Life, Economy, and Economic Emergencies

Federico Neiburg is Professor of. Social Anthropology at Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, and is currently a member of the School of Social Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He has recently edited the volumes The Real Economy (with Jane Guyer), A Cultural History of Money in the Age of Empire (with Nigel Dodd), and Conversas Etnográficas Haitianas.

In recent years in the social sciences, an ethnographic critique of the concept of life has grown in strength, questioning its self-evident nature and the binarisms that oppose biological and biographical lives, life in the singular and lives in the plural, natural and social lives, the universes of life and death, and human and non-human lives, such as those of other species—so important to shedding light on the sociobiological dynamic of the pandemic sweeping across the planet. Equally relevant to understanding our present are the relations between life and economy that until the current crisis seemed to have been off the radar of our disciplines. In this brief essay, I propose an overview of these relations (between life and economy) on which I have been working for some time, without ever imagining that they would possess the dramatic topicality that they have now acquired, transforming into questions strategic to delineating the present and future of our collective existence.

We know that one of the characteristics of crises is the radical alteration in temporal experience. More than a simple acceleration, this amounts to a comprehension of temporality that collapses present, past, and future, threatening to render trivial or obsolete any snapshot of the events in course. There is a redoubled demand of responsibility for intellectuals and for social scientists, more than ever needing to show humility and ensure empirical foundations to their work. Far from the rushed diagnoses that have inundated the emergency, it is necessary to describe and place the crisis in perspective.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen, as never before, public figures keen to pronounce on the cost-benefit relations (or trade-offs) between life and economy. From Boris Johnson to Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Jair Bolsonaro, the governor of Texas to the Mexican president, these politicians have called for any cure for the new coronavirus not to be more painful than the disease, and condemned what they call fake humanism of those who value the life of the relatively few (the sick or the rich) in detriment to the life of the many (the unemployed or the poor). Others have responded by denouncing these officials for prioritizing the life of companies and banks rather than the lives of people. As an alternative, they have demanded a universal basic income social policy and public health systems, announcing the inevitability of a post-neoliberal or neo-Keynesian era to navigate the emergency. Senior figures from the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization have issued joint declarations appealing for reason and balance.[1] Traditional voices of finance (The Financial Times, The Economist)[2] have made the same kind of statements. Some trade-off, they say, is inevitable, even at the molecular level of disease management where health workers find themselves forced to ration scarce resources like hospital ventilators, deciding who lives and who dies. The production of new economic regulatory measures has outpaced the comprehension of the specialists themselves: rescue packages from the European Central Bank and national monetary authorities from the Bank of China to the US Federal Reserve. In a few days, legal instruments (provisional measures and constitutional amendments) were issued and revoked, planned projects merged with existing rules or those due to come into force. As we know, one of the invariable characteristics of emergencies is the mass transfer of resources. Battles have exploded over the distribution of previously unthinkable numbers: billions and trillions of yuans, dollars, euros, pesos, reais… Nothing compares to the scale of the monetary flow released, demonstrating the relative smallness of what were taken as major problems until the pandemic: from the budget deficit and public debt of some states to the funds estimated to combat climate change. The end of various eras was announced: US hegemony, the European Union, democracy, neoliberalism. And the beginning of many others: from the planetary state of digital exception to the utopias of universal communion at a “slower” and “greener” pace, a more egalitarian “new-New-Deal,” which would supposedly nourish the public health sector rather than the arms and carbon-fuel industries. Battles on the nature of the pandemic and post-pandemic economy have broken out.

The diffuse proximity of death in the form of a virus with an unknown behavior has accentuated the uncertainty shaping our individual and collective behaviors. A new pattern of best practices emerged: physical distancing, isolation, the discipline of bodies and emotions kept in quarantine, distributed in a dramatically unequal form. For the majority, for the multitude of people with no salary, a population that grew exponentially in pace with the pandemic (Gourrinchas 2020), or for the migrants living in the circuits of the diasporas, immobility would always be an inaccessible luxury, synonymous not with life but death. For many others, like the millions living in refugee camps or prisons, immobility was already a sentence that the virus compounded. In recent years we had learned new meanings for walls: barriers were built and condemned; with the pandemic, the fear that walls seek to exorcize, reshaping frontiers, acquired new meanings with the tenacious search for the positive value of “social distance.” Technical diagnoses have proliferated based on numbers that merge with ethical-moral arguments, thickening the atmosphere of emergency, or perhaps more appropriately, the “plague state” (Landu 2020). The schismogenetic dynamic of the dystopia quickens.

We can always go back still further in time. We can return, as always, to the Ancient Greeks and recall, for example, Thucydides’s account of the relation between the Peloponnesian War, the Plague of Athens, and economic turbulence. In his book Ancient Economy, the historian Moses Finley (1999) dedicates some lines to the use of the term oikonomia in this context of war and pandemic, and its ambiguity in light of our forms of conceptualizing the economy today. As we know, oikonomia refers to the administration of the house. Amid the war and plague, what was in play were not just alterations in public space or politics, but the home understood as the space of the common, beyond the house inhabited by the family: the multiscalar places of life that include cities and nations as part of our present. Historian Nicole Loraux (2006) has elaborated on these non-private meanings of the oikos in stasis, extremely important to thinking about the contemporary intrusions of public authorities in the lives of those under reclusion, at home, in quarantine.

However, the first treaties on monetary imbalances and the management of food supply chains were written in the mid-fourteenth century during the Black Death—the most famous of these works being Da Moneta by Nicolás de Oresme. Especially in the expanding urban centers of Europe during the pre-modern era, as deaths multiplied in the millions, so the number of properties without owners and heirs equally proliferated, producing price instabilities never before seen: there was a surplus of some goods due to the lack of consumers, while others became scarce as producers and distributers vanished. The relations mediated by money between persons and between persons and things were thrown into question. Likewise, the relations between currencies and the existence of the political entities that issued them: city states, kingdoms, principalities. As Oresme evokes, a turbulent world that “never remains the same,” in which measures and values change dizzyingly, demanding a “new discipline of calculations” and measurements (Kaye 1988).

This new discipline would only acquire density (and legitimacy in the universities) much later, at the end of the nineteenth century, leading to the emergence of a new science of behavior: economics. As Georg Simmel suggests in The Philosophy of Money, one of its founding principles was precisely the monetary measurement of human lives: how much should a murderer or his family pay in compensation to the victim’s relatives? What is the monetary value of human work? How can slave labor be quantified? What are the meanings surrounding bribes? The monetary value of love or honor? More precisely still, how do we calculate the cost of living? The German sociologist describes much more than a continuous process of monetization: a progressive differential valorization of human lives that emerges in dramatic and disembodied form in our current emergency. On one hand, human life in the singular, a value common to all; on the other hand, and simultaneously, lives in the plural, unequal according to social and moral metrics that distribute life expectancies in a differentiated way: regions of the planet, skin color, gender, landscapes and neighborhoods within metropolises, from favelas to the parking lots of Las Vegas hotels, phantasmagorically empty during the pandemic and dedicated to distributing the bodies of hundreds of homeless people, duly isolated from each other.[3] Lives organized at ordinal scales, like monetary scales, that trace hierarchies and injustices.[4]

Historians of statistics have reconstructed the genesis of the cost-benefit models that form the basis of the calculations used to propose ways of dealing with economic emergencies. These calculations, for their part, also underlie some of the proposals that circulate in the emergency triggered by the outbreak of COVID-19. Authors like Kip Viscusi (one of the formulators of the concept of the Value of Statistical Life, VSL) declared that his team was trying to model what societies are willing to pay to reduce the risk of mortality during the pandemic (Wallsten, Lenard and Viscusi 2020). The VSL supposedly does not aim to calculate the general value of life (in its singular form) but to show how much needs to be concretely spent to save lives in one form or other (through lockdown or by re-opening the economy, for example) and thus offer instruments for policy makers to make better decisions, maximizing the available resources, which are always, by definition, limited. It is worth noting that the VSL concept was in fact conceived a little over a decade ago (Viscusi and Aldy 2002) largely to deal with public health issues (for a critique, see Fourcade 2009). Many similar studies flourished. One of them carried out by a team of economists from New Zealand, titled Quantifying the Wellbeing Costs of Covid-19, has tried to model which percentages of GDP and saved lives were projected for different courses of action—although the main variable, the virus’s behavior, was clearly unknown to them, as to everyone else. Allocation of scarce resources in relation to lives, “economic behavior” at its very limit, in emergencies, reveals its most basic and permanent moral predicaments and dilemmas (on the troll dilemma and the pandemic, see Keane 2020).

Little has been written specifically about economic emergencies (for example, Scheuerman 2000).  They comprise specific spatial and temporal regions that acquired a singular status soon after the First World War and have the property of revealing the modulations in the relationships between life and economy in a disembodied form. The rebuilding of food supply chains and infrastructures, followed soon after by the management of the debts and hyperinflations that assailed Europe in the interwar period, led to the multiplication of emergency regimes: radical interventions in the operation of the markets so as to restore their “autonomy,” the emission of money (in the case of Germany, the so-called “emergency moneys,” Notgeld) in order, paradoxically, to maintain the purchasing power of persons and families. aiming to ensure the distribution of the essentials of life (see for example Tooze 2014): food, water, fuel; in times of war, arms; in other times, like our own, now, public wealth supplies too.

In parallel, heated debates took place before and after the Second World War between the most preeminent figures of economic science, from John Maynard Keynes to Friedrich Hayek and many others. In fact—and this would require a longer article than the present to fully unravel—the emergency became a routine form of governing the economy, turning the extraordinary endemic, a phenomenon that was observable at various temporal and geographical scales: from the state of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, which declared an economic emergency in 2015 as a form of legalizing the suspension of its payment of salaries and other contracts, to the “statistical emergency” decreed the following year by the Argentinean president (Mauricio Macri) as a way of intervening in the official agencies responsible for measuring the cost of living in order, supposedly, to improve the government’s fight against inflation. This is without mentioning the Emergency Banking Act signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 or the Economic Stabilization Act signed by George W. Bush in 2008, and countless other examples.

Since 9/11 2001 and the unleashing of the global war on terror, the term “emergency” has become associated with the state of exception (especially after Agamben 2005). The important fact here, however, is that the institution of an economic emergency does not necessarily involve a state of exception. It entangles devices that may merge, but are conceptually and practically different. These legal instruments actually form part of a blurred field. The question of the Rule of Law in times of economic emergency is always controversial since it involves legal devices that are simultaneously political, moral, and cognitive. We can identify three focal points to these entanglements.

Firstly, there is the temporal dimension, in a double sense: urgent actions in the present that will extend in time, providing blueprints for the future. Two or three months of remedies, such as exceptional wages or unemployment insurance? One bailout and another later? When is the “sin” (of public indebtedness, for instance) repaid? When liquidity no longer needs to be injected, or when liquidity is regained? At what time should a price control regime for essential goods come to an end? How long should the suspension of the right to strike in “essential services” last? Should emergency universal income or other social policies be made permanent? When is “normality” resumed and which kind of continuities and disjunctions exist between the previous and the new normality? What are the interconnections between the technical, political, and moral arguments in this decision making? Who makes the decisions? Which divisions of the three powers are involved, which institutions should think and work to mitigate the emergency, and how should they do so? How is the authority of experts legitimized and contested in times of economic emergencies, when the present and future of life it at stake?

The second point refers to the multifaceted conceptual dynamic of economic emergency landscapes, traversed by time and temporality, and where juridical and economic concepts become entangled with moral justifications. How do we conceptualize “unexpected” or “extraordinary” facts that allow or demand extraordinary measures with likely consequences in the future, including, for example, the redefinition of contracts and obligations (as personal or collective debts)? Is the current juridical framework useful or effective in mitigating the crisis, or do new laws need to be created? As remarked earlier, juridical productivity is a characteristic of emergencies. So, will these new laws be permanent or temporary? How can the systemic “inertia” that makes transitory acts or rules permanent be avoided juridically? More precisely, for example, how are “juridical security” or “economic rights” to be defined in time of emergency? Both these concepts are, of course, intrinsically linked. In the liberal tradition, legal security is a condition for planification, for a future foresight which should be shared and stable. On the other hand, economic rights involve all that derives from property, linked to notions of profit, to the agency of the individual person and of the juridical or corporate persons, but also—and reinforced by the emergency—the right to goods that guarantee life, the “essentials.” It was also in the context of the Second World War that economic rights began to be reframed in terms of a “freedom to want,” as in the famous formula used by President Roosevelt to describe one of the “Four Freedoms” he promised to protect American people from the miseries of poverty. As we know, these rights would transmute after the Second World War into the doctrine of development and would serve as a theoretical and practical framework to govern the economy at international level with a projection into an endless future, according to a certain idea of personal and collective lives.

The last point refers to the dynamics that are supposedly “intrinsically” economic and other dynamics considered “external” to the economy—a matter of boundaries, as in the concept of juridical security, which also highlights the thematic of borders between legal space and its significative others, such as the “economic” space or the “social” space. According to the economic experts, a tension can be observed: at one pole, exogenous causes of economic emergencies are identifiable, like wars or so-called natural catastrophes, or like those invoked with the new coronavirus pandemic at a previously unseen scale: the economic crisis is attributed to the behavior of a microorganism and to the political decisions taken to confront it, not to “internal” economic processes. At the opposite pole, emergencies are attributed to economic logics, to a kind of autopoiesis, as in certain interpretations of public indebtedness, or, especially, monetary imbalances and hyperinflationary processes. But if the external can be controversial, as happened with COVID-19, when some warn that the economic consequences of the pandemic derive from the economic dynamics that preceded it (such as the weakening of the public health system after decades of neoliberal policies), the same applies to those who argue that emergencies are provoked by dynamics internal to the economy itself, which could also be attributed to externalities: the lack of skill or bad faith of experts (the “sins” denounced by the European Troika after the financial crisis of 2008), political disputes, distributive battles that lead to monetary expansion, and even cultural traits like those that invoke the “physical affection of Latin people” as an impediment to social distancing. The fact is that economic emergencies emerge as a privileged terrain for understanding old and new controversies over what is seen as internal and external to the domain of the economy.

Emergencies, as has become dramatically visible with the COVID-19 pandemic, involve veritable cognitive crises, radical changes in the forms of conceptualizing reality in general and the so-called “real economy” in particular. It suffices to observe the virtual disappearance in the media’s day-to-day metrology of the country risk or inflation indices (as various countries have announced, the personnel of statistical institutes can no longer perform their work of measuring the cost of living) and the substitution by figures and graphic curves of the sick and the dead, or charts that display rates of intensive care units or ventilators per inhabitant. Sometimes too, as in the United States, terrifying figures on unemployment emerge—we were told that in eight weeks, between March and May 2020, the number of people who applied for unemployment insurance in the world’s biggest economy rose from 250,000 to more than 60 million (in a clearly exponential curve, like the curve of those infected), fueling an immeasurable social crisis. The lives in imminent risk and a temporality rendered indefinite by the dynamics of the virus and the recession affirm the perverse metonymy between economy, medicine, and war.

The emergency also has the property of making us face the contradictory imperatives of truth and urgency. The (re)valorization of science in the era of the virus (another echo of the European fourteenth century), the hope of a new rebirth in the post-pandemic world of the near future. Cognitive questions that are simultaneously moral and political, and that implicate us intrinsically as social scientists, although we are not, and nor can we be, specialists in “conjuncture analysis.” One of the lessons we can learn by placing the crisis that begun in 2020 in perspective is precisely the lengthy temporal horizon that the dizzying present obscures. A hope and a commitment to discover new objects and new concepts and our own role in a world that we still do not know, while we continue to reflect theoretically and empirically on questions that have long accompanied us and that the emergency leaves rawly exposed, like the dynamics of inequality, interdependence, instability, and radical uncertainty.


Article by Federico Neiburg

This article is taken from the SASE Summer Newsletter 2020. Click here to go back to the contents.

[1] Georgieva and Ghebreyesus, 2020.

[2] Financial Times April 2, 2020, Financial Times, April 3 2020.

[3] Las Vegas homeless placed in outdoor parking lot as “temporary shelter”

[4] On the monetary valuation of life Zelizer 2011, Part 1. On inequalities of life and life expectancies, Fassin 2018.