The Economization of Life

The Economization of Life

by Michelle Murphy

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What is a life worth? In the wake of eugenics, new quantitative racist practices that valued life for the sake of economic futures flourished. In The Economization of Life, Michelle Murphy provocatively describes the twentieth-century rise of infrastructures of calculation and experiment aimed at governing population for the sake of national economy, pinpointing the spread of a potent biopolitical logic: some must not be born so that others might live more prosperously. Resituating the history of postcolonial neoliberal technique in expert circuits between the United States and Bangladesh, Murphy traces the methods and imaginaries through which family planning calculated lives not worth living, lives not worth saving, and lives not worth being born. The resulting archive of thick data transmuted into financialized “Invest in a Girl” campaigns that reframed survival as a question of human capital. The book challenges readers to reject the economy as our collective container and to refuse population as a term of reproductive justice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822373216
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/18/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 15 MB
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About the Author

Michelle Murphy is Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto and the author of Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Entanglements of Feminism, Heath, and Technoscience and Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers, both also published by Duke University Press.

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The Economization of Life

By Michelle Murphy

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6345-3



Worries over U.S. Economy Damped.

Mixed Feelings on Economy.

A Chilled Economy Feels a "Breath of Spring."

Why Does a "Healthy" Economy Feel So Bad?

A Jittery Economy Stirs Second Thoughts about Ostentation.

U.S. newspaper headlines have announced the collective sense of the national economy as a felt presence since the 1950s. The affective force of the economy manifests as hope, optimism, jitters, confidence, panic, faith, or trepidation. It is diagnosed as healthy and ailing, sluggish or irrationally exuberant. Swimming within economic tides, contemporary financiers and job seekers alike have found themselves hanging on the slightest rumor of an inside sign that might augur the economy's direction. Measures like unemployment rates, consumer confidence, and inflation all portend the economy, giving a sense of pulse and feeling for a constellation of economic activity surrounding life that one cannot hope to see in its totality. The economy becomes palpable in cryptic statements by finance ministers, a bloom of construction, or a colorful newspaper graph that can induce expectations or worries about the economy's rhythms and directions.

Given the ubiquitous force of feeling about the economy, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that "the economy," as the name for the fulsome totality of national economic activity, is an invention of the twentieth century. It was only in 1934 that the first quantitative measure of national macroeconomic output was calculated, heralding an era of econometrics that strove to explicate the dynamics and patterns that economic activities generated at the scale of the nation. Given form by quantitative models and measures, "the economy" as a noun is more than an epistemic figure. The economy became a palpable atmosphere that structured daily life, such that Americans did not need to know anything about economics, its calculations or models, in order to feel the macroeconomy as an invisible yet pressing context. By 1992, "It's the economy, stupid" was a populist slogan of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, suggesting a democratized sense of the existence of the macroeconomy. Anyone might intuitively feel the atmosphere of the economy as a determining yet diffuse presence.

John Maynard Keynes, the Cambridge economist and Bloomsbury darling, helped to bring the macroeconomy into the world in his 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, a text that catapulted him into celebrity. While European states had long tabulated the wealth of nations, the macroeconomy was not a mere counting up of wealth. Through the work of Keynes and other similarly minded macroeconomists, the national economy was explicated as a new aggregate kind, a collective blur of activity that nonetheless could be modeled as a set of predictable correlations, tendencies, forces, and rates representable in equations and graphs. When interest rates go up, investment goes down, employment drops, output falls. With equations and diagrams, mathematical modeling in the 1930s performatively discerned "the economy" as a constellation of such interrelationships within a closed system whose boundary was the nation-state. In turn, new projects were born to gather data about the economy, which then were congealed into measures (such as employment rates, inflation, aggregate output, consumer confidence, and so on) that would give symbolization to the well-being of the economy as a whole. This constellation of relations, once legible, could then be targeted by acts of governance: decrease inflation, stimulate confidence, cut taxes. State fiscal policies would seek to alter the relationships that econometrics had brought into visibility.

Moreover, the "Keynesian revolution" in economics consisted not only in the invention of the terminology, units of analysis, and framework of macroeconomics but also in the stance that markets would not naturally correct themselves, and hence the macroeconomy not only could, but should, be governed so that capitalism might maximize employment and wealth while minimizing crashes and suffering. Within the container of "the economy," fiscal policies were aimed to control inflation, bring down unemployment, or stimulate investment, and hence were designed to trigger a cascade of interrelated effects inside the economy. Keynes's work was a direct reaction to the catastrophes of death and poverty that were World War I and the Great Depression in Britain. Macroeconomics was in this sense an attempt to develop a rationale for planning for the next war, World War II. But it was also incubated during Keynes's time as a colonial bureaucrat and applied economist in London's India Office. The epistemological crafting of the macroeconomy as an atmosphere of relations that could be modeled, indexed, and governed was part of an effort to plan against poverty and prepare for war, and it was also a transference of the administrative hubris of colonial governance, which assumed a world open to interference and extraction. The macroeconomy was thus conjured, from the start, as an object to be acted on.

Through a Keynesian stance, state projects to build physical infrastructure — roads, bridges, irrigation — became a kind of fiscal policy, in which the state spent money in order to raise employment at the same time that it improved the economy's physical milieu. In so doing, Keynesian approaches argued against the automatic balancing of national budgets and instead advocated for active countercyclical fiscal policies that spent into deficit to "stimulate" the economy when it slowed. In these ways, the macroeconomy rendered capitalism as a kind of national atmosphere that needed explicating (through economics) and taking care of (through planning). Capitalism was not just made up of profit-maximizing practices within businesses and markets; through social science practices of quantification and modeling, capitalism was substantiated as a firmament of correlations, rates, and forces that surrounded life and were understood to structure conditions on the ground. Life was lived in the atmosphere of the economy.

The cloud of relationships forming the economy, moreover, was modeled as dynamic and oriented through complex looping timescapes. For Keynes, the macroeconomy was collectively shaped by the many actions that people regularly took based on their varied sense of the future, what Keynes called their "state of expectation" and "time preference." From workers to financiers to state planners, Keynes posited that everyone was acting through psychological states of expectation. While most actions were decided by a sense of short-term future, Keynes held that the results of such actions nonetheless persisted into the long term, and hence governing the macroeconomy required an attention, through the aid of modeling, to such long periods. The economy was an aggregate kind that needed to be planned for the sake of the future, not just in one's own life but in generations to come. Moreover, there was no natural balance of market forces that operated according to rational precepts, as neoclassical economists believed. Instead, for Keynes, the macroeconomy was probabilistic and shaped by the dizzying multitude of psychologically motivated anticipatory stances that people, businesses, and states took toward the uncertain future, stances of guessing the future that looped to then reshape that future. The temporal orientations of the macroeconomy exceeded the rhythmic ups and downs of trade cycles. The macroeconomy was an anticipatory cloud that required models to make the future palpable in the present for planners and investors alike.

For Keynes, these insights fit well with eugenics, and he considered questions of population to be within the analytic scope of macroeconomic thinking. He was a treasurer of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society, and in his 1946 Galton Lecture declared eugenics to be "the most important, significant and, I would add genuine branch of sociology that exists." Keynes was against pro-natalist policies and in support of birth control, arguing that increases in prosperity were correlated to decreases in population growth, such as the decreases that he had witnessed in twentieth-century Britain. Taking the long view of macroeconomy and population, Keynes held that colonial immunization projects in India were misguided, as he believed that reductions in population caused by death from plague in Punjab were correlated with increased wages and prosperity in the generation that followed. Through aggregate and long-view scales, death from plague for Keynes became a "beneficent visitation." Lives left unsaved might lead to future economic prosperity.

Importantly, the bringing into being of the macroeconomy went beyond the abstract achievement of Keynesian models. It was also the accomplishment of enormous state-sponsored efforts to gather data. In the United States and United Kingdom, respectively one rising and one soon-to-be-fading empire, the macroeconomy was brought into quantitative relief by new architectures of national accounting developed to combat the Depression. Exactly how many were unemployed? How much was produced? State administrators demanded quantitative answers. Under the guidance of Nobel Prize–winning economist Simon Kuznets, the U.S. Bureau of Commerce produced its first national income account in 1934, culling data from already available tax records. Soon, with war on the horizon, the demand for economic data to aid military planning intensified. What were the number of available laborers, the capacity of manufacturers to make munitions and tanks, and the minimum level of agricultural production required? It took enormous effort to produce the data behind the measures that gave shape to the macroeconomy. War machines, and not just jobs, hung in the balance.

The first calculation of annual gross national product (GNP) for the United States was produced in March 1942 in a Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce report called "War Expenditures and National Production." Explicitly aimed at "the problems of war production and war finance" and admittedly used as an "analytical tool, rather than as precise measurement," the GNP was an index of all goods and services produced by the government, citizens, and private enterprises, whether they were in residence or abroad, and hence was a measure amenable to the wealth of an empire. In 1991 the United States was one of the last countries to switch from GNP to GDP, which measures all the goods and services produced within a domestic economy, irrespective of who owns the units of production, a measure amenable to an age of global capital in which the factories and companies that make up production are so often owned at a distance. Of all the measures breathing form into the macroeconomy, GDP has become the most potent.

A country's GDP is revered as the best single index of "all of the economy" and celebrated as among the "great inventions of the twentieth century." Economics students are taught that "GDP and related data are like beacons that help policymakers steer the economy toward the key economic objectives." As an instrument, GDP takes the economy's "pulse," and thereby gauges its health and growth. By 1958, the pulse of the U.S. economy was taken quarterly, giving a sense of an immediate reading of health that could then inform the "states of expectation" of bureaucrats, politicians, investors, entrepreneurs, workers, and just about anyone who follows the news. Today the pulse is taken in real time.

How is GDP calculated? An economist might offer an equation and explain that GDP can be calculated in several ways. One can add up all the income, or add up everything produced. These two sums are presumed to be the same, as the macroeconomy is imagined as a circulating but closed system in which all that is earned is in equilibrium with all that is spent and also all that is produced. Most textbook explanations stop there, accepting the sleight of hand that replaces "all the economy" with these particular sums. But where do these numbers come from? The source data used to calculate GDP are pulled together from other purposes: drawn from sample surveys by the Census Bureau, translated from statistics on crop yield and farming collected by the Department of Agriculture, gleaned from employment and price data surveys produced by the Bureau of Labor, or culled from income records from the Treasury. The hairdresser receives a survey, fills it out, includes some payments (with receipts) and not others (paid by cash or barter), and then passes it forward; it is added with other similarly siphoned surveys that together form a sample from which to estimate the production of all hairdressers. Data are pulled from this host of sample surveys and then used to create estimates that are combined to extrapolate the fulsomeness of GDP.

Thus, the tabulation of GDP requires a large infrastructure of data collection and sampling to be in place, a state apparatus with many tentacles drawing data into its maw. The macroeconomy needs a steady stream of thick data to inform it. Each kind of data has a "vintage." That is, there is a lag between the moment the data measures and its arrival into the national accounts. Moreover, the more processed the data, the more reliable and older they get. Fresher data are more uncertain. This makes GDP an estimate always under revision, with tweaked calculations regularly updating GDP in retrospect.

So while quarterly GDP is treated as a snapshot picture of the economy as a whole, it is simultaneously accepted by economists as a fuzzy number, always an estimate made from other estimates generated out of the imperfect data of a moving phenomenon. Economists know, then, that GDP can never fully count the economy. Everyone is in agreement that GDP only performatively and provisionally measures the pulse. Though GDP is dense with data, as a single number it must necessarily misrepresent. Yet all the labor and infrastructure, as well as all the guesses and gaps, behind producing GDP are rarely publicly discussed. Despite all the excitations it evokes, GDP is understood to be a single revelation of the greater sublime that it merely touches. The micromovements of GDP are watched with feeling precisely because it takes the pulse of a greater omnipresence. It is the beloved sign of the well-being of our economic habitat to which everything from state practices to the actions of hairdressers to the food we eat are attached. What won't be done, what is not open to rearrangement, for the sake of taking care of GDP?

In other words, we came to live in a world that shimmers with economic forces brought into relief through practices of quantification that do more than just aggregate, measure, and model with number. The macroeconomy is miraculated for us through measures like GDP that operate as phantasmagrams, quantitative practices that are enriched with affect, propagate imaginaries, lure feeling, and hence have supernatural effects in surplus of their rational precepts. The term phantasmagram draws attention to the felt and astral consequences of social science quantitative practices, such as algorithms, equations, measures, forecasts, models, simulations, and cascading correlations. I use the term to name the affective stimulus of an index like GDP beyond its calculative efficiencies. Phantasmagrams like GDP posit a fulsome beyond of immaterial forces that they explicate. At the same time, GDP is invested with aspirations and worries tied to the promises of planned intervention and the threat of future outcomes. While many economists factor in desire, pleasure, happiness, and psychological states of individuals in their explications, I am trying to point to an extrasubjective affective dimension to quantification. Phantasmagrams conjure ineffable realms that can take shape as a collective phantasy in excess of the representational and logical limits of quantification practices themselves.

The GDP has come to inhabit just such a collective imaginary, helping people feel the excited or sluggish condition of the economy. Beyond accounting, it is party to a mass enchantment aided by infrastructures of data-making and analysis, a jointly felt economic haze in surfeit of what any individual dreams or desires alone. As an artifact of a technical and epistemic infrastructure, GDP contributes to a nonindividual and nonconscious phantasy that substantiates the world. It points to the numinous quality of numbers. The economy, in all its enormity and detail, filled with time loops and accommodating every transaction, exceeds thought, and escapes counting (except perhaps in an alternate science fiction technocratic universe that is able to see every monetary exchange, every gesture of a labor, every item added to the forces of production), and yet it is nonetheless palpably present. The economy, uncountable and yet felt, infiltrates the sense of the world. Almost as soon as the United States calculates its GDP, so too does India. The sublime of the economy is glimpsed while scanning help-wanted ads, in the flash of advertising that decorates urban walls, in the scavenging for a day's wage, in the posters festooning economic development initiatives, the lightness of a purse when rent is due, or when the debt collectors come for their payment. The economy pulsates in the everyday; it is worried over and cared about, beyond the number crunching and models performed by experts. The GDP no longer merely explicates the economy into measurable epistemological existence. Such measures conjure a greater dissipated canopy of forces whose conspicuous existence exceeds capacities to calculate. Economy is capitalism's secular divine and GDP its oracle. It demands faith even if on earth its worldly manifestations come in the form of blight and hype. What won't we do for GDP?


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Bottles and Curves  1
Arc 1. Phantasmagrams of Population and Economy
1. Economy as Atmosphere  17
2. Demographic Transitions  35
3. Averted Birth  47
4. Dreaming Technoscience  55
Arc II. Reproducing Infrastructures
5. Infrastructures of Counting and Affect  59
6. Continuous Incitement  73
7. Experimental Exuberance  78
8. Dying, Not Dying, Not Being Born  95
9. Experimental Otherwise  105
Arc III. Investable Life
10. Invest in a Girl  113
11. Exhausting Data  125
12. Unaligned Feeling  133
Coda. Distributed Reproduction  135
Notes  147
Bibliography  179
Index  211

What People are Saying About This

The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror - Joseph Masco

"The Economization of Life is nothing less than a breakthrough text: it reframes the question of economy after World War II while historicizing and theorizing the emergence of neoliberalism as a global force. Readers will come to understand human capital in a new way and will consider an alternative system of value and a different geopolitics. Demonstrating a clarity of vision and synthesis of economic theory, history, and area studies, Michelle Murphy's book is an astonishing accomplishment."

When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico - Cori Hayden

“This luminescent analysis does nothing less than reorganize the conceptual furniture of the twentieth century. From Raymond Pearl’s fruit fly experiments, to the postcolonial history of big data, to the girl as human capital, Michelle Murphy brilliantly illuminates how ‘population’ and ‘the economy’ have become sutured together epistemologically, experimentally, and affectively. GDP was never so lively, nor so fraught. The Economization of Life is one of the most arresting books, short or long, I have read in a long time.”

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