Social Affairs

The peril of ‘Economism’


How many of us know that this rather poor continent, Africa, is ironically one of the biggest markets for the world-class whisky liquor company since long?

Taye Negussie (PhD)

One of the renowned economists of our time, Jeffrey D. Sachs, in his recent article entitled The Lost Generation written to the Project Syndicate website had as an opening statement: “A country’s economic success depends on the education, skills and health of its population.”

More recently, another contributor to the same website, David Fine, in an article entitled Inside Africa’s Consumer Revolution, applauds Africa’s “accelerated growth” since 2000 which has made it to be the “world’s second-fastest-growing region.” He argues: “with rapid economic growth, have come more prosperous consumers –and vice versa”.

As can be inferred from the above quotes, Sachs seems to have regarded humans as a means or instrument for a country’s economic ambition than is the case otherwise; while in David Fine’s case, the most potent testimony for Africa’s recent spectacular advance is the alleged emergence of “more prosperous consumers”. Alas, only God knows who these prosperous consumers are that Fine is alluding to – whether it refers to further increment of consumption by those predatory elites who prey upon the ever impoverishing African poor or a miraculous new consumption phenomenon by imagined “prosperous” mass citizens of Africa. How many of us know that this rather poor continent is ironically one of the biggest markets for the world-class whisky liquor company since long?

Materialism: the triumph of ‘economism’

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The quotes unmistakably exemplify the fact that in today’s world the prime measure of progress is that of material acquisition and consumption either at individual or national level–materialism. It is this materialistic ideology which I consider here as ‘economism’.

Despite the portrayal of materialism as a supreme human value, however, the philosophical question of what gives life meaning has never been conclusively answered. Thus, it is quite possible that different people ascribing different meanings to varied dimensions of their life.

Classical as well as contemporary philosophers underscore that the most common principal candidates for the purpose of life are, among others, eking out a means of subsistence, living according to certain moral prescriptions, working hard, finding happiness, contributing for others, indulging in accumulation and conspicuous consumption, leading aesthetic, creative and other higher forms of life.

In light of this fact, one may raise quite a legitimate question: why out of these numerous possibilities only materialism was singled out as a prime measure of success? I would say this may largely be due to, first and foremost, the very nature of the working mechanism of the current predominant capitalist economic system which is rooted in the persistent activities of production and consumption. Secondly, this characteristically materialistic ideology has been carried over across communities and societies along with the rapid expansion and globalization of the Anglo-Saxon variety of capitalism.

It is quite clear that the functioning and effectiveness of a capitalistic economic system solely rests in the legitimacy of the dogma of materialism. Historically, the task of preaching materialism far and wide had befallen, more than any other social scientific disciplines, on the discipline of mainstream economics.

Accordingly, conventional economics since its inception worked earnestly and relentlessly to lay down the intellectual and technical framework of capitalism. For this reason, I am tempted to call mainstream economics “the religion of capitalism.”

Apparently in acknowledgement of its successful mission accomplishment, the discipline in turn has been reciprocated with commensurate material and moral trophies – think of its treatment as one of the most valued academic discipline; its candidacy among the few intellectual disciplines qualifying for the world’s most privileged Nobel Prize; its enjoyment of wider popularity among the larger public, and many more.

Nevertheless, this is by no means to deny the immensely valuable contributions made by innumerable academic and professional economists for the betterment of humanity. Deeply discontented with largely abstract and ideological conventional economic theories, some critical economists plainly expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo – as exemplified in the self-proclaimed stance of, ‘I dissent by the Nobel Laureate economist Joseph E, Stiglitz. Even some ventured to institute competing disciplinary fields with alternative views and methodologies which ushered in the establishment of, for example, ‘institutional economics’ and ‘behavioral economics’ or tended to favor the views of such relatively new disciplines as neuroconomics, economic psychology or economic sociology.

While, in the public arena, a number of critical economists have resigned from their highly paying international civil servant positions (such as the World Bank) only to engage themselves in enlightening humanity by exposing beyond the scene workings of the hegemonic capitalist economic institutions.

Human and environmental costs

The ascendance of overly materialistic mode of life over the other equally invaluable aspects of life is bound to put humanity in clash with himself and Mother Nature – ultimately leading to a rather catastrophic social, cultural, political and environmental consequences.

In the social and cultural realm, the catastrophes take on the form of increasingly impoverished life emptied of ethical and spiritual contents; inhumane exploitation and inequality; discontentment and insecurity in life; ‘reification of commodities’; ‘tyranny of technology’; ‘commodification of man’ or what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm calls the ‘personality market’ – attaching more value to personality instead of skills and other essential human qualities.

In the political sphere, it transpires in the monopoly of power by economic elites; the rise of totalitarianism – justifying their economic agenda by undermining issues of democratic and human rights; and proliferation of resource-related local, national and international conflicts.While in the environmental sphere, the apparent consequence manifests itself in, among others, environmental degradation, pollution, depletion of non-renewable resources, and manipulation of indispensable  natural laws in pursuit of profitas practiced by the so-called ‘genetic sciences’.

All being said, however, the upshot of the above arguments – rather than a nostalgic pronouncement of a traditional and austere mode of existence – is to draw our attention back to the age-old wisdom of a balanced, integrated and holistic human existence that places equal value on both the non-material as well as material aspects of life.

Taye Negussie (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at

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