The Post-Economy Economy


I'm writing to you from a curb across the street from a discount hostel in Tokyo. I'm not staying at the hostel, but its WiFi isn't password protected, so I'm taking advantage of their lax security as I don't have the necessary credentials required to access the majority of the city's telco-administered hotspots. A twentysomething Aussie backpacker has just finished sweeping up a pile of cigarette butts outside the entranceway. In return for a few hours of janitorial work per day, she gets to stay there for free. A good option for a traveller with little money and no work visa.

Although neither of us recognize it, we are both living within System D. What exactly is "System D"? Put simply, it's an economic space that exists unseen by the beady eyes of bureaucracy. It's the black market, the gray market, and the criminal world spread out into one giant sprawling web of illicit commerce. 

The term derives its meaning from the French word for "resourceful"; débrouillard. As colloquial slang, débrouillard has been in use throughout the former French colonies of Africa and the Caribbean for quite some time, suggesting a skilled individual with a knack for circumvention. The "System" refers to the thriving shadow economy built by those débrouillards whom have outmaneuvered the entanglements of officialdom.  

System D has now found its way into the English language and is taking on a much grander scope. It recently started to pop up in the American press, and is the subject of a new book, "Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy" by Robert Neuwirth. In which he explains the ascent of System D as such: "It used to be that System D was small - a handful of market women selling a handful of shriveled carrots to earn a handful of pennies. It was the economy of desperation. But 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."

A 2009 OECD study found that 1.8 billion people work within the system. It has been valued at 10 trillion USD and has in numerous instances shown to function as a coping mechanism during times of economic crisis. With debt issues plaguing much of the developed world, it's entirely plausible that it could soon eclipse the US as the world's largest economic force. But is System D the transnational super-structure of the future? Or a symptom of late capitalism's imminent collapse? Perhaps it's just the latest buzzword to capture the imagination of byline-hungry journos. At the very least it's a great conversation piece for those of us trying to make our way in the world without leaving too thick a paper trail.