Economentality: how the future entered government

Today I made the classic sort of mistake that comes when you’re doing fairly focused reading: I read a word I was used to seeing instead of what was written. Fortunately for me, it landed me in a great talk by Tim Mitchell, the author of Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil.

What was my mistake? I read the title of his talk as ECO-mentality when it was ECONO-mentality. Fortunately I at least got the subtitle right: how the future entered government. But, whereas I was expecting a talk on how time entered ecological governance, what I was treated to was how the future entered economics. I must confess, given the way that ‘ecology’ is often couched in narratives that beg some hard to stomach assumptions (like nature being the washing machine in which the language of ecology is wrung through), this talk may very well have been better.

It was interesting because it was about how the economy became an object, and how that object bent time to fit it. Mitchell didn’t make the connection I would have to Einstein, who first pointed out that neither space or time are independent of things. And so my driving question – what kinds of things? – was not what Mitchell was interested in.

Rather, his argument was that the broader project of development, christened in Truman’s famous post-WWII speech, was part of instantiating the economy as an object that was not just a set of material processes. That is, as the sort of thing that had its own relations that could be measured, correlated, put into metrics, but not directly known.

As a bit of background, the reason time became so important to the “economy” (as an object)  was that the first calculations of national economic activity took place shortly after WWII and worked retroactively to generate a growth curve from the late 19th century (1875 I think, but don’t quote me). That growth curve showed 3.75% annual growth. And that meant that when it was put on a graph with time on the x-axis and productivity on the y-axis it formed an exponential curve that went almost vertical in the very near future. So these economists were stuck with the problem first identified by Malthus: geometric growth in an arithmetic earth. The solution was to create a logarithmic scale: one that would turn growth into growth rates. In this way they brought the future into the object called the economy because future time could be credited or debited by arranging all of the things that measurements of  the economy correlated with (i.e. the metrics of GDP) into ascending or descending rates of growth. The economy, and its time, became governable. So the cyclical notion of time in Keynesian economics – where the market cycles through periods over overproduction and too much effective demand – was replaced alongside a new thing: the economy.

I am of course not doing justice to the nuance or scope of his argument, but hopefully I have not lost too much of it. Mitchell worked out these arguments in a fascinating bit of history of oil development where the predominant problem of the 20th century has always been abundance and where the task has been to make it scarce (and to keep it that way). The parallel to be drawn was that the abundance of time – the exponential curve that accompanied the economic object – required discipline in a manner similar to the way that an abundance of oil required discipline; by governing these objects through techniques that made them scarce, and which would endow them with a certain kind of anthropocentric (more accurately Eurocentric) value. He had lots of other great examples that I am churning over (specifically how the Aswan High Dam in Egypt is a pivotal instance where the future value of money in the new object “economy” first intersects with World Bank Loans that tie “development” to financial speculation).

His arguments touched on and off of modernity (that period Heidegger spoke of as, “defined by the fact that man becomes the center and measure of all beings. Man is the subjectum, that which lies at the bottom of all beings, that is, in modern terms, at the bottom of all objectification and representation.”). I tend to think modernity isn’t only about time, since neither space or time are independent of things.

But quibbling to yourself is a good way to stop thinking about a superb talk. And this one gave me lots to chew on.

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  1. […] fall I mentioned an interesting talk that Tim Mitchell gave on how, post-WWII, the “economy” became an object in its own […]

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