The idea of a ‘Human Economy’ emerged out of a global social movement started at the World Social Forum over a decade ago. This movement brought activists and intellectuals together who questioned the dominant free market and command models of twentieth-century economy. Each of these was based on abstract and impersonal models of human behaviour, remote from the concerns of people on the ground, and they left the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants – particularly in the global South – in acute poverty and without meaningful freedom. A human economy would be one that gives priority to what people really do and think, while addressing the needs of humanity as a whole.
Much work has been done recently to give substance to this idea. A network of scholars and activists has produced several books on alternative conceptions of the economy. These were aimed at a general public with an active interest in what came to be known as alter-globalization; but the highly successful French (2006) and Portuguese (2009) editions found a ready market in students at all levels of education. The latest in the series is The Human Economy: a Citizen’s Guide, edited by Hart, Laville and Cattani (Polity Press, 2010). This book is a guide to the literature on concepts used to think about practical economic alternatives rather than offering a detailed exploration of what is happening on the ground in different parts of the world. The UP research programme on ‘the human economy’ (which now combines post-doctoral fellows and PhD students) attempts to push this international project further – towards coordinated empirical research and a more inclusive geographical reach.
The human economy programme is a new departure in several senses. First, by establishing a Southern African node of the burgeoning network of scholars and activists represented by the series of publications so far, it seeks to broaden the geographical range of South-South and North-South dialogue to give greater weight to African and Asian voices. Second, its focus is on original research guided by the overall theme of challenging inequality in the name of greater economic development and democracy. Third, located in the Faculty of Humanities, the programme recruited only social anthropologists and historians as fellows at first; but it is now extending its interdisciplinary reach to include sociology, development studies, political science, economics, geography, ecology, education, philosophy and literature.
In the first year, fellows from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Brazil, Jamaica and the United States launched a conversation about the human economy with other academics and members of the general public, while writing up their existing research and developing new projects in the Southern African region. Three of these fellows stayed on for a second year, while three were employed as university lecturers, two of them at UP. In 2012 six new fellows and eight doctoral students were recruited. The first group came from North America and Europe (including France, Germany, Netherlands and Spain, all of them with established research interests in Southern Africa), while the second was entirely African (coming from South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Nigeria). Each PhD candidate will be based in a specialist department while their research is coordinated with the rest of the human economy programme. We have also made a link with EMES, the European research network on solidarity economy and social enterprise to facilitate exchanges in both directions. This will all make for an interesting North-South dialogue, with the emphasis on the global South and Southern Africa in particular.
We take very seriously the premise that the search for a more human economy must begin by analysing what people actually do – how they do or do not insert themselves into an economy that is organised by impersonal models which all too often fail to notice, or give any weight to, people’s everyday attempts to secure their own sustenance and improvement. We argue that detailed social investigation of relevant topics would help to situate people’s behaviour within a fuller and more complex framework of understanding, thereby questioning many of the assumptions made in economic models.
Much recent academic analysis has been content just to criticise the negative effects of neoliberal globalisation on the countries and peoples of the South. This often feeds a negative outlook – such as ‘Afro-pessimism’ – which would have us believe that the South is doomed to remain the poor and passive victim of an unequal world society. The Human Economy project is inspired by a belief that these conditions are not inevitable and that we can best impress this conviction on public consciousness by revealing a world beyond the blinkered vision of free market or command economies, where the economic activities of ordinary people are given their due.
Fellows were selected on the basis of individual prowess, but also because the co-directors considered that their topics of research posed interesting and challenging questions about the current state of the global economy, particularly as this involves countries in the South, and had direct bearing on the Human Economy theme.
A new series of publications, called The Human Economy and edited by Keith Hart and John Sharp, will soon be launched with Berghahn Books of Oxford and New York. The first volume of essays, People, Money and Power in the Economic Crisis: Perspectives from the Global South, is currently in preparation. It consists of essays by members of the first year cohort of the Human Economy Group and will come out in early 2013. Its particular strength lies in providing ethnographic and historical material to complement the theoretical arguments developed so far. The editors will invite submissions of texts from outside our group, but we also expect to produce such a collection every year.
Watch this space for more information about the research projects currently underway.