institute’ this way of letting the economy ‘laissez-faire,’ but only on the condition of having concurrent experiments that are revised and debated? The answer is not simple. What we have is a tangle of scripts all piled up on one another belonging neither to a coherent whole nor a predefined, rational or planned organization. No question of a give and take around the table so that everyone gets something: Patching things together, with nothing between them but frictions, gaping holes, chasms and fractures, means nothing holds together for very long. Less metaphorically speaking, the economy is nothing other than a heterogeneous accumulation of statistics, accounting, industrial politics, businesses, fiscal legislation, the State, planning, markets, theoretical calculations and econometrics. It is a piling up of various devices [dispositifs] that are far from all pulling in the same direction. What kind of institutionalization do we need? There are any number of means available in all this mix to make them self-correct, once we stop thinking about these assemblages as a system (a system which collapses if just one piece is moved, like the game of Pick Up Sticks). These constructions, all with varying degrees of coherence, are not parts of a jigsaw laid out on an economic base framed by abstract laws. There is no base, just provisional stabilities as the experimentation proceeds.
So let’s stop understanding the Economy as an incredibly efficient ‘low cost’ machine able to transform our problems into solutions with a simple price tag, and rather consider it as a conflicting and open plurality of economizations that are all, in their own way, ‘costly.’ Only then we will be able to keep whatever profits are made by having a discussion about what costs, what was lost, and what was damaged. Since these heterogeneous, poorly defined, ill-disciplined costs remain to be tested — precisely because they are attachments that have yet to be economized — there is no ready-made answer. The problem is not one of economizing them ever faster but rather to slow down the solutions, ask questions, evaluate the losses without necessarily knowing where it will lead. In other words, by increasing the level of care and attention given to each economization.
In the first instance, we do not mean by this that we should put into the economy what it had neglected until now. This would be to admit that everything is economizable with a profit margin, that it is only a matter of handing over everything to the economists who will then say, “All right, let us handle it, we’ll calculate that for you.” On the contrary, we could consider economics as a pluralization of all those economizations that are possible or impossible, those that are doable or not, without knowing the stakes or repercussions. Then, in the second instance, it would be a question of accompanying all economizations with watchfulness, with care, with a vigilance that would live up to its promise: every economization comes at a price. How are we to do this? It is precisely because ‘we do not know’ that we propose to begin with those concerned with ‘doing’ things differently. Instead of sweeping bothersome questions under the carpet, we can then propose a variety of devices [dispositifs], inscribing into scripts possibilities for discussion and revision. To achieve this, we need to start listening again to strong discordant voices and deflate economics (for its own good). Both externally, by simultaneously applying pressure to “competing” institutions (law, politics, morality) and internally, by making sure scripts are revisable and self-limiting.
1. Slowing down the Economy: The price of Attachment and Care
If we understand the economy to be an operation that stabilizes and blackboxes solutions it is hardly sufficient that it can just work, that it is scientific or rational enough for us to consider it as acceptable — that we just leave the economy the keys even if this means taking away from it a few sacred domains. On the contrary, the economy needs to be usable everywhere and by everyone, yet always open to discussion, provisional, revisable, even if — especially if — the discussion itself is costly and slows things down. If it has a value then it also valuable (c.f. Dewey). And it is precisely this point that reveals and expresses attachments. If the economy can be dear (expensive) then it can also be dear to us.
[ATT] allows to us to encompass goods and people as a collective. Beyond “dazzling displays,” institutions must maintain a thick [ATT], not just a single thread, but a heavy weave, thus making it easier to decide in favor of some to the detriment of others. These attachments always turn out to be a test of what we hold dear and it is for this very reason, from the point of view of the economy, that they span the gap between the instantaneousness of impulse buying and the heaviness, the duration, the body and inertia that carry us. Let us note that in the word attachment there is both the passive (whatever attaches us), and the active (the ‘-ment’ of attachment: what we attach ourselves to, and which determines us, thus strengthening, or undermining, our attachments — or that sometimes forces us to abandon them), both need to be taken seriously when considering the ‘price’ of economy.
We say ‘YES’ to any and all experimentation. This word must be heard outside of the confines of pre-established forms. It is for each of us to invent our own devices [dispositifs], our own evaluations, spaces and limits. Experimentation links collective action and the precautions and measures that accompany it, even when this means delays: these experimental economizations need guards, spies, alerts, reminders, and thresholds that must not be crossed. All these beings are beings of exploration and care. In the manner of a "speculum", they are indicators, neither entirely on the inside nor the outside. If we are to install one of these economies in the making, we need a multitude of these little telltales signs to let us know where we are. There will be failures and rejections to cast aside, corrections to apply, some things exaggerated and others brutally destroyed … because we constantly need to “watch over” our attachments, list and protect the experiments, sound the alarm in case of danger, even when it all looks too promising. All of this requires new skills and new sensitivities to learn how to take the time necessary for economization: to be watchful, alert, curious, and respectful. For this economization to be made possible we will require new roles (and professions?). This will involve a change of descriptive categories, a focus on the actors, collectives, things in the making and not only on numbers and ratios (industrial economy versus economic calculation). So as to avoid a reduction to the individual, this is all filled with collectives that are more or less attached, professions, businesses, social movements, organizations, etc. that are to varying degrees bound to one another. Bodies, in a general sense.
By the same token we say ‘NO’ to the economists’ constant blackmail: “This is a great idea,” they say, “But, sorry, a new world is quite impossible; it’s far too risky and will only end up bringing down the system.” There is no such thing as a system that needs to be protected for its own sake within the economy as if any attempt to monitor it would only break its irrepressible momentum. On the contrary, the more these problems show up, the more possibilities exist for ‘care,’ for inventions, for new starts – and possibly even for interesting economizations – but this time for everybody. We say ‘YES’ to an economy that both cares for and cares about. That is to say, an economization that experiments and brings with it promise and hope but all the while remaining costly and only on the condition of allowing a market to open with the cover of discussion, and the right to revision written into it. For the costs are also virtuous costs; they measure the effort required to consent to experimenting with new worlds (commons or alternative economies on the edges of the economy, but also at its center of gravity, by questioning currency, finance, companies etc.).
There is something to learn from Hayek's idea of a negative institution, understood as a series of "do not" imperatives, if we free it from its exclusively economic confines. However, as with slowing down, these 'do nots' are not in reality entirely negative but can be considered as time wasted only to be saved.
Just like Hayek (and a few others), we are convinced that time matters centrally; just as Hayek (and a few others, including Israel Kirzner), we see that economizing is a dance with uncertainty; like Hayek, we look at experiments and experimentation with some interest. Have we simply become Hayekian? What unites us further is the avoidance of any master repartition. In the language of Hayek, the State plays the big bad wolf, endowed with special powers and entitled to stifle any experiment it would not fancy, for one (arbitrary) reason or another. So we do share with Hayek some caution against any hurried composition of the common good. With some relief, given the deadly track record of the Austrian schools of economics, there are also some salient differences. The background of Hayek and his disciples is both an aggressive Darwinism — experimentations will eliminate the weakest candidates and celebrate the fittest — coupled with a narrow definition of efficiency, crowned by “price.” This couple is topped by a mobilization of the (rule of) law — also a long and wise outcome of a market mechanism — which would maintain a procedure and some order to the otherwise wild experiments that entrepreneurs entertain.
However, unlike Hayek, we are not attempting to defend a little enclosure where the economy, a minimalist institution not needing an institution, would be finally free to run without reins or brakes, protected by nothing other than negative institutions with instructions not to get in its way. The parallel with the image of the middle ground in its contrast with the image of the frontier is striking: it is, on the contrary at the heart (or the choir — in French, coeur or choeur) of the economy where the voices of the greatest possible number of institutions should rise, all provisional and none founded, each able to experiment with the means it has to hand, creating provisional zones of stabilization, under the pressure of others. Our barriers are internal. First we have to negotiate the time that needs to be set aside from them before destroying them.
2. Taking the Virtue of Transaction Costs seriously
How, though, to create some time? Or, referring to the terms of the Inquiry, what is the felicity condition for the economy? It certainly cannot be for it to work – on the contrary, this is precisely when we should call out, “Danger!” – but that it brings to light all the resistances, and the attachments left behind to be crushed. A very Polyaniesque idea is that the economy is impossible, (in the same way that we say that a small child is utterly impossible), that is it nothing more than the measurement of those oppositions that allow it to exist. This is what the kind of anti-instituting institution (à la Hayek) would be aiming for. More technically speaking, it would be a quasi-legal requirement for it to warn about any irreversibility. The problem of the size and duration of these experimental formations should not be solved in an absolute sense or with a rule; this would be contradictory. Above all, we must free ourselves from the dictates of efficiency, by reinstating a new value – transaction costs – but taking it seriously this time.
The virtue of the economy is not its efficiency outside of the possible concerns of individuals, but rather its production of knowledge and preferences. Eliciting such preferences – what we hold to be good, not yet common, but at least consistent enough that we can formulate it and defend it – is not only the noisy chit-chat of the conversation dear to Tarde (AIME). It is the only solution to keep the experiences of the economic experimentations from becoming the chimera of disrespectful scientists. The new gesture of our economy is to question not only any free lunch, but to question the efficiency of economic institutions.
The recent vicissitudes of French bank BNP-Paribas will clarify the need not to rush towards a ready-made definition of transaction costs. National currencies have long been praised as vehicles of efficiency and low transaction costs. From the 1970s on, the US dollar impersonated this fiction of a global economy freed from currency uncertainty. In 2014, BNP-Paribas settled for a fine of 9 billion dollars so as to be allowed to continue operating transactions in US dollars. The reason for such a fine is a breach of an injunction by the State department outlawing economic transactions with enemy States (Cuba, Iran and Sudan). All of a sudden, the transaction cost free currency carries a huge cost and the French bank wishes it had another currency, another collective experiment, that would not tie it to the diplomatic policies of the current US administration. Incidentally, we can see just how swiftly and adroitly the Mighty know how to combine brute force with politics, law, and economics (if you want to be in the US market, then you agree to the fine) while profiting from their official status. The economy only cheats on those who believe in it.
People will object: but this is too costly; how can you want an increase in transaction costs?! There is an argument against this: the transaction costs have already exploded. The economy looks as though it reduces costs, by stabilizing calculation techniques and procedures – but they are constantly revised, adapted, twisted, etc., and at a huge cost. There is an entire army of economizers doing that: economists, but also and most importantly accountants, managers, etc. And not only is this costly in a monetary sense; it is also costly in the sense that this professionalisation of economizing prevents other participants from having their passionate interests taken into account. Economizing must be fully redistributed, by the abolition of the professional manager, the professional accountant, the professional economist. Management, accounting, economics are everyone’s business. There is, we must admit, a danger of hegemonization in de-institutionalization and re-distribution of economics. How can we preserve the deflation — slowing down — of economy without going back (or going forward) to another totalization? (Will [REL] help us?)
This attempt at a “deinstitutionalizing re-institution” must not be heard as having a social-democratic tone. Social democracy theoretically believes in realities as given (the market, the social, the legal, etc.) in practice puts them together by tinkering with them. We seek the opposite, by accepting, in a theoretical manner, the pluralism of a multimodal world in which no order is a given, and by confronting, in a practical manner, the violence of things, necessary choices that lack any basis, and fighting against other reductionist pretensions (even if they are our own). Most of all though, we fight for — without ever really knowing for what. Hence the urgency and the slowing-down, the necessity of combat and the uncertainty, commitment without guarantees, risk-taking and experimentation; these are stances that are far removed from perpetual compromises and indecision wrongly taken for open-mindedness.
The idea that we “we don’t know” but that we will nevertheless try has nothing anecdotal about it but is at the heart of a pragmatic mix of commitment and incertitude that is our lot, confronted as we are, with worlds that are still to be made. Setting up institutions in a post-AIME pluriverse (ahem ...) is to insist on both of these terms at the same time: action and ignorance, commitment without a guarantee and neither reason nor a given order to rely upon. Just an assembly with a negotiable duration and held together by nothing other than the actions of those collectives involved (e.g., organic wines). Such an institution not only takes a “positively negative” turn, but also a tone that distances itself from what is hard to shake off, that of an order to be established. Rather, it should be to organize disorder, or to disorganize orders, or disorder organizations, all the while letting them go into battle…
3. Inscribing Disorder into Scripts or the Possibility of Revision
We are happy to debate the “profits” of the economy, the advantages that it can or cannot procure (the “receipt” once goods have been bought, circulation, innovation, the possibility of investment — to take Polanyi’s list — everything to which economists quite properly concerned with the common good may care about). However, far from delegating the problem of the Economy, (“Don’t you worry about anything, we’ll take care of it”), how can we organize the debatability of this economization [mise en économie] without knowing the answers? It is not about making dynamic frameworks more dynamic, nor collecting the desires of consumers in increasingly inventive ways (this is a job for marketing) but to “contain” scripts, to let them hesitate and hold back with alerts, protests, and all manner of unpredictable forms that may or may not fit into a framework. To listen to discordant voices and not only to those that enter into the framework and reinforce it. To try things out, to experiment and rely on those actors concerned — or rather, to inscribe this care into the very scripts of the economy. This does not mean giving carte blanche since all economization must be accompanied (thanks to law, politics, morality, family, religion, etc.,) by the right to revise, review deadlines or be accountable to itself as well as, when the state of affairs demands it, to have the possibility of questioning or changing the script without having to ask for permission (thank you Gaïa, if you prefer!). This way of putting it is important: we see that it is less about agreement and coordination (we can agree on nothing but disagreements) but about actions undertaken by those collectives concerned, and only through their own results will they will be able to be judged, estimated and appreciated (this is the Deweyian double meaning of the worth of things: to be valued and to have a value). The aim is not to compare goods in the same space and against a common standard, but to evaluate incommensurable experiences in action.
What could then be the possible conditions to put into place so as to ensure the reversibility of scripts? We have already said it: what motivates the keeping of scripts open is the need to turn the economy into a felicitous set of experiments. Against the temptation to blindly celebrate or reject the economy altogether, we look to the economy as a site where experiments should be tried out or at the very least be “triable.” This is important to keep at bay the disillusionment (from Weber onwards) that some of the critiques of the economy force onto the revisions. However, this opening up to experimentation also has some limits. The strict requirement for the revisability of scripts has an implication: the need to avoid situations where scripts only go so far, or where so many scripts are interconnected that revising one of them puts the whole “system” at risk of collapse. Some form of protectionism must thus be constituted. However, it must not be a protectionism of stable or “external” frontiers: protecting national economies, certain industries, etc. It must be a protectionism of mobile barriers — “internal” frontiers that will be established and re-established constantly. And it must provide barriers against the extension of scripts or systems of scripts.
The goal is fairly clear: that no script begins to set itself up as the template for the others, with its path to realization being its own story, ready to digest all the others. We must recognize that these forms of vigilance, more or less proactive, that compel self-limitation, remain to be found by searching among one’s neighbors (the other modes or institutions already mentioned, from the law to the family, etc. but also among protests, riots and uprisings, the slow “awareness” of the environment or the qualities of everyday things, the sudden breakdown of a way of working being turned off, etc.). There is, it would seem, a lot to be done: “les affaires restent à faire…”
Nonetheless, we do admit that the practicalities of this are problematic. There could be a requirement that no script be too extensive – with a size limit, preventing the excessive growth of certain entities, a bit along the lines of anti-trust laws. But things get much trickier as soon as the new constitution tries to tackle systems of scripts; how is the building up of systems prevented? One possible direction would consist in setting extension requirements regarding chains of scripts – e.g. no chain should be longer than so many elements, and each new script produced should list the chain of scripts it puts itself into or generates, to check that it follows this requirement. So instead of stress tests that have been devised by the infamous Bank of International Settlements, rather a disclosure of conflicts of confiscation of scripts, forcing scripts to be relatively autonomous. So one of the conditions in the rewriting of the script is the need for each script to be autonomous from other scripts, a form of modularity. Refusing the entanglement of many scripts allows for one script to be discarded and thus refuses the argument that one script is too central to the whole economic system for it to be allowed to fail – the ‘too big to fail’ argument. It is as important to define interruptions to experiments as it is to let the scripts be open and revisable. This stopping point is a way of rewriting the question of regulation and State that has long paralysed economic intervention and has always been mobilized by libertarian economists as a straw man. The deadly State/Market debate has missed the fact that the experiences of economic experimentations always take place elsewhere: nor on a generic market – as experimentations are only good to launch if they involve interests and attachments that can be voiced here and now, by individuals and groups who are going to be affected by their outcomes.
These forms of institution seeking to avoid institutionalization are somewhat oxymoronic (the theme of “deflation” is present in all of the modes), but we are not left completely disarmed and it is not a question of remaking the world from scratch; this idea has already been worked on in the past. Some experiments come to mind when we want to think about the forms of limitations that need to be put in place. Below, we have given some examples: anti-trust laws, nuclear waste legislation, bitcoin or local currencies, etc. There are others such as policies of innovation that consist in sustaining competition between many ideas by supporting the ones that struggle and not the ones that are winning.
For instance, the web-based currency bitcoin has built into its system the dual imperative of being directly attached to what is now the most pressing question of the Internet — security of transactions — as the mining mechanism is dependent on producing public encryption keys, and the designed lack of hegemony in the ecosystem of other moneys because the mining of hash is becoming increasingly difficult so that scarcity is also built-in. So a currency that works at maintaining the possibility of transactions — monetary and other forms — while containing itself.
The recent legislation of nuclear waste in France has made it necessary to adopt solutions — bury, keep above ground, etc. … — that are reversible, so that in NN years, the experiment of living with nuclear waste can be assessed and revised and new solutions adopted if the problems outnumber the envisioned risks: this is a legal invention, a law that enshrines not knowing the answer now and refusing to make an irreversible decision, thus deciding not to decide.
The Argentinean crisis in 2001 taught us that the state is not the only guarantor of financial transactions. Alternative currencies and barter allowed for these transactions to be replaced and saved! The national economy was not saved outside of the system but the setting up of scripts that resisted and contested the “State” of affairs.
Codification, legislation, experimentation are all forms that can inscribe the right to revise. The opening up of scripts is mainly due to the ability of economic beings – whatever their size, shape or duration – to place themselves “above” the script and change roles: to be author, follower or protestor, at any moment and in any place. This is where economization must be accompanied by the other modes of the Inquiry.