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The human economy programme at the University of Pretoria

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By Keith Hart and John Sharp

Ronald Coase, shortly before his death this year, published an article in the Harvard Business Review, ‘Saving economics from the economists’ (Coase & Wang, 2012). He argued that ‘the degree to which economics is isolated from the ordinary business of life is extraordinary and unfortunate’. ‘In the 20th century, economics identified itself as a theoretical approach of economization and gave up the real-world economy as its subject matter. It thus is not a tool the public turns to for enlightenment about how the economy operates…. It is time to reengage with the economy. Market economies springing up in China, India, Africa, and elsewhere herald unprecedented opportunities for economists to study how the market economy gains its resilience in societies with cultural, institutional, and organizational diversity. But knowledge will come only if economics can be reoriented to the study of man as he is and the economic system as it actually exists’.

There are many heterodox economists who reject the dominant model of rational choice in ‘free’ markets, and want to reconnect the study of the economy to the real world; to make its findings more accessible to the public; and to place economic analysis within a framework that embraces humanity as a whole, the world we live in. The ‘human economy’ approach shares all these priorities. Our focus draws inspiration from and seeks to contribute to the tradition of economic thought, but, more explicitly than these currents within economics, we are open to other traditions, notably anthropology, sociology, history and development studies.

The University of Pretoria research programme has been shaped by the ‘alter-globalization’ movement of the last decade. It is the third phase of an international project that originated in the World Social Forum. The first phase was a series of volumes in several languages, produced by a network of Latin American and Francophone researchers and activists, which aimed to introduce a wide audience to the core themes that might organize alternative approaches to the economy. These books brought together short essays on the history of debate in many topics. A second phase saw publication of the first English-language collection in this series, The Human Economy: a Citizen’s Guide (Hart, Laville, & Cattani, 2010). Fifteen countries were represented, but there was only one author from Asia and Africa, where most people live. The focus on exchanges between researchers and activists also left questions of research methodology relatively unexplored.

The University of Pretoria programme adds a Southern African node to this network of scholars and activists, thereby giving greater weight to African, Asian and Latin American voices in a broader South-South and North-South dialogue. It is the first coordinated academic research programme in the process initiated by the World Social Forum. Starting from a core of social anthropologists, the programme now includes sociology, history, political science, geography and education. We have appointed some 20 post-doctoral fellows from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe; and in 2012 an inter-disciplinary group of eight African PhD students from five countries. Our main research focus is on Southern Africa, but participants bring research expertise from many geographical areas.

Our first method is ethnographic with the aim of joining the people where they live in order to discover what they do, think and want. Second, the economy is always plural and so we must address the variety of particular institutions through which people experience economic life. Third, we wish to help people to organize and improve their own lives. Our findings ultimately should be accessible for their practical use. This all adds up to a sort of humanism. It must be so, if the economy is to be returned from remote experts to the people who are most affected by it. But humanism is not enough. The human economy must be informed by an economic vision capable of bridging the gap between everyday life and humanity’s common predicament, which is inevitably impersonal and lies beyond the actor’s point of view.

Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but 7 billion people who occupy the planet crying out for new principles of association. We urgently need to make a world where all people can live together. Humanity’s hectic dash from the village to the city is widely assumed to be driven by ‘capitalism’. But a number of social forms have emerged to organize the process on a large scale: empires, nation-states, cities, corporations, regional federations, international organizations, capitalist markets, machine industry, global finance, telecommunications networks. So the task is to figure out how states, cities, big money and the rest might be selectively combined with citizens’ initiatives to promote a more democratic world society. Somehow small-scale humanism and large-scale impersonal institutions must work together.

If economic strategies should be anchored in people’s everyday lives, aspirations and local circumstances, the intellectual movement should be one of extension from the local towards the global. We can’t arrive instantly at a view of the whole, but we can engage more concretely with the world that lies beyond familiar institutions. The chief way of achieving social extension has always been through markets and money in a variety of forms. Money and markets are intrinsic to our human potential, not anti-human as they are often depicted. Of course they should take forms more conducive to economic democracy.

An ‘economy’ should have at its core a specific strategy. Such an economy, to be useful, should be based on general principles that guide what people do. It is not just an ideology or a call for realism. The social and technical conditions of our era — urbanization, fast transport and universal media – must underpin the principles of a human economy. We do not assume that people know best, although they usually know their own interests better than those who presume to speak for them. In origin ‘economy’ privileged budgeting for domestic self-sufficiency; political economy promoted capitalist markets over military landlordism; national economy sought to equalize the chances of a citizen body. Perhaps ‘human economy’ is a way of envisaging how unique human beings are linked to humanity as a whole. It would then contain a sequence of its predecessors (house-market-nation-world) whose typical social units are complementary and co-exist.

The human economy idea has its source in small-scale informality and a humanist ideology, but an effective challenge to the corporations which dominate world economy requires self-organized initiatives to make selective alliances with larger powers, much as the French revolution was backed by the shippers of Nantes and Italy’s by the industrialists of Milan and Turin. We have to build bridges between local actors and the new human universal, world society. A human being is a person who depends on and must make sense of impersonal social conditions. The granting of human rights to business corporations is one obstacle to that. The drive for economic democracy will not be won until that confusion has been cleared up.

Keith Hart and John Sharp are co-directors of the Human Economy research programme at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Coase, R. H., & Wang, N. (2012). Saving economics from the economists. Harvard Business Review, 90(12), 36.

Hart, K., Laville, J.-L., & Cattani, A. D. (Eds.). (2010). The human economy: A citizen’s guide. Cambridge: Polity. 

From: pp.10-11 of World Economics Association Newsletter 3(5), October 2013


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