By Anjum Altaf
It was fall last year that I was teaching the introductory course in economics and had drawn four concentric circles on the board to illustrate how the market was embedded in the economy which was embedded in society which, in turn, was embedded in the extra-terrestrial outerworld. The objective was to spark a conversation about how the outer spheres limited what could or could not take place in the inner ones as also to point out the fact that while the economy and society had always existed, the market as an institution was a relatively recent phenomenon.
From there we moved on to discuss how the reach of the market was expanding and its ambit growing to include aspects that were previously never within its domain to the extent that reading the standard textbooks one could well believe that the market economy was all one needed to consider to understand everything that needed to be understood including births, deaths, marriages, crime, you name it – everything that mattered was the ‘Economy of Something’ and subject to the calculus of supply, demand, prices, and ability to pay.
It was in that context that it occurred to me to remark on the fact that all of the past Ramadan the Pakistan cricket team had been somewhere or the other playing a series of international matches. Only a few decades earlier this would have been unthinkable but now the market had engulfed the game and the governing body had laid down the schedule – defy it and lose millions of dollars. And dollars had won. So the direction of influence that used to be from considerations of afterlife to the economy was now clearly running the other way.
I thought we had laid this to rest when lo and behold the big Eid arrived during the semester and now the Pakistani cricket team was elsewhere and Eid was on the third or fourth day of the test match and, to my horror, it was not a rest day – the Pakistan cricket team was actually playing on Eid day.
Well, well! The ICC was clearly not foostering around with solemn looking men sighting the moon with naked eyes. Rot-in-Hell, they were saying – play or be damned which in our time is nothing more than being out of cash. And these fellows were playing – the same fellows who started every conversation with thanks be to Almighty Allah, the boys played very well but Allah did not want us to win while under the breath wondering if they could have made more if they had arranged for another no-ball on the fifth ball of the third over.
Clearly the market had triumphed and trampled Eid underfoot. All that came back to me as I woke up this Eid day to the incessant buzzing of my cell phone with waves of inane messages from people I had had the misfortune of having my trousers stitched or my head massaged years ago. It took me considerable time deleting the felicitations most of them without reading. It was then that I found that the same ladies and gentlemen had been ardent enough to make doubly sure they reached me by forwarding the same messages to my email account. Another round of feverish deletions ensued in the midst of which a truly determined soul decided to actually call to make sure his messages had been registered. It was then that I lost my cool.
Just about then a dozen mosques burst alive at the same time competing with each other in the true spirit of the market economy. I should have thought what a wonderful gift competition is and how blessed we are to be showered with it but by this time I had a terrible headache and felt deeply desirous of a dose of creative destruction. I decided that if the shaking of my hands could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with resigned despair to that end.
Readers interested in more on the embedded nature of the economy in society should refer to Part I (Economy and Society) of Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi (George Dalton, ed. 1968). Note the following comment on page 3: “No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but prior to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets.” The debt to Eliot is also acknowledged.
Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.