Monday, January 28, 2013

A Market Society

Michael Den Tandt writes in this morning's National Post that Stephen Harper's Conservatives:

view every file, including those traditionally related to social justice, through an economic prism – the thinking being that the surest remedy to poverty and related social problems is a job.

Harper believes that the way to cool aboriginal discontent is to give native people a piece of his economic action plan. Economics is at the heart of everything. Harper is, in Michael Sandel's words, committed transforming Canada's market economy into a market society.

Sandel --  a moral philiosopher from Harvard -- claims that the entire world has been moving in that direction:

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. 

People have come to believe that everything can be priced -- which means that everything can be bought and sold. The problem is that, when everything is up for sale, products are devalued. And when you try to sell things like justice, respect, happiness or -- let's face it -- democracy, the results are horrendous:

Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale?

For two reasons. One is about inequality, the other about corruption. First, consider inequality. In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence—or the lack of it—matters. If the only advantage of affluence were the ability to afford yachts, sports cars, and fancy vacations, inequalities of income and wealth would matter less than they do today. But as money comes to buy more and more, the distribution of income and wealth looms larger.

The second reason we should hesitate to put everything up for sale is more difficult to describe. It is not about inequality and fairness but about the corrosive tendency of markets. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens, but might also corrupt the meaning of citizenship. 

That last point is crucial. A market society corrupts the meaning of citizenship. And that is precisely what Mr. Harper is doing.


Lorne said...

Although not explicitly stated, Owen, surely the most corrosive and insidious consequence of the commodification of everything is the temptation to dismissively judge those beneath a certain economic stratum. It certainly seems a guiding principle of this government and many of those who support it.

Owen Gray said...

So true, Lorne. We have come to judge someone by the size of his or her bank account, and not -- as Martin Luther king said -- by the content of their character.

Anonymous said...

Dirty oil, gold and all the money in the world, will be worth what? If you watched the program, on how this planet is running out of, clean drinking water? How stupid those people really are. They had better, be able to drink oil and, eat their money. Perhaps that's why they are desperate, to find another planet to pollute.

The only intelligent people on this planet are the F.N. They spoke up long ago, on the disaster that will fall on all of us. They were the only ones who could see, the chain reaction, of our deadly, toxic pollution.

It's as they say. We are the most destructive animals on this earth and, the most stupid ones at that.

Owen Gray said...

When everything is for sale, Anon, eventually all the shelves will be bare.

thwap said...

The more of yourself you're willing to sell, the more the masters of such a society will pay you.

Your dignity. Your honour. Your self-respect. Your humanity.

It's worked out okay for harper. Up until now.

Owen Gray said...

The way it usually works, thwap, is that you mortgage your soul.

It's only later that the payment comes due.

ChrisJ said...

Another side of this is the narrowing of competition to a point at which we will read, watch and otherwise consume only what Amazon and iTunes and a handful of others deem profitable.

Remember Taco Bell in Demolition Man.

Owen Gray said...

A market society is really all about a return to feudalism, Chris.

It's structured so that there are a few overlords at the top. The rest of us are vassals, who rely on the lords' good graces.

Kirbycairo said...

I read a great book in the early 90s about this issue cleverly written by a man who was anticipating this even before the cold war ended. William Dugger's Corporate Hegemony. See if you can get a copy of it because he goes into great detail about the social impact of corporate ideology and what he calls "anticipatory socialization" as an effect of this process.

Owen Gray said...

Thanks for the tip, Kirby. Some people saw this coming long before it arrived.

Its uncanny how accurate the transformation of Bedford Falls to Pottersville was in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Just a fanciful film which dealt with some dark issues.