More Market, Less Human – KSInsights Mar 2024

Published on 02 Apr 2024

In the wake of Prof Angus Deaton’s piece on the current state and future direction of economics, I find myself compelled to join the conversation, not as an expert in the field but as an observer of its impact on society. Deaton’s critique, which outlines the shortcomings of economics in addressing the real issues faced by humanity, resonates deeply with a pattern I observed, the divergence of academic knowledge from its potential to benefit mankind.

My lack of expertise in economics does not preclude me from recognizing a disturbing trend within academia at large, a trend that Deaton eloquently dissects in his analysis. It is the alienation of academic pursuit from the humane, the point at which the acquisition and application of knowledge veer off from the noble goal of alleviating human suffering. This deviation is not subtle; it manifests in the very language we use to discuss and implement ideas purportedly aimed at fostering social justice, reducing poverty, and improving the quality of life for all.

Deaton’s insights illuminate a fundamental flaw in the academic and economic systems: the prioritization of efficiency and profit over human well-being and social equity. His observations echo a broader issue within academia, where the impact of research and policy on real lives is often overshadowed by considerations of profitability and brand enhancement. The question, “Are we profitable enough to do this?” or “How much goodwill can we gain if we do this?” frequently takes precedence over, “How many lives can we improve?” or “Can we truly make a difference in alleviating suffering?”

This profit-driven mindset has led to a palpable disconnect between academic knowledge and its application for the greater good. While we speak of social justice, feed the poor in theory, and laud the virtues of aligning academic pursuits with the goal of ending human suffering, the reality often falls short. The noble intentions heralded in academic discourse often lose their way in the maze of marketability and financial viability. As Deaton suggests, the overemphasis on efficiency and the market’s invisible hand has not only marginalized social justice but also reduced it to an afterthought in the grand scheme of economic policymaking.

The inherent alienation of academia from the humane is a critical issue that requires immediate attention. If knowledge and research are to serve humanity truly, they must transcend the narrow confines of profitability and return to their foundational purpose: to enrich, empower, and elevate the human condition. As Deaton’s article urges, there must be a reorientation of economic thought and academic pursuit towards more inclusive, equitable, and compassionate goals.

In embracing this challenge, academics, economists, and policymakers alike must question not only the utility of their work in abstract economic terms but also its tangible impact on human lives. The true measure of academic and economic success should not be the wealth it

generates for the few but the well-being it ensures for the many. Until we realign our academic and economic priorities with the humane, the gap between knowledge and its potential to alleviate human suffering will only widen.

Commodity Fetishism in Academia

We delve deeper into the root causes of this detachment, identifying the pervasive influence of commodity fetishism within academic circles. This concept describes the tendency to value goods not for their utility or the labor that produced them, but for their market value and ability to generate profit. Unfortunately, this ideological framework has seeped into the academic realm, leading to a scenario where research and knowledge production are increasingly driven by market demands rather than societal needs.

This subtle yet profound shift towards commodification within academia manifests most clearly in the valuation of academic institutions and research. The notion that a study, a discipline, or even a university’s worth is measured by its marketability, orientation towards market needs, and potential commercial value signifies a grave departure from the foundational ethos of academia. Knowledge for the sake of understanding, enlightenment, and the betterment of society is overshadowed by the imperative to generate income, attract investment, and align with corporate interests.

The implications of this trend are far-reaching and deeply troubling. By prioritizing market values over human values, academia contributes to the erosion of the very fabric it seeks to study and improve: human society. The focus on profitability and commercial viability means that research that could significantly impact social issues, environmental challenges, and human welfare is often sidelined if it lacks immediate commercial application. This not only limits the scope of academic inquiry but also stifles innovation in areas that could benefit the most from intellectual exploration and discovery.

Moreover, the transformation of academic institutions into entities that primarily serve corporate interests reinforces societal inequities. It legitimizes a system where the dissemination of knowledge and the direction of research are controlled by economic elites, further entrenching their power and influence. As Deaton underscores, such a system invariably leads to policies and practices that favor the wealthy, enabling a form of legalized plunder where corporations and private interests exploit academic outputs to their advantage, often at the expense of the public good.

The metamorphosis of academia into a “factory” that justifies and facilitates corporate theft and plunder marks a critical juncture. It calls for a concerted effort to reclaim the essence of academic pursuit: the quest for knowledge that elevates human understanding, promotes social justice, and contributes to the collective well-being. To reverse this trend, it is imperative that academia reasserts its independence from market forces and reaffirms its commitment to serving humanity first and foremost.


The Contradiction, Highlighted

We encounter a critical contradiction that exacerbates the detachment of academia from its humane roots. This contradiction lies in the nature and accessibility of the academic output itself—where the drive for commercial viability and market orientation leads to a proliferation of research that, paradoxically, becomes impractically dense and inaccessible to those it could most benefit: the goodwilled, non-specialist public.

This contradiction manifests in several troubling ways. Firstly, the push towards generating commercially viable articles and market-oriented research often results in work that is hyper-specialized, laden with jargon, and ensconced in the minutiae of specific theoretical frameworks or methodologies. The language and concepts used become so esoteric that they alienate even the educated layperson, let alone the general public. The irony is stark: the quest for relevance in the market renders much of academic research irrelevant to the broader societal discourse.

Furthermore, the pressure to produce quantifiable outcomes that appeal to commercial interests encourages a focus on quantity over quality. Academics are incentivized to publish frequently, sometimes at the expense of thoroughness and depth. This “publish or perish” culture not only dilutes the overall quality of research but also contributes to an overwhelming volume of publications that no one has the time or capacity to fully digest. The result is a vast sea of academic literature that, despite its potential value, remains largely unread and unused by those outside narrow specialist circles.

This situation creates a significant barrier to the dissemination and application of academic knowledge for the public good. Research that could inform policy decisions, drive social innovation, or educate the broader populace is instead locked away in academic journals, accessible only to those within the academy or those willing to pay exorbitant fees for access. The contradiction here is profound: academia, in its pursuit of market validation, ends up isolating itself from the society it purports to serve.

The detrimental impact of this contradiction on the social utility of academic research cannot be overstated. When the fruits of academic labor become inaccessible and indecipherable to the public, academia fails in one of its fundamental roles: to advance public understanding and contribute to societal progress. This failure not only undermines the credibility and relevance of academic institutions but also widens the gap between academic knowledge and societal needs.


In addressing the contradiction within academia, where commercial viability often trumps societal benefit, we are reminded of the fundamental purpose of knowledge: to make the unknown known, to illuminate the void with the light of exploration and inquiry. This guiding principle, which should be at the heart of academic endeavor, calls for a return to the essence of scholarly pursuit—engaging in the process of discovery without the constraints imposed by market demands.

The commodification of academia, as it stands, skews efforts and research towards the realm of the known, the market-proven, and the commercially viable. This focus not only limits the scope of academic inquiry but also stifles innovation and creativity. By prioritizing research that aligns with commercial interests, academia narrows its vision, overlooking the vast landscapes of uncharted intellectual territory that could yield transformative insights and breakthroughs. This approach fundamentally contradicts the exploratory spirit of academia, where the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and the exploration of the unknown should prevail.

To extricate academia from this conundrum, a deliberate de-emphasis on producing research and recommendations that align with the process of commercialization is necessary. This shift requires a reevaluation of the metrics by which academic success is measured and a recommitment to the values of intellectual curiosity and societal contribution. Instead of valuing research primarily for its potential market impact, academia should celebrate and reward inquiries that advance understanding, challenge prevailing assumptions, and address societal needs, even if they do not promise immediate financial returns.

This reorientation towards the intrinsic value of knowledge requires systemic changes within academic institutions and funding bodies. It calls for the creation of supportive environments that encourage interdisciplinary research, long-term studies, and projects that may not have immediate commercial applications but hold the potential for significant societal impact. Funding models need to be adjusted to support this broader vision of academic research, providing resources for exploratory studies that venture into the unknown and seek to expand the horizons of human understanding.

Moreover, academics themselves play a crucial role in this transformation. By engaging more actively in public discourse, translating complex research findings into accessible language, and participating in community-based projects, scholars can bridge the gap between academia and society. Such engagement not only demystifies the academic process but also underscores the relevance of scholarly work to everyday life and societal advancement.

Ultimately, freeing academia from the shackles of commodification and reorienting it towards the exploration of the unknown represents a collective challenge that requires the commitment of all stakeholders. By reaffirming the main purpose of knowledge—to make the unknown known—academia can reclaim its role as a beacon of enlightenment, guiding society through the darkness of ignorance and into the light of understanding and progress.


02 Apr 2024