What an iceberg can tell us about the economy

Do you feel part of the economy? That thing that we are told grows or stagnates? The economy, as we have come to know it, is presented as a machine that dictates our lives—it enrols us as employees and employers, as consumers, as property owners, as investors, and tells us what is and is not contributing to the economic bottom line. In this vision we are not part of the economy, the economy is something that does things to us.

The machine-economy vision ignores the myriad ways that people and organizations interact to provide material wellbeing, social and psychological sustenance and environmental care in our world.

There is work to do to fully reject the idea that the economy is a machine and recognize that it has no existence apart from us. This is where our iceberg comes in. We are all familiar with the fact that what we see of the iceberg above the waterline is just its tip, perhaps not more than 10% of its mass. Well the economy that supports our lives is like that too.

Under the waterline are all those activities, organizations, interactions and places that play a role in supporting livelihoods. Just think of all the ways we work to meet our daily needs apart from having a job and a regular wage. There is the unpaid work that is done in households making food, washing clothes, providing clean and nourishing living spaces. There is the volunteer work that is done in families and neighbourhoods to care for the young, the elderly, animals and the environment. There is the work people do in gardens and kitchens, sheds and workshops to self-provision. And we can’t forget the dark side of our diverse economy—the hidden unpaid labour of slaves who work for no return, other than mere existence, in coercive situations all over the world.

Once we are attuned to the diversity of economic practices that surround us the economy is reframed as something that we can start to take back and make to work for people and planet.