Faith ‘n markets

Posted: 4 June 2012 in Uncategorized
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Thomas Locher, “The Mystical Character of Commodities
Does Not Originate, Therefore, in Their Use Value” (2007)

Right now, morality seems to be calling into question faith in free markets.

There is, of course, the new book by “rock star professor” Michael Sandel, whose views I have engaged here.

Putting a price on a flat-screen TV or a toaster is, he says, quite sensible. “But how to value pregnancy, procreation, our bodies, human dignity, the value and meaning of teaching and learning – we do need to reason about the value of goods. The markets give us no framework for having that conversation. And we’re tempted to avoid that conversation, because we know we will disagree about how to value bodies, or pregnancy, or sex, or education, or military service; we know we will disagree. So letting markets decide seems to be a non-judgmental, neutral way. And that’s the deepest part of the allure; that it seems to provide a value-neutral, non-judgmental way of determining the value of all goods. But the folly of that promise is – though it may be true enough for toasters and flat-screen televisions – it’s not true for kidneys.”

And then there’s the recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (whose web site is not working right now), cited by Thomas Edsall [ht: bn], on whether or not capitalism is compatible with Christian values.

As it turns out, the answer depends on the partisan political identities of the respondents.

By two to one, 53-26, Democrats believe that capitalism and Christianity are not compatible. Republicans, in contrast, believe there is no conflict, by a 46-37 margin. Tea Party supporters are even more adamant, believing that capitalism and Christian values are compatible by a 56-35 margin.

The general public, by a 44 to 36 margin, believes capitalism is not compatible with Christian values.

There are positive signs, then—from the worldwide interest in Sandel’s book and a survey of the U.S. population—that moral and religious discourse represents a challenge to free-market capitalism.

The only caution I’d add is that it may be a mistake to set up a simple opposition between moral values and markets, as if a return to values and morality represented a way out of the current crises. We need to recognize that the faith in free markets leading up to the financial crisis of 2007-08, like the call for austerity today, was itself a discourse dripping with moral values.

An alternative might be to declare the long dark night of values and morality finally over and move instead to a materialist critique of political economy—in order to uncover the secret of the mystical character of commodities.

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