The silence about violence

Susie Steed used to teach economics to undergraduates, but she can’t bear to any longer. She tells why.

I’ve been trying to describe to people why I’m no longer teaching economics to undergraduates, and why I feel so sad and angry about the subject in general. Sometimes I say it’s because economics doesn’t include any history. But that isn’t quite right. I mean, it’s true. I did an undergraduate degree in economics without learning any history, which seems odd. But that’s a vague critique. There is a more precise reason why I’m pissed off with economics.

It’s not so much that it doesn’t talk about any history. It’s because it doesn’t talk about war — or the violence and oppression that has so shaped our history and economic systems. Economics speaks in equations, neat and tidy equations that lead to neat and tidy concepts – concepts that are frozen in the present with no mention of the past.

Even if you haven’t studied economics you will be familiar with these concepts because they are bandied around with such frequency on the news; labour productivity, Gross Domestic Product, growth and so on. The concepts enable economists to create a parallel view of the world which is a lot more palatable than the real world. In this parallel world, the wealth of countries like the UK and the US is there because we are more productive than other countries. This means in Britain we tell ourselves we are rich because we work hard, we’re industrious and inventive.

You have to ignore quite a lot to maintain this worldview. You have to ignore the huge impact war has had on shaping our economies and our lives. If you walk around a city like London you see many statutes that commemorate war, the generals that commanded armies or the soldiers they commanded to their deaths. And it’s not just the wars we commemorate or know about that are important, but all the times that armies marched into other countries to seize land, people, resources. This has happened many more times than we like to admit. This violence is pushed below the surface, yet ingrained in our psyche. It’s deeply uncomfortable.

Economics helps us feel more comfortable because these histories are unimportant. In economics wealth comes from productivity, even though in many cases the countries that are wealthy are the ones that have created military technology whose sole purpose is destruction. The link between war and economic success is so obvious it seems stupid to point it out. But it’s rarely pointed out and the voices of those who do are largely absent from an undergraduate economics course. This sometimes makes me furious, or sometimes just think that I must be mad for thinking this stuff is important. How can everyone else so easily ignore it?

“People who live in harmony with nature have always been violently moved or exterminated.”

It seems that because we were never able to really deal with violence in the past and how it helped make some countries wealthy, we’re not able to deal with it now.

We ignore the fact that some of the most productive countries have used massive violence and oppression, usually of other populations but sometimes of their own people. Neat tables of economic statistics show how productive workers in China are, but news outlets show they are putting Muslims into camps. We don’t have any metrics in economics to marry these worlds together. If it doesn’t show up on the balance sheet it doesn’t matter.

It’s this silence about violence that is my major beef with economics. There are, of course, other issues. Like the fact that economics barely mentions planetary boundaries and nature is only seen as something to be used up. Because of this I sometimes tell people I’m some kind of environmental economist. Which seems a bit ridiculous to have to put in your job title that you care about the environment because you have trained in a discipline that always leaves it out. But this is tied up with the way economics leaves out violence. People who live in harmony with nature have always been violently moved or exterminated, from the indigenous inhabitants of America to the Kikuyu in Kenya, who the British put into camps until the 1960s. We’ve never listened to any of these people because their lives are seen as unproductive on the metrics we use to guide our economies.

It doesn’t mean I hate everything about economics, or all economists. A lot of economists have massively influenced me. I’m also starting from quite a different place from all those people who criticise economists for having models that assume people are selfish. I don’t really agree with these critiques for various reasons but also because in many cases economics doesn’t explain how selfish we can be. While people have the capacity to empathise, at other times we are able to block out our empathy. We can construct our worlds to close ourselves off to the plight of others, particular when their suffering might benefit us.

And this is why I can’t teach economics any more. Not only does it create a parallel world of neat explanations, by delving into equations and ignoring the real world, it serves as a tool to help us detach further.

I have spent hours, days, years trying to understand the neat equations of economics. I used to think I was stupid for not fully understanding them, but finally emerging with a Ph.D in this subject, I can say — it’s not that I don’t understand them; I don’t believe them.

I know I’m not supposed to make a statement like this as an economist. I know concepts like productivity or growth are supposed to be beyond the realm of belief. But they are not. I wish I could believe in them, but I can’t.

I wish I could believe that the richest countries and people are just the ones that worked the hardest and that if the others could just try a bit harder, they could catch up. I wish I could believe the only reason some people spend hours down a mine to get the materials for my laptop and get paid a pittance compared to me is because I’m more productive. I wish I could believe it has nothing to do with a history that we can’t admit to – one that’s led to a present we can only deal with through abstract concepts that help us feel better about our lives.

Susie Steed

Susie is an economics lecturer and commentator and comedian who has written for publications such as The Guardian, HuffPost and appeared on the TEDx Talks, LSE Podcast and Institute of Ideas. She has appeared …

Read More »