Monday, October 15, 2012

A Moral Economy

In Beck’s “On the Logic of Wealth Distribution” I was interested in the discussion of location and origin. By pointing to the importance of origin, Beck gets to the heart of our discussion in class about the local versus the global. In critiquing our tendency to measure an average, he shows the way this measurement privileges those with the most power. What he also shows, I think, is the way this measurement, in simplifying and “coding” human experiences, actually clouds over the realities of those who are least economically stable. He writes, “transferred to the distribution of foodstuffs on the global scale this statement would mean: ‘on average’ all the people in the world have enough to eat. The cynicism here is obvious. In one part of the Earth people are dying of hunger, while in the other the consequences of overeating have become a major item of expense…..It is astonishing how as a matter of course one inquires about the ‘average.’” (25) In this passage, Beck calls for a different kind of measurement. In so doing, he challenges our tendency to cover over experiences by seeking to measure “the norm” or the most commonly held position. I think he points too to the value of understanding origin: in an increasingly global world, we must think carefully about the danger of the measurement tools we use. How can we compare experiences across nation and origin without rendering some experiences invisible?

In my course this semester on the history of capitalism 1500-present, we discussed the extent to which a market economy has been privileged over a moral economy. In other words, a market economy based on the employer/employee’s relationship to labor and products has won over an economy founded on shared values and some sense of collective morality. After doing this reading, specifically the section on “class specific risks, “ I am left with the question of how we can again value and measure a moral economy. How can we value an economy that is based on politics? How are we structuring our values and who is the “our” or the “we”? These questions are tied into Beck’s question: “how do we wish to live?” (28) Of course this question connects back to our discussions in class about a sense of collective “you” and “I” and the extent to which there is, I think, a rupture in our “we.”  How can we create a moral economy if we are blind to risk? If we are consistently looking only at cause and effect, how can we recognize the importance of action? Beck writes, “everyone is cause and effect, and thus non-cause. The cause dribble away into a general amalgram of agents and conditions, reactions and counter-reactions, which brings social certainty and popularity to the concept of system” (33). What kind of system can we conceive of that challenges the notion of cause and effect? While this reading was incredibly different from Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, her discussion of trauma as common, is useful to Beck’s article. In Beck’s article, it is clear that our inability to act is partly a result of how pervasive and common risk is.

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