Browsing through books: The Mandibles: A family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver (2016)

My Browsing through books series is about books that I read or skim for research. This time I review a piece of (speculative) economic fiction by Lionel Shriver: The Mandibles: A family 2029-2047.

This book is a deeply humane story about lives in the times of fiscal policy gone terribly wrong. Now, this has been or is or, unfortunately, most likely will be a reality for too many people. But usually in Western narratives these are lives that are considered unprivileged, most likely to be lived in a colonised and used-up territory in the Majority World (formerly known as the developing countries). In this book the fictional lives are upper middle-class citizens based the United States of America.

The book has a ‘macro’ narrative of the President of USA declaring a national reaction to international fiscal policies that sends the country gradually into a deep humanitarian crisis. The book could be focusing solely on this narrative and the power play play taking place in international and national institutions, since Shriver seems to have a lot of knowledge about financial institutions.

However, the author chooses to portray the story of Mandibels, a family during the span of the story, 2029-2047. In the pre-collapse USA, they are well-off by many standards. Some members of the family would be definitely categorised as upper class, even elites. Despite some of the family members having chosen a less well-off careers, some could consider them as part of the elites, or at leas upper middle-class, for having such a choices to be made, in the anticipation of an inheritance from the Grand Great Man (the 90+ year old family patriarch). But due to the collapse, their assets are mostly wiped out, which sends them to survive with the rest of the mortals.

Focusing on one family shows the full scale of nationwide turmoil. Everything they know changes, also for the less privileged members of the family. The choice of focusing on a family makes this speculative economic science fiction story into a great construct that sends me as a reader to feel empathy, fear and gratitude. I’m devastated by the descriptions of human, and the non-elaborated but inevitable other-than-human, suffering that invokes a feeling of how lucky I am as a reader in my position with enough food and shelter at the moment. At the same time I’m fascinated by the powers of economic policy over the lives of people, who thought that things were under control.

This book made me think of the Finnish recession in 1990s. I was too young and unknowledgeable to be Willing, a central character of an observant child, but I remember some of it. People were shocked because they lost their jobs, businesses, houses and savings, among others things. They were indebted for life. They felt ashamed, alone and angry. For many Finns, the 1990s recession shook the trust felt for institutions.

Most of all, this book made me want to understand more what economics is about and listen more what economists have to say. I’m surprised by this result. Let me elaborate.

To me economics has felt like a deadend for years. What else to think about a field of study that is mostly speculative (see for example Economic Science Fictions)  and quarrelling, given its schools of thought and an internal pecking order? What has annoyed me the most is the religion like status of economics and its high priest economists, who offer their wisdom to the unknowledgeable mortals. They included politicians, who then roll their eyes, but still obey. How is it possible that this way of thinking has come to have such great impact? While I have long appreciate Ha-Jong Chang’s relentless efforts to dismantle economics (see for example Economics: The user’s guide), I had decided to rather ignore mainstream discussions than to educate myself and participate more. But this book wanted me to discuss more. In order to do that, I want to deepen my understanding of heterodox economics, such as community economies, feminist economics and postgrowth economics.

Finally, this book makes me want to prevent the dominant economic thinking of messing up everyone’s lives ever again. This includes changing the way we think about societies and culture. I have a business school education and I know many good people who decided to gain their living as, for example, accountants, auditors, bankers, marketers, logistics experts, economists, and business persons. I value their skills. But most of what we were taught strengthens the status quo (ceteris paribus). To me the most logical thing is to redirect this knowhow towards activities that repair, regenerate, and make sense within planetary boundaries. This is yet another justification for thinking about postgrowth work and livelihoods.

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