Vital standard and life economy: the economic thought of Lewis Mumford.

Author:Stunkel, Kenneth R.
 
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Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) is best known as a historian of cities and technology, an activist for improvement of urban environments, and the most influential critic of architecture in the twentieth century. His range of ideas and interests, however, encompassed far more, including a complex view of human nature, the proper role of literature and art in life, conditions required for a "good life in a good place," and life-affirming value creation as the fulcrum of healthy civilizations. Probably there is not much he failed to touch regarding public and private domains of human existence, all of which was expounded readably in some 30 books and more than 600 articles between 1914 and 1982. (1) His views have much in common with institutional economics, but he seems mostly and strangely absent from the history of that domain (O'Hara 1999, 523-527).

In a long career, Mumford was preoccupied with what it means to be human and how societies might help individuals achieve and sustain their humanity at the highest level. The backdrop for his thought is the imperative of material conditions for human realization, in short, the organization and expenditure of energy in economic systems with their supporting institutional structures. For him the key ideas for thought and action are a vital standard in support of a life economy that does full justice to human development. He also had much to say about how economics is conceptualized as a discipline and was alienated from neoclassical thinking quite as much as Thorstein Veblen.

This essay aims to explain and critique Mumford's ideas about economics and related issues; elucidation comes first, criticism at the end. The main thesis is that Mumford was sensible and persuasive about principles but failed to take sufficiently into account stubborn realities of factional politics, divisive economic agendas, and irrational human behavior in mass consumer societies. A secondary thesis is that Mumford swam in the headwaters of institutional economics, even though he was never in any sense a professional economist. If institutionalism is "an approach to economics that sees economic life as taking place within a social context" and if "institutionalists see consumer preferences and consumer spending stemming from learned social behavior rather than from any innate utility functions," Mumford belongs in the institutionalist camp (King 2003, 196-197). The question inviting response is why so many professional economists usually ignore him. It is striking that just as Veblen was neglected by orthodox economists of his day, Mumford "has suffered the same fate among modern institutional economists" (Long 2002, 167).

Mumford did not write a treatise on economics. His views are scattered across numerous volumes and articles, which nevertheless add up to a coherent notion of how economies should be organized to advance human welfare in an organic, ecological context (1936, 289-292). As a preview of how far his views deviate from traditional market economics, which he regarded as a misguided legacy of narrow, linear, mechanistic thinking, consider this signature generalization: "All thinking worthy of the name now must be ecological, in the sense of appreciating and utilizing organic complexity, and in adopting every kind of change to the requirements not of man alone, or of any single generation, but of all his organic partners and every part of his habitat" (1964, 393).

We shall proceed with an account of his distaste for mainstream economics, adumbrate his basic principles, summarize his critique of capitalism, define vital principle and life economy, comment on the roles of technology and work in a life economy, note his proposed road to reform, and conclude with reservations about his proposals and expectations. Separating exposition and criticism has the advantage of giving full attention to his thought without the interruption and distraction of ongoing caveats.

Mumford and Economics

Because of Mumford's teleological, qualitative approach to economics, which means decisions affecting material life are best shaped by human purposes directed self-consciously at the welfare and development of individuals, he was never regarded highly by the social science community, including the economics profession. He declined to write "sociologically" by submitting to conventions of disciplinary jargon and statistical data collection, repudiations certain to alienate many professional academics. (2) Early on, he was deeply influenced by Veblen, who with John Dewey was on the editorial board of The Dial, a journal dedicated briefly to supporting radical "reconstruction" after World War I, which meant enlightened democratic change in politics, economics, and education (Mumford 1982, 217-218). He had already taken a course with Veblen at the New School for Social Research before accepting an editorial job on The Dial. He looked forward to being around Veblen, who was his kind of economist, "a redoubtable sociologist and man of letters" possessed of wide interests, an "evolutionary" economist close to Mumford's ecological approach to material life (Mumford 1982, 221; Veblen 1950).

Having read Veblen's books, Mumford discovered a generalist unafraid "to speculate on matters where positive evidence was absent or just ... being discovered." Veblen's strength, condemned by some as weakness, was that he "refused to recognize the no-trespass signs that smaller minds erected around their chosen fields of specialization; except for Max Weber and Werner Sombart, no other contemporary economist or historian had anything like Veblen's cultural range. No wonder his work attracted me!" (1982, 220). As a precursor of institutional economic theory and a pioneering critic of individual rational calculation as the dynamic behind choices in the market, Veblen's arguments reinforced Mumford's belief that ecologically sound communities could be achieved through regional planning and that such communities would change the way people behave in relation to technology, resources, the environment, and each other. He wrote an appreciative obituary for Veblen shortly after his death (1931, 314-316).

Mumford's analysis of economic relations and ideals is always qualitative rather than quantitative, teleological rather than mechanistic. Quantities have their place, but only after the assertion of qualitative principles for guidance and perspective for which numbers are the servant rather than the master. There is no number crunching in his books, no econometric analyses of interest rates, consumer indexes, labor productivity, or gross domestic product, which in the current state of economic thought and practice is likely to be viewed as a disqualification to speak credibly about economic issues. (3) It is not that numerical relationships have no legitimate use or place in the sphere of economics. The problem, he argued, is an overconfident, self-satisfied ascendancy of quantification over imperatives of life that are more fundamental than production and consumption, buying and selling, weighing and counting: "The efficiency of an economic system depends upon the adjustment of the means of living to the needs of life: it is not a quantity but a ratio, and there is no indication at all that the amount of work or goods can be expanded without limit as capitalist economics proposes. In terms of life, a social scheme that produces a handful of olives and dates and bread may be more effective than one rich enough to produce a Roman banquet and a special chamber called vomitorium to take care of the results of gluttony" (1975, 340).

At issue is the unbalanced relationship of quantification to an organic complex of human needs and possibilities that arise from living in a world governed by biological realities of energy flow and constraints on physical growth. Mumford's reservations about mathematical aspects of science are usually accompanied by appreciation: "[E]very new quantum of accurate knowledge was precious.... Accurate, repeatable, verifiable knowledge ... based on a standardized technique and capable of creating universally valid results ... brought order and clarity to one whole aspect of reality" (1944, 247). While the "science" of economics has much to contribute even in its constricted sphere of inquiry, the problem lies in its attempt to ape the methods of physics when its subject matter involves human beings rather than planets and atoms. In doing so, economic thought has been swayed by an antiquated mechanical world picture that undermines human interests.

The quantitative bias of modern economic theory and practice originated in a mechanistic worldview, fashioned and extended since the Renaissance, whose premise is that only measurable phenomena can yield knowledge. A mathematical model of nature, first applied to celestial motions by Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler and then to terrestrial motions by Galileo Galilei, all in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and finally unified under a single law by Isaac Newton in 1687, was consolidated in the eighteenth century Enlightenment and later extended to economic thought and analysis. The chief philosophical spokesman for a mechanistic conception of nature was Renee Descartes, who made room in his system for the new science (a universe of matter in motion governed by mathematical laws) by squeezing out of nature everything that resembles the subjective (i.e., nonmathematical phenomena--feeling, imagination, intuition). The great enterprise of the Enlightenment was to uncover laws of nature in all departments of human activity analogous to the law of gravity.

Even here, Mumford hedged with reservations on the side of balance rather than condemnation: "In pointing out ... insufficiencies in the mechanical world picture, I have no wish to disparage the many beneficial results.... [T]he new mechanical ideology performed a unique service: it provided a...

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