By Ben Bush
There is a large strain of leftist thought—whether from liberal Marxists or (parts of?) the Christian left—which presses a critique of market capitalism as inherently tending to dissolve social bonds and separate us into haves and have-nots. Market capitalism is generally not explicitly defined, but seems to refer to an economy insofar as it is regulated solely by supply and demand. Market capitalism is thus a matter of more or less, not a binary. Both view the problem as one of the distribution of the means of production, and an out of control profit motive.
Insofar as we live in market capitalism, the argument may be plausible. Insofar as we do not, the argument fails as a critique of our present economic system—however well it critiques a prior economic system.
By critiquing our economy as a market capitalist economy, this strain of thought fails to give adequate consideration to how our economy diverges from market capitalism. For instance, the practice of boycotting, or threatening to boycott, establishments on account of the values they express (Target and transgender bathrooms, Starbucks and racism, Chick-Fil-A and conservative Christian views), is a development which is not entirely compatible with the market economy, but a form of defense against it—or rather a hybrid between capitulation and attack. Likewise the tendency to prefer fair trade coffee and other products which make us feel like we are benefiting others.
This can be viewed as a development out of a longstanding struggle between market capitalism and communities. Granting the arguments of the left condemning market capitalism as corrosive to local community identities, we can see regulation as an attempt to preserve communities. Karl Polanyi argues for this dynamic in The Great Transformation with his idea of a double movement. Karl Marx, similarly, sees market capitalism as involving a clash between two classes.
These critiques tended to simply oppose market capitalism, but the divide into two opposing camps is reminiscent of Hegelian dialectic. In that light, we might expect that any solution to the conflict would need to satisfy both sides of the conflict, so that the solution (if there is one) cannot be successful if it remains on the side of either the market or the society, but would have to fuse them in such a way that the economic system would align with the values of the society while remaining, in broad strokes, a market economy. The society would therefore have to find a way to make the profit motive work on its behalf, for instance, by recognizing values beyond use-values: responsibly sourced, free trade, gives back to the community, endorses one’s ethical views, etc.
There is continuity here: this new economy still involves a great deal of commodification and regulation via supply and demand, and thus can easily be viewed as part of market capitalism.
There is also discontinuity, however: the economy of values extends commodification to values which thereby open it to some new kinds of pushback–now personal as well as governmental. We do not trust the hidden hand of the market, as classic market capitalists would. The hand appears in full view as our own actions. We are increasingly conscious of ourselves, as customers, as a regulatory body. While the profit motive retains a place in this value economy, it is supplemented with a pleasure motive. People want to feel good about themselves and their purchases. Even large businesses present themselves as seeking the common good (so that Facebook talks of connecting people not as an advertising scheme so much as to legitimize its existence and decisions). Thus any critique of our current economy which puts weight on the claim that the market economy makes profit the chief end of man is suspect.
My claim is about how we tend to think about the market and how that works out in our institutions. I am not claiming that our economy is better than a market economy, but that it is questionable whether a critique of market economies can be applied to our economy, because the ways of thinking about economic decision making that underlie our economic institutions and practices are different. Our idea of a good consumer is one where the good consumer supports certain values by leveraging his or her purchasing power, whereas before the good consumer was one who made efficient use of money to acquire resources.
Buying power now constitutes a kind of economic voting power, not simply the ability to obtain things. We want the market to reflect our values, not simply efficiently supply us with resources. All these little shifts in our thinking have consequences for the institutions they undergird. However little our actions live up to our talk, the talk puts pressure on companies and regulation to at least pay lip service to such ideals, which we might hope will make advertisements form us better. On the other hand, perhaps we buy the products instead of the genuine goods–although that’s not what we have claimed about ads selling cars with sex, and we should be able to explain why there is a difference if there is one. If ads start forming us against market capitalism, then that will be either capitalism self destructing or a signal that we are no longer in a market capitalist economy.
Even if our economic system is not a market capitalist system, someone might say, the problems which the left points to are real problems. This is true, but if we try to fix the problems by attacking market capitalism, we will generally be tilting at windmills. In some cases, we may find that the two economies share common ground which enables us to reapply old critiques—I suspect that, at present, there is a common understanding of means/end reasoning embedded in both. To get there, however, we need to analyse how the new economic system works in order to evaluate it and see what resources it provides for the transformation of society and how it threatens society.
Likewise, we need to learn to utilize or critique the new modes of discourse to put pressure on institutions in order to introduce corrections. As an example, noticing that values are able to enter our economy through buying power and that values have a monetary value may enable us to alter the terms in which economic decisions are made by making some buying decisions on the basis of meta-level considerations. Another route is to self-consciously purchase products which are advertised in ways which are likely to form us more-or-less virtuously. Perhaps these routes to change are in principle impossible–perhaps meta-level values still cannot enter the economy and perhaps advertisements just cannot form us virtuously–but I have not seen arguments to that effect.
Just as market capitalism gave rise to this economic system in a manner which no one predicted, synthesizing the freedom of market capitalism and the need for people to have a say in the economy, so this economic system, given that it is an inadequate synthesis of autonomy and community, has the potential to give rise to a further economic system. Tracing what the new competing goods are and imagining a new synthesis is the project of economic critique which we should be engaging in, rather than merely repeating old critiques of a related economy.
Ben Bush graduated from Houghton College in NY with a degree in philosophy. He and his wife live in Connecticut.