9 min read

The Body is Not an Economic Apology

The Body is Not an Economic Apology
"Dora Maar with Cat (Reflections on works by Pablo Picasso)" painting by contemporary Russian artist, Vladimir Zunuzin. 

“Here is a completely noncontroversial statement I think we have consensus around: You, my dear, have a body. And should you desire to remain on this spinning rock hurtling through space, you will need a body to do it. Everything else we think we know is up for debate.” — Sonya Renee Taylor

The name of today’s post is inspired by Sonya Renee Taylor’s transcendent book, The Body is Not An Apology (which I’m still working my way through). I hope she doesn’t mind me borrowing and slightly altering her phrase to make an adjacent point about our economic thinking.

This post asserts something so seemingly obvious as to be unworthy of articulating. We all have bodies, and these billions of bodies make up the basis of what we call ‘the economy.’ The economy is not statistical numbers. The economy is not charts or acronyms like CPI, GDP, or the S&P. (No charts were used in the making of this post…we’ll save those for next week's post on unpacking the concept of profit). The economy is just us, in our bodies, making things together, caring for each other, and creating collective agreements about our future.

Today we cover:
• How many humans helped me live today?
• How ‘Rational Choice Theory’ is the Economic Version of “I Don’t See Color”
• Transhumanism and the Metaverse  

As you read this post, I invite you to heighten your awareness of your own body by introducing some movement, altered breathing, and nourishment.

* Begin by taking a deep breath in (1, 2, 3, 4). Slowly let it out (1, 2, 3, 4). *

We'll begin with a poem:

The body is not an economic apology. Or nuisance. Or inconvenience.

The body is not ‘human capital.’  It is not an economic ‘unit’ or thing to be exploited for the god of Growth.

The body does not serve the economy.

The body’s fragility is not something to be transcended, but embraced.

The body is not homogeneous — in race, sex, ability, size, shape and age. There is no monolithic ‘homo economicus.’

Our diversity of bodies is magnificent, not a justification for separation, domination, and abuse.

The body is not a machine. It is not an engine, or hardware, or information processor.

The body is not just casing for a disembodied mind.

The body is not an economic apology.

No — the body is a wholeness of being.
An embedded miracle.
Our collective symphony’s note, (or rest).

The body is a glory.

How many humans helped me live today?

Try this thought experiment: Can you calculate the number of humans who helped you live your life today? Let’s take one small action as an example: buying a chocolate bar from the grocery story. In this daydream, I’m treating myself to an Endorfin coffee and cardamom chocolate bar, but you can buy whatever you like! The grocery clerk cashing out your chocolate bar is a direct human interaction (so there’s one person), but someone stocked the shelves, and many untold numbers of other humans were involved in planting and growing the cocoa beans, harvesting them, sourcing other raw ingredients, packaging the bars, shipping them across oceans or countries, and driving them to your local store.

Other humans placed store orders based on sales forecasts, certified products as safe, did the store’s accounting, hired staff… Someone invented those funky grocery conveyor belts, sourced materials, and manufactured them. Constructed the store’s building, put in the electrical wiring. The credit card or cash you used to purchase the chocolate has its own complex web of humans involved in creating and administering that system of transaction… How many humans helped me buy a chocolate bar? It’s nearly impossible to know. And that is only purchasing one bar of chocolate!

Here’s the thing: we have no economy without bodies. So why are they absent in economic thinking, and why are we so ashamed of them economically?

It’s because most of us believe that the body — and the complex, prismatic human that inhabits it — is subservient to the economy.

* Breath in. Breath out. Stretch your arms above your head, wriggle your toes. *

The natural cycle of life, and therefore bodies, for the majority of humans is: birth, growth, aging, and death (with some injury and sickness throughout, for some more than others). Despite this being the condition of every person on earth, this age-old cycle is seen as something that restricts economic progress. When we get sick, we feel guilty for missing work. When we need rest, we are afraid we're being unproductive. When we bear children, we worry they will restrict our career trajectory. Caring for elderly friends or relatives is often unvalued and unpaid. We age out of ‘productive’ economic activity and are seen as a drain on national resources. In other words, our bodies — in all their pain, ecstasy, and normalcy — become an apology to the economic system.

“For so many of us, sorry has become how we translate the word body…What if we all became committed to the idea that no one should have to apologize for being a human in a body?” — Sonya Renee Taylor

What if the economy served bodies, instead of the other way around? What if we collectively agreed that it should provision the shared needs of the body: care, nurturing, affection, healthy food, sleep, rest, freedom from exploitation and abuse, healing, pleasure, healthy ecosystems to play, and much more?

* Take a sip of water, or go get some if it’s not close by — I’ll be here when you return. *

How ‘Rational Choice Theory’ is the Economic Version of “I Don’t See Color”

Paradigms start somewhere, and they shape our collective beliefs which scaffold our systems. Ignoring the body, in all its varied differences, is central to economic theory and therefore, our economic systems.

Traditional (aka neoclassical) economics asserts ‘rational choice theory’ as its central tenant — every individual is a rational actor, in complete control of their choices within a neutral market. Every individual maximizes their self-interest, and the cumulative effect is a thriving economic system. Most of economic theory rests on these axioms.

But the only people who can believe such convenient fantasies are those whose bodies have never been under threat, coercion, exploitation, devaluation, humiliation, or any other form of restricted freedom which render ‘rational choice’ in ‘neutral markets’ an impossible notion.

The body we inherit has a huge impact on our life trajectory: We are each born into an unchosen country of origin, into an unchosen biological sex, to unchosen parents and families, to an unchosen race, of varied mental and physical capabilities, and an unchosen economic status. The glorious diversity of bodies, miracles of thousands of years of genetic differentiation and combinatorial beauty, become the containers through which we live and experience the world. But because the world has internalized arbitrary notions of body-hierarchies, those differences become fodder for division.

When people say “I don’t see color,” they skirt the very real differences between bodies, and fail to recognize how societal constructs of body hierarchies have led to vastly different experiences for people of different races. Similarly, economics has reinforced body-“neutral” (or body-hostile) beliefs by treating all bodies the same through ‘homo economicus’ — the default ‘economic man’ of economic textbooks.

There is very little (if any!) recognition in traditional economic theory about how cultural narratives of all kinds of bodily hierarchies (not only racism, but sexism, ableism, and ageism) affect market participation. Academic economists tended to view these as problems outside of their domain, despite the enormous influence of our bodies on our economic experience. Power — or the lack of it — is a deeply felt experience for many people navigating their economic futures and opportunities.

Is there a reason why 51% of the population (women) receives less than roughly 3% of all venture capital funding, and it has stubbornly remained that way for years (falling to an all-time low during the pandemic)? The stats for companies founded by women of color are even worse: Latina women-led startups have raised only 0.32% and Black women have raised only .0006% of all VC funding over the last decade. Indigenous-led businesses are not even tracked. The ambitions, dreams, innovations, and world-changing technologies are dramatically underfunded…because they live inside the minds and hearts of female bodies, or black and brown bodies.

Or is there a reason why Black families in the US have a net worth 10 times less than white families ($17,150 compared to $171,000 in 2016)? Or why the homes of Black Americans are appraised 23% lower than similar houses in white neighbohoods?

Those concerned about protecting the philosophical concept of ‘free markets’ should recognize that there is nothing free or neutral about this state of affairs. And therefore, anyone who believes in free markets — and rational choice theory or 'meritocracy' as it is colloquially known — should adamantly advocate for racial and gender equity. Because an economic system which is predictive of your economic outcomes by race, gender (or any other bodily factor) is not anywhere close to a free market.

And while economists have ignored the body, Silicon Valley wants to transcend it altogether.

* Stretch your neck to your left shoulder, and then to your right. Nod your head down to stretch the back of your neck, and then up to the ceiling. *

Transhumanism and the Metaverse

I couldn't let this post get away with a comment about…yes, the metaverse [braces for tomatoes]! But I observed that I wanted to tack on a qualifying statement to the quote that began this post: “Should you desire to remain on this spinning rock hurtling through space, you will need a body.” I wanted to add "[at least for now!]" because it has never been easier to raise money to transcend, escape, or ‘enhance’ the human body through technology.

In a form of modern Gnosticism, an entire class of techno-utopians, transhumanists, and others believe that transcending the body is our only hope for salvation. New startups are building mechanical exoskeletons, connecting monkey brains to computers and pursuing the holy grail of Singularity — when we upload our consciousness to the cloud, and the sum of us lives in an Amazon Web Service storage facility in the middle of Virginia.

Take this quote from influential US venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen, interviewed in May:

“A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date…Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege — their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.

The Reality Privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian, and demand that we prioritize improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality. To which I say: reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don't think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build — and we are building — online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.”

Marc Andreessen's vision of the future: the picture used in his widely touted 'It's Time to Build' essay, with scant signs of life like trees, birds or...humans.

Marc wants us to apologize for our bodies, and the world they inhabit, by envisioning bodily salvation through deliverance into a new heaven: the metaverse. Yet millions of human bodies will still be needed to excavate raw materials, build, and deliver headsets to people who will affix them to real, physical heads. And it doesn't require fancy econometric models to predict which small subset of humans will reap the rewards of digital diversion, while the rest become delivery drivers of digitized utopia.

Given today’s most influential "global shapers" are no longer economists, but technologists (and the investors who fund them), it is worth noting the similarities between the ideologies they possess and how they'll project into our digital futures. Here we see the same body-hostile, rational choice theory paradigms building the metaverse: a supposed neutral web 3.0 ‘platform’ where everyone can access better digital futures. But the same power brokers who refuse to see or acknowledge power, think they can build the scaffolding of better digital futures, despite their complete failure to do so with web 2.0.

The metaverse will no doubt bring many benefits, joys, and human advancements, while also raising additional questions about our self-conception and what it actually means to 'advance' as humans. The metaverse is compelling because it asks us to more viscerally engage with what we believe about our bodies — about the paradigms we reify as we scaffold the future.

Icelandic writer and filmmaker Andri Snær Magnason beautifully articulated a response to this question in a recent Emergence Magazine interview, “Sci-fi tends to make us feel like the future is all about technology. The future is all about gadgets or flying cars or AI or whatever. While I think the primal goal of humans is to continue to be human and even more human—not less human…we just want to be able to sit in a kitchen and eat pancakes with a grandmother, and just exchange stories and life experiences and things… [I call it] pancake sci-fi.”

We need not apologize for wanting to stay as bodies, eating pancakes.

Because your body is not an economic — or any other kind of — apology.

* Get up, stretch your legs, and thank your body for all it does for you everyday. *