The idea of a Human Economy
The idea of a ‘Human Economy’ emerged out of a global social movement started at the World Social Forum over a decade ago. This movement brought activists and intellectuals together who questioned the dominant free market and command models of twentieth-century economy. Each of these was based on abstract and impersonal models of human behaviour, remote from the concerns of people on the ground, and they left the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants – particularly in the global South – in acute poverty and without meaningful freedom. A human economy would be one that gives priority to what people really do and think, while addressing the needs of humanity as a whole.
Much work has been done recently to give substance to this idea. A network of scholars and activists has produced several books on alternative conceptions of the economy. These were aimed at a general public with an active interest in what came to be known as alter-globalization; but the highly successful French (2006) and Portuguese (2009) editions found a ready market in students at all levels of education. The latest in the series is The Human Economy: a Citizen’s Guide, edited by Hart, Laville and Cattani (Polity Press, 2010). This book is a guide to the literature on concepts used to think about practical economic alternatives rather than offering a detailed exploration of what is happening on the ground in different parts of the world. The UP research programme on ‘the human economy’ (which now combines post-doctoral fellows and PhD students) attempts to push this international project further – towards coordinated empirical research and a more inclusive geographical reach.
We take very seriously the premise that the search for a more human economy must begin by analysing what people actually do – how they do or do not insert themselves into an economy that is organised by impersonal models which all too often fail to notice, or give any weight to, people’s everyday attempts to secure their own sustenance and improvement. We argue that detailed social investigation of relevant topics would help to situate people’s behaviour within a fuller and more complex framework of understanding, thereby questioning many of the assumptions made in economic models.
Much recent academic analysis has been content just to criticise the negative effects of neoliberal globalisation on the countries and peoples of the South. This often feeds a negative outlook – such as ‘Afro-pessimism’ – which would have us believe that the South is doomed to remain the poor and passive victim of an unequal world society. The Human Economy project is inspired by a belief that these conditions are not inevitable and that we can best impress this conviction on public consciousness by revealing a world beyond the blinkered vision of free market or command economies, where the economic activities of ordinary people are given their due.
What is the Human Economy Programme?
The human economy programme is a new departure in several senses. First, by establishing a Southern African node of the burgeoning network of scholars and activists represented by the series of publications so far, it seeks to broaden the geographical range of South-South and North-South dialogue to give greater weight to African and Asian voices. Second, its focus is on original research guided by the overall theme of challenging inequality in the name of greater economic development and democracy. Third, located in the Faculty of Humanities, the programme recruited only social anthropologists and historians as fellows at first; but it is now extending its interdisciplinary reach to include sociology, development studies, political science, economics, geography, ecology, education, philosophy and literature.
Fellows were selected on the basis of individual prowess, but also because the co-directors considered that their topics of research posed interesting and challenging questions about the current state of the global economy, particularly as this involves countries in the South, and had direct bearing on the Human Economy theme.