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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Cohen’s Homo Economicus (a book review)

Homo Economicus: the (lost) prophet of modern times by Daniel Cohen. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014, 155 pp notes and index, £16.99 hardcover. ISBN 978-0-7456-8012-5.

Across the social sciences the idealized figure of Homo Economicus is coming under increasing scrutiny. While for many the deliberative, self-interested and inherently entrepreneurial figure of Homo Economicus was only ever a necessarily myth—a figure whose assumed existence gave credence to neo-(and paleo) liberals’ assertion that we could have both economic freedom and economic stability—developments in behavioural psychology, neuroscience, and (in particular) behavourial economics have discredited this vision of the human subject. But if Homo Economicus is dying, what collective vision of humanity is taking its place? In this broad-ranging, highly engaging, and, at times, disorienting volume, Daniel Cohen unpacks the socio-economic and ecological features that characterize a world that has been built for Homo Economicus, and considers what a post-Homo Economicus world may look like.

Surprisingly, Cohen spends very little time (3 pages) analyzing the central figure of his narrative. In this short space of time we do, however, find out some very interesting things about this fictional economic character. We find out, for example, that Homo Economicus was in part modeled on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. We also discover that Pierre Bourdieu once described Homo Economicus as an ‘anthropological monster.’ This volume does, however, provide a broad ranging analysis of the paradoxes of the human condition, which spans the decline of the Roman Empire, globalization, genetics, and questions of post materiality. What we lose in terms fine-grained detail is made-up for by the imaginative connections that Cohen is able to forge between everyday life and the broader sweep of human history. This is undoubtedly a compelling book, which is accessibly written (supported by the excellent translation work of Susan Emanuel[1]), and imaginatively animated. It does, however, tend to leave you wanting more in relation to systematic analysis.

At the heart of book is a desire to uncover how and why human society (specifically in the West, but increasingly throughout the world) has been characterized by an emerging imbalance between competition and cooperation. The figure of Homo Economicus is, of course, central to the rise of the competitive spirit within history. While competitive individualism has produced great wealth and unprecedented forms of socio-technological development (spanning industrialism, bioscience, and the digital revolution), Cohen is interested in why it has also made us (on the whole) less happy. Cohen consequently discusses stress in the work place, the tensions between financial and moral rewards, growing inequalities, and the erosion of social capital. Cohen illustrates that while the promotion of the behavioural traits that are associated with Homo Economicus have enhanced productivity and efficiency, they have undetermined many of the ethical concerns and empathetic tendencies of the human condition. According to Cohen, this process is akin to ‘[s]hutting human nature up in a world devoid of any ideal’: in valorizing Homo Economicus we have marginalized Homo Ethicus and Homo Empathicus.

The volume starts by reflection on the idea on the popular notion of Gross Domestic Happiness, and why it appears so difficult to enhance. Chapter 2 moves on to consider the changing nature of work and its role in the production of value. At the heart of this chapter is a desire to illustrate the new age of inequalities that have emerged in the post-Fordist Era. An interesting aspect of this chapter is its discussion of the ‘proletarianization’ of the rich, and the ways in which wealth has increasingly become decoupled from high culture and is instead associated with the ostentatious celebration of wealth.

Chapter 3 locates the partial origins of Homo Economicus in antiquity, and in particular within the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity. According to Cohen, the emergence of Christianity (under the umbrella of Rome) generalized a ‘new conception of the person’, which in its seeking of ‘an interior self’ prefigures the individuality of Homo Economicus. While situating Homo Economicus in antiquity, Cohen does assert that this mythical figure actually finds its apogee in the baby boomer generation of the second half of the twentieth century: a generation that is simultaneously more tolerant and more individualistic than its predecessors. Chapter 4 considers the migration of Homo Economicus to the “Global South.” Through an exploration of recent, rapid economic development in LEDCs (particularly in Asia), Cohen reveals that cultural tradition and history have not prevented the spread of Homo Economicus’ fundamental gestalt. By exposing the failure of many of these states to address chronic poverty and embrace democracy, Cohen exposes further limits in the neoliberal path of human development.

Chapters 5, 6 and 7 return to the homelands of Homo Economicus in order to consider the late modern crises of the West. Cohen positions the contemporary crises of the West (in particularly debt, unhappiness, escalating inequalities) against the backdrops of globalization and the digital world. According to Cohen, the hopes of a form of globalization that would effectively “raise all boats” has been replaced by a neo-Mercantilist world order. At the same time, Cohen notes how the digital revolution that promised to increasingly emancipate people from their workaday worlds has ultimately generated new forms of voluntary servitude and oppression.

This book may raise many more questions than it is able to answer. It does, however, represent an excellent example of how to synthesise sophisticated academic thinking into an accessible and highly readable volume. If you want to understand better why humanity’s achievements seem to consistently fail to enable us to live the lives that we actually want to lead this book is a valuable starting point.

[1] The volume was originally published in French in 2012 as Homo Economicus: Prophète (égaré) des temps nouveaux.

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