Eating with long spoons, not short

May 2014

For many years now, in most parts of the world women have had the vote, but they have still not been allowed to ‘do the numbers’ in economics. In 1988, Marilyn Waring came to fame with her book, and then film (1995), ‘If women counted’, in which she demonstrated how differently women look at economic life than men. Yet it is men who think up both the way to count and what to count. If an oil tanker hits rocks, that is good for GDP; while the cost of unfulfilled – because unemployed – young people is not. I don’t mean the cost of their social benefits; I mean the cost of their not creating value, wealth, the cost of their lost opportunities; both to themselves and to society.

The argument, if there is one, is that one cannot cost what has not happened; but only a thoughtless brain could have such an idea. In the imagination at least one can certainly run such numbers. And it is the imagination not the brain that is our guide in economic affairs. Even the most free market male places complete reliance on the image of an invisible hand, though without noticing the irony, let alone contradiction involved in doing so. 

Strictly speaking, it is not the brain as such, so much as so-called left side predominance that is the problem. Science tries to make its way in the world without art, logic without intuition. Means suffice also as ends. The destination matters, not the journey. 

If we allow that economics originally meant household and that managing a household is a multi-tasking affair (as we would say today), it is not surprising that if women counted, things would be conceived and conducted differently. The classic economic task of men is captured in the, now politically incorrect, word ‘husbandry’. One husbands one’s resources, using one’s capital to generate a revenue; and not allowing the revenue to fall so low that one starts to use up capital, just as a hungry man begins to eat his own stomach. 

His task is to generate revenue, her task is to make sure it goes round. Of course, such gender-biassed imagery is not allowable these days, so we have to find ways to express neutrally the truths it represents. To begin with, this means using both sides of the brain and for both men and women to do so. More technically, perhaps, it means being able to see both sides of a transaction, to perceive the effects of one’s actions, preferably before one acts. For men, this is to use one’s feminine side; for women it is to avoid aggression in one’s dealings. 

For men, the devil may well take the hindmost; but I doubt that a woman would ever originate such an idea. That all her family eats before she does is more probable.

Arguably, the kind of thinking needed is that on which associative economics is predicated – descriptive, all-round thinking. A kind of thinking that requires one to listen as much as to speak, to be aware of one’s actions as much as to take initiative.

Very importantly, it requires one not to calculate what cannot be calculated, or what cannot be calculated without changing its nature. In associative economics, for example, neither land nor capital, nature or spirit, environment or ideation, belong to the world of calculation. Both poles have effects in that world, but do not belong to it. I need to know how many chairs are worth a table, but not how many hours went into them or how many ideas or thoughts. Knowing what not to count is as important as knowing what to count. 

Can one count the gifts one gives one children’s, treating them as an advance on their inheritance or some kind of kindergarten loan, a diminutive student loan scheme? Some say yes, and some no doubt do, but the point is: not everything can be counted or should be counted. Just because we can count does not mean we have to count everything. If we do, the chances are that we will bring the thing counted into the market, conceiving and treating it as a commodity. This is the case, for example, for much of ecological economics. Many people would put a number on nature; they also think the neem tree or rice can be made subject, via so-called intellectual property rights, to being counted. For then such things, or the right to use or acquire them can be sold… and sold to the highest bidder.

It takes a whole, not to mention wholesome, approach to life if one is to comprehend why not everything has to be counted, and what the consequences are if one avoids doing so. In general, as far as economics is concerned, to count is to sell, not to count is to give. Giving, in the economic sense, can therefore be said to be a feminine attribute. Not seeking or expecting a return, but letting one’s capital and money flow onwards. Trusting to circulation not mechanics, the circle of life rather than the closed system of an economy thought to be like a central heating system. And so to a heart that perceives rather than pumps, money that reflects rather than has its own existence, and capital that does not seek to preserve itself but seeks instead to die into human creativity. 

None of these things are the exclusive preserve of women, of course. This is not a kind of ‘reverse discrimination’. Both men and women have left and right brains, while giving, in the economic sense, is not a matter of gender. It is about everyone lessening their egoism, not putting themselves before the rest of humanity. Feeding ourselves with the long spoons of heaven, rather than the short ones of hell.