Saturday, January 09, 2016

Marxist-Feminist-Anti-racist-Ecological Economics

I have recently read Julie Nelson's 1995 essay in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. She thinks - and this is a well-established idea among academics - that gender and sex are not the same. One is socially constructed, and the other relates more to a physical substratum. This concept goes back as far as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. She argues that woman is defined as the negative of man:

"Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being... she is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called 'the sex,' meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex, so she is it in the absolute. She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other." -- Simone de Beauvoir
Table 1: Gender-Coded Dualisms

In this way of analyzing social customs, one might see homo economicus as gendered male. One might wonder if the traditional neoclassical analysis of the optimizing, but constrained, agent is only a partial viewpoint. Do the objective functions in typical neoclassical models miss goals that are often coded as feminine, for example, altruism? (Might your answer have varied since the publication of Nelson's essay?)

Thinking about how certain dualisms are gender-coded might lead one to thinking about other groups that are taken by hegemonic groups as Other. Socially constructed race is an obvious category in the United States in my lifetime. Looking about, I might think that intellect versus physicality is an analogous dualism for race, with intellect being assigned to whites and physicality assigned to blacks. But reading Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice long ago taught me that such assignments vary with time and space. Cleaver thought that both superior intellect and superior physical fitness were assigned to whites. I suppose you can see such tropes in old books, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan series.

Feminist economics also points to the need for economists to analyze the household. This idea of looking outside a narrow definition of economic activity for a full understanding of markets reminds me of another argument, namely Schumacher's in Small is Beautiful. Economists need to also look outside markets to natural ecologies to fully understand markets.

Suppose one is interested in how an advanced capitalist economy, such as in the United States, can sustain itself. How is reproduction, either on the same or an expanded scale, possible? This question was explored by Marx. Furthermore, to fully address this question, one must look beyond the economy of the advanced country, narrowly defined. For an economy to be reproduced, preconditions must be met in:

  • The households, in which workers are reproduced and cared for. Households are outside markets, but provide a necessary foundation on which markets rest.
  • Other economies, particularly in the third world, where many resources are extracted and production for the market is off-shored these days. That is, the activities in other countries, outside the United States, provide a foundation on which American capitalism rests.
  • Nature, which also lies outside markets and provides a necessary foundation on which markets rest.

Thus, there is a need for a Marxist-Feminist-Anti-racist-Ecological economics.

  • Simone de Beauvoir (1949, 2009). The Second Sex, Trans. by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier.
  • Eldridge Cleaver (). Soul on Ice.
  • Robin Hahnel (2016). Environmental Sustainability in a Sraffa Framework, Proceedings of the American Economic Association.
  • Julie A. Nelson (1995). Feminism and Economics, Journal of Economic Perspectives, V. 9, No. 2 (Spring): pp. 131-148
  • E. F. Schumacher (1973). Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.

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