I’d never heard of system D until somebody passed on to me a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine by Robert Neuwirth, an excerpt adapted from a new book by Neuwirth called Stealth of Nations. It’s a well done excerpt—the kind that makes you wonder what the whole of the rest of an entire book could have left to say—about a clearly very important subject that’s getting more important every day.
Putting the D in DIY
There are several names that are more or less synonymous with system D—the black (or gray) economy, the shadow economy, the informal economy—but none of them conveys all the qualities of “system D.” It’s the street-slang short version of a phrase that originated in the French-speaking parts of Africa and the Caribbean: l’économie de la débrouillardise, which, as Neuwirth says, “essentially translates as the ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy.” In French, je me débrouille means “I can manage” or “I know my way around”; a débrouillard describes a person of resourcefulness and ingenuity, a self-starter who can solve problems. I have a brother who’s like that—he’s a more-or-less self-taught plumber, electrician and car mechanic who seems to be able to build or fix anything. In a gun-phobic family he’s a crack shot who’s brought home deer and bear (living in British Columbia) and made salami out of them, and he’s certainly the only person I know who I’d pick to be with when society collapses and we have to fend for ourselves. Over the years he’s also come up with ingenious ways of putting together a living, not all of them fully aboveboard—which, as Neuwirth puts 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.”
Occupying the economy
System D can encompass anything from a one-person flea-market stand to the Nigerian businessman with a cell phone whom Neuwirth cites who borrowed a bit of money from his uncle and is now providing better electricity for many of his compatriots than the government can manage, by importing small diesel-powered generators built in China. It’s a major source of the remittances that workers living outside their own countries send home to developing nations every year—money that the World Bank estimates reached $351 billion in 2011. It tends to function off the books and outside taxation systems, but doesn’t generally include income generated from fully criminal activity. Like the Nigerian businessman with his generators, it often supplies public services that governments can’t or won’t manage: garbage pickup, recycling, transportation—look at the “dollar vans” that supplement bus services even in infrastructure-heavy cities like New York.
According to one economist, the total value of system D—collectively, globally—could be close to $10 trillion. Which would make it the second-largest economy in the world, after the United States. It’s competitive, it expands to offer work to more people, and, as Neuwirth says, “it opens the market to those who have been traditionally shut out.” System D is all systems go.—TAMARA GLENNY