Dimensions of change 2

On Monday (10th September) I have the opportunity of attending a discussion about how an economic model may be developed to express (I am having to choose words carefully) The Great Transition.  This project is central to the work of the New Economics Foundation, who are hosting the discussion, and is an inspiration and starting point for mappa mundi.

All models are also images.

I am also in the middle of thinking about the creative sessions we will run to devise our TOOLKIT so I am thinking about images and stories of change. Thinking about a number of things at the same time gives rise to confusion and whereas I don’t want to cause confusion it is not entirely unwelcome.  After all total clarity is ineffable, unspeakable, a glacial OM, not very communicative.  So what follows is a bit of a ramble.

The Great Transition is a policy document that describes the policies that can take us from the current regime, based on growth and measured by finance, to an environmentally sustainable and equitable regime.  The title is an allusion to Karl Polanyi‘s master work The Great Transformation.  His work is significant because he brought anthropology towards economics and vice versa.  This was critical.  It meant that economic relations were conceived of as being embedded in social relations and not abstracted from them.  The most telling critique of classical economics (of which neo-liberalism is a renovation) comes from an anthropological perspective.  This is what makes David Graeber‘s work (see Debt, The First 5000 Years) so relevant for our mappa mundi project.

Using an input-output model of economic activity means you can trace material flows through an economy in a way that shows the interconnection between different sectors of production.  Using a matrix mathematical format that interrelates quantities in a complex way you can see that change in one sector will have a consequential change in a sequence of other sector.  One sector’s output is another sector’s input.  Increasing the number of houses built will increase the amount of cement produced.  Because cement production emits carbon you can read how this increase in housebuilding increases carbon outputs.  Also new domestic appliances may be related to new house building therefore more steel is required, also there may be consequences for the water infrastructure.  Simple and not very good examples but the point is that instead of modelling the economy as a circular movement between households and firms with government as a kind of all-pervading ghost, input-output modelling gives a granular picture of the economy as a complex network of interrelated activities. Working with this modelling is like being able to pull a thread in a complex woven fabric and seeing the multiple consequences.

The problem with circular models, no matter how many feedback loops are introduced they create the illusion of ‘closedness’.  Although, of course, natural resources can be included, it is more difficult to gauge the consequences of pollution or other unforeseen consequences.  Input-output modelling depends of course, as does every modelling exercise, on high quality data.  However, this ‘input/output’ image (all models are images) of economic activity as being the transformation of the material world both through input (natural resources) and through output (waste or unforeseen consequences) is more in accord with the vision of ecological economics where the economy is studied not as a separate closed circular system but as an open system dependent on, and a part of, the larger Earth system.

Input-output modelling yields results that have given rise to understanding how changes in demand for specific goods have multiple consequences.  The specific good whose demand fluctuates is like a single thread in a complexly woven fabric.  The way that input-output modelling can quantify the carbon emission consequences of the production/consumption of a given product is that it can trace the complex material flows that have gone into its production.  This is tremendously interesting because the view of human activity is akin to the anthropological.

If you took an artefact from a preceding civilisation and looked at it as a way of discovering the production processes and socio-economic life from which it is derived you would be looking with careful scrutiny at a remnant of a fabric from which the story of the whole fabric could be told.  The object is evidence.  The object is saturated in the signs of the social conjuncture from which it comes.  Say, it was a pot.  The clay would have been dug from a particular river bed with a particular tool that was made by a particular craftsperson using metals from a particular mine the equipment for which came from a particular region and so on.  You might be able to see that certain enamels used in the glazing would have to have been imported into the region where the pot was found. The wood used on the wheel was different from the wood used in the oven etc. The object is a complex coagulation of materials and production processes.

In a developed economy that has complex trading relationships and production processes, the objects that are a part of our lives are extremely complex combinations.  They get to us through labyrinthine supply chains, production processes and transport routes.  Different components are shipped around the world and assembled in distant places, packaged in another place, and so on.  All those production processes could be said to be embedded in the product.  Like a microcosmic sign of a highly complex system of production, we carry around aluminium mined in Africa with rare earth mined in China with rubber from Malaysia etc. Input-output modelling enables economists to identify the carbon emissions component embedded in goods due, for example, to their production in China. By the way this raises issues about where the responsibility lies for those carbon emissions.

One of the strategies for climate change mitigation is behaviour change.  Behaviour change could change consumption patterns away from products that have large carbon emissions consequences.  It is easy to see that the modelling we have been talking about is capable of measuring the impact of these changes.  However this is a minimisation of the implications for social knowledge that these techniques hold for us.

Just as objects (products, commodities) are microcosmic signs of social and economic spaces so too do the smallest social groups of a society contain the whole composition of the larger social space of which they are a part.  This also goes for small, even intimate events, within a whole social structure.

I want to make it clear that when I say ‘structure’ here I mean ‘combination of processes’.  If you can talk about the structure of an ocean wave then you can talk about a social structure.  A social structure is in motion. Analysis can demand that we stop the motion in order to view its operation.  This may be a necessary illusion.  When movements are almost imperceptible it seems easier to use structure as a perceptual metaphor.  For example, the structure of a mountain may be easier to encompass in thought than that of a wave but who would deny that mountains are in motion?

All of this leads us to a clearer understanding of the relationship between change at an individual level and change at a social level, but how?  This help us understand how the individual specific stories that are brought out in the creative sessions are related to a more general story that can be used as the basis for a collectively produced mappa mundi – a three minute drama video, but how?

In Augusto Boal’s The rainbow of Desire he writes (at the beginning of the first section entitled The Three Hypotheses of ‘the cop in the head’):

“The smallest cells of social organisation (the couple, the family, the neighbourhood, the school, the office, the factory, etc.) and equally the smallest incidents of our social life (an accident at the corner of the street, the checking of identity papers in the metro, a visit to the doctor, etc) contain all the moral and political values of society, all its structures of domination and power, all its mechanisms of oppression.

The great general themes are inscibed in the small personal themes and incidents. When we talk about a strictly individual case, we are also talking about the generality of similar cases and we are talking about the society in which this particular case can occur.”

I am deeply grateful to Augusto Boal for this insight.  It arises directly from the use of theatre as an optic, an instrument with which to view human life, a gnoseological tool.

An economic model is also a gnoseological tool (a tool that gives rise to knowledge, that produces learning).  Theatre is a way of modelling the world.

Seeing the world in terms of domination and power arises from the kind of exchanges that theatre can present.  This ‘structuring’ of the world is what Boal takes from his great progenitor, Paulo Freire (though, of course, Freire was not a theatre practitioner but a teacher of literacy).  For mappa mundi I am emphasising the transformational character of this view.  Change in our world is towards greater oppression or towards liberation.  This can be transposed into other ideas about change being towards or away from sustainability or towards or away from activism.  Particularly the latter because, for both Boal and Freire, the structure of domination are those that are internalised by the oppressed and in this process they are rendered passive.

Social structures are not held together only from the outside but also (and perhaps mainly) from the inside.  So change, if we are talking about regime change, will happen from the inside as well as from outside.  Maybe this talk of inside/outside is not completely useful.  It relates to the relationship between the individual and the collective, the cell and the organism, the microcosm and the macrocosm.

For this reason it has always intrigued me why economics, despite its august and insistent claims to the scientific objectivity of a natural science, is split as a discipline between microeconomics and macroeconomics and why it is that these two parts of the discipline don’t really fit together.

In the first economics lesson I attended I remember the teacher told us that there were certain principles on which economics was based.  One principle was that economics was a study of the allocation of scarce resources.  The second principle was that demand was infinite.  I immediately put my foot in it by blurting out that this was completely absurd.  One of these principles relates to macroeconomics and the other relates to microeconomics.  When you put them together they fall apart.

Alchemy is considered to be magical rather than scientific thinking.  Most of Isaac Newton‘s work was in this discipline.  Carl Gustav Jung devoted a considerable amount of his time to its study.  It is from alchemy that the expressions, microcosmic and macrocosmic, come. In the art/science of alchemy the correspondence between these components is expressed by the famous aphorism: ‘As above, so below’.  Also it is in this discipline that the synchronous, magical correspondence between what is called the ‘outer work’ and the ‘inner work’ is articulated.  It is in Alchemy that this convergence of processes where darkness and light and the transformation of base metal into gold stand in a metaphorical relationship to ignorance and knowledge.

What are the similarities between the modelling work that is going on in alchemy and that which is going on in economics?  What kind of knowledge is produced?  For whom?

Is Augusto Boal’s insight that in ‘the smallest incident of our social life’ is inscribed the structures of domination and power of the society in which the incident takes place? What is this inscription? We are reminded of a conundrum that we often face as people who want to understand social change: the individual won’t change until the regime changes (outer macrocosmic), the regime won’t change until the individual changes (inner, microcosmic)!  The regime must be inside the individual.  This is what Augusto Boal calls ‘the cop in the head’. I have blogged before about the conceit of policy-makers to which this conundrum relates.

The inscription of the general relationships of domination, oppression and power of a social entity into a smaller ‘cell’ unit can be read (becomes legible) when a smaller (‘cell unit’) incident is re-presented in the theatre space. The staging of the incident is a kind of decoding. The enactment requires that the event, as it is re-presented, is transformed into what is actable.  This entails various forms of compression (of space and time), distillations, omissions, (even distortions!).  This is the imaginative, or image-making, process.  A part of this process is a discovery of the general in the particular. It is what Boal refers to as an outcome of ‘pluralisation’.

He talks about this process being effected through the articulation of a number of possible perceptual relationships to the enactment (the putting of the image of the story into the ‘here and now’ of the theatre space).  He enumerates three of these possible relationships: identification, recognition and resonance.  In so far as a story or image of a story can be perceived as such – in other words so long as it is not perceived as nonsense and can’t be ‘read’ at all – it may be grasped by the spectating participants in these three ways.  Anybody who wishes to take this further can read what Boal has to say about this (The Rainbow of Desire p. 68, Routledge London 1995).  By activating a variety of responses to these image/stories – in the case of mappa mundi they would be stories of change – it is possible to construct one image/story which will be composed of the underlying general story of change.  It would not be quite true to say that this would be the typical story or the summary.  By creating what Boal calls ‘the image of the images’ a process would occur whereby what is general in the stories is drawn to the foreground.

This brings us closer to understanding this crucial movement in the process we are envisaging in the creative sessions we are planning. These sessions will give us a way of testing out what guidance can be given in the mappa mundi TOOLKIT to groups who want to make a devised drama video about change.

What this means is that the individual stories will be seen in the light of the bigger picture.  Throughout the mappa mundi work this relationship between the part (micro) and the whole (macro) is enacted and activated.  By putting a video up on the mappa mundi interactive online space, and thus changing it, participants will be setting their story in the framework of a larger story.

I have drawn a very fanciful parallel between the modelling of economic activity by input -output models and the kind of imagining that can happen in a theatre.  I should be careful to point out that this is a theatre of a particular sort, the sort envisaged in Boal’s work and also in Brecht‘s work – particularly in the The Messingkauf Dialogues (Methuen London 1965) where he explores the uses to which theatre may be put and comes up with a neologism, ‘theäter’ comparable to Boal’s ‘spectactor’.  I am going to push this parallel a little further.

A theatre like the one described by Aristotle in his Poetics has a particular image of the human as its basis. The hero is a victim of fate.  I make no apology for this gross simplification. In classical economics the individual is subject to infinite demand.  In this model the preference of the individual must always be for more of everything.  After all if he or she doesn’t want it they can always give it away.  This is a definition of rationality.  In classical economics the human is a victim of demand.

According to Augusto Boal in his theatre the participants are ‘spectactors’.  The interaction of production and consumption is recognised.  The image of the human is active, determined yet determining.  The image (or model!) of the human implicit in ecological economics is both an ‘inputter’ and an ‘outputter’.  The economy is conceived as an earth system.  It is itself an environmental factor.  The environment is not a condition of it, as in classical economics.

Leave a Reply