The economics of “autophagy”: Implications of the economy as “machine”

Introduction

In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the shift from hereditary monarchy to the liberal state, there was a great opening of debate regarding the proper sources of authority. Systematic attention was paid to natural science from gentlemen tinkerers to the state-supported Royal Society and to “reason of state” (Poovey 1998a), which later became political economy. The Enlightenment is a term generally used to refer to these massive innovations in the nature of legitimate authority. The sources of wealth were shifting, from trade to production, and there were explicit new designs for systems of employment, aside from traditional forms like guilds and household production. The moral dimensions of new practices such as “usury” and “slavery” were debated, along with emerging forms such as indentured servants and wage laborers. Extending an appeal to religion and building on the new status of natural science, the natural law “origin stories” of the pre-political individual forming a “social contract” still pervade our political and economic theory, with the associated commercial overtones about the inherent nature of society. The goal of political economy has become and remains the “wealth of nations."

The separation of certain spheres from others, such as the public/private divide, and the reification of production using humans as instruments, was one type of accommodation to these moral issues.The abstract notion of“ the economy” is then driven by different principles, such as efficiency, regardless of the impact on those whose working lives are structured by this imperative (Davis 2015b).The effort is justified by the claim that “more is better,” and humans as consumers are happier as a result of these efforts to maximize production, given resource and income constraints.

This chapter will proceed by reviewing the methods of organization of modern state and industrial production and the ways in which they were rationalized. We will analyze the ways in which this organization can be characterized as “autophagy,” or feeding on itself, along with the moral, social, and political implications.

The modern liberal state

In the shift from hereditary monarchy to liberal state, certain functions were internalized, such as finance, military, and welfare (Davis 2015a; Dincecco and Onorato 2018). From tax farms to tax bureaucracies, finance became more reliable and predictable, allowing for the establishment of public credit. Mercenaries who were paid with bullion were replaced by standing armies. Instead of nobles obliged to serve their lord, or instead of citizen militias, citizens became taxpayers to support the professional military. Instead of parish Poor Laws, there were national programs to support deserving veterans, disabled workers, and widows with children. This professionalization of the state resulted in bureaucratization and impersonal relations among citizens instead of direct relations among neighbors (Calhoun 2007,70—72). The associated formalization of rules had the potential of becoming an “iron cage” (Weber 1930) or the “road to serfdom” (Hayek 1945). Affective relations were confined to the family, relatively invisible in the context of the pursuit of the “wealth of nations” (Davis 2017a). That is,“human” relations became feminized and assigned to the private sphere.

As states became more complex, there was a formalization of rules and the rule of law in order to establish and maintain regular procedures, such as taxation and the administration of justice. Rationalized legal and administrative expertise became more important to replace manorial courts and arbitrary royal decrees. With economic modernization, the definition of property was subject to flux, from land and livestock to financial assets and information like patents (Davis 2015a).Yet the term, “property,” could have the same connotation with the associated material foundation because of the extension of meaning of the same term. In this way, social institutions, like finance and patents, which are entirely human creations, can appear to have the same solidity as land, a form of reification, as discussed in Chapter 2. These institutions become “social facts” (Searle 2010) and have the same apparent immutability to the individual. Reification can be functional, appearing to be beyond the influence of the individual, while actually relying on the compliance of all individuals. In this way, “the economy,” which is a hybrid of human and material elements (Latour 1993), can appear to be an object, like a machine (Mirowski 2002), to Nietzsche and his nineteenth-century peers (Safranski 2002,122—123), for example.

 
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