I’ve enjoyed listening occasionally to Mark Sandel’s lectures in philosophy via iTunes. He has an interesting new article in the April Atlantic focusing on the ways in which nearly everything in American life, at least, has been reduced to a market value. Despite the admonition that money can’t buy me love, we are pretty sure that it can buy everything else, and that we are willing to sell just about anything, including body parts and personal dignity, for whatever the market will bear.
Sandel somewhat peculiarly to my mind traces this to a post-Cold War phenomenon.
WE LIVE IN A TIME when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.
As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.
The last gasp Marxists I studied with at Duke had a word for what Sandel sees and descries, commodification, and it didn’t mysterious just come upon us in the 1980s. Commodification, the rendering of every bit of life as a commodity that can bought and sold, is the central thrust of capitalist economies in the 20th century, perhaps the central feature of capitalism per se. The essential act of commodification is at the center of Marx’s understanding that the worker in some very real sense sells him or herself through selling his or her labor power. Thus, human beings were commodified well before people became willing to sell tattoos on their foreheads to advertise products. So Sandel’s perplexity and astonishment at this state of affairs in our contemporary economy strikes me as the perplexity of someone who has only recently awakened from a dream.
On the other hand, I do think Sandel is on to something. It is the case that despite this thrust of capitalist economies (and, to be frank, I’m not sure that Marxist economies were all that different), there have been sectors of culture and their accompanying institutions that resisted their own commodification. The edifice of modernism in the arts and literature is built on the notion that the arts could be a transcendent world apart from degradations of the social world, including perhaps especially its markets. The difficulty and density of modern art and literature was built in part out of a desire that it not be marketable in any typical sense. Modern art was sometimes ugly precisely to draw attention to the difficulty and difference of its aesthetic and intellectual properties. It was meant not to sell, or at least not to sell too well. Remember that the next time a Picasso sells for millions. Similarly, the church and in a different way educational institutions retained a relative independence form the marketplace, or at least resisted the notion that they could be reduced to market forces. Whether claiming to provide access to the sacred or to enduring human values, religious institutions and educational institutions served–even when they were corrupt or banal–to remind the culture that there was a world apart, something that called us to be better than ourselves, or at least reminded us that our present values were not all the values that there were.
Sandel rightly notes that that residue has all but disappeared, and the result has been an hollowing out of our public life, and a debasement of our humanity.
In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence. It has helped prepare the way for market triumphalism, and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.
In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.
This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.
Sandel wonders about a way to connect to some kind of moral discourse to inform public life, something that will reach beyond the reach of markets, but he clearly despairs that such a connection can be found. I think there’s good reason. Rapidly our educational institutions have become factories that shamelessly advertise themselves as places where people can make themselves in to better commodities than they were before, and which build programs designed to sell themselves to the highest number of student-customers possible. Our religious institutions are floundering. Only today I read in Time magazine that the rise of so-called “nones”–people who claim to have no religious affiliation–is one of the most notable developments in our spiritual culture. Such people often seek to be spiritual but not religious on the grounds that religions are dogmatic and inflexible. I have come to wonder whether that dogmatism and inflexibility points to the hard won truth that it is not good enough to just go along to get along.
One wonders, in fact, whether a spirituality based on getting along really provides a hard point of resistance to the tendency to see everything in life–whether my beliefs or my ethics–as an investment that must pay off if it is to be worth keeping. I wonder, too, whether our educational systems and institutions are up to the task of providing an education that isn’t just another instance of the market. As for art, writing, and literature. Well, who knows? Modernism was not always commodified, though it very quickly became so. I do find it intriguing that this point of hyper-commodification is also a time when there has been an explosion of free or relatively free writing and music on the internet. There is a small return to the notion of the artist as a community voice, with musician and poets producing work for free on the internet, and making their living through performance or through other jobs–escaping or at least partially escaping the notion that we produce work primarily to sell it. This is a small resistance, but worth thinking about.
I wonder if there are other ways our culture is equipped to resist in a larger collective fashion, the turning of our lives in to the image of a can of soup?