Markets and Selves

by longingforthereal

Recently, I attended the lecture of the esteemed political philosopher and public intellectual, Micahel Sandel. The second of this year’s Tanner Lectures on Ethics, Citizenship, and Public Responsibility, Sandel’s talk centered around the theme of his most recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. I haven’t read the book. Though, judging by the talk (and a few reviews) it seems perfectly clear what the book is about, and it’s a reiteration of a story that’s been told in more or less the same way since at least since the late 19th century: We’ve transitioned from a market economy to a market society, wherein more and more areas of life are subject to market mechanisms; the market erodes existing values that foster a sense of debate about larger questions of morality and the public good; our political discourse suffers from this trend, reduced now to series of shouting matches that lead, at best, to political stalemate.

In the world of political philosophy, Sandel is best known for his communitarian critique of liberalism, along with the likes of Alasdair MacIntyre and, to a lesser extent, Michael Walzer, all of whom launched what seemed like collective expression of dissatisfaction with liberal thought in the late 70s and 80s. In his book, Liberalism and The Limits of Justice, Sandel took issue with one of the signal pronouncements of liberal (and socialist) political philosophy in the twentieth-century, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. He criticized Rawls’s “original position” for abstracting the human being from its community and arguing, on Kantian grounds, that the self (along with other selves), shorn of its commitments to social values, will necessarily act in accordance with the dictates of rationality, without any contingent or situated laws or norms. For Rawls the un-situated self in the original position meant that, along with others in the same position, there exists a situation of equilibrium in which participants will act out of rational self-interest to attain a position that will be mutually agreeable to all. The logic of Rawls’s view was that people acting out of self-interest, and without a sense of situatedness or contingency, will agree inherently on the principle of liberty, but will also be necessarily risk-averse, ideally causing them to assent to provisions for the least well off.

On Sandel’s account, this was wholly unrealistic, because the “original position” assumes that we could ever be “unsituated,” that is, unconditioned by circumstance. In other words, we can never escape, as Heidegger put it, our “thrownness.” Like Alsadair MacIntyre, Sandel argued that without a conception of the public good a priori (which is not to say the content of that good), then public deliberation and public life is unthinkable. Add Sandel’s vision of a “market society” into the equation, and public life seems like a foregone conclusion.

Sandel cajoled the audience into considering why it is that the encroachment of market forces into more and more areas of life deemed “off-limits” is in fact Bad. With a capital B. Fair enough. By way of public discussion (the model of the town hall forum wistfully longed after by those longing for a so-called “revival” of civic life), Sandel wanted the audience to reach a point at which, by considering examples such as putting a fifty thousand dollar price tag on immigration in order to solve a social problem by market mechanisms, they would realize that, “Hey, the market can’t solve all of our problems; we’re human beings damn it, and social problems can’t be solved with money.” But what Sandel cavalierly leaves out of the story, aside from the fact that it is at this point a hopeless and sentimental paean, is just what he means by “markets” and what their existence and proliferation might say about us as human beings.

If in fact we take an industrialized market economy as the underwriter of the “social-self,” freed from the moorings of the traditional family and work lives, then Sandel may have been right to cast such strong doubt on Rawls’s deontological self. But as we find ourselves in a globalized world underwritten by financial capitalism, then we must take that society on its own terms, and allow it to disclose to us something we keep hidden from ourselves, something we don’t really want to know about ourselves. Many on the left decry this society and the attendant self-interestedness, self-absorption, and “narcissism” it has wrought. Others, like James Livingston, see in that same society the creation of new resources through which that society might become more just. If in fact these represent two ends of a spectrum on which our political imaginary rests, then it’s safe to say that Sandel would find himself at home with the former. What’s more interesting, however, what’s arguably a more vital resource for political change is precisely what the polarization itself obscures. But can we see the clearing?

Sandel’s goal is a more robust public life, a view of the good that values deliberative democracy and debate over large questions of public morality, as the key to a vibrant political and moral life. But insofar as the markets he decries have made issues of the good into fungible assets and commodities, then the question becomes this: Who is to say that such an idyllic public forum won’t result in a stalemate reflective of a larger culture of nihilism?

You might say that the over-extension of markets is, arguably, one of the causes of such nihilism, and so if you rein in markets then agreement on what constitutes the good might become a more realistic possibility. But, in fact, our nihilism has nothing to do with markets. It seems, rather, that it is the collective expression, and culmination of what Rienhold Niebuhr described as our divided self. That self contains two tensions perennially at odds with each other, and explains both the beauty and wonder of late capitalism and the horror and injustice it has wrought. On the one side of that self is the fact that, as human beings, our highest degree of self-realization can only be found in the lives of others, a fundamental paradox because the self that seeks fulfillment in others is a self that can no longer be. Freud called this the death drive. Along with sex, he rightly noted that its sublimation lies at the heart of every human vitality, both individual and collective, political and social, artistic and cultural. There can in fact be no limitations placed on these vitalities, except for the fact that, while they are the most beautiful parts of human being-in-the-world, they are, as the other side of the self, also the most destructive. At the individual level, Niebuhr attributed this to the fundamental fact of self-interest contained in every human being, her will-to-power which, when expressed on the collective level, can be, and usually is, profoundly destructive. Thus it is that human history contains the most awesome triumphs along with the most destructive and evil forces. This is, I think, what Joseph Schumpter had in mind when described capitalism as a process of “Creative Destruction.”

The human being divided against herself is expressed in the nihilistic atmosphere of late capitalism: it contains the richest, most varied artistic and intellectual cultures, yet it is underwritten by the profoundest injustice and exploitation. As Walter Benjamin put it, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

The forces of privatization and the general creep of market forces into domains that should remain sacred are facts of the last four decades that should be reckoned with. But how?  Recourse to a public good of deliberative democracy by condemning “markets” outright fails to consider the ways in which the market itself is controlled by the indeterminate nature of human desire which, if left unchecked, leaves us in the situation we find ourselves in today. That is to say, the reality of a perpetual conflict of interests and desires, our clashing of wills-to-power, soberly diagnosed by Niebuhr and, for that matter, James Madison, is a more fundamental issue today than the forces of markets themselves.

For Niebuhr, the arbiter of such conflicts was reason, which is “organically related to a particular center of vitality, individual and collective,” and which serves to “limit expansive impulses by coercion.” Herein lays a crucial point. Reason is nothing but the claim to community, and requires the necessity of coercion to keep the destructive side of our inordinate desires, individual and collective, from wreaking destruction within and without. It is a claim that recognizes human vitality, mutability, and proliferation as both the source of our ills and triumphs, and necessitates coercion as mediating factor between the two. Insofar as reason, in this sense, is bound up with the acknowledgment of human frailty and finitude, which is in fact fallibility, and thus recognizes that the “claim of reason” rests on nothing more than our fragile and multiple claims to community, then the use of coercion in order to maintain elements of community necessarily translates into competing claims on what community is. Power will only meet power. And the claims of power in this sense will always represent the competition of interests enshrined by Madison in the constitution, and articulated by Niebuhr.

In the case of combating privatization, neo-liberalism, and the encroachment of the market, then, what is required is a sober recognition that the market does not itself stand at odds with the public good, but that we stand at odds with ourselves. In the throes of late-capitalism, acknowledging this condition means acknowledging that we can in fact be “in” and not “of” this world, as James Livingston denies, as an acknowledgment of the fact that the desire for transcendence and sublimation is contained in our proliferating technological culture fostered by financial and global capitalism: our facebooks, and iPhones, the virtual worlds we create for ourselves; these are not simply utilities, but the desire to be elsewhere, in other worlds. Insofar as we remain in “this” world, however, a world that we in fact create and amend, then coming to terms with it does not mean waiting to be saved in the next life, but acknowledging that there is no real limit placed upon the human imagination, her desire to be elsewhere, her drive toward virtual self-effacement. Insofar as this is a fact of fallibility, then it should act as a sober reassessment of the human capacity for evil, for destruction, and injustice.

Recourse to public morality and the “Good,” as opposed to the nebulous “market,” fails to take this fact into account. And it is that failure that speaks to the sober reality that reason’s claim to community makes coercion necessary for justice, a fact that makes democracy both necessary and, as we see in our own case, perilous. As Niebuhr put it, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.”


-Erik Hmiel