Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Problem Is: Men.

Ok, not exactly. But sort of. :-)

The problem I want to discuss here is actually quite complex; ancient; and widely misunderstood. Which means what follows below may seem rambling, and irrelevant from time to time. Hang in there- it all comes together eventually.

There was a really good discussion about the "informal economy" over on Sharon's. Some of it got sidetracked into a little discussion on feminism, and some into problems with nomenclature. I got well tangled up in both of those, and even stirred the pot a bit. So here we are, with a little expansion and pot stirring on my own recognizance.

Sharon's post title was "Reinventing the informal economy", and has loads of thoughts that are well worth pondering. There's little she says there that I would quibble with. Part of the subsequent discussion though got off into definitions and names- and there I have something to add, I think.

Names are important. Really really important. We've all seen what a total disaster "Global Warming" and "Swine Flu" have been. They allow endless attacks and diversions from the parties whose interests are threatened - or excursions into nonsense. The people responsible for those names are, ultimately responsible for a great many human deaths. Sorry- but that's true. People are dying right now (300,000/year, according to one estimate) - because obstruction was facilitated by the bad name. And farmers, and all middlemen, have lost millions because of the idiot repetition of "swine flu" for a human disease.

Could it have been done better? Of course. "Climate Change" is much less open to attack; and "New Flu" would serve headlines perfectly. The Climate Change alternative has been around since the outset- but it was too late, the "journalists" (ha) had already fixated on Global Warming! which sounds sexier. And the CDC tried to implement "Novel influenza A (H1N1)", but again, too late, and in this case that was an idiot alternative, doomed to failure as any marketing wonk could have told them (that, I'll guarantee, is a name chosen by a committee of scientists- with no public relations personnel present.)

Names are important. In the present case, I started off by gratuitously mentioning in the discussion at Sharon's that I'm launching a movement (YOU are invited!) to eradicate the word "consumer". It reduces, actually, to "Hi! I'm an alimentary tract! Holes at both ends! Eat and sh*t, that's my life! And I love it!"

It's a pretty stunning insult, but one we've just accepted without evaluation or protest. At this point, though, I'll be damned if anyone will call me a consumer. Call me "citizen", if necessary to point out my most basic role in the community.

Where does the word come from? From the fantasy world of "economics", which everyone should understand by now is a world of wish fulfilment, rationalization, dream, and nightmare; with no actual basis in any reality. Except we have somehow allowed these self deluded charlatans to become "professors", and establish "departments" in universities. So way back there, they started talking about "producers" and "consumers". And we just accepted it- they must know, right? They're professors!


Which is where "the problem is: men" comes in.

What follows is my own analysis, built up over years of pondering history, human behavior, and anthropology. I think it has a lot to recommend it; though inevitably, some will not like it.

Can we agree that much of the history of Christianity has strayed quite far from anything the founder(s) of the religion intended?

The evidence, I think, is pretty good that original Christian communities were quite egalitarian- and women were included on an equal- power- basis. But that changed.

The most common situation among primal peoples (that word choice, vs "primitive" was explained to me by my friend Jack Gladstone; Blackfeet troubadour and storyteller, and double philosophy and anthropology major...) is that men and women have nearly equal power in the community- but- men's power, and women's power are different, based on different "magic".

I think that in primal situations, equal power of men and women is the situation that will most often win out, in competitions between cultures. Generally- equal partners will compete harder, and contribute more, than any arrangement where one sex is subjugated.

But in settled "civilized" circumstances- other factors may come into play which make that aspect of the culture less compelling. With the rise of the cities- women started to be subjugated more and more- and military power rose in importance.

The trend is older than Christianity; but most visible there, I think. Judaism also shifted in antiquity from a matriarchal system to patriarchal (thank you, oh lord, that you did not make me a woman...! feel free to correct me, Sharon!). And Islam also; while women still have great power in the household; they are allowed no role in larger community concerns. And yes, I'm talking just about Western cultures here- because that's the one most of the readers here live in.

As Christianity moved into the Middle Ages, women's power was stripped from them by the Church- and "women's magic" became a matter of warfare- "wise women"- witches - were systematically eradicated, in very ugly fashion.

About the same time, two new endeavors arose- "universities"- and "history". These arenas, I contend, were launched entirely as men's enterprises- no women allowed. And they dealt solely with men's "magic"; or power, concerns. "History", for most of its course, has been just a list of men's power achievements; wars and governments. "Universities" became machines to train men for power- and to develop new paths to power; that is why kings built and funded them.

Medicine; typically a women's magic in the West, was stolen by men, and installed in the universities. "Doctor", in fact, is not a term originally applied to physicians; but to professors. When barbers sought higher credibility, they stole the term for the respect it conveyed. The theft has been so complete and successful that PhD's now can be heard apologizing that they aren't a "real" doctor, but only a PhD; not even knowing the history of the term themselves.


What does this have to do with the "informal economy" question?

When "economics" was launched, universities were still entirely men's enterprises- and it was so unquestioned as to be unnoticed (by men...)

Consequently; when men first started to think about analyzing how resources move in a culture, and what is important, and what is not- they thought, of course, entirely in terms of men's concerns.

Of course their own parts were the most important- and the bits that had to do with what are traditionally women's enterprises were - not important.

Hence- they named the monetary economy "formal"; and the household economy- "informal" - which means, in case you can't tell- unimportant; negligible; not worth thinking about. And for lack of any alternative analysis- we still call it so today.


Back to anthropology for a moment.

I am one of those who always looks to the primal peoples; the hunter-gatherers; for clues to our present behavior. Homo lived as hunter-gatherers for the great majority of our existence; all species of Homo lived that way- until sapiens. That would mean some 2 million years as hunter-gatherers, and perhaps 15,000 as pastoralists and agriculturalists; even less time as city dwellers. Our genes are full of adaptations for the hunter-gatherer life.

While huge variations in cultural specifics exist among hunter gatherers, there are a few things that stand as reliable generalities.

Men hunt- women gather.
Women bear children. Men don't.
Women run the household, tend the fire- anchored by small children.
Women contribute most of the calories, in small game, vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains.
Men contribute most of the protein, much of the fat, in huge chunks when a kill is made.
Men contribute protection for the family- to the point of cheerfully dying when necessary - to protect - the household.

Now think about that. The household- is worth dying for.

Most of this is generated by the fact that men are never pregnant, nor nursing- thus much more capable of unencumbered hunts or fights. The division quickly becomes a positive-feedback loop, and turns into sexual selection yielding males that are a good deal larger than females, with thicker skins and bigger muscles.

There is one other thing men contribute, but it's less well known outside the inner circles of anthropology; so, another little diversion here.


Men, it turns out, are often jealous of women's power. Women alone create life- and what a huge power that is.

My Anthro 101 prof gleefully told us of a tribe in Africa; where the jealousy was so strong that the men made up a power of their own, to be able to compete better with the women.

When the men reach puberty; part of the coming of age ceremony included inserting a wooden plug in the anus. And the initiate never poops again, in his entire life. Cool, huh! Huge magic!

And it is, of course, a huge lie; you can't not poop. The reality is; the boys learn to go out in the bushes and do it secretly, and they pretend they don't. The women- of course - know all about this. But they pity the men, so they don't publicly expose the lie. They do laugh about it in the Women's House, though. A lot. And many of the men, while they of course know it's all a lie; do believe that they actually have the women fooled. Self-serving delusion- a phenomenon currently on display on Wall Street.


Partly as a result of this ancient inferiority complex, and partly as a matter of biology, the other thing men contribute to their household is- status.

It's been demonstrated in many different species, from domestic chickens on up to humans, that high-status individuals have stronger offspring, and the status passes to them.

For humans, men have for millennia spent great amounts of energy to acquire status. In my own mind, I reduce that goal to - "ostrich feathers". The more ostrich feathers you have; the higher your status- the more successful your offspring.

Ostrich feathers today can easily be read as "money", and "power". Among other things, of course. A Nobel Prize is a really big feather. Etc. Women of course seek status too, and nowadays can seek it in what used to be men's arenas; but I think women have status mechanisms that are solely their own, as well. Female status has also been shown by research to contribute to offspring success.


Back to formal/informal economy. What I hope to have shown by the long discourse above is that this terminology was set up by men- for men's purposes- and to increase the number of ostrich feathers available to men in this arena. The terminology has no other reason for existing- and is not the result of dispassionate investigations into reality.

Over on Sharon's original post, two respondents had excellent suggestions for alternative names; MJ suggested "essential economy", and Leslie suggested "natural". Both of those are true, and correct. However, from my long training in marketing- I can foresee difficulties down the line for both. Briefly- "essential" suggests too strongly (intended or not) that other aspects of the economy are not- and will make enemies. "Natural" - sounds too "green" (intended or not); and you'll lose a good deal of audience there. Let me repeat- they're both absolutely accurate.

Finally!!! My suggestion:

The "informal" economy IS; and should be renamed: "the Primary Economy".

Primary does not necessarily imply more significance- just that it was first. Which is totally undeniable, I think. I also think it unavoidably sounds important; unlike "informal".

That would make the "formal economy" the "Secondary Economy". Built upon the first.

Another brief aside- what is the purpose of the Secondary Economy? Why do people leave the home, to go to work outside? Manifestly- to bring resources back to the household- and put them into the Primary Economy. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the entire Secondary Economy was created specifically to serve the Primary Economy. I think the nomenclature is appropriate; could be acceptable to many, and far better designates the relationships.

As a humorous addition- the Wall Street wonks refer to the Secondary Economy as "the real economy." You know, the one where people make stuff, and do things. As opposed to what they do on Wall Street, the "financial sector of the economy".

I will propose, in facetious/serious tones, that the "financial sector" of the economy be renamed the "Sandbox Economy". They just push piles of stuff around, from one place to another. Make nothing; do nothing, achieve nothing of tangible value. And squabble. Over ostrich feathers.

One other point in favor of Primary Economy. As many of you already know- the words "economy", "economics", and "ecology" all stem from the same Greek root: oikos.

Which means "home"; or "household"; or "family". I maintain- the household economy, and all its "informal" connections; is the Primary Economy. And should be so designated.


If you like this suggestion- please do start to use the terms, and refer people to this post for an explanation of why. It might go viral, who knows- and it would only be a matter of justice. At this point, as you can probably tell, I find the term "informal" to be actively offensive. And outrageously misleading.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I've posted a link to it on my own journal. I think Primary and Secondary work just fine.

Heather G

Anonymous said...

This is probably one of the best pieces I have read in the past five years. I'm sharing it. Thanks!

Bullwinkle said...

That was priceless! (Irony not unnoticed.)

Thank you. I'll link to it and change my terms.

MoeyMichele said...

Oooh, well done. :-)

Susan B said...

Like the 'Primary Economy' moniker very much. Makes it sound less like a target for law enforcement, and more like the vital sector it is. Maybe newly fledged gardeners don't know it yet, but the growing of stuff is only the beginning. Processing, preserving, cooking the produce is more work than the gardening(!), as well as being a marvelous focus of culture (pun intended) creation. Hand-made clothes, furniture, 'artisan' cheeses, breads, 'grass-fed' meats --are expensive luxuries now in the era of corporate provenance, in which labor is so expensive it is to be avoided at all costs! There's no unemployment here in the Primary Economy. Workers needed!

Brian M. said...

As usual, I agree and disagree, and have too much to say to be really helpful, but I'm going to try anyway. I'll nitpick in the next post, but I have a big picture disagreement here. Saying that the problem is men, isn't quite right. I think it misunderstands the nature of patriarchy.

Patriarchy is not exactly rule by males, it is rule by SOME males, by ELITE males. The term "Patriarchy" comes Roman use of the term - pater familias, and the calling of Senators "patres." The pater familias, rules all in the family, the women, and the subordinate males, and of course the children and slaves. The senators are the "forefathers" of the whole country. Now in a primal society, the society size is usually pretty small, and not all that dense. Males routinely have rankings and statuses and pecking orders, and competing for status is part of society. But you have very few men that are directly hierarchically over other men, a few chiefs, elders, or war chiefs perhaps. The rest of men do not particularly think of themselves as subordinates, but more as junior competitors, and the overmen, don't think of themselves as a class, because there are rarely more than a few of them at any point. But if you add a little bit more density of dwelling, a little more military hierarchy, or anything that looks like civilization (that is city-based culture) and class emerges naturally out of (primarily) male vs male competition for status. You had it in ancient China. You had it in Babylon. The Indo-Europeans had a real social class structure even before they had cities, and often the non-Indo-European folk they were interacting with didn't yet. You can watch the transition from Judges to Kings, and the transformations in class and maleness pretty clearly in Jewish stories of their transition from pastoralist nomads to settled folk, in their holy texts.

And once you get enough rulers to think of themselves as a class, you have the ingredients for patriarchy. You see rulers knew anciently, as they do today, that it is easier to use women as pawns for some tasks, and men as pawns for others. If you want reliable labor, ask any factory boss in Manila or Mexico, and they will tell you they prefer to hire women when possible, although of course some men are dependable grindstoners too. But if you want someone ambitious to do things (perhaps difficult, dangerous, or questionable) for you in hope of advancement, well men are far better there, although of course some women are ambitious climbers too. And ugly as this is, hierarchal societies consistently beat primal societies militarily. They have so many spare ambitious young men, that they can throw them at a problem to succeed or die. Also by concentrating surpluses in the hands of the elites, they can accomplish things that societies which spread their surpluses out more equitably cannot.

Contemporary ideology of economics is not designed to serve the interests of men. It doesn't. It misserves the interests of 95+% of men. It is designed to serve the interests of elite men, and to an extent, the ruling class (which does include women). The more emphasis one can put on the secondary economy, the easier it is to suck surpluses off of the primary economy of the ruled and subordinate, and funnel then to the primary economies of the rulers and superiors. And both genders are manipulated to this goal. Women are encouraged to spend as much of their surplus as possible on vital things that need to be done anyway to keep things going (which the elite would otherwise need to pay for out of their own pockets, to keep the system running, if the women didn't do it out of their sense of duty). Men are encouraged to spend as much of their surplus as possible on symbolic acts to gain status, that can then be effectively transferred to the primary economies of the rulers. Of course, America had such fabulous surpluses there for a while, that even women had to be transformed into status conscious symbolic consumers, instead of just helping to enable male symbol consumption.

Brian M. said...

Ok nits to pick. "Formal" medicine was a firmly male domain in the West, even in ancient Greece, male and female styles of medical practice and expertise were conflicting in Greece, and in the middle ages, even before the rise of universities, and long before the witch burnings of the 1600s. Oh, and the Church funded and built the universities far more than kings did.

Also I'm not convinced that the early economists all thought in purely male interest terms. Look at the physiocrats, for instance. What happened though is that it became clear that economics was linked to politics, and politics was already a very male realm. Smith calls what he does not "economics" but "political economy." And he describes it as the political equivalent at the national level of the ruler, of what a household does at the household level. He doesn't make a distinction between the primary and secondary sector, and certainly doesn't use the term "informal economy". Wikipedia claims that the term "Informal Economy" only dates back to 1973 in the work of Keith Hart. I think it is possible that this particular manipulation, of trying to stigmatize the primary economy is MUCH more recent than a lot of other economic tricks. (Although governments have been using policies to try to bring things from the primary to the secondary economy for far longer than that.)

Oh and why do people work outside the home? You say "Manifestly to bring resources back to the household - and put them into the Primary economy." Well, I know people like that. But I know people who work outside the home, to escape the home, or because they feel it is there duty (chartiy work?), or because they've been trained too, or because they can't cope with the changes in self-understanding that go with retirement or unemployment, or because the governement is encouraging them to, etc. Why work outside the home, is a lot more complex than just to serve the primary economy, even if that was an original reason for it.

But as I say those are all nits. I certainly agree with the gist that "informal economy" is a term of combat, with gendered resonances that need to be faced, and that male status-seeking is largely a response to the natural status conveyed to women via childbirth. Primary economy vs secondary economy is even a nice way to draw the relevant distinction.

Irma said...

Lots to think about in this post, thank you for taking the time to put some very complex thoughts down so that others can consider them.

I did want to comment on the word "consumer", though, because in my family it is a word that is used frequently, a word we taught our son from the time he was old enough to grasp language.

To us, someone making a purchase isn't a consumer, they are a shopper or a buyer or what have you. A consumer, on the other hand, is someone who carves their initials on a tree, or spray paints the rocks on the side on the road. A consumer takes something that should be beautiful, or should belong to all of us, and ruins it.

And when you think about it, it actually fits the definition you gave.

Evan said...

Great post. I entirely agree with your central argument, though do agree with the nits that are picked.

On patriarchy: the best formulation I have heard is that, 'it's not about male privelege but masculine privelege'. That is, not all male behaviour is equally valued - men who act in an 'effiminate' way (even though they are male) may suffer for this behaviour. I think this puts it very well.

I'm one who is going to start talking about the primary and secondary economy. Many thanks.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Uh, is this going to be on the test? Sorry, I was just channeling my own students with only 2 more weeks until finals :)

Have to say, as I read I thought of the science education of American women. Science was thought of as women's work, in the 1700-1800's, to make women more interesting and therefore better wives. Men studied the classics. (Of course this is an extreme oversimplification.) Anyway, women were actively pushed out of the sciences in the early 1900's to the 1950's, and we still haven't come back to comparable numbers of women and men in the sciences. In fact, I've often been told that I'm in the "soft" sciences because my degrees are in biology, environmental science and teaching. I always reply "oh sorry, while you're trying to 'figure out' the world, I'm just trying to save it!"

That usually shuts them up :)

As for the economies, I like your name suggestions. My husband and I live within the primary economy often, both trading our work and skills for things we need or would like. I often work on my family's farm and trade for groceries.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Oh, and the digestive system has always been my favorite system. It's just so beautiful in a "tube within a tube" kind of way. So including it here made me smile.

knutty knitter said...

I've always objected to being merely informal and therefore worthless. Nice to be recognized for the work done even if there is no recognition from the so called formal economy. As if the work stops when you are 'unemployed'!

From now on this will be the primary economy. And I am definitely spreading the word.

viv in nz

Doyu Shonin said...

Primary -- yah, that's what a lot of folks have been working our way back to; not that it's not the basis of just about any household, but calling the primary "informal" is the great clue to the mindset that has simply turned the world upside down and created the disaster we see unfolding. Thank you; yes, we'll use that in our household henceforth. With pride.

Round Belly said...

As an ambitious mother of 5, I have often struggles to help people understand the primary value of what I am doing in the home (all day, every day).... I have read a lot of discussions on the lack of accounting for the the caring in the economy and so forth- and therefore love have the nomenclature of the primary and secondary economies. I think it will help us, as a culture to recognize the value of the work us mothers are doing.

Greenpa said...

Hi guys- there's a bunch of great comments here that deserve full responses- and I'm just not able to right this moment. I really hope to get there, but it won't be for a few days, anyway.

Brian M-I'm honored by your extensive responses, and again, hope to answer in detail. The extent of your response means I was able to pique your intelligence- and that does mean something to me.

off to my urgencies.

RC said...

I'm glad you left and got back to your urgencies. Would they be in the primary or secondary economies? Is blogging primary or secondary? I have 4 different landlords. Is that primary or secondary? I'm single, no family at all nearby. I have to perform all the roles. I have to hunt, gather and cook. Have you given some thought to these various particulars? That is, when urgencies are not occurring.
I'd like to completely get out of the secondary one day very soon.
I've said that for 40 years. I am having my doubts.

Lisa Carroll-Lee said...

There's another term, common in the 16th c, that I love, that refers to the home or family economy --oeconomia. It implies stewardship and care.

Thanks for a great discussion!

PS -- former academic here, whose dissertation research tended to wander! :)

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Anonymous said...

Hi greenpa, what a great blog post with much to think about.

I'm raising a teenage daughter who is currently studying to become a natural builder of cob, straw bale, rammed earth and other forms of organic housing. She's also recently discovered young men and is beginning to explain to them why she wants to do such things.

I look forward to watching her navigate on her own terms.

-ramblin' mother

gaias daughter said...

Greenpa, great post! Despite Shakespeare's claim that a 'rose by any other name would smell as sweet,' the words we use most definitely shape our thinking and consequently our responses. By switching from 'formal' and 'informal' to 'primary' and 'secondary,' we establish a new hierarchy of importance for the two economies.

I am reminded of the community garden in the film "Escape from Suburbia," the one in Watts that was demolished to make room for yet another warehouse. If the city council members who approved the demolition had been thinking in terms of primary and secondary, their decision would have been much different (assuming they are not total idiots or in the pocket of business interests, which is, of course, a big assumption)!

We need to start a campaign to re-examine and rename not only 'formal' and 'informal' economies, but *all* the terms that shape our lives -- 'consumer' is one, but there must be many, many more . . .

jewishfarmer said...

I like "primary economy" although it already has a different meaning in formal economics. In _Depletion and Abundance_ I call it "the real economy" which I like even better (we always like our own coinages better, I assume) but which also annoys the crap out of economists (one of my favorite hobbies is annoying economists ;-), because they call several things "the real economy."

I tend to agree with Brian about the structure of patriarchy in general, and I think it is an important point. I could make a bunch of quibbles about the history of gender and sex here, but I won't - the post is excellent, but it really needs another 20 pages of refinement ;-), which I'm sure you'll get to real soon now. I have no doubt you have 20 pages more in your head, and that I'd agree with most of it ;-).


Anonymous said...

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Unreliable, That's What You Are...":

I like primary. Yeah, "real" has too many confusions; like "natural".

I like secondary.

And how about Parasitic, for the "financial sector"?

I think it's completely accurate. Cannot exist without the host economies- and sucks the life out of them. For the sole purpose of making the wealthy- wealthier (or the ticks fatter.)

Joel said...

John Michael Greer started using those terms about two months later, though he says the terms are rooted in Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, and he calls the sandbox economy "tertiary."

So, good news for the terms, and the concepts behind them.

CanadaHolly said...

I have long thought your "primary economy" could also be called the "hostage economy."

The hardworking nuclear family, caring for their children and coping as best they can, are free-range hostages.

They cannot oppose the structures that milk off their excess unless they are extraordinarily noble or careless of the family. Most people won't, or don't have the high levels of energy and bloody-mindedness to take it to its conclusion. Such people are routinely killed by rulers.

You'll find the people most invested in the primary economy are clamped between their duty to their work and the rules set by those above them. In this group are farmers, parents, artists and writers, teachers, nurses, and scientists. Their power and control are limited by the constraints of the real things they care for. If they value those things more than abstract power, there they stay.

By contrast, the people who end up at the top of the pyramid are more likely those who can set aside this caring, even to the extent of using violence or irrationality to keep control.

Explains a lot.

Greenpa said...

Holly - love your name. :-)

hostages - yeah, ouch. In the same fashion, our "free and independent" farmers are actually worked like slaves, kept in debt bondage and struggling to keep going.

Hope - can be the most effective kind of prison.