Critique of Market Society…Well, More of a Rant


By Michael Parish

Since its emergence in early modernity, the capitalist market has been trumpeted as the natural collorary to liberal governance, and understandably so. If the state assumes the atomized individual as its theoretical basis, and the natural rights of that individual as its chief (protective) function, then the economic system it presides over should be structured within a corresponding paradigm. What this produces is an economic order based on the free interactions of atomized individuals, its chief function the satisfaction of individual desires. The exponents of this paradigm have historically portrayed it as a shining example of “spontaneous order”, of an optimally functioning whole arising randomly out of self-interested interaction, or what Hayek gushingly christened the “Grand Society.”

Over time, as the market and its functions grew increasingly entrenched, two schools of thought emerged regarding what direction the state should function in regards to it. The first, falsely calling itself “conservative”, cheerleads for lassiez-faire, bolstering its demands with allusions to “protestant work ethic” and Ellis Island cultural mythology. Their opponents, social democrats, foresee all manner of disaster in this vision, insisting to the contrary on a protective regulatory role for the state. That both views retain the same belief in material transaction as the optimal method of social organization, and differ only in regards to the value of central planning, is itself indicitave of the nature of market society. For while the market is typically draped in rhetoric suggestive of spontaniety, its actual history reveals a far different reality.

By taking the abstract individual as its starting point, and constructing itself around the material desires of that individual, market society effectively erodes organic and pre-rational social relations. Families, communities, and hobbyist clubs commit two grave errors…the first being their inclusion of more than one person, and the second being their failure to produce profits. It is only necessary, then, that the individual subject be split from these relations during their insertion as a cog into the capitalist machinery. The non-productive values held by these eroded instutions commit the same sin, so the explicitly materialist market phases them out accordingly, to be usurped by a rational dogma of efficiency, predictability, and convenience.

During the early development of the system, as those at the helm were busy swallowing public subsidies and land grants, those displaced by these developments bore understandable grievances, and ideologies emerged to legitimize those grievances. Capitalism, functioning as it does with ice-cold rationality, ensured its future survival by commissioning the state to assume caretaking roles, ones previously belonging to the organic ties it had severed. This moderate reform also serves the dual purpose of softening the conditions of those on the economic bottom, thereby limiting the neccessity of (and excluding from debate) alternative, non-market economic options. This is the true origin of the modern welfare state.

We can see at this point how the market, despite its supporters claims, is totalitarian in impact. Having already replaced organic social relations with state beauracracy, it has also begun to reshape state-craft in accordance with its aims. As this article continues, it will become crystal clear that our object of inquiry here is an all-encompassing entity that absorbs and recasts all of society in its own image. We’ll explore more of this as we continue…

It is impossible to understand this transformative process without first understanding its political collorary, liberal mass democracy. The definitive feature of the liberal state is its self-legitimation through popular approval, configured along egalitarian lines i.e. one vote granted as a basic right to each citizen. In contrast to the monarchist regimes displaced by Enlightenment upheaval, liberal states justify their rule not by appeals to the transcendent (“the divine right of kings”) but to the populist, in ways that echo market functions. If a business enterprise markets a useful product, it is rewarded with sufficient profits and remains in competition. If not, the product is recalled, and the enterprise vanishes. Similarly, political parties remain in power by attracting votes via appealing offers. If these are successful, their status remains untouched. If not, they find themselves out of office.

Similarly, political parties are structured identically to business enterprises, built heierarchally around bosses (politicians), beauracracies (campaign management), and labor (street level activists). The democratic process in liberal political envieronments mirrors precisely the functions of the capitalist marketplace. Political parties, like private businesses, engage in competition with one another in pursuit of voters (customers) by offering different products (politicians and legislation presented as favorable to the interests of prospective voters).Conventions hosted by parties are strikingly similar in aspect to corporate product inveilments. Political campaigns gather voters with the use of stylized “campaign commercials” that are fundamentally indistinguishable from corporate product advertisements.

Modern politicians may not be royalty defined by blood as in bygone eras, but they nonetheless constitute a definite elite type of their own. The emergence of the mass media and the public’s subsequent dependence on it for their political information, as well as the neccessity of long distance transportation, has rendered running for political office a possibility only to those who can afford the cast of utilizing such apparatus. This has effectively made political campaigning the sole preserve of the already welathy. It is no coincidence, then, that those at the top of the political latter are culled from the same class as those at the top of the economic ladder. The egalitarian proposition of a political process open to everyone is revealed to be a most dubious sham.

The electoral process in liberal democracies is largely a continuation of market actions. Parties cynically accrue support by offering programs and services purportedly beneficial to the social segments they seek to attract; in turn, these segments (voting in line with their status within the market and/or its complementary welfare state) align themselves accordingly. Over time, the state itself transforms into a redistributive agency, ever expanding to allocate scarce resources to whomever can afford them. All political activity, more or less, devolves into regularly scheduled meetings on how best to preserve the status quo.

This dour state of affairs is perpetuated by the empty mentality of a public absorbed in commodity fetishism. As organic and pre-rational values dissappear and are replaced by commercial ones, citizens see themselves less as agents within a developing whole and more as passive recipients of services and stimuli. Material needs are replaced by desires, which the market continually expands to satisfy, as they can never be measured and defined in accordance with sensible standards. Consequently, political involvement is relegated from social duty to entertainment option, one of many equally valid hobbies or interests to choose from on our pop-culture smorgasboard. “I’m just not interested in politics” (as if it is no different from sports or rock music or any other consumer choice of little impact) becomes the mantra. That political advertisements are strikingly successful at inducing uninformed votes in the public by displaying an artificial image and witholding any pertinent information (similar to how product advertisements manipulate consumers) should come as no surprise.

Nor should it this mindset’s effect on the natural world. With the rationalization that has restructured the incomplete American mindset, subjective value has all but dissapeared as a means of evaluating objects. If it can’t be assigned a set material quality it ceases to bear weight as an item of value. Hence, a sufficient reason cannot be thought of to explain the existence of forests and wetlands, so they are to be stripped, dried and replaced with yet more cracker jack homes and commercial centers. Natural landscapes’ historic status as part of a nation’s and it’s people’s identity is of no significance, another instance of market society’s incompatability with conservatism.

What effect the market has on the natural is bested only slightly by its effect on the cultural world. If it is taken as an article of faith that the world exists for commercial co-optation, then what starts with naturally occuring substances (lovingly rebaptized as “natural resources”) will eventually happen to the arts. With the absence of a real cultural elite (which existed previously in the form of the landed aristocracy) culture exists for mass consumption rather than intellectual reflection. Though it does produce jarring inequalities in wealth, the market does have a built-in egalitarian mechanism-act of purchasing. Some may have more dollars in their pocket than others, but each individual dolor is worth the same, irrepsective of the intellect or intentions of he who spends it.

This effectively reduces art to “entertainment”, from an object of creative analysis to one of passive absorption. Epic dramas and plays become Hollywood movies, the classics become three-minute “pop-rock” jingles, and street performances are replaced by half-hour sitcoms and soap operas. Difference, variety, and creativity dissapear to have their positions usurped by repetetive formulas and genre exercises. Morever, their status as creations of the market reduce them even further, from socially encouraged rites of passage to mere consumer options, to be taken in, enjoyed, and disposed of at will. Consequently, given the rigors of work and social obligations, people look to such things as a means of temporary escape and nothing more.

The dissolution of organic culture caused by the market goes hand in hand with the dissolution of its sources, that being organic communities. As capitalism is an exclusively materialist system that prioritizes the accumulation of profit and dismisses all other concerns, it retains no loyalty to any of the particulars that traditionally constituted societies. Market pressures uproot members of historic communities and cast them out in pursuit of satisfactory economic conditions. Hence, societies become geographically re-arranged not according to ancestral roots but to material factors. This is the chief culprit behind the proliferation of suburbs and subdivisions populated by atomized materialists i.e. “Well, we wanted something with more bedrooms and a bigger garage…and David can finally have his mini-theatre in the basement.”

What it does on the communal scale it also carries out on the national scale, producing even greater societal distortion. As corporations go multinational and shed any pretense at loyalty to the soil that spawned them, the resulting globalization spurs the economically-motivated mass movements of peoples and products. This brave new world calls to be overseen by specially appointed global institutions, sapping independent nations of control over their own economies, and effectively of their own destiny. As cheap labor becomes a greater neccessity for the continued existence of top market players, immigration reaches mass proportions and borders grow increasingly irrelevant. Ultimately, what were once homogenous organic nations devolve into multicultural incoherency, their once readily identifiable national characters replaced by postmodern smorgasboards of disparate and unrelated colors and creeds.

Within this latter stage of capitalist development, individuals find themselves in a state of existential peril. Removed irrevocably from the traditional particulars that gave meaning to the lives of previous generations, they exist in a semi-comatose state, so mindlessly happy as to be blind to their own subconsious search for meaning. Devoid of any real roots, they are therefore devoid of any real identity…so they cultivate artificial ones for themselves by picking and choosing from superficial market options. Suddenly, people are defined (and define themselves) by the movies they view, the music they listen to, and the clothing they wear…in other words, their actions as a consumer become their identity. When Sartre affirmed the metaphysical significance of acting over mere being, this is not what he was referring to.

For generations now, the mainstream of the American right has been steadfast and uncritical in their embrace of what Evola rightly deplored as “the Age Of The Machine.” This is why, more than anything else, they have not “conserved” a damn thing.

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8 replies »

  1. “During the early development of the system, as those at the helm were busy swallowing public subsidies and land grants, those displaced by these developments bore understandable grievances, and ideologies emerged to legitimize those grievances. Capitalism, functioning as it does with ice-cold rationality, ensured its future survival by commissioning the state to assume caretaking roles, ones previously belonging to the organic ties it had severed. This moderate reform also serves the dual purpose of softening the conditions of those on the economic bottom, thereby limiting the neccessity of (and excluding from debate) alternative, non-market economic options. This is the true origin of the modern welfare state.”

    This sounds like it was taken right out of the the play book for marginalizing and conquering native societies.

  2. I wanted to ask: What’s your point? But you did warn me that this was just a rant. A fundamental ignorance of economics is obvious as is the revering of mystical egalitarianism while promoting benevolent elitism. Equating crony-capitalism with the free-market is getting so boring.

    Did you even consider the difference between a social system based on coercion (the state) and a social system based on cooperation (the free-market)?

    The institutionalized use of aggressive force is the defining characteristic that makes the state evil, not that the people who live in statist societies may sometimes like to buy a bunch of crap with their hard earned money.

  3. Mark, I believe Michael’s point was to critique the myopic and reductionist focus on economics, not to make a blanket equation of free-markets=capitalism as such.

  4. Luke, you are correct as that was precisely my point. Also I was trying to demonstrate that by prioritizing individual desire over all other concerns the market effectively dissolves all social arrangements and developments that exist prior to it.

    Mark, this is a critique not just of state-capitalism but also of liberalism and modernism altogether, with attention placed also on non-economic concerns. Your immediate apprehension of my piece as a critique of capitalism’s economic effects rather than an attack on all areas of society is indicative of the mentality I was deploring. Secondly, I make it quite clear that what I am attacking is crony capitalism, which is historically all “free markets” have ever been. Your assessment of my views as “mystical egalitarianism” is incorrect. I am not and have never been an economic egalitarian. That a class of people live in poverty to me is an issue, but the simultaneous existence of those with more I do not regard as an injustice. Moreover, I would not describe my belief in a natural heirarchy as “benevolent elitism”, so much as a desire to maintain social and cultural quality rather than dangerously reducing everyone to the lowest common denominator through artificial leveling measures.

  5. Luke, you are correct as that was part of my point. I was also trying to demonstrate how by assuming individual desire as it’s highest priority, the market efffectively dissolves all social arrangements and developments that exist prior to it.

    Mark, I was critiquing not just capitalism but liberalism and modernism altogether, including its effects on areas of society that have nothing to do with economics. Your immediate apprehension of it as a mere attack on its material consequences is indicative of the mindset I was deploring. My attack was directed at an ethos and an era in time, not at a specific economic system, so complaining about my supposed conflation of corporate socialism with free markets (I made myself quite clear I was attacking the former) is irrelevant.

    Secondly you are mistaken in identifying me as someone who professes a “mystical egalitarianism.” I am not nor have I ever been an egalitarian when it comes to economics. Poverty in itself is a problem, not that some live in poverty while others don’t…lack of access to the means of sustinence is wrong (as long as it is due to factors outside the control of those in that situation, I have no compassion for those suffering self-inflicted wounds) not “inequality.” I wouldn’t describe my position on societal heierarchy as “benevolent elitism” (that’s New Class progressivism), but as a desire to maintain a strong culture through quality control.

    There are numerous other factors shaping this world than the state and the economy, which exist prior to those two institutions. As such there are far more ways to describe the socieities in which we live as “statist”. The state and the economy are merely two artificial structures imposed externally to organize a pre-existing society, not the be-all end-all of the society itself. And no I refuse to accomodate middle class excess, irrespective of how hard-earned the money they’re disposing on trivial non-essentials is. You take a myopically materialist conception of the world that, while rightly opposing political oppression, carelessly turns a blind eye to all manner of spiritual decay.

  6. An explanation is in order here: Quagmire was a cybermoniker I went by for the longest time, and I have only recently reverted to using my real name. The ATS site, for some odd reason, rejected my attempt to post under my real name, so as far as this site is concerned I remain Quagmire.

  7. Perhaps they get some kind of spiritual satisfaction from their “trivial non-essentials”.

    Also, isn’t your yearning for a cultural cohesion and traditional ties, at base, an “individual desire” of yours?

  8. “Also, isn’t your yearning for a cultural cohesion and traditional ties, at base, an “individual desire” of yours?”

    You are correct, but a yearning for a less atomized society is arguably by its nature excluded from the standard remit of ‘individual desires’ that our society caters for, beyond fictional representations of such.

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