Economics and the Social: a Strange Couple

(Original text in German)

What do educators, caretakers, mothers and fathers do all day? They nourish, foster, encourage and accompany human beings. What do economists do? Something or other with numbers I guess, or in other words: I don’t know exactly.

Indeed, I would like to understand what is thought, taught and researched at economic faculties such as in the elite and world-renowned University of St. Gallen near my home village. After all, whether it be as consumers, employers, parents, workers, retirees etc. each of us is an integral part of the economy. So it wouldn’t in fact be a bad idea to understand how it functions. Yes, of course, I’ve done Google research. However, the meaning of all the numbers and curves I encountered on the web pages of these sublime institutions, along with the widely accepted assumption that the market will undoubtedly fix it all, doesn’t really tell me much.

To come closer to an answer to the question of what economists actually do, the association WiC (Wirtschaft ist Care/Economy is Care), on April 24, 2016, wrote eleven letters to eleven deans (one of whom is female) of eleven economics departments in German-speaking Switzerland. As the name implies, we look at the economy from a certain perspective: economy is care. It’s strange that this simple phrase is often perceived as provocation since all economists are of the explicit opinion that the economy has one and only one task, namely to satisfy human needs, in other words: to enable us to care for ourselves and each other…

… Whatever the case may be, we wanted to get answers to these two questions: First, what is the actual status of the work done in the various areas of care, especially in private households? Second, what research projects on the subject have been done, are underway or are planned? – We had to write repeated requests in order to finally get eight answers. Three of the addressed gentlemen still to this day have yet to respond.

Now we know roughly what all the economists at universities and polytechnics do not do: they don’t do research and they don’t teach about the economic sector which, according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, is the largest one: the unpaid work in private households which usually serves to satisfy the needs of human beings, without bothering to involve money.

 Ask the social sciences!

The eight economists who did respond did not find our questions by no means irrelevant. However, they referred us to other disciplines: to sociology, social work, nursing science, geography, ethics, ergonomics, psychology, and most of all: gender studies. In fact, in all these disciplines, many women and a few men are researching the topics that interest us. At the University of Basel, for example, the sociologist Sarah Schilliger carried on a study about the labor conditions of Polish immigrant women who provide 24-hour care for dependent people in Swiss households. In the Department of Health at the Kalaidos University of Applied Sciences in Zurich, a project called work&care, directed by nursing scientist Iren Bischofberger, deals with the reconciliation of employment and care for family members. The business ethicist Ulrike Knobloch developed her theoretical concept of “preventive economics” for years at the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Fribourg. At the four German-Swiss Institutes for Gender Studies several projects on gender-specific division of labor and the respective inequalities are running. In the relatively highly endowed research network ForGenderCare in neighboring Bavaria, economics are far underrepresented compared to disciplines such as sociology, education or gender research, just as men are far underrepresented in comparison to women.

What does it mean that the economists delegated out the answering of our questions by referring us to the sphere commonly called “the social”? Why are ten out of eleven economics departments headed by men but almost all research and teaching carried out about the unpaid satisfaction of human needs is done by women? Is economics a man and social science a woman? Are gender researchers the housekeepers of the national and global economy? And again: how do economics function with economists who do not include the largest sector of the economy into their calculations?

Numbers, games and indoctrination

In May 2017, the German economics professor Silja Graupe published a study on “Influencing and Manipulating Economic Education” in which she shows that curricula worldwide not only convey a standardized, highly mathematical view of the economy, but also manipulate, for example by notoriously and arbitrarily linking the term “market” to freedom, democracy, prosperity and moral superiority. An initiative reported on December 17, 2017, by the British Guardian points in a similar direction: sixty-nine intellectuals, including many economists, compare the economics learned at universities today to the Church before the Reformation: a single belief system – then papal theology, now neoclassical economics – exerts an immense power, dominates public discourses and immunizes itself against all criticism. The proponents of the initiative conclude that a “New Reformation” is needed in academic economics today.

So, how economists are doing about the economy doesn’t appear to be ideal. Not only do they confine themselves to a uniform worldview, they also convey that view as being the only saving one, just as the popes and priests in the 15th and 16th centuries before the Reformation had done. Could this be related to the fact that economists are still able to rely on the servitude of “the social”? Are the social sciences the academic cattle to whom economists, and in its wake corporations, media, and politics, pass off the vital questions concerning basic needs, that is: the needs that cannot be fabricated through advertising and satisfied through money?

Economics: The Social Science’s Husband?

The traditional arrangement worked like this: while and because the wife or female housekeeper cared for food, cleanliness, order, harmony and the offspring at home, the husband had time to concern himself with lofty ideas, games and things in the Agora, for example managing the hereafter, drawing cryptic diagrams, building Trump towers, speculating on financial products, inventing dogmas or collecting indulgences. Aristotle already propagated the pattern: “There is … a science of the master which teaches the use of slaves… while they (the masters) occupy themselves with philosophy or with politics.”

The hierarchical metaphysics of Aristotle, the slave-owner, served as a model for medieval theology and has not been explicitly suspended to this day, at least not in the cathedrals and universities of the world.

Since quite some time now, however, the concept of what good human coexistence means on this side of the supposedly eternal binary structure is rapidly changing: Women, having freed themselves from monetary dependence, don’t shrink back from divorce any more, men marry men, trans and queer people demand recognition, children grow up happily in patchwork families and so on. The obsession that humanity consists of two and only two genders, one dominant, one servant, is dissolving into cheerful diversity. We realize that the real and conceptual double beds humans have been lying in for centuries do not make us happy any more. These conceptual marital beds even emerge to be a major obstacle when it comes to moving towards an ecological future.

De-dichotomize! Confuse!

Unlike the real wives and slaves of past centuries, the various sciences which are still often stuck in matrimonial servitude, fortunately are not without rights, rather they have the right to equality, at least in theory. Although the economics professor, who is interviewed on the development of stock market prices in the TV-news, is still listened to in another way than the nursing scientist who comments on the acute shortage of staff in the health sector: He speaks in the intimidating tone of undisputed priestly authority, she is smiling and panting. This, however, is changing. For the post-patriarchal Reformation is on the move. It consists in cheerfully setting free into confusion what has until now been severely separated (diaballein): ethnologists enter the field of public finance, economics professors engage in nursing professions (and not in executive functions!), children and the elderly storm the universities, careerists sit at the bedside of their care-dependent Elders, deaconesses write dogmas and the dependency of all humans on each other reveals itself to us anew.


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