Social Market

What would a market, built into which is an acknowledgement of the market’s dependence on central power, on the one hand, and the long term moral and ethical life of workers and consumers, on the other hand, look like? Let’s set aside the policies and governing structure needed to create such a market, and just examine how the people, especially employers and investors, would think and act within it. If I sell heroin, I’m going to keep running out of customers, because they will keep dying or ruining their lives and therefore be unable to pay me anymore. So, I need to keep finding new customers, which I can only do by exploiting unhappy, weak-minded, and desperate people, and making those people no good for anything else, whether it be their families, their jobs, or buying lots of other things. And I contribute to the ruination of the society I live in, diverting the resources of the state into expensive quagmires, where it ends up at war with many of its own citizens. Here, then, we have a model of a clearly anti-social market, from which existing markets will differ to some extent in degree and kind. If I prefer to sell something other than heroin, even if doing so yields me much lower profits, and even if I could insulate myself from the legal liabilities of the drug trade, then this is a choice any individual or firm could make in less extreme situations.

We should make use of the broader, somewhat metaphorical, use of “market” to make sense of the “market” in the narrower, more technical sense of an arena where money is systematically exchanged for goods (where you can’t get goods any other way). The most obvious example is the “sexual market,” explored so extensively and meticulously in the “manosphere,” at sites like Chateau Heartiste and Rollo Tommassi’s Rational Male. The calculation of male and female sexual value is certainly a highly advanced art, and perhaps a science, at such sites. Because, of course, there is something we could recognize as exchanges here, and a range of possible exchanges that might be made. David Graeber identifies three modes of human interaction: communism, exchange, and hierarchy. In communism everyone takes what they need and give what they can, which is actually a fairly common arrangement, found in families and sports teams, for examples. Hierarchy is unidirectional, whereas exchange, however asymmetrical, is give and take. Clearly, communism and hierarchy shade into exchange, which means that at its margins exchange shades into them.

Eric Gans, in his reading of The Illiadin The End of Culture, identifies war as the first marketplace. It’s definitely either that or sex. Warriors are assessed at their fighting value, for which they expect recompense from the spoils—the whole plot of the poem is driven by Achilles’s resentment at being, in his view (and objectively so, it appears), shortchanged. These pre-monetary marketplaces, bordering on communism and hierarchy in very visible ways, are very helpful in assessing more developed, monetary markets. In these more primitive markets, the relation between value and choice is much more direct. The better warrior, the more beautiful woman, the more alpha man—these values can be tested fairly easily, and virtual unanimity achieved. The types of conflicts they lead to are also fairly typical, along with the institutions and positions needed to constrain these markets: marriage, family, commanders, kings. And these institutions in turn create new markets: the position of commander can be exchanged for political support, marriage becomes a way of consolidating status by families. It may very well be that, rather than a strict linear procession of markets, constraining institutions, modified markets, the markets and institutions are co-created in various ways in different situations.

Achilles would want the best sword; the alpha of the tribe would want the most beautiful clothes for his wife (she would want this too)—blacksmiths would want to make Achilles his sword, and tailors the alpha’s wife’s dress. We would see the same thing today with makers of private jets, luxury yachts and Lamborghinis and their customers. The most important buildings in town would be designed by the best architects, who compete amongst themselves. Achilles is sure to know the best sword; the mayor or town council is somewhat less likely to know which design will be best, even under conditions in which we could exclude bribery and favoritism. The odds are much better if the town has a long tradition of prestigious structures, its own style, and if those traditions are respected. The best construction company will want to build the building, and it will want to use the best bricks, mortar, cement, wood, etc. Less important buildings, built by those with less resources, will be designed and built by the second, third, fourth, and so on best architects and construction companies, using correspondingly inferior materials. They will be modeled on the more prestigious buildings though, and will try to borrow their glamor and charisma.

Such a system requires that the elites be deserving, and seen as deserving, of their position. Achilles is the best fighter—he proves that daily on the battlefield, and if you want to challenge him you may be able to find out for yourself. Who are the richest men in town, or in the nation? We can dismiss Balzac’s witticism about crimes and fortunes—for the most part, at the origin of wealth and power is genuine accomplishment. Not everyone can build a giant, innovative corporation that will last for generations—Henry Ford, John Paul Getty, John Rockefeller and the others were definitely better at something which it is very good to be better at, than others, even if quite a bit of luck and ruthlessness facilitated their rise (exploited luck, and channeling ruthlessness are also worthwhile capacities to possess). Nevertheless, if one wants to claim they were unworthy elites, and that we would have been better served by a different breed or batch, then the question needs to be formulated properly—a particular mode of rule or sovereignty allowed these to rise, just as a particular mode placed Achilles at the center. The most effective way of making the market social is through constraining the elites—there is, by definition, a bottleneck allowing only a few people to become and remain elites; the attention of the sovereign, from the narrow perspective of wealth generation and the broader perspective of integrating wealth generation into the entire social order, is to closely monitor that bottleneck. Any social order, at any particular point in time, has a particular stock of technology, infrastructure, sunk capital, homes, buildings, and so on. If the sovereign allows for elites to degrade that stock, he undermines his own occupancy of the center, because he is allowing considerations other than a hierarchy of recognizable value to determine the ordering of society, and the stability of his rule depends on such a hierarchy. If crap is being designed and built, and therefore modeled for everyone else, the sovereign is clearly responsible, and is either incompetent or is being swayed by lesser motives. And this encourages others to try and sway him by such motives.

So, the ruler is the occupant of the center to the extent that he constrains the elites to preserve and enhance the existing stock of social capacities and goods, which also means to generate markets that serve circles modeled on and organized concentrically around those surrounding the sovereign. At each level there would be means of recruiting and elevating talented individuals from the lower levels; indeed, there’s no reason such a social order couldn’t have as much upward mobility as present-day Western ones which, in truth, is not all that much. And it might have more downward mobility, as the maxim that the fish rots from the head would be put conscientiously into practice, with the elites subjected to special scrutiny. The far more important question is that of the mass market. The most compelling moral argument for the contemporary liberal capitalist order is that it has lifted hundreds of millions, by now maybe over a billion, of people throughout the world out of poverty—on the brink of starvation poverty, not food stamp receiving poverty. Even in the wealthier countries, it cannot be denied that mass marketers like Wal-Mart have made available what were once luxuries to pretty much everyone—universal access to refrigerators, cars, air conditioners, ovens, microwaves, lawn mowers and all the rest is far from nothing, and I’ll grant it’s an unmitigated good, even the TVs and computers, which can’t be blamed for what is transmitted via them. But the model of the market I’ve been piecing together here would seem to preclude such direct appeal to a mass, all-inclusive consumer market, one that has not been adequately formed by the market spaces proximate to the sovereign.

Of course, all new products start off expensive and are first of all marketed to the wealthy; still, the process by which such products go down the line, finally reaching the wage earner (and welfare recipient) has accelerated to the point where it barely exists. A new Apple phone, which would have been an astonishing, well-nigh science fictional device to younger versions of many of us, is marketed directly to everyone. How is this done? Vast amounts of capital are moved overseas, so that near starving workers can produce the items at prices affordable for those elsewhere a generation or two beyond near starvation wages. OK, let’s go along with this for a moment, and take the economic, libertarian argument at its word: those working at near starvation wages now will be middle class in a generation and the work will then be passed on to some other impoverished nation, and so on, until… well, what, exactly? The process has worked for South Korea and the other “tigers,” it seems to be working for China, but then what? It seems to have made no progress at all in the Middle East, much less Africa, which is being colonized by China for its raw materials in a development no Western narrative is equipped to recognize. The results are mixed in lots of other countries, but, anyway, all of these production processes are going to be increasingly automated anyway. Then what? The question of the mass market turns into the question of creating high-quality forms of activity out of the universal networks we are all plugged into.

Hannah Arendt remarked that Marx never seemed to consider the implications of the end of labor in the fully automated society he projected communism to be for his own anthropology, which defined man as homo laborans. The same question can be asked of free market liberals—if all necessities and a lot of luxuries can be produced with very little labor, as will no doubt eventually be the case, why is anyone going to work, what is the point of buying and selling what is readily available to all, etc.?—but it’s a good question for anyone. It may be that the work we do will be more social, as the old tech-utopians from the 60s like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminister Fuller thought—lots of teaching one another to do all kinds of interesting things. As Gaston Bachelard predicted, society will be for school rather than school being for society. (Liberals might consider how inane protests over things like “white privilege” will seem then.) There will also be a lot of caregiving—the health care professions, which have been expanding dramatically for a while now, will no doubt continue to do so, as various forms of therapy will become more nuanced and we will be troubled and seek help for aches and pains we don’t even notice now.

I think what this would amount to is a process of de-disciplining and re-disciplining. Take health care. We still go to the doctor for all kinds of things that could probably be dealt with by trained professionals without an MD (even though more and more people do go to these intermediate caregivers). No doubt science and engineering—a great bulk of the work done will involve keeping everything running and holding up—can similarly be broken down into more precise levels of expertise, especially as the frontiers of knowledge advance and subdivide. If all of these professions involve directly helping people who can judge whether they have been helped or not, and maintaining systems the decline or collapse of which couldn’t go unnoticed, then we actually have a social market that has an orderly, hierarchical structure similar to the one sketched out above. I wouldn’t want to speculate on the leisure activities that might accompany the social market, but there’s no need to assume that people engaged in productive, freely chosen and mostly interesting occupations would spend their free time in nihilistic pursuits. Absolutism is not utopian, but these eutopian prospects represent an extinction event for liberalism and democracy, which would therefore fight every sign of them fiercely.

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