1 Mar 2011

Greed, Lust & Gender: A History of Economic Ideas

Just preparing my feminist economics lecture for my third year undergraduate political economy course.

Could I resist this book title, no way.

Self-interest, as the focus for market based decision making, sets greed and lust as its logical culmination. Folbre neatly contrasts a relatively benign approach to self-interest, such as Adam Smith’s, to self-interest in the extreme, such as that of the Marquis de Sade. Smith relies heavily on the moral innate goodness of humans, something that by itself sould curb the ultimate logic of self-interest through greed. De Sade, in contrast, removes all moral limits on self-interest and shows how intolerable individualism in the extreme can be. In his self-interest, the strong has every right to dominate the weak, the sick should be left to die, women raped, friends betrayed, and family responsibilities ignored. The parallels with might makes right in today’s political economy easily can be drawn, as can the consequences of unregulated individualism’s potential for disaster.

Throughout the book the voices of feminists and socialists are not silent. Some of this is downright fun: Charles Fourier, the French utopian socialist, for example, envisions a utopia that explicitly espouses the ‘sexual minimum,’ a kind of social safety net something like the minimum wage. No one, no matter how old, ugly or disgusting should be denied sexual satisfaction, something that would be met by altruists who aspire (apparently) to sexual sainthood. Attention in more detail is given to more familiar feminist analyses – Mill, Marx and Engels, and Bebel, but also to female writers like Mary Wollstonecroft, Harriet Martineau, Harriet Taylor, Alice Clark, and Margaret Sanger.


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