There is No Such Thing as The Economy

It can make the main opposing political philosophies of the day feel better to talk about liberals and conservatives, free market ideologues and nanny states, etc. But at the end of the day you wonder if the name calling really gets to the root difference between these different camps.

Margaret Thatcher is often attributed with at least popularising the view that 'there is no such thing as society'. The basic assumption was that society is always just a collection of individuals, and anything bigger than an individual is in some way artificial and therefore restrictive of individual freedom. So the standard fare of a viral proliferation of shock jocks and commentators sympathetic to this point of view, of rampant and inherently inefficient bureaucracy, of the 'nanny state' intervening in all aspects of life, of family (i.e. individual) values, as opposed to public values, and so on.

Interestingly while for such folk society literally doesn't exist, the 'economy' most certainly does. And the economy is a juggernaut, monolithic engine whose scope and reach surpasses even the despised society that the same people rejected. Especially when the economy becomes a 'market', which then transcends national boundaries as well. Of course the market and the economy (the market economy) can be defended by saying that it represents only the summary action of millions and even billions of free individuals, but then the same could always have been said for society and government as well. So whether you believe in societies or markets comes down more to personal taste and prejudice than it does to any real examination of what actually goes on.

After several decades of beating each other about the heads with the same tired old ideas, today most often the conservative side of politics is seen as the defender of the market, and therefore of individual initiative and freedom, while the 'liberals' (more an American term, in the way it has now come to be used) are painted as defenders of public, collective interests and values. Naturally the opposing camps strongly deny that they ignore either individual or collective interests, stressing the importance of a variety of corrective trickle-up and trickle-down mechanisms.

The engine that drives these ideas, and they seem very tired ideas today, the more vehement they become (to the point of Maoist-type 'culture wars'), may have been completely missed. To me it all comes down to how we understand individuals and groups, and more generally how we understand the relationship between big things and small things. There's a very basic and wrong assumption beneath all of these ideas, an assumption about scale. It's taken for granted that you have an unproblematic thing called an 'individual', which is completely real and represents the space of each of our everyday lives, and then you have a variety of larger-scale actors like groups, organisations, governments and economies, who sit above individuals in some undefined super-space.

What's wrong here is the understanding of the relationship between parts and wholes, between people and the organisations and institutions they form. But also between parts and wholes in general. Parts and wholes are seen as different aspects of the same thing. So that wholes are made up from parts, and parts are, well, parts of some whole. So institutions are just collections of individuals, cobbled together like a lego project, with people as the lego blocks.

However some notice that wholes seem to have properties that aren't reducible to their supposed parts. So 'the whole is greater than the sum of the parts' - the whole has an individual essence that can't be explained by these parts. A sort of mystical supplement gets added on. But mystical supplements are nearly always a sign that something obvious is being missed. In this case, what if the whole were itself another 'part'? What if you abandon the idea that there's a micro level and a macro level, that wholes 'sum up' parts?

Practically, all this would mean, to use an example, is that a group or organisation of some kind does include all of the people who are members, but only in some ways. The whole has no enveloping, controlling or other meta-level function, it's just another part, but a part made up of other parts who lend it some of their characteristics. So, to use the old words, each part is only partially included within any whole, the function of which is to allow those same parts to act in new ways. The whole has no control over the parts, because it IS the parts, created by them to carry out some specific function. We all know this; no matter what group we are part of, that group in no way defines us in our totality as in individual - we lend it only part of who we are, for our own purposes.

So wholes are always provisional, very practical entities that function at the same level as individuals. Society and existence itself have no 'levels' - everything is specifics, everything is practical and everyday. The 'government' doesn't reside in some place, it is everywhere that some individual has loaned some aspect of their self to its action. Parliament is as local or as 'micro' as me taking a walk - it's a specific, localised place where a group of people carry out specific, localised tasks - those tasks I and millions of others have decided it would be best to set up a group to do for us.

And none of those tasks would move an inch from parliament, no 'power' would be exercised, if everywhere along the chain or network a whole range of individuals didn't do their specific and local bit, and pass it on to the next person. Everything is always local, always micro (these terms mean nothing really), but effects can be very widespread because of these chains or networks of locals combining to produce widespread effects. The chain or network links everybody to everybody else - there is no sudden jump from one scale to another. The same applies for the economy, it is nothing more than a network of specific tasks (exchanges and various ways of measuring these exchanges), which are all local and everyday, but which when combined in a network give an appearance of scale.

So governing for the individual or for society are both false tasks. Stripping people of their institutions because they supposedly restrict their individual liberty actually strips them of all of the various groups they have set up to make it easier for them to act, as individuals. Making the individual person subservient to some organisation or group is to put the cart before the horse - groups and organisations have no motive force, they are merely the aggregate effect of these thin networks of partially committed people. Scale is made, it is not a pre-existing envelope within which everything sits.

A whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, it is always at the same time a simplification of these parts, and an extension of their scale of action. So it's just another part, made up of multiple actors, which allow these actors to act in new ways. It doesn't encompass the parts in any sort of enveloping or controlling way, because the parts set it up to serve them, and it has not one ounce of momentum without them. We can all as individuals be members of a variety of organisations, none of which is designed to be some deity that sits above us with independent existence. They further our own ends in some ways, in conjunction with other individuals with whom we combine, for this purpose. And these various groups can all coexist, pursuing their specific functions - there is no overarching totalitarian firmament in which it all sits.

Because these distinctions are false, they turn out badly. The extreme individualism of the free-marketeers ends up profiting an elite few, while leaving the majority of individuals worse off (particularly when you add in the individuals from the rest of the world who make it possible for the more developed economies to keep running). The philosophies of the collective end up suppressing the majority, again in favour of the minority. And we all tend to go along with it because we like the fairytales of big, good or evil macro-actors, or noble individuals.


  1. Hi Nick, we meet again, on your turf this time, not so far from the LM fields of combat. i can't say I found complete coherence in this, quite possibly because of my own insufficient attention, but one thought it reminded me of is one I've held for some time and I think it's likely you might be able to situate me historically as to where it fits in, links up, with current sociological thinking. The thought is this: that things socially have taken on a qualitative difference with the sheer quantity of modern mass society. That is, instead of, in the 19th cent industrial society dealing with millions (thousands of thousands), we're now dealing with billions (in the US sense 'thousands of millions'). At the very least it makes all policy thinking pretty irrelevant, on a global scale at least for any given thousand people, which size grouping actually had some meaningful impact in a society of millions. Now even a million people is barely important, in a framework of policy thinking. This it seems to me has profound implications for the sense of identity of any given individual, comparable in the Western Civ sense to what happened in the Renaissance, the much remarked upon birth of the current notion of individual, which may now be completely superceded, I think partly at least by this sheer numerical consideration. It's a return to the ant status of the prehistorical age, in a personal perspective.

    Well, my first comment on the first thing I've read here threatens to become my own blog effort. Thanks for the forum Nick, good luck with this.

    Ben Kreilkamp MN/US

  2. Hi Ben, great that you stopped by!

    Re the massification of society, into millions and billions, I think you're right that the Renaissance individual is now pretty much dead. Those were the days when it almost made sense to talk about somebody as being able to master all of human knowledge, which of course today would be a ridiculous thing to attempt. But in a way that was always a vanity anyway, so it was a change that needed to happen.

    But at the same time I don't think people need be intimidated by the big numbers. More people are linked together in some way than ever before, but the links are still all 'local' - we all still just live where we live, doing things at the usual 'human scale' (I think LM uses that phrase?). It's more a sort of optical effect, that we are billions, an effect of TV and the internet. More networks, in other words, which plug us into more and more things, but none of which remove us from the everyday here and now, if you really look. But a network is not some big, overarching thing, it's millions of little things strung together in small, human-level ways.

  3. Nick,
    As John Donne said, no man is an island. And yes, everthing begins with the local, with the parish, with the parochial. In this lies art, creativity and personal responsibility. The micro and the macro, the whole and the parts are inseperable.

  4. Hi Peter

    I wouldn't say the micro and macro are so much inseparable as they are non-existent. As a distinction anyway. You can create longer networks of things that give an appearance of being 'big' (macro), but everything is still always local - it's just all linked together in a network.


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