On the economic narrative, and its limits

Behind any life, and any society, are numerous background narratives that give us a sense of who we are, who other people are, and what’s possible for us. They tell us how we can live, what’s of value, and how to relate to one another. And they tell us what’s important to pay attention to, and what’s marginal.

Sometimes the background narratives are visible and explicit in a family or community, such as the way in which biblical narratives give a sense of belonging and orientation to people who are part of some religious communities. But most often – even when there are visible and explicit narratives available – the narratives we actually live by are invisible, and we see them clearly only as an outsider entering a society for the first time, or when the narrative runs into trouble and starts producing unintended consequences.

For the last century or so in the West, we’ve lived in a background narrative that’s directed our attention most strongly towards what’s measurable, particularly what’s financially measurable, and has discounted almost everything else. The bottom line, financial return on investment, this quarter’s results – all have been taken for what’s ‘real’.

And at the same time, we’ve considered what’s not measurable largely ‘unreal’ – the quality of our inner lives, our relationships with others, supportive and close-knit communities, the care we give and receive, our capacity to nurture and appreciate beauty. We can’t pay much attention to these, we say, because in the ‘real world’ there are tough business decisions to make. There are profits to be made.

I’m not arguing that profit is somehow unreal, while beauty and care are real. That would be an equally narrow way of looking at the world. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer how our narrowness – our failure to appreciate and include all dimensions of human life in our businesses, institutions, and in our public discourse – is wreaking havoc in our present and seriously limiting our capacity to respond to the complexity of the future we’re creating. The shocking rise of inequality in even the richest of the worlds societies, the shaking of our financial systems, our seeming inability to respond creatively to climate change – all ought to have ourselves asking whether what we take to be unquestionably true about how to live is, really, deeply questionable.

We urgently need to expand our horizons – to start to take seriously that which we’ve marginalised in the relentless colonisation of all aspects of human life by the narrative of economics.

Photo Credit: Simon & His Camera via Compfight cc

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