The Most Interesting Article I’ve Read This Week
Robert Neuwirth in Foreign Policy, writing about “System D” — the unlicensed, unregulated, off-the-books world economy:
System D is a slang phrase pirated from French-speaking Africa and the Caribbean. The French have a word that they often use to describe particularly effective and motivated people. They call them débrouillards. To say a man is a débrouillard is to tell people how resourceful and ingenious he is. The former French colonies have sculpted this word to their own social and economic reality. They say that inventive, self-starting, entrepreneurial merchants who are doing business on their own, without registering or being regulated by the bureaucracy and, for the most part, without paying taxes, are part of “l’economie de la débrouillardise.” Or, sweetened for street use, “Systeme D.” This essentially translates as the ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy. A number of well-known chefs have also appropriated the term to describe the skill and sheer joy necessary to improvise a gourmet meal using only the mismatched ingredients that happen to be at hand in a kitchen.
I like the phrase. It has a carefree lilt and some friendly resonances. At the same time, it asserts an important truth: What happens in all the unregistered markets and roadside kiosks of the world is not simply haphazard. It is a product of intelligence, resilience, self-organization, and group solidarity, and it follows a number of well-worn though unwritten rules. It is, in that sense, a system.
…as trade has expanded and globalized, System D has scaled up too. Today, System D is the economy of aspiration. It is where the jobs are. In 2009, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a think tank sponsored by the governments of 30 of the most powerful capitalist countries and dedicated to promoting free-market institutions, concluded that half the workers of the world — close to 1.8 billion people — were working in System D: off the books, in jobs that were neither registered nor regulated, getting paid in cash, and, most often, avoiding income taxes.
Some quick observations.
–The closest analogue to System D in political theory could very well be the free riders in the first part of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia: they don’t give anything to, or get anything from, the regionally dominant protection agencies, except insofar as they benefit from a general climate of non-lawlessness, which helps even lawless businesses succeed.
–I also can’t help but think of James C. Scott. Scott himself is a pessimist about the future prospects of anarchic modes of organization; to him, these prospects depend on technology, and on whether ascendant technologies favor the state or the state’s resistors. He’s opined that recent technologies have favored the state, but System D suggests revising that view.
–System D isn’t a utopia, which I say only because I’m sure I’ll be accused of thinking otherwise. I don’t.
–Still, the growing wealth of the developing world suggests we need to take it seriously all the same. Specifically, central governments must be doing something really, really wrong for businesses to want to hide so badly. And for the hidden economy to be so wildly successful.
–Yes, I’m still doing NaNoWriMo. And I’m still on pace.