The Religion of the Marketplace

The “Marketplace” is the central image of a new religion, rising out of the ruins of a century marked by devastating war and by a remarkable run of insane rulers and intrusive bureaucracies that have destroyed faith in politics as capable of producing a just and happy human order. It is a situation ripe for the emergence of a non-political—an anti-political— salvation creed and, lo! it has emerged.  It is the Religion of the Marketplace —universal in its appeal, easily intelligible, militant, triumphant, sending its missionaries, disguised as IMF agents, to keep the faint-hearted from straying from the new Tao.    

     The Faith has three basic dogmas: the primacy of desire, the creative and saving energy of competition, and the tolerant inclusiveness of “non-judgmentalism.”

The Primacy of Desire

     We are creatures of desire, driven by wants, needs, urges, cravings, passions. Living is a processs of slaking thirsts, of appeasing hungers—whether simply for food, drink, shelter, warmth, affection, love or, beyond that, for status, power, glory, or curiosity.  Whatever the craving, we seek satisfaction.  What is the pursuit of happiness if not the quest to satisfy desires?

     A creature of desire is, in intention, a craver of consummation, a consumer. When we are sick and seek health we are no longer patients but consumers of medical services.  Students, no longer understood as apprentices, are consumers of educational services.  Soon we will hear that a child is a consumer of parental services, a spouse a consumer of connubial services, a parent a consumer of generative joy. Customers all! (And all poised to sue.)

     Traditional religions are ambivalent about the pursuit of desire-satisfaction as a way of life.  Freedom from the tyranny of desire, from being a slave to desire; or the disciplining of desires for the sake of some significant commitment; or the curbing of some desires as the conquest of our lower or selfish natures — traditional views such as these provide a faintly sinful aura  to the life of desire, distinguishing it, as “vanity,” from the genuine pursuit of happiness.  

     But Marketism daringly asserts the legitimate centrality of desire and moves it into a more respectable neighborhood.   The undeniable significance of desire draws its strength from the great desires that express our fundamental needs, our literal hungers and thirsts.  Less “basic” desires enjoy a borrowed strength.  What we desire, what we want, reflects some sort of need, and its satisfaction is some sort of pleasure or “good.”  In an egalitarian mood we echo Bentham’s remark that “pushpin is as good as poetry”. Scratching any sort of itch is satisfying, contributing to our happiness.    But beyond being hospitable to the wide range of desires, we  elevate the status of desire.  The movement from “I want” to “I value” is easy enough. From what “I value” to what “I approve of” and consider “good” is hardly a step at all.  The “good” is simply the object of desire, and satisfying desires  gets ennobled into the promotion of the good.  It is nice to hear that as we satisfy our desires we are really serving “the good!”  Arguments about what is “good” become arguments about desires or tastes;  and, as every schoolgirl knows, “De gustibus…”

      Marketism, far from celebrating “freedom” as liberation from the thralldom of desire, even approves of the cultivation of desire, of stimulating demand, of increasing consumption, of transforming faintly felt desires into urgency, of creating longings, of spurring us into habitual shopping even without felt needs.  And “credit,” highly democratized, makes it unnecessary to suffer the pangs of postponed gratification.

     So, in an act of theological daring, the pursuit of the satisfaction of desires is freed from sinfulness; is given a legitimacy that traditional religions are reluctant to bestow; is transformed into a positive virtue.  Marketism forms an interesting alliance with Individualism, holding not only that the individual is the center of significance—a cluster of desires that each is free to satisfy—but also that if each pursues his own interests the well-being of society is served—and much better than it would be by anyone so misguided as to try, ignoring his own interests, to serve the interests of society directly. (Something about an “invisible hand”…)  In short, Marketism interprets the hallowed pursuit of happiness as the search for the satisfaction of desires. Man is essentially a consumer, a craver of consummation,  and all his energies and arts are properly instrumental to that end.

Competition—Profit, Glory, and Fear

     If there is to be consuming there must, of course, be producing.  This is to be directed not by a simple desire to satify need, but by an intention to profit by satisfying that need.  No longer must we depend on the utopian hope of the altruistic impulses of others to satisfy our needs and desires— perhaps this works for lovers or in some families, but not in the “real world.”  Instead, we invest our faith in the operation of the self-interested profit motive.

      The power of the profit motive is aided, when it flags— and even when it doesn’t—by the great spur of competition. Sloth is the problem—it seems to have jumped ahead of Gluttony in the hierarchy of the Deadly Sins—and competition is the cure. 

     Competition , as we know, has two facets.  It offers fame, glory, the laurel wreath, status, the glow of victory, a greater market-share. And, on its darker side: defeat, failure, the fear of nothingness. Fear is the spur that touches even those who do not wish to enter the great race, for one must fear losing even what little one has. Just  as the fear of punishment ekes out the simple respect for the law, so the fear of failure is a vital aspect of the power of competition.    There is hardly a problem for which competition is not offered as a remedy.  In the troubled field of education, for example, we are offered not concrete educational or pedagogic proposals but the promise that if we open the public schools to competition they will be forced to improve.

     Thus, combining the desire-centered life of consuming with the energizing power of competition creates the basic elements for the marketplace way of life.

Tolerance or Non-judgmentalism

     There is another essential feature of the religion of the marketplace, almost as important as desire (consumer demand) and competition.  It is less a driving force than a theoretical defense against impeding criticism.  It may be called “pluralism” or “tolerance.”  Its enemy is “judgmentalism” and if it were not so cumbersome I would unashamedly use the term “anti-judgmentalism”.

     Consumers make choices, with or without the aid of seduction. The choice may be said  to express consumer judgment about goods.  Taken together, consumer choice  is described as the judgment of the market.  And the judgment of the market, when we see it summed up in an annual report on consumer spending, may startle and even shock us.  So much on X!  So little on Y!  We may be tempted to think that we really ought to spend much more on Y and less on X. That is, one might presume to pass judgment on the judgment of the market! And this, in the end, poses a deadly threat to marketism or, as it prepares to ward off a blow, the “Free Market.”

     For lurking at the edge of the marketplace are some enemies. There are a variety of moralists eager to advance their favorite “prohibitions” against the buying and selling of things which they disapprove, regardless of the desires of willing buyers and eager sellers.  And more troublesome than mere moralists are  political institutions which are more than willing to pass laws and regulations which override market judgment of goods by political assessments of virtue.

     The problem for marketism is how to protect the judgment of the market, representing cumulative  desires, against the critical claims of “Reason.”  On the one hand, there is what we seem to want, what we actually choose, and on the other hand there is the judgment we make when we think about it. How can we protect “doing what we want” against the arrogant criticism and even correction by “Reason.”

     Coming to the aid of marketism is a renewal of the ancient attack upon Reason.  The attack has two familiar wings—first, the denial of the possibility of “objectivity” and second, the declaration of the irrelevance of “reason” to what we call “value  judgments.” While these two “philosophical” positions were not designed, conspiratorially, to support Marketism , they have nevertheless served the cause. Let me try to state the case.

     About “objectivity”—I will skip directly to an over-simplification.  We are all locked into our own points of view and are unable to escape or transcend them. We never see things as they really are (the thing in itself) but as they seem from our  particular slant or bias.    There are many opinions and, on the extreme view, none can claim to be “true” except as an attempt at oppressive hegemony.  Our “reason” is essentially the cunning of bias. It is not a fair, impartial judge, and the appeal to it as “objective”  is merely fraudulent and self-serving.  All is subjective , and reason is only “my reason” and really no better than any other.  We are all lawyers writing our briefs in a world without judges. There is no “right” view— since God is presumably dead—but only our partial biases.

     And second,  Reason, in any case, is unable to judge or evaluate “values.”  There is a long tradition about this.  Pascal thought that the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about; Hume thought that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions, not their judge. Some Pragmatists thought that reason was  “instrumental,” concerned with “means,” not with the judging of “ends” or goods.  Others have thought that judging something as “good” only amounted to saying you liked it.  The brash American version is “The customer is always right!”  All such positions have the effect of freeing desires from the controlling judgment of “reason,” of freeing values, and even the values we call “moral convictions”—ultimately, like all values,  matters of taste— from domination by rational judgment or from the effects of thinking about them, or from criticism of popular taste by intellectuals or elitists.  “That’s what you think!” is the ultimate retort.  And who are you to think that what you like or  think is better than what anyone else thinks!    Better to be tolerant, to recognize the plurality of “goods,” faintly echoing another religious tradition: “Do not judge!” or “be not Judgmental!”

        Thus Marketism seeks to free itself from the domination of Reason, leaving the judgment of the market triumphantly holding the field.  It expresses what people really want—offering happiness deeper than might appeal to a thin, bloodless, Reason.  Banished forever is intrusive political meddling, in the name of that Reason,  into the deeper affairs of the heart.   The dying faith in the Responsible Mind gives way to the faith in the Invisible Hand.

     These , then, are the elements of the religion that seems destined to take over the world.  The consummation of desire is the bottom line.  Competition is the exhilarating motivational spur. A tolerating non-judgmentalism its democratic, peacekeeping, universalizing spirit.  The irresistible simplicity of this trinity is buttressed by a powerful and subtle intellectual structure—a  “model” with principles like “comparative advantage,” elaborated beautifully at centers of  theology like Chicago, Wharton, and other Business Schools. Mathematics is the sacred tongue, a universal language accessible to the educated on all continents, in all modern cultures.  With the collapse of the powers that claimed Marx as their prophet, there is really no serious competitor. Who can challenge the claim that the world is now a “global Marketplace” whose imperatives relentlessly displace faintly persisting older creeds and ignore archaic political landmarks?

     Seeing the triumphant progress of the religion of the marketplace one can sympathize with the old Roman contemplating the rise of Christianity—incredulous but resigned.  But Marketism is easier to believe in; it requires no strenuous exercise of credulity. And its heroic novelty—transforming the unabashed pursuit of desire from vice to virtue—is, from a moral point of view, a pleasant bonus.  We can finally proclaim, whatever was once said about “the eye of a needle,” that “rich is beautiful!”

     There is little hope that anything can really avert the triumph of the religion of the marketplace. Trying to stop it by “refuting” its doctrines is an exercise in futility. Its appeal, especially its anti-political animus, is, I think, impervious to rear-guard theological squabbles.   In concrete struggles between the political and the economic, between the forum and the market—as in the attempt to protect political borders against the market-driven mobility of labor or goods—the few victories of politics seem only stop-gap and temporary. How can we resist the vision of the world as one great shopping mall with each of us a happy shopper, regardless of color, creed, or sexual preference,  with universally accepted credit cards? Nevertheless, I will  point out some soft spots that may, in the long run, mar or trouble the triumph of Marketism.

Problems With Desire

        It seems we must always relearn the hard way that the pursuit of happiness is not to be confused with the pursuit of pleasure, with the quest for what we desire, the search or struggle to get what we want—with all those consummations for which we may devoutly and misguidedly wish. The Market offers to give us what we want.  And yet…

     It is obvious that we don’t always know what we need.  But more bafflingly, we don’t usually know what we want.  We are mistaken in what we think we want. We regret having chosen what we thought we wanted.  We are disappointed when we get it. This  is one of the oldest stories in the world and I bring it up only to remind us that in building on “desire” we do not avoid the perils of uncertainty, error, regret,  disillusionment—and the emptiness of fulfilled desire. “I know what I want” is a pervasive cognitive error.

     That “what I want”—assuming I know what I want—is “good” for me is another familiar error.  You cannot treat the desire for nourishing food and drink and an addictive desire for cigarettes on the same level. From the point of view of what is good for you there is a hierarchical array of desires, some good for you, some disasterous, that the life of satisfying desires must come to terms with, about which we learn—if we live—to become judgmental.     

     However “inclusive ” we may wish to be in asserting a democratic equality of desires,  we are forced , in spite of our reluctance, to invent or discover or fall back on some boring moral categories. We discover, unless we are complete idiots, that some of the things we may desire are—dare I say it— not good for us, but bad.  In the midst of a glittering market array of temptations, unspoiled by admonitions like “Is this really necessary?” or “less is more!” —in a world of skilled blandishment , of cold professional seductiveness—still we learn to say “No!” to some desires, we learn to judge.

     This means that there is a built-in conflict or tension in the marketplace way of life. We need to develop the art and discipline of choosing, to become skilled defensive shoppers.  But on the other hand , the marketplace develops the arts of enticement and seduction (advertising becomes a major industry) and claims the right to fan the flames of desire.  Protected by the claim of “freedom of speech,” the seduction industry— strangely legitimized and largely freed from moral disapprobation—has become a major social power, threatening to dominate the Forum as it has come to dominate the marketplace.  The pitchman now overpowers the teacher as, long ago, the Sophists were able to still the voice of Socrates.  Who can rejoice in the victory of folly over wisdom?

      I hardly pause to note that some great religions and many secular sages , seemingly unaware of the facts of life, of the glory of the Mall, still refuse to find happiness on the treadmill or the merry-go-round of desire. But that message does not echo in the Marketplace.

Problems with Competition

     In a gaming or sporting culture  it is hardly necesssary to explain “competition.”  We know how it evokes greater effort, discipline, excellence.  It is a world of winners and losers.  The winners are better, always reaching new heights, setting new records, achieving what , without the drive of competition, would never be attained.  The “contest,”  as an old professor of mine would have said, is, for our culture, a “root metaphor.”

     The problem, however, is that life is not a contest; that competition is overshadowed in significance by its little brother, cooperation; that for some of the best things in life , competition is a destructive intruder; and that even in the world of contest, losers are often—in important respects—better than, healthier than, nicer than, and even happier than winners.

     In the world of the corporation, girding itself for competition, the “team” is the active unit and the internal life of the team is forcing the discovery or rediscovery of an ancient moral insight. Trust, truth, responsibility, interdependence, dedication, subordination to a common cause, the principles of teamwork—all these are destroyed by internal competition.  The arts of cooperation to achieve a common goal dominate, even as a team prepares itself to compete, and the spirit of cooperation is so infectious that “merging” offers itself as an alternative to competing.  Joining forces in cooperation is so appealing that we have invented anti-trust laws—a political intervention— to keep competition alive among those who, left to their own tastes, would prefer non-competitive peace, collusion,and even monopoly. Wherever there are teams, the cooperative arts subvert the competitive, even in the strongholds of the marketplace.

     However energizing it might be, competition is really out of place in the world of things that we value for their own sakes. Lovers are not in competition with each other.  The fellowship of scholars, the pursuit of truth, is maimed and corrupted by the intrusion of competition.  I remember the shock of reading how a pair of scientists shamelessly hid some photos from Linus Pauling lest he would figure out what was going on and beat them to the Nobel Prize—that great corrupter of fellowship.  Every teacher knows that competition for grades destroys genuine learning.  In the greatest of things, the challenge is to master an art, not to defeat or outdo others.

Problems with Non-Judgmentalism

      As for “non-judgmentalism”—this is perhaps the deepest of the theological roots of the new order.  Essentially it rejects the great normative categories that define a civilization. It transforms the older notion of Original Sin into the conviction that the human world is a “sick” one, needing not a scolding minister but a compassionate therapist to restore the self-esteem destroyed by the sense of guilt that haunts the neighborhood of commandments and moral rules that, of course, we inevitably violate. Treatment is needed, not moral disapproval and punishment.

     It’s true, of course, that rules, exhortation, and punishment will hardly cure our sicknesses.  Scolding may be out of place when we are engaged in treating and curing. “Ministering” is wonderfully ambiguous in this respect–“There is a time for judging and a time not to judge.”  But popular “non-judgmentalism” goes beyond this, moving from the view that judgment is sometimes out of place to the conviction that it is always intrusive and inappropriate.  Who are you to judge that my taste is bad?

     At its starkest, then, market non-judgmentalism rejects the appropriateness of the great normative categories—true-false, good-evil, right-wrong.  “I want, I like, I believe” is, for each of us, for each culture , each sub-culture, for the least among us, the ultimate assertion.  “Relativism” and “skepticism” name traditional philosophic positions summoned to aid the dignity of our private, individual feelings and points of view, from demeaning subordination to external normative standards. 

     The current image that expresses this mood is that the mind is a great marketplace of ideas.  The best test of truth, we are told, is the ability of an idea to prevail, to seize its share in the marketplace.  If it sells it is , to that extent, good or true or, for that matter, beautiful.  Thus, significant judgment is simply the judgment of the market. But it is hard to think of a more inept metaphor for the mind than the “marketplace of ideas.” In truth, the mind is to a marketplace as a keeper is to an insane asylum. 

     It is really pointless to say that the whole thing is silly. Desires are real and important although we know that a life spent in the service of desire is a disappointing perversion of the  persuit of happiness. Competition earns its garlands, but as a world-turning force it is not in a class with Love. Non-judgmentalism has its legitimate moments but the Good, the True and the Beautiful are not simply matters of taste about which there is no disputing.   The common sense of social animals can be momentarily swept aside by ideological zeal or silenced by confusing sophistical loquacity but it will, sooner or later, reassert itself and display sanity. But in the meantime  we will have to live through a period of triumphant, militant Marketism. We will live in the glow of the Global Economy that reduces parochial cultures to obsolescence, that will transcend the barriers of political boundries. We will all become, if we adjust to the new creed, canny consumers, prudent investors, imaginative sellers or marketers, temporary employees constantly honing new skills and polishing our CVs as we seek new temporary jobs living shallow, restless, miserable lives reaching for fruit that, as Satan discovers in Paradise Lost, turns to ashes in one’s mouth.

Democracy and the Marketplace

     Marketism, even as it claims and shapes the future,  will still need a supporting and even supplementary structure that is political.  The enemy, of course, is the  “welfare state” but the approved political conceptions are comforting and even stirring— The Rule of Law, and Democracy. These are emblazoned on banners the marketplace emissaries  carry into backward areas preparing them to receive investments, and they are oddly appropriate for the Global Marketplace.

     The Rule of Law suggests a situation governed by certain rules, laws, or principles whose violation can be appealed to essentially non-political, independant judicial tribunals.  I say rules, laws or principles in order to make the point that more is involved than mere local positive law—the enactments of local “sovereigns.”  We tap into the great and ambiguous tradition of Natural Law —a tradition always concerned to check the arbitrary will of a local “tyrant” by an appeal to Reason or the Higher Law, or even Divine Positive Law.  It attempts to limit the willfulness of rulers, especially as rulers attempt to violate the sanctity of private property—the most firmly asserted of “natural rights”, more deeply felt than the relatively modern conception of Human Rights.  Thus, the Rule of Law stands for something above mere politics and to insist on it is to attempt to put some things, especially property rights (and the sanctity of Contract),  beyond political peril, to reduce the threat of political power. The “rule of Law” is an attempt to limit the scope of “politics,” of government.

     There is, of course, a scandal, almost a secret scandal, about the “non-political” character of the “rule of Law.”  Even as we proclaim it, our most sophisticated legal practitioners—the priesthood of the “Rule of Law”—deride the view that judicial judgment can be “non-political,” that there is, even when there is an apparent legal text, a “correct ” reading of the Law, that Judges do not project their own “values” into their presumably non-political decisions.  Such arguments about “judicial activism” undermine the view that the “Rule of Law”  is above politics and that international judicial tribunals to which we may submit disputes will not simply impose their politcal views upon us in the feeble guise of “objective” legal rulings. 

     So  we may discover that some international court, dedicated to the defense of the principle of “free trade,” will overrule archaic American political attempts to protect dolphins, or the environment, or the wretched of the earth, from the imperatives of the marketplace.  There will, I think, be some backlash against the inevitable challange to our sovereignty, but mere national political dominance is an ordained victim of the triumph of the world marketplace, of the new religion—one of whose tenet is “The Rule of Law.”

     As for “democracy,” or at least regimes characterized by “elections” with some degree of freedom or fairness, it is the recent boast of our Marketists that this form of government has spread through all of Latin America even as market economies have displaced varieties of “command” economies.  Who can minimize this achievement?  Political democracy and the free market!

     And yet!  The conception of Democracy that flourishes in the shadow of the marketplace is a far cry from that which brought unique dignity to the mere subjects of a non-democratic polity.  Democracy is a kind of two-job theory of life.  In addition to a career as a professional or some sort of craftsman or the performer of a primary function, even as an entrepreneur, each member of a democracy has, ex officio, a political role, a role as participant in the ruling function.  At the very least, each is a member of the electorate, the ultimate tribunal.  The exercise, by each of us, of that function is what gives significance to democratic life.

     The tragedy of much of modern democratic life, however, lies in the subtle corruption of that role.  Largely under the powerful influence of a marketplace culture, the citizen-voter is seen as a consumer demanding his or her share of the goodies, not as a ruler exercising disinterested judgment about the common good.  We have turned our elected representatives, in ways that would have horrified Burke or Mill, into our Designated Shoppers. Political discourse has been degraded into advertising.  Money, a foolish Supreme Court has said, talks. The political forum comes, sadly, to resemble the marketplace in which we are to act as customers demanding and getting what we want.  Why do we complain that citizens have come to despise “politics?”  It is a mark of sanity.  They know, or at least feel, that it is a corruption of what it should be.    They dispise its practitioners (although they may like their own shoppers) for corrupting “taking thought together” into “bargaining” —the corrupt paradigm of the mind in action. We have turned electoral and even legislative life into an ugly scramble for partisan advantage —a perversion that turns the normal stomach.  To a depressing degree, the “democracy” we proclaim is only a bazaar version of politics.

     So our Marketists promote a “democracy” transmuted into its marketplace version with citizens seen as customers who, when politically active, are merely on another shopping trip. It is, among forms of polity, least hostile to the identification of the “public good”  or the “public interest”  with consumer demand.  It is the form of politics most compatible with the marketplace creed.  Given the primacy of desires, competition, and non-judgmentalism, “democracy” is most inclined to take “privatization” in its stride as simply a bit more efficient and less hindered by sentimentality. It is the form of politics least likely to threaten the domination of the marketplace.

     Promoting the Rule of Law and Democracy defangs the political threat to the global economy while, of course, allowing the political institutions to provide the necessary infra-structure of economic life: the broadly conceived law and order necessary to promote investor confidence; education (or rather, “investment” in the value of employees); bankrupcy and bail-out provisions so that those who take risks should not be made to suffer too much and possibly lose confidence in the system. And even, perhaps, to do some things the market, intent on its own way of promoting happiness, may overlook—things like fresh air or clean water or forests or nice animals or safe food or even health (whatever that is).  Nicely-tamed politics may be permitted to do some useful things so long as its institutions do not get too big and do not presume to interfere with the global economy or the world market, with their elevating and liberating conception that at last, for the common man and woman, life can be a perpetual shopping trip.     My fear is not that the devotees of Marketism will fail in their venture but that they will succeed.

     As we contemplate the future of life in a global marketplace we may forget that real life begins when we leave the store, after “shopping;” that nothing that makes life significant takes place in the marketplace; and that everything of value—the search for justice, beauty, health, wisdom, love—is coarsened and degraded when embraced and brought within the sway of the marketplace; when the measure of all things, robbed of their glory,  becomes the “bottom line.”

“Religion and the Marketplace” originally appeared in New Oxford Review, September 1999.

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One comment on “The Religion of the Marketplace

  1. Sanford H. Kadish says:

    Dear Joe:

    Just read The Religion of the Marketplace. Joe, my friend, you write with the power and passion of Tom Paine. Some of what you write appeals to me–right on, I think. Other parts scare me. And still others leave me in doubt. I’m unclear what concretely it is you’re proposing in the end to meet your concerns. Plato’s Republic, maybe? Or Augustine’s City of God? Anyway, if the old knees don’t work too good at least your mind is keeping up a helluva pace.

    See you around—sooner the better.

    With great affection,

    Sandy [Sanford H. Kadish, Morrison Professor of Law, Emeritus, and former Dean, University of California (Boalt Hall) School of Law]

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