Exploring the root causes of inequality

For all too many people facing uncertain futures in Western societies, the economy is failing. But for the extremely wealthy, it’s working just fine. Michael's guest is business professor Peter Fleming, author of The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation.
The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation by Peter Fleming. (Peter Fleming)
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This is the first of two interviews with Professor Peter Fleming. In this episode, Fleming gives his analysis of an economy in which the public sphere has been plundered by the billionaire class. In Part 2, he will discuss possible escape routes from this version of economic dystopia.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill pondered the evolution of our species under capitalism in the 19th Century when he coined the term homo economicus. Humans were defined as economic creatures, making rational decisions based on their own economic self-interest.

Homo economicus really found a niche in the industrialized West from the Second World War to the 1980s. Good-paying jobs were plentiful. Living standards, life expectancy and real income improved dramatically. 

However, the past four decades have meant a slow strangulation of homo economicus. 

In the decade since the financial crisis of 2008, we've seen the decline and fall of good paying jobs with benefits and the rise of inequality and the precariat. Now we're being warned about a future without jobs as we have come to know and depend upon them. 

Robots install rivets on a 2015 Ford F-150 truck at the Dearborn Truck Plant in Dearborn, Mich. Cheaper, better robots will replace human workers in the world's factories at a faster pace over the next decade, pushing manufacturing labor costs down 16 per cent, a report from the Boston Consulting Group said on Feb. 10, 2015. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

And the millionaire and billionaire bankers who brought the global economy to the brink of collapse and who were subsequently bailed out by taxpayers? They're doing just great, thank you.

For all too many people facing uncertain futures in Western societies, the economy just isn't working for them. Or just not working, period.

But if you read Peter Fleming, you might come away convinced that the problem is that the economy is working precisely the way the very wealthy and their agents in government want it to. 

Peter Fleming is Professor of Business and Society at the Cass Business School at City University London. He's the author of The Mythology of Work, and his new book is The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation.