The recent comments on the GAlist concerning the ethical problems engendered by the market are a good illustration of the peculiar difficulty that attends any attempt to theorize this institution. The market system produces so many trees that it is hard to see the forest in the proper–originary–perspective.
The free market is one of humanity’s great achievements. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the course of human history may be described as the never-completable transition from the ritual system of distribution inaugurated in the originary scene to the market system, where no central authority is necessary to mediate between human beings beyond the universal human order of representation through signs.
Nearly all those who deny the ethical validity of the market system agree that they are unable to conceive a better one. This suggests a return of the pendulum from the immanence of the Socialist utopia to a transcendental perspective for which Satan is the ruler of this world and the good society is only found in the Kingdom of Heaven. But the deritualization brought about by the market has always gone hand in hand with the “Protestant Ethic”: the internalization of ritual constraints in harmony with the market. The Mormon church offers probably the best recent example.
Let us try to defetishize the notion of the market. The free market is not a thing; it has no existence independent of the decisions of its participants. Prices for goods and services are set by the interaction of buyers and sellers, as expressed (not prescribed) by the law of supply and demand. The market system, as Marx observed, is essentially dynamic, in contrast with ritual systems that change only accidentally.
Because it removes ritual restrictions on mimetic rivalry, the market system generates vast quantities of resentment, some but not all of which can be recycled into the system. Even the successful A is bitter that B is yet more successful, that C does as well without working as hard, that D is surviving without working at all. In a modern exchange system, there is no way to achieve the relative material equality of the originary human community without empowering the state to expropriate all private property–a solution that has been tried with disastrous results. Less drastic mechanisms for leveling the playing field–from inheritance taxes to affirmative action–are always both partial and controversial. Consumer society offers means to make significant statements of style and posture that add dimensionality to the linear hierarchy of wealth. But this only defers the resentment generated by material inequality; it does not abolish it. The more openly information about the market’s evaluations is made available, the more resentment is intensified, and the more the market itself is blamed for it. In contrast, the human love that exists within the market system–family and amorous intimacy as we know it are creations of this system–is commonly understood to be in non-dialectical, Rousseauean opposition to it, an expression of good human nature struggling against the evil of culture.
The originary point of departure of the market is the potential exchangeability of the parts of the central object divided among the participants in thesparagmos. Because each element of the central being participates in sacred significance, it bears an equivalent value. This means that the market contains no absolute values, that its values are ultimately quantifiable. The exchange of goods and related values in the marketplace is complemented by the exchange of representations in the cultural sphere. The exchange of signs defers crisis; the exchange of goods operates within the space of this deferral. In ritual societies, equalitarian or hierarchical, the latter exchange is modeled more or less directly on the first: the exchange of things is dictated by the exchange of words. Socialist economies anachronistically attempted to operate in the same manner.
All political institutions may be traced to the linguistic reciprocity of the originary scene; this is the germ of truth in social contract theory. The human is originarily equalitarian because the originary exchange of signs is reciprocal. Democracy has a powerful intuitive appeal because the principle of one person, one vote makes direct reference to this originary moral configuration. But political democracy does not arise as the result of a “natural impulse”; it has existed historically only as a compensatory institution within market society. The limited market society of Athens produced the first notions of a self-governing polity, and mature market society has for the first time enfranchised all adults, including women.
Those who point out the injustices of the market from within market society itself merely confirm the fact that the market system indefinitely defers the end of history (a subject for another column). The market’s central contribution to human self-consciousness, to what I call anthropology, is in leading us to reject apocalyptic schemes of thought, whether the demonic one of Hitler, the deluded one of Lenin, or those of millenarist thinkers who exhort us to choose once and for all between peace and self-destruction, love and resentment.
No, we each make this choice many times a day, but there is no way for us to make the choice. We may break a few eggs, but we’ll never taste that great omelet in the sky. Faith in the market-system is merely another term for faith in human history, the faith that the future we construct with our daily interactions will continue to teach us something of value about ourselves.