October 23, 2018

What are We Talking About When We Talk About the Market?

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:01 am

It may be possible that no one really likes “the market.” Eric Gans identifies as the “constituent hypocrisy” of Romanticism that the romantic stance is predicated upon resistance to the market in the name of an irreducible individual distinctiveness, while this distinctiveness is precisely what enables the romantic artist to circulate in the market. The analysis applies to contemporary marketing just as acutely, as the method of marketing is to sell identities that liberate the consumer from the judgments of others, that is, of the market. But anti-marketism characterizes producers no less than consumers: not producer really wants to compete; if it was up to the producer, he would secure a complete monopoly, along with absolute control of the supply chain comprising the production of the goods or services produced. The advocate of the free market will say that this is precisely the point: the market compels everyone to recognize an impersonal structure indifferent to his desires and resentments, and hence to accept a sociality to which his individuality must be subordinated. The fact that it is impersonal is a key selling point: market advocacy is an argument for authority in the absence of, and to the deliberate exclusion of, any personal, responsible authority. This leads to the assumption that the market is something one might “resist” or “oppose”; as well as to the complementary realization that such resistance is always already futile since it will just produce another commodity. Which, of course, keeps the market going.

The more you’re ensconced within economic networks, the less you talk about markets—then, it is a case of preserving existing relationships with suppliers and distributors, R & D, planning PR and advertising campaigns, securing reliable politicians, and so on. It is the outsider who engages in market talk, hoping to pry open those networks and get plugged into them. So, if market talk represents a demand for obedience to an impersonal authority, it also, paradoxically, represents the demand that that impersonal authority be turned into a vehicle of power for the marginalized. On one level, there’s no contradiction: the more impervious to influence the authority it is, the more useful it is to sway it to your side; but, of course, sooner or later it becomes evident that the authority was never impersonal in the first place, and it’s just a question of getting your influence peddling installed before the claims to neutrality, objectivity, stability and so on lose their market value. It turns out the market was always already just a big ol’ romantic itself, one big center of resistance to authority. Even the Man wants to fight the Man.

So, if hating the market is just a trick for drawing you into the vortex on the consumer side, and loving the market is trick for getting into it on the producer side, perhaps a moderate “like” for the market provides a better approach. In this case, it will no longer be “the market.” If someone makes or does something very well, that person knows it, and so do other people who are trying to do that thing or something similar. But when the question is asked, in general, what is done well, what is worth owning or having done, the answer comes back: the market decides. Whether the expert is judging or the market is deciding, there is a circularity here: the expert is the expert because he knows what the best is, but if he tries to explain it to the non-expert, he can’t do so convincingly. The non-expert might prefer lesser wares, and resist attempts to refine his taste so he can appreciate the better product. Meanwhile, on what grounds could one appeal the verdict of the market? To say that the market was “wrong” seems almost like a category error.

David Graeber is definitely right that many, if not most, jobs in the advanced capitalist economy are bullshit jobs, even if his explanation (conspicuous entouragement by the managerial class) only covers a small part of it. Somehow, the market seems OK with that. There may not be enough genuine productive labor for the population anymore, but that’s not really the market’s problem either. But the more you are good at your job, and consider it important, and want others capable of judging to share in the fruits of your labors, the more you want a smart market, with no extraneous interests coming between your exercising your discipline and finding those willing to join it. Also, the more you are committed to your discipline, the less you want to worry about power, and the less you want everyone else worried about power, because clearly exercised power is the constant that allows you to focus on your own work. And, the less you will talk about “the market,” although you may talk about systemic failures to produce subjects commensurate to the goods and services you’re able to supply them. Of course, you might be wrong: plenty of people think they’re the best who really aren’t. Here, we have to rely upon intellectual and practical traditions, and those genuinely interested in serving some center to act as judges and “checks” on subjective claims. It is those who talk most about “the market” who want power and want to influence power.

Only power that plans on being around for a long time can encourage the development of networks of disciplinary networks that will in turn set the tone for markets, i.e., broader spheres of distribution mediated by money. Revolutionary governments will just burn up networks. Liberal governments resting upon a high level of civilization can be more patient, because they can always find ways to exploit new scientific and technological developments, but only until intra-elite struggles require the deployment of proxies leading to proxy arms races between the contending elites. The predictability of governance is already recognized as a contributor to economic value, even if this can’t be calculated, but we can be more precise about which form of government is itself most interested in predictability and reliability and which model of subjectivity such governments will posit as representative of their rule. It was, at one time, plausible to argue that liberal governments were the most interested in a coherent legal framework, because the legitimacy of their rule rested directly on protecting contracts and generating wealth. That claim is becoming less and less plausible, but it will still remain for disciplined government to demonstrate that it can be such a guarantor.

There is a familiar (but I have no idea how common) pattern whereby a new leadership, brought in to save a failing enterprise or institution, or to carry out an important project, selects a team, either of marginalized employees or those brought in from the outside, and sets them to work outside of the normal rules of functioning of the institution. This is called “skunkworks.” The alternative to liberal and democratic governance is governance by skunkworks. On the model of Thomas Kuhn’s distinction between “normal” and “revolutionary” science, we would distinguish between the normal, rule-governed operations of a company or institutions, and government by skunkworks which, ideally would always be held in reserve and never used. An executive ready, and known to be ready, to resort to skunkworks, would never have to. The model citizen or subject would be the potential skunkworker, and educational institutions would be constructed so as to single out potential skunkworkers for various fields.

“The market” is also really government by skunkworks, to the extent that it exists. A social order with no potential skunkworkers, with no executives willing to shake up organizations and no disciplinary networks they could draw upon to do so, would be an utterly stagnant and parasitic one. Markets are fields of overlapping disciplinary spaces. My hypothesis here is that we can measure the economic efficiency and long term viability of a socio-economic order (or any company or institution) by the qualitative presence of skunkworkers. This couldn’t be measured, in part because you can’t know it exists until you try to mobilize it. But I’m not interested in a new form of economic calculation; I’m interested in the development of public modes of thought and argumentation capable of swaying elites, and those who sway elites. And the best argument for post-liberal and post-democratic, or absolutist, government, would be singling out where skunkworkers are necessary, where they are present, and what interferes with their greater qualitative presence. Focusing on the skunkworker elicits images of the executive ready and willing to use them. All of the criticisms we might make of liberalism, progressivism, and egalitarianism can be reframed as identifying efforts to stifle skunkworks.

The skunkworker ethics would introduce differentiations across the board. The more focused an inquiry gets, the more directly a discipline’s concepts generate imperatives, the more precise the measuring instruments get, the larger the consequences that follow from small differences. We would have a vast field of overlapping disciplines, some of which inquire into the consequences and implications of other disciplines. A discovery in chemistry is taken up by a pharmaceutical discipline; the development of new medicines must be integrated into the practices of doctors and hospitals, and perhaps by city planners in managing public hygiene. The causality might work in the other direction: new forms of travel or work leading to new studies into stress or muscular wear and tear, and from there into genetics. Everyone is to be brought into some disciplinary space—even if some practices start as make work programs, just following the imperative to articulate all subjects into disciplines (which itself would be a discipline), there really always is something that can be done on the periphery of some other discipline. As McLuhan suggested, it might be worth it to pay people to learn things.

Of course, the process of production of the scientists and those entering all the other disciplines, i.e., education, is also a discipline; but that means the overall integration of the disciplines must be thought through in organizing the education process, which means that the human sciences, whatever they might come to look like, focused on moral, ethical and aesthetic problems, service, survey and oversee the entire disciplinary field all at the same time. (The religions I would consider human sciences, as they are inquiries into the sacred, or the permanent center.) I think that what I have called “centered ordinality” should be the organizing assumption of the human sciences: there’s always someone at the center, and the way to be at the center is to carry on the work of your predecessors at the center and leave things better than you found them for your successors there; those who follow centrality create little “eddies” of centrality in its wake.

Of course, I have left the central economic issue, the one “the market” is supposed to resolve, out of the discussion so far: the allocation of resources. Even with a group of very likeminded workers, who are in agreement regarding the final goal and the division of labor amongst them, there are very likely going to disagreements over how to use the available resources. If we’re building a house, should we spend a bit more for the superior brick, or a bit less so we can install better windows? There’s no obvious answer to such questions, even for the most expert. But there’s no objection to the answer the free marketer would give: if you’re building the house for someone else, let the buyer decide. Or, if your company’s brand is that you don’t skimp on brick, then those who agree with you regarding housebuilding priorities will hire you. It may very well be that not enough people consider top-notch brick to be more important than the most up-to-date windows, and you will have to change your brand, accept a smaller market niche, or take up another profession. There will be all kinds of “interfaces” where the market rules in the sense a liberal economist means. It may be that majority, even the vast majority, of transactions take place at such interfaces.

The real question is whether we can imagine a social order in which “disciplinary production,” even if numerically inferior to mass production, nevertheless sets the tone for the latter. That is a social order where the skunkworker option is always open. It’s very likely that a strict monetary policy, deflationary rather than inflationary, sharply privileging saving over lending, would be necessary here. “The market” would be authoritative, but not in the impersonal sense the liberal wants; rather, it would part of a broader human authority directing economic activity toward social ends. We already have fairly obviously examples even in a capitalist order, like tariffs, safety and building codes, aesthetic constraints, like preserving a particular view or the compatibility of housing styles. We know from libertarian economists like Thomas Sowell that such regulations invariably serve vested interests, which is to say the interests of those able to access some portion of state power. (Environmental regulations in wealthy areas make new development prohibitively expensive, thereby increasing the property values of the already wealthy, etc. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly.) But this is a problem of decentered and distributed, rather than hierarchical and concentric, authority. The economic order I am describing presupposes a competent central authority that, regardless of its precise nature, spends like a royal household and a modernizing state, that is, on residences, office buildings, entertainment complexes, parks and gardens, etc., as well as constantly upkept infrastructure—and spends on the best, setting the tone for production and consumption all the way down the line.


  1. Do you know what I don’t understand about the market? It’s supposed to supply us with whatever we want (in terms of consumer products); if there’s a need or desire for something, supposedly the market will supply it. But why can’t the market supply us with decent (I don’t say good or great) music, books, or movies? Think about all the great movies and music of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Why can’t they be reproduced with enough novelty, variation, or development to remain fresh? I would think there would be plenty of people willing to pay to hear someone play like Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, or the early Sun Ra. It’s certainly not a question of technical skill.

    Comment by Q — October 24, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

  2. “Why can’t they be reproduced with enough novelty, variation, or development to remain fresh? I would think there would be plenty of people willing to pay to hear someone play like Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, or the early Sun Ra.”

    I suppose the simplest answer is, not enough to make whatever the initial investment would have to be worth it.

    Comment by adam — October 25, 2018 @ 8:55 am

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