Autarky and Economic Abstraction

“The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.” – Edsger Dijkstra

While studying a third-year economics subject called ECON3006 International Trade many years ago, I encountered a word that I found aesthetically displeasing. Its surface exterior lacked elegance and beauty; its tonal qualities harsh and unsubtle; its overall character and personality missing a certain joie de vivre. That word was Autarky.

As I learned more about this troublesome and alien word however, the more fascinated I became. Despite its conceptual difficulty, which Meyer and Land (2003) describe as an inherent characteristic of a ‘threshold concept’, it is the ‘line of flight’ that I took in discovering the true meaning of autarky that I wish to document here.

Regular lecture and tutorial attendance taught me that autarky is the quality of being self-sufficient. In economic terms, an autarky exists whenever a state can survive or continue its activities without external assistance or international trade. Furthermore, if a self-sufficient economy refuses all trade with the outside world then it is called a ‘closed economy’. Now in all my years as a student of economics, I knew from the outset that such a regime was destined for failure. Political considerations aside, if there were two things that made sense to me at the time it was that:

1. Trade was good.
2. No trade was bad.

Despite the commonsense simplicity of this argument, its foundations are based on abstract notions of comparative advantage and opportunity cost, threshold economic concepts that guarantee countries (or individuals) that exchange goods and services will secure net benefits or gains from trade. So within the confines of traditional neoclassical economics, autarkies are nothing more than idealistic theoretical constructs that have no place in the real world. To reassure myself of this conclusion, I wondered whether autarkies even existed anymore? Can economies truly be self-sufficient? Are we better off as islands or an archipelago? John Donne would surely choose the latter, no doubt. Interestingly, Wikipedia cites Nazi Germany, North Korea and the Taliban as modern examples of autarkies, to name but a few.

But just when I was about to dig the grave of this conceptually difficult and unrealistic utopian word once and for all, I celebrated the birth of a new poem.

Equal Eyes
Political spectacles with views uninformed
Gaze sternly upon a closed economy,
Soaring selfishly over oceans abroad.
An armchair flight towards infinity
Beyond the tyrannous terms of trade,
Escapes destination degree zero.
From island villages and kingston towns,
She unwillingly forgoes equilibria while
At last he screams autarky!

Inspired by the lines “autonomy sufficiently inadequate” and “independence forgone in an instant” from a different poem called Casualties of Sex, the word autarky is likened to both autonomy and independence. Both ideals are clearly viewed negatively in the contexts above and this sentiment is carried forward in ‘Equal Eyes’, particularly in the final two lines, where the female is “unwilling” while the male screams the word agonisingly.

Fourteen years later, ECON3006 is but a long-forgotten credit on my colourful transcript and the only surviving memory of that subject is that word. That ugly, troublesome word that inspired me to travel on an unconventional line of flight, using poetic abstraction and intertextuality to help me decipher a difficult threshold concept. Equal Eyes, along with other poems I wrote in Tales of Informative Uncertainty, not only serve as relics of my struggle to grasp the ‘truth’, but also provided me with an alternative way of thinking and practising within my discipline through creative writing. As St Pierre (1997) explains, “Writing is not only inscription but also discovery. It is a kind of nomadic inquiry in which I am able to deterritorialize spaces in which to travel in the thinking that the writing produces. I think, I learn, and I change my mind about what I think” (p.408).

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