The market, the locus of exchange, is the most general model of human interaction. Conversations are markets, professions are markets: markets are everywhere human beings interact. Each brings his or her contribution for the evaluation of the whole. In a free market, no one has an exclusive right to make these evaluations; but even when someone does, we need not discard the market model: monopolies (e.g., of speech) and monopsonies (e.g., of listening and approving) exist in the conversational as well as the economic world. The economic market is not the basis of all our interactions, but the market model goes far beyond the economic.
Yet one cannot work in an academic environment very long without noticing the depth of the intelligentsia‘s hostility to the market. For example, one might describe the democratic political process as a political market where representatives of different constituencies try to determine the public interest by negotiating the resentments the economic market generates. But intellectuals do not habitually speak of politics this way; they disdain the market model and feel a more general repugnance for the marketplace itself.
Culture against the market describes Western society since the Romantic period. Esthetes object to the reign of money: wealth does not guarantee good taste, neither individual wealth nor the aggregate wealth of the masses. But there is a more profound opposition between culture and the marketplace, an opposition that we can now begin to see as the central feature of our postmodern era.
Market and culture, the market model and the “scenic” model, are engaged in a struggle for dominance of human society in which the latter is giving way to the former. The future appears to lie with market-structured rather than scene-structured institutions.
Here is an interesting indication of this, inspired by my family’s science-fiction-fantasy book store. Whether science fiction depicts the future, or fantasy a fabulous past, the social order is almost inevitably feudal. Whether the action is set in 10000 BC or in 100000 AD, the world is divided between evil lords and nice lords whose role is to defend humanity against the others. Yet with minor exceptions, there are no such lords today; the despots who reign over backward countries with pathological national cultures, North Korea or Iraq, are military putchists or their immediate descendants, not the strangely legitimate kings and emperors of the fantasy-world.
Whence comes this tacit agreement that industrial market society is a mere epiphenomenon of the feudal, pre-industrial social order? From culture’s hostility to the market. The literary imagination is loath to conceive market-oriented fantasies; its deepest desire is to flee the market. This was already the case in the Romantic era, when Voltaire‘s amusingly philosophical Persians and Chinese were replaced with passionate Corsicans and Spaniards. The farther a society was from capitalism, the more literogenic it was. The only change has been that today the distance is measured not in miles but in light-years.
Is culture agoraphobic (the real meaning of agora is marketplace) because the market constrains the freedom that culture celebrates? The truth is quite the opposite. It is the esthetic-cultural imagination that has a fondness for tyranny, because tyranny provides effective mimetic models, good shows. The market is not about shows, but about the organization of human efforts toward satisfying our desires and generating new ones, in the unceasing, and, we hope, unending effort to stay a step ahead of the resentments it generates. It is these resentments that the cultural sphere was supposed to purge (Aristotle‘s famous catharsis), but culture in the postmodern era, although ubiquitous, has largely been degraded to the adolescent acting-out of violent fantasies that (whatever the hype) little resemble life in a productive society. The modern adult no longer has a culture of his own; his culture is nostalgia, whether for the world of Bach or that of the Grateful Dead.
How about this as a fantasy of our future? With the expansion of electronic communications, the marketplace and society in general become increasingly responsive to, and interactive with, the desires of the general public–the basest as well as the noblest desires. Individuals are concerned more with creating their own esthetic identity from ethnic and other components than with passively consuming the products of culture creators. Wars continue to flare up and be settled tentatively by international agencies. Ecological crises come to a head and are deferred by the application of new technologies. Over the long haul, individual freedom increases, the population is better educated, careers become more fulfilling, information processing allows us to treat things more and more like signs. Human beings live, and love, and die, with richer, more varied lives–yet they are no happier than before, still resenting chances missed more than appreciating blessings received, still hoping that the ever-expanding marketplace will offer their children opportunities they were denied…
Ah, but how boring! Let’s rather imagine the thrill of rescuing Princess Leia from the clutches of Darth Vader…