Academic journal article The Journal of Philosophical Economics

The Economist as Shaman: Revisioning Our Role for a Sustainable, Provisioning Economy

Academic journal article The Journal of Philosophical Economics

The Economist as Shaman: Revisioning Our Role for a Sustainable, Provisioning Economy

Article excerpt

Abstract: In view of the problems heterodox economists have faced in predicting, explaining and finding solutions to the financial and ecological crises facing humanity, the paper takes a wide-angle view of the question of what the role of an economist might be in a sustainable society. I argue that the role of an economist is one of an intermediary between people and the resources they need for survival, a role that in less rationalist societies might have been performed by a priest or shaman. I propose three central responsibilities for an economist in a sustainable society: supporting a process of re-embedding the economy in the environment; negotiating a respectful- even reverential-relationship between humans and non-human species; ensuring a means of acquiring resources that minimises the entropic impact of the human community.

Keywords: green economy, sustainability, economic methodology

Introduction

From Gregory Mankiw's suggestion that non-economists may be 'muggles' to Keynes's famous reference to 'animal spirits' in connection with economic activity, and Hazel Henderson's reference to the economics 'priesthood' we may ascertain that there is something worthy of study in the powerful role held by economists in society. In this paper I take a wide perspective on what the role of an economist might be in an anthropological sense, taking a step back and considering what an economist might be for in a general sense, rather than in the sense of a capitalist society in the early 21st century.

Economics is a notoriously unreflexive discipline. Despite the best efforts of the Journal of Economic Methodology and in the midst of the interlinked economic, financial and ecological crises, there is little evidence that the mainstream economics profession has questioned its methods, focus or orientation. Unlike other disciplines, economics is not a contested terrain where different approaches wage more or less seemly academic battles. Rather it is a unified, pro-market, neoclassical majority, whose method is almost exclusively mathematical, against which dissidents launch periodic guerrilla attacks. The failure of the discipline to operate in a reflexive way is best demonstrated by the fact that the accepted wisdom holds that, far from their discipline being in need of rapid and radical revision, what the economic crisis proved was the need for more markets, and more neoclassical economics, rather than a change of focus and more variety of method and theory.

In this paper, rather than launching yet another critical attack on an impervious discipline, I move instead to imagine the role of economist for a sustainable society using the method of the thought experiment. I begin by taking seriously the reverence with which economists are treated in our society. I create an ideal type of a priest figure, the 'shaman', against whom I explore the role and behaviour of an economist. I suggest that the role of an economist is one of an intermediary between people and the resources they need for survival, a role that in less rationalist societies might have been performed by a priest or shaman. I recognise that this is an unusual method, but would argue that to achieve real change requires experimental methods, including experimental methods of thought. The aim of the paper is to explore what this conception of economists as intermediaries implies for our role in an era where overconsumption is threatening our survival as a species and where our lifestyles are threatening the existence of other species, as well as our own.

In the following section I analyse the literature provided by social anthropologists to establish the ideal type of the shaman. I then explore to what extent there already exists a myth of economics and a particularly nonmaterialist role assigned to economists. The following sections explore key aspects of the economist-as-shaman: holding responsibility for the necessary link between provisioning and the local natural environment; and mediating the relationship between humans, non-human animals and other species. …

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