In the United Kingdom, the rich are getting richer and the wages of ordinary working people, taking into account inflation, are less now than they were a decade ago.
As Peter Fleming observes at the start of his autopsy, “The Death of Homo Economicus”, the corporate elite are laughing all the way to the banks that the average taxpayer had to bail out after 2008.
“Homo Economicus” is the financial human being, a species invented by modern economists to serve the free-market universe to which most of them are in thrall.
The concept – that of human beings whose rationality is a self-interested pursuit of profit – belongs to the unspoken vocabulary of those who claim to know what works best in the world of money.
This is the same body of ‘experts’ who were so spectacularly incapable of predicting the subprime meltdown that caused the crisis of 2008 and which continues to immiserate us.
The species homo economicus is dead, argues Fleming, because it never actually existed. It is a zombie concept because ordinary people are not dedicated to the pursuit of money, wanting to become bankers or landlords and promote the privatization of what should be public.
Those who relish the commercialisation of more and more aspects of life find it helpful to think we are all wannabe entrepreneurs.
Oscar Wilde has a character in one of his plays define a cynic as someone ‘ who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’ and so we have Michael O’Leary of Ryanair stating how funeral flights produce ‘the best yield … They book late because they don’t tend to have much notice, and they tend to be price insensitive because they have to travel.’
Fleming details the consequences of what he identifies as ‘cash psychosis’ and ‘commando capitalism’. He cites the urban myth about a man who dies at his office desk but nobody notices for five days. The story contains a truth, resonating with many people’s experience of work. Poorly paid jobs extract more and more time from our lives and the apocryphal dead-man-working tale is a reminder of the way toiling nonstop for hours and days has become the new normal.
“The death of Homo Economicus” argues forcefully that most economists don’t know what they are talking about. The author compares them to the medieval mystics who knew full well that a solar eclipse was caused by natural forces yet convinced themselves it signalled an omen for the state of mankind. The economists’ models, formulae and language have little to say about the real world but their mind-set protects them from admitting it.
“Wreckage [post-2008] economics” is the reality: low wages, poverty, zero-hours contracts, cartels and government collusion in calculating everything on a cost/benefit basis. This book, blowing open the myth that continues to blight people’s lives, shows by way of real-life cases that most economists are not worth listening to.
“The death of Homo Economicus”, by Peter Fleming, is published by Pluto Press.