Barefoot Economics by Manfred Max-Neef

by stephenpalmersf

One of the early influences in my adult life was E.F. Schumacher, and the Schumacher Society, the latter based in Devon where I used to live. E.F. Schumacher was a visionary ‘green economist’ way ahead of his time when it came to the environmental consequences of capitalism. Another man way ahead of his time was the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, who in 1981, at the request of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, wrote From The Outside Looking In: Experiences In Barefoot Economics.

In the telling and personal introduction to this book (which I bought via the Schumacher Society) Max-Neef describes his increasing disillusion with economics, which he could see was losing what small amount of humane philosophy it had begun with. He withdrew from the field to begin work on what E.F. Schumacher called “economics as if people mattered.”

In the small theoretical section of the book Max-Neef identifies four major problems: our obsession with giantism and ‘big solutions’; our mechanistic approach to solving economic problems, which anyway never relate to people but to issues of production and efficiency; our obsession with abstract, measurable quantities; and a tendency to oversimplify, and thus ignore the real complexities of human life.

The book is roughly split into two, with the first main section dealing with the lives of poor or deprived people in coastal Ecuador, and the second concerning artisans in Brazil. In both cases though the intention is to display the dependency of these people on big government, big social care and big organisations. Max-Neef’s ultimate goal was to make the people “invisible,” to use his term, by which he meant independent – invisible to the huge, uncaring, computational machines of capitalism. This could only be done on the community scale – the humane scale.

Alongside Schumacher’s classic Small Is Beautiful this book was my first introduction to the damage capitalism and ‘big society’ was doing both to the planet and to communities. Max-Neef is alas not so well known as Schumacher, but he had just as much to say; and every word of it is relevant today.