August 14, 2009

The Economic Imperative

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:59 am

Post-gift economy, there are two ways of organizing economic relations:  through the free market, or bureaucratically.  Bureaucratic economics, the “command economy,” organizes distribution of labor and resources through a hierarchical series of imperatives; it is either a parasitic excrescence (even if serving otherwise indispensable purposes) upon the market, or it is constructed in the ruins of the market, and leaves nothing but ruin in its own wake.  All this is well known by now.  But there are some paradoxes to unpack here.  The free market emerged as a concept and rallying cry against the privileges of aristocracy, monarchy and Church, as part of the call for universalism against particularism.  The actually existing market itself has no such unanimous support, though—everyone has some particular interest in manipulations of the market in their favor, in rent-seeking.  At a certain point, we could imagine, the competition to achieve rents through government granted privileges, explicit or implicit (say, in the way in which regulations favor larger businesses capable of paying the costs of compliance), would choke off the market altogether.  What blocks this outcome, we can further assume, is expansion and innovation—through the 19th century, the creation and discovery of new markets, in the US West and for European countries imperialism, and increasingly important, technological transformation and the creation of new needs and desires.  The rent-seekers obstruct innovation, but could never anticipate all the possible channels it might take, and the innovators will defend their place on the market until competitors emerge and they become rent-seekers in turn.


At any particular moment, then, even while one producer may use free market rhetoric to chip away at the privileges of another, the consistent and at least partially conscious defenders of the market will be few and not coordinated with each other:  some small businesses, innovators with a head start on potential competitors, risk-takers who would like rewards to match risk, migrant or in some way “sub-standard” labor that relies upon enterprises where minimum wage, unions and other labor regulations are overlooked.  There is one other “class” with an interest in preserving the market—the consumers.  The availability of choices on the marketplace, or the decrease in the number of choices, is an unmistakable marker of the quality of life.  Even here, though, this interest is inconsistently advanced—prices, after all, can be lowered by “command,” choices reduced through regulation and privileges granted to one producer over others, and these privileges are often granted due to the health and safety (and, now, environmental) consciousness of consumers.  The benefits of economic command are immediately and intensely felt by very specific economic actors; but we never know what we have lost due to restrictions on freedom.  In the end, it is perhaps the pragmatism of politicians, who would know from personal experience how dependent their own pet projects are on wealth creation, who more than anyone else are responsible for us having as much of a free market as we have had so far.


Even more, the generalization of the free market requires a class of “protectors,” located within the imperative order, whose values cannot be squared with the market.  Soldiers can’t be given economic incentives to kill more of the enemy.  Most social orders probably have a separate class of “armed men,” but in a market order no political superiority can be granted to those who put themselves on the line to protect the rights of everyone else.  The reciprocal resentment thereby bred will only in very extreme conditions be a threat to social order, but it is permanent and consequential nevertheless—those living on the market don’t want to think too much about those “rough men” who keep them safe at night and would certainly prefer not to encounter them in their daily lives, while a certain tribalism is probably inevitable for the latter.  This is worth mentioning here because the values of the imperative order shape attitudes more generally—whatever the economic effects of the loyalty of some to American car companies, or the insistence that no immigrant be allowed in until all Americans have jobs, these are not economic attitudes.  And it is also true that one of the most formidable obstacles to the establishment of market relations and its normative supports is the persistence of social relations based on honor and kinship, or residual forms of the “big man”—whether in slums in Western countries or the Muslim world.


It seems to me obvious, then, that we still need a political economy—we need to think politics and economics in an integrated way, otherwise we are likely to make one of the following errors:  one, seeing politics as an arena where we guide, fix, organize, reconcile, etc., an economic system that goes off track, gets broken, and is continually getting caught in its “internal contradictions”; and, two, seeing government intervention as an arbitrary interference with natural economic laws.  I’m certainly much more sympathetic to error number two, but my answer to calls for laissez faire is to call attention to how much political action would be necessary to approximate that—there would have to be forms of collective action that in a very sustained, persistent and sophisticated way counter—by getting officials elected, by maintaining pressure on them, through targeted policy proposals, grassroots organization, at times civil disobedience, etc.—the events constantly generated by the rent seekers.  Those who think that the welfare and regulatory state could simply be rolled back through persuasion of our fellow citizens and we could all return to our private pursuits haven’t really thought it through.  Even leaving aside the perpetual resentments underlying rent-seeking, a free market politics would have to support ongoing debates over what would inevitably be enormously complex questions regarding the reshaping of contract law as the state’s reach receded.  Also, the cultural politics of free marketers will face its own complications:  we know very well that certain habits are required for participation in the free market, but if we cede areas of life like education to the private sphere we concede that anti-capitalist forces might be favorably positioned to conquer substantial cultural terrain. (And that’ leaving aside for now the problems of a pro-capitalist, pro-freedom foreign policy).


I would like to see if originary grammar can help us with political economy.  I would offer the following formulation:  the economic imperative is to arrange the imperatives one obeys so as to maximize ostensivity.  On one level, this is a phrasing, in terms of originary grammar, of a basic understanding of “economy” as presupposing scarcity:  we must (we are compelled, we are “commanded” to) gather our resources, use our skills, refine our skills, invent modes of cooperation, convert all of our limitations into positives to the extent possible in order to meet our needs, preserve our ability to meet tomorrow’s needs, and so on. 


We have a market economy when others’ actions are inextricable from my assemblage of imperatives—if lots of people want something, that becomes an imperative for me, and it affects the hierarchy of all the imperatives compelling me.  Unlike the gift economy, in the market economy the imperatives are impersonal and incalculable; but also more contingent and harder to norm.  And we should use the word “imperative” literally—when someone says “I have to have that!” they really mean it, even if it turns out there are other, overriding compulsions.  Meanwhile, let’s use the notion of “ostensivity” in its most precise, originary sense—not merely referring to something, but bringing into being a world by deferring some crisis through a gesture.  Wealth is a sign—for oneself, for others.  My desires model a certain kind subjectivity predicated upon possession—possessing wealth, displaying wealth, viewing the wealth of others, always conveys meanings, in the kind of intuitive, immediate and often unassailable (until it is too late, anyway) sense we associate with the ostensive.  What I am calling “maximizing ostensivity,” then, could be considered “ostentation,” and middle class frugality is as ostentatious as the conspicuous consumption of billionaires—it communicates discipline, concern for the next generation, belief in the rules of the game, etc., and the imperatives pressing upon the economic subject are articulated for the sake of ostentation. 


Labor is still problematic, insofar as it is driven, for most people, by overwhelming imperatives with limited opportunities for ostentation.  For the most part, people have much less choice of the kind of work they do than in their consumption practices.  Labor is, literally, “meaningless”:  it is rarely set up so as to put forth signs.  Hopefully this will change, but only slowly, I suspect—the ideal, probably never to be reached, would be that everyone be entrepreneurial, self-employed, and creative.  The abolition of wage labor is an admirable goal, even if making everyone employees of the state won’t get us there.   In other words, the more the desire for one job or line of work or another enters into one’s imperative space on other than sheer financial grounds, the better.


Once all the imperatives are placed in the same space for each individual, we can map economic activity in much more complex ways.  Family, habits and location emit pertinent imperatives, but we already knew that (even if economists don’t quite know what to do with it)—so do ethics and morality.  A lot of government intervention in the economy is premised on the assumption that it is better for people to choose some commodities over others, and that people don’t always know which are better; this is obviously true, and the only problem is with the assumption is that we can know who will know better.  But there are better ways to “politicize” and “moralize” the economy.  Here, I would like to draw upon the notion of “originary advertising” that Chris Fleming and John O’Carroll suggested at the latest GA conference.  The only real contribution made by the Left to contemporary politics has been in its pioneering use of boycotts—whether it be the strike, the Montgomery bus boycott, the boycott of South Africa in the 80s, and, more recently (and, of course, far less obviously virtuous), attempts to gin up shunning campaigns against “socially irresponsible” companies like Wal-Mart. 


Whatever one thinks of any particular cause, one can’t deny that the boycott is a completely voluntary and non-coercive form of political action—it may be experienced as coercive by its targets, but that just means that a new set of imperative have been introduced into your “table.”  If you wish to sacrifice sales in order to continue with practices you consider necessary and justified, that’s up to you.  (You can market yourself as a company willing to stand up to unwarranted intimidation—buy our products and stand alongside us!) My point here, though, is that advertising, that practice wherein the seller presents potential buyers with a model of what it would mean to possess the commodity or, to put it another way, where the producer or seller thinks about how its products and organization take shape in others’ self-representations, is where boycotts would show their results.  More commons and skillful uses of boycotts might lead to all kinds of economic “irrationalities” (according to what model of rationality, though?) but it might be that a richer sense of the assemblage of imperatives one articulates with each new sale and purchase would create a more rational system overall.  When some powerful activist group targets a corporation, there appears to be a conflict between the company’s duties to its shareholders and to some notion of social responsibility, but if ignoring the demands of that group ends up reducing sales, those duties are no longer competing.  Nor need things end there—other groups are free to weigh down on the other side, and the company itself is free to make its case to the public; others can propose boycotts of companies that cave into the noxious activist group, etc.  Boycotts can get more sophisticated and targeted (new companies would spring up to consult on them), and companies will more and more market themselves as “pro-family,” “pro-community,” or anything else.  Of course companies do this now, but given the kind of development I am proposing, these claims would come under closer scrutiny all the time, and branding become an activity carried out by consumers as much as producers.


The moral imagination might think it needs to discipline the market, but the opposite is likely to be the case more often—we will become more conversant in the economics of morality.  Indeed, we could imagine getting to the point where no moral claim for reform will be taken seriously without the proposal, at least hypothetical, as a kind of metric, of a boycott that would likely do more good than harm.  And perhaps this is the kind of vocabulary that we would need in order to speak seriously about regulation, including in the financial system.  In other words, before we could expect serious answers to the question of what kind of regulation we need to prevent crises similar to the one we are witnessing today from occurring in the future, we should be asking about the moral economy we would have to share, at least minimally, before the other question would become meaningful.  The moral economy, then, the mapping of our imperative space upon declaratives, would have to become part of economics.  (To think about it grammatically, we would be moving from “I want x,” which is technically a declarative but just barely [if x were in view, you wouldn’t need the sentence], to “I would compose myself x-ly,” which might open a multilayered ethical and esthetic discussion rather than prompting a rapid-fire comparison of preferences.)


Perhaps the assumption that certain moral and ethical dispositions (certain patterns in the relations between ostensives, imperatives and declaratives) are required for a healthy political economy would help account for and benefit from exploring the one time and place in history, so far as I know, that genuinely approximated a free market:  the 19th century Anglosphere, the U.S. and Great Britain (and Canada?) in particular.  One of the greatest accomplishments of early modern bourgeois culture was the conversion of aristocratic into republican values, as notions like “nobility” and “virtue” came to be attached to action and character as opposed to being markers of social class.  The “gentleman” and the “lady” were critical results of this process, and these figures eased the transition from status to individuality, maintaining their currency until very recently—only the cultural revolution of the 60s decisively dealt them their death blow (how long before the terms no longer even grace our public restrooms?).  The gentleman and the lady domesticated ancient notions of “honor,” directing them away from violence perpetuated in the name of tribal and patriarchal prerogatives and protection towards a harmonious balance between public and private life, centered on the division of sexual roles in the nuclear family.  My point here is not that we can revive ladies and gentlemen, but simply that no account of free market economics would be complete without them— without the assumptions of upward mobility and generational transmission through discipline and effort, including female responsibility for sexual deferral and “manly” self-reliance, implicit in these “categories,” the daunting rigors of Victorian laissez-faire economics would be unthinkable.  An originary political economy today, then, would likewise have to study the novel forms of individuality and family life emergent today.  An unsentimental and disinterested observation of today’s children and youth—if we can impose upon ourselves the discipline restraining us from either marveling at their supposedly splendid new qualities or flunking them due to their deviation from a more familiar model—would certainly be a good place to start, especially given the almost absolute independence and simulated internal coherence accredited to the world of teenagers in particular by the contemporary market.  Maybe the representation of children holds at least one key towards unlocking today’s political economy.

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