Who doesn’t love a meme? And when a couple of these come along that just happen to sum up your doctoral thesis, it’s both impressive, depressing, and a funny feeling of having come full circle.
Elon Musk, king of many things but also of the art form that is The Meme, was widely panned for his early laid-back response to the pandemic, preferring to worry over the economy instead. And then there was this:
Admittedly, this is open to interpretation, and Musk hasn’t clarified how many layers of sarcasm are at play here but judging by more recent tweets, he seems to mean this literally. The image, of an astronaut on the moon watching the destruction of the planet earth while worrying about the fate of the economy is perhaps a fitting metaphor for some of the narrative around the Covid19 pandemic. Some have suggested that Musk was actually referencing the real role of the economy in human health, and the mutual dependence of the two rather than the “lives versus economy” binary that has defined the pandemic discourse. Alternatively, the image could beg the question of whether we are sacrificing the planet to satisfy the gods of economy. More on this later. In the meantime, the internet responded magnificently:
Humorous, yes. But there are two points to note here that relate to the relationship between economy, society, and the planet.
Memes are metaphors
Firstly, these make great visual metaphors for our preoccupation with the economy at a time when lives are being lost to a virus. James Geary cites metaphors as essential for framing a subject, which in turn defines how we think about something. His book “I is an other” notes that:
“We think metaphorically. Metaphorical thinking is the way we make sense of the world, and every individual metaphor is a specific instance of this imaginative process at work. Metaphors are therefore not confined to spoken or written language.” (Kindle Loc. 219-221)
Perhaps the originator of work into metaphor and its effects on framing and cognition, George Lakoff highlights the importance of metaphor and its role in how we perceive, conceive and understand something that then gets wired into our neural circuitry. See “Don’t Think of an Elephant“, as well as Lakoff & Johnson’s “Metaphors we live by“.
A metaphor is a way of likening one thing to something else. In this case, the pandemic is represented by the destruction of the world, with the distant astronaut concerned over the fate of the economy. Is the implication really that the pandemic is a looming apocalypse? This would probably strike most people as extreme, but the similarities include the fact that we have not faced a global pandemic in living memory, that our way of life or “normal” probably has met the same fate as the meme-planet, and that the fate of the earth and the climate crisis has been unceremoniously bumped down the order of global priorities.
Much of the discussion about our responses to the pandemic seems to have polarised debate into a “lives versus the economy” binary. Of course, the world is not as simple as this. In previous posts I’ve emphasised the need to bring economics back into the social science and reorient it around people, highlighting the fact that without humans interacting, there is no economy. This fact seems to have been largely ignored in the discourse – if people are sick, the economy suffers. If the economy suffers, people will too. They are two sides of the same coin – another metaphor for trying to explain that the economy (itself a metaphor for a collection of human behaviour) benefits when we are fit, healthy, and productive, and vice versa. Pitting the one against the other is, admittedly humorous but erroneous and ultimately unhelpful.
Metaphors frame our thinking
Secondly, how (you ask) does Elon’s meme sum up my PhD thesis? Interpreted literally, it’s wide of the mark. But seen ironically, the meme captures a Polanyian interpretation of the economy-society duality.
We use metaphor to think, and our ways of thinking about the law and the economy are as steeped in metaphor as any area of life; in fact, possibly more so. We attribute human qualities to the economy (it’s “gathering strength”, it’s “taken a tumble”, etc), and neoclassical approaches have tended to prioritise the free market as a self-regulating mechanism that can regulate human behaviour accordingly.
This encapsulates Karl Polanyi’s assertions about the relationship between the economy and society. In more recent debates after the 2008 financial crisis, the question tended to be “is the economy embedded in society, or is society embedded in the economy” (both of these are readings of Polanyi’s thesis, and yes, they are contradictory). The point is, when we use “the economy” as a metaphor to start talking about collections of human behaviour, we can begin to personify these, and start talking about the economy as if it were a living, breathing thing. While we might think that “economy” should function for the benefit of society, there are those who argue that society now functions for the benefit of the economy. Some commentators have argued that the metaphorical aspirations of the economy have taken over the narrative, to the extent that society works to serve economic goals. We strive to increase GDP, growth, productivity, and so on.
And so, Elon’s meme neatly sums up the subordination of society, and the earth, to economic goals. At the same time, it hopefully asks us to reconsider the relationship between the economy and society, economy and the planet, and how we can move forwards in a mutually beneficial manner.