At the end of last week’s column, I suggested that more could be said about the relationship between market society and liberal democracy. Since I have been dealing with these matters elsewhere, it seemed useful to defer the originary analysis of “presidential kneepads” and the like in order to develop some less topical reflections.

1. The Minimal Market Model

Evolution is a minimal model of change in the biological domain. Seventy-odd years after the Scopes trial, the idea still seems to be sufficiently under attack to arouse spirited defenses, of which Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) is an impressive recent example. But when I hear spirited defenses of the theory of evolution, I always want to say, “yes, but what are you really defending?” The evolutionary model in itself, independently of the details of the genetic mechanism about which Darwin himself knew nothing, is something akin to tautological in the historical sphere. In a system with sufficient complexity to generate self-reproducing organisms, reproduction cannot be perfect, and when forms change, those that remain are by definition better adapted than those that don’t. The minimal explanation for the current state of these forms is “evolutionary”; any other theory requires the intervention of external, not to say supernatural, forces. That Darwinian theory fails to explain the specificity of the human, a point that I have made many times in these Chronicles and elsewhere, by no means implies that it is “refuted.” It is not false to call human culture “adaptive”; but to conceive its adaptivity according to the same model as the form of a shark’s fin or even a chimpanzee’s call is simply to remain on the wrong level of generality, to make one’s hypothesis too strong by a whole degree of magnitude. On this another day.

Similarly, the market is a “minimal model” of human interaction. All interactions from the originary event on down may be considered “exchanges,” all decisions, evaluations of “utility.” The choice to consider every human interaction in market terms implies nothing falsifiable about social reality. Yet the choice itself, to the extent that it is not merely a speculative but a practical act, has a considerable influence on social reality. Ethical interactions, be they acts of punishment or reward, love or hostility, may be represented in market terms without distortion; but the degree to which such representations filter out from the “etic” sphere of the theoretician to contaminate the “emic” social world itself has profound implications for the nature of the interactions they model. And needless to say, the invasion of the “real world” by these concepts is itself dependent on their market value.

One of the difficulties in applying the market model to human interaction is that it has until now been left to economists, who are not concerned with human paradox. However paradoxical the desire that the market generates for a given article of mass-produced uniqueness, from a strictly economic standpoint, there is only “demand.” But from a generative-anthropological perspective, the paradoxical “supplement” of these desires measures the market’s success in purging our resentment of its violence and recycling its energy into the exchange system. At the horizon–which is a theoretical limit and not a utopia–desire would be reduced to pure mimetic paradox and circulate at infinite speed, and all occasions for mimetic conflict would be instantly evaluated, compensated, and dissolved in the market.

2. The Priceless Always Costs a Little More

At the first level of approximation, the market is a virtual locus of exchange within which prices are communicated with “perfect knowledge.” Its elements are “exchange values,” which are tautologically equivalent to prices. But we don’t generally buy something because we find its exchange value favorable and intend to resell it; we buy it to use, and our purchase depends on the “utility” we expect to get from it. Thus when we’re hungry, we may pay a premium price at a 7-11 for a loaf of bread, but we’ll wait for a sale at Lucky’s if we already have a few loaves in the freezer. Consumer products have a “use-value” as well as an exchange-value, but so do producer’s goods for whoever uses them. Use-value is not necessarily based on “subjective” considerations; my purchase of a new machine for my factory depends on the same kinds of considerations as that of the loaf of bread: I’d be forced to accept a higher price if my old machine breaks down than if I’m merely buying in anticipation of future expansion.

But although “use-value” may be more personal than exchange-value, it is not sufficiently interactive to reveal the paradoxical nature of desire. The term smacks of Utilitarianism–the model, traceable to Jeremy Bentham, that would explain human behavior according to a “calculus” of utilities. The notion of use-value or utility cannot address the role of the object of consumption as a sign of collective desire. This is a domain that not only has not been sufficiently theorized, but that can never be sufficiently theorized. The consumption-sign cannot be reduced to a calculus because the sign has value only insofar as it exceeds any calculus, as it makes a sacred “revelation.”

This is the limitation of Jean Baudrillard’s semantic analysis of the “product-sign.” Although is useful to talk about the synchronic structure of product-signs at a given moment, it is impossible to construct a model of consumption based on such a structure because the value of product-signs is far more dependent than that of words on their diachronic situation. Language is a “mature,” consumption an “originary” mode of signification. Only a few slang words like “groovy” come in and go out of style; most words (“tree” for example) evolve only through broad, slow phonetic changes. In the world of consumption, on the contrary, obsolescence is the rule rather than the exception. The point of consumption is not, like mature language, to create a model of a relatively stable significant reality but, like language at its origin, to situate oneself on the cusp where significance is created. The consumer’s “message” is more like a fashion collection than a discourse: last year’s collection is not this year’s; each component must be constantly revalued. This endless circulation is not generated by the manufacturers’ cynical desire to sell new products, even if they profit from the circulation and encourage it; it reflects the fact that desire is “ostensive” rather than declarative, revelatory rather than constative.

Consumer goods are products of mass consumption, but for that very reason, they seek the aura of uniqueness by imitating handicrafts and, more generally, by appropriating signs of the sacred from the ritual distribution system that preceded the market era. Circulation within the modern exchange system depends on the assimilation and recirculation of the very signs of what resists circulation. (As Thomas Frank points out in his recent The Conquest of Cool, this resistance may be quite explicit; an important phenomenon of marketing since the 1960s is the “commodification of discontent”: selling people signs of their disaffection from the very system that sells them.) Some have taken this to imply that the system is living on borrowed time, that when we use up the signs of our ritual past, we will have nothing more to sell. I think not. These signs are continually recycled and enriched; the sacred of the past contaminates the objects of the present, just as the sacred has always done.

3. The “Ultimateness” of the Market

Nothing is more utopian than the claim to put an end to utopian thought. All thought about the future is utopian, since it implies of necessity that the categories with which to think the future are available in the present. This is tautologically so, regardless of the sophistication with which we anticipate future categories of thought. To think about the future implies that we have reached the “end of history.” But to translate this unformed virtuality into historically specific terms by asserting that liberal market society is the “final” social form smacks of the most arrogant, or naive, utopianism.

GA is not Fukuyamism. My point about market society is not that it is the definitive form chosen from an infinite set of possible forms, but that it is the minimal or most general model chosen from a finite set of models. For example, we may consider tyranny, monarchy, oligarchy not, as Aristotle does, as a set of mutually exclusive categories that form a “structure,” but as cases of limited circulation of power within a minimally constrained model of general circulation. And the same is true for the economy. Earlier systems of distribution too are “markets,” as are the restricted subsystems of our own day. These systems differ in their smaller number of “degrees of freedom”–a term I use here metaphorically but which could presumably be approximated by mathematical methods.

In this perspective, the “ultimate” nature of liberal democracy is not an attribute of any particular aspect of contemporary institutions–elections, legislatures, stock markets…–but reflects the fact that this system alone openly realizes, in both senses of the term, the fundamental nature of the market or exchange model. This realization is not merely a matter for theoreticians; it brings with it political and economic consequences. But because the market model is already minimally constrained, these consequences cannot render the model itself inadequate; they only modify its parameters. The accelerating confluence of words and things in the postmodern market breaks down barriers of thought that cannot be erected anew; future systems of thought will not be able to avoid providing a generative model of their divergence from a common origin.

The market model is neither tragic nor triumphalist; it is “realistic.” The human is a system for generating the deferral of conflict, not either happy or tragic endings. The human exchange system does not merely reshuffle the same elements; from the first and ever thereafter, it creates meaning by incarnating, capturing, and consuming–sacrificing, in a word–its sacred Other. All earlier models of human behavior have either been centered on this Other as though we could understand “its” intentions on the analogy of our own, or have–the “Enlightenment” view–elected to ignore it altogether. A generative anthropology is one that accepts the obligation to construct a model of the human and its transcendental Other with the materials made available within human interaction alone.

The Romantic critique of the market, as formulated by antibourgeois writers like Théophile Gautier in the 1830s, is that it ignores the transcendental realm in its unique preoccupation with the generation of material “utility.” But the consumer era has shown us that, on the contrary, the market is a collective mechanism for incarnating the sacred objects of collective desire in consumable products. Market exchange is the minimally violent mode of sacrifice, of accomplishing “the deferral of violence through representation.” To adopt the market as our fundamental model of human interaction is to take a qualitative step toward creating a generative theory of the human, a minimal anthropology.