NONJUDGMENTALISM, COMPETITION & THE PRIMACY OF DESIRE
The Religion of the Marketplace
September 1999By Joseph Tussman
The “marketplace” is the central image of a new religion, rising out of the ruins of a century marked by devastating war and by a remarkable run of insane rulers and intrusive bureaucracies that have destroyed the faith in politics as capable of producing a just and happy human order. The time is ripe for the emergence of a nonpolitical, an anti-political, salvation creed and, lo! — it has emerged. It is the Religion of the Marketplace — universal in its appeal, easily intelligible, and militant, sending out its missionaries, in the guise of agents of the International Monetary Fund, to keep the fainthearted from straying from the new Tao.
The Faith has three basic dogmas: the primacy of desire; the creative and saving energy of competition; and the tolerant inclusiveness of “nonjudgmentalism.”
The Primacy of Desire
We are creatures of desire, driven by wants, needs, urges, cravings, and passions. Living is the process of slaking thirsts and appeasing hungers — for food, drink, shelter; for warmth, affection, love; beyond that, for status, power, glory, or knowledge. Whatever the craving, we seek satisfaction. What is “the pursuit of happiness” if not the quest to satisfy desires?
A creature of desire is, in intention, a craver of consummation, a consumer. When we are sick and seek health we are no longer patients but consumers of medical services. Students, no longer understood as apprentices, are consumers of educational services. Soon we may hear that a child is a consumer of parental services, a spouse a consumer of connubial services, a parent a consumer of generative joy. Customers all! (And all poised to sue.)
Traditional religions are ambivalent about the pursuit of desire-satisfaction as a way of life. Freedom from the tyranny of desire, from being a slave to desire; or the disciplining of desires for the sake of some significant commitment; or the curbing of some desires toward the conquest of our lower or selfish natures — traditional views such as these lent a faintly sinful aura to the life of desire, distinguishing it, as “vanity,” from the genuine pursuit of happiness.
But Marketism daringly asserts the legitimate centrality of desire and moves it into a more respectable neighborhood. The undeniable significance of desire draws its strength from the great desires that express our fundamental needs, our literal hungers and thirst. Less “basic” desires enjoy a borrowed strength. What we desire, what we want, reflects some sort of need, and its satisfaction is some sort of pleasure or “good.” In an egalitarian mood we echo Bentham’s remark that “pushpin is as good as poetry.” Scratching any sort of itch is satisfying and thus contributes to happiness. But beyond being hospitable to a wide range of desires, we also elevate the status of desire. The movement from “I want” to “I value” is easy enough. From what “I value” to what “I approve of” and consider “good” is hardly a step at all. The “good” is simply the object of desire. Thus the satisfaction of desires gets ennobled into the promotion of the good. It is nice to hear that as we satisfy our desires we are really serving “the good,” and I note the consequence that arguments about what is “good” become arguments about desires or tastes. And, as every schoolgirl knows, “De gustibus….”
Marketism, far from preaching liberation from the thralldom of desire, approves of the cultivation of desire, of stimulating demand, of increasing consumption, of transforming faintly felt desires into urgency, of creating longings, of spurring us into habitual shopping. And “credit,” highly democratized, makes it unnecessary to suffer the pangs of postponed gratification.
So, in an act of theological daring, the pursuit of the satisfaction of desires is freed from sinfulness, is given a legitimacy that traditional religions are reluctant to bestow, and is transformed into a positive virtue. Marketism (in an interesting alliance with Individualism) holds not only that the individual is the center of significance — a cluster of desires that each is free to satisfy — but also that if each pursues his own interests the well-being of society is served — and much better than it would be by anyone so misguided as to try, ignoring his own interests, to serve the interests of society directly. (Something about an “invisible hand”…) In short, Marketism interprets the hallowed pursuit of happiness as the search for the satisfaction of desires. Man is essentially a consumer, a craver of consummation, and all his energies and arts are properly instrumental to that end.
Competition — Profit, Glory, and Fear
If there is to be consuming there must, of course, be producing. This is to be directed not by a simple program to satisfy need but by an intention to profit by satisfying consumer need. Thus we need not depend on some utopian hope of a generous impulse to satisfy another’s needs or desires — perhaps this works for those who are in love, or within a family, but not in the “real world.” In the real world we entrust ourselves to the operation of a self-interested Profit Motive.
The power of the profit motive is aided when it flags — and even when it doesn’t — by the great spur of Competition. Sloth is the problem. Sloth seems to have jumped ahead of Gluttony in the hierarchy of the Deadly Sins, and Competition is generally regarded as its cure.
Competition, as we know, has two facets. It offers fame, glory, the laurel wreath, status, the glow of victory, a greater market-share. And, on its darker side, defeat, failure, the fear of nothingness. Fear is the spur that touches even those who do not wish to enter the great race, for one must fear losing even what little one has. Just as the fear of punishment ekes out the simple respect for the law, so the fear of failure is a vital aspect of the power of competition. There is hardly a problem for which competition is not offered as a remedy. In the troubled field of Education, for instance, what we are being offered by the devotees of the Marketplace is not concrete educational or pedagogic proposals but the promise that if we “open them up to competition” the public schools will somehow be forced to improve.
Thus, to the desire-centered life of consuming is added the energizing power of competition, and we have the first two basic elements of the marketplace way of life.
Tolerance, or Nonjudgmentalism
There is another essential feature of the Religion of the Marketplace, almost as important as desire (consumer demand) and competition. It is less a driving force than a theoretical defense against impeding criticism. It may be called “pluralism” or “tolerance.” Its enemy is “judgmentalism” — and if it were not so cumbersome I would unashamedly use the term “anti-judgmentalism.”
Consumers make choices, with or without the aid of seduction. The choice may be said to express consumer judgment about goods. Cumulatively, consumer choice is described as the Judgment of the Market. And the judgment of the market, when we see it summed up in an annual report on consumer spending, may startle and even shock us. So much on X; so little on Y! We may be tempted to think that we really ought to spend much more on Y and less on X. That is, we may presume to pass judgment on the judgment of the market! And this, in the end, poses a deadly threat to Marketism or — as it prepares to ward off a blow — the “Free Market.”
For lurking at the edge of the marketplace are some enemies. There are moralists eager to advance their favorite “prohibitions” against the buying and selling of things of which they disapprove, regardless of the desires of willing buyers and eager sellers. And more troublesome than moralists are the political institutions willing to pass laws and regulations and controls that override market judgment of goods by political assessments of virtue.
The problem for Marketism is how to protect the judgment of the market, representing cumulative desires, against the critical claims of “Reason.” On the one hand, there is what we seem to want, what we actually choose, and on the other hand there is the judgment we make when we think about it. How can we protect “doing what we want” against arrogant criticism and even correction by “Reason”?
Coming to the aid of Marketism is a renewal of the ancient attack upon Reason. The attack makes two thrusts. First, it denies the possibility of “objectivity.” Second, it declares the irrelevance of “reason” to what we call “value judgments.” While these two “philosophical” positions were not designed conspiratorially to support Marketism, they have nevertheless served its cause. Let me try to state the case.
About “objectivity” — I will skip directly to an oversimplification. We are all locked into our own points of view and are unable to escape or transcend them. We never see a thing as it really is (the thing in itself) but only as it appears from our particular slant or bias. There are many opinions and, on the extreme view, none can claim to be “true” except as an attempt at oppressive hegemony. Our “reason” is essentially the cunning of bias. It is not a fair, impartial judge, and the appeal to it as “objective” is merely fraudulent and self-serving. All is subjective, and reason is only “my reason” and really no better than any other. We are all lawyers writing our briefs in a world without judges. There is no “right” view — since God is presumably dead — but only our partial biases.
Reason, in any case, is unable to judge or evaluate “values.” There is a long tradition about this. Pascal thought that the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of; Hume thought that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions, not their judge. Some Pragmatists have thought that reason was “instrumental,” concerned with “means,” not with the judging of “ends” or goods. Others have thought that judging something as “good” only amounts to saying that you like it. The brash American version is “The customer is always right!” All such positions have the effect of freeing desires from the controlling judgment of “reason,” of freeing values, and even the values we call “moral convictions” — ultimately, like all values, matters of taste — from domination by rational judgment or from the effects of thinking about them, or from criticism of popular taste by intellectuals or elitists. “That’s what you think!” is the ultimate retort. And who are you to think that what you like or think is better than what anyone else thinks? Better to be tolerant, to recognize the plurality of “goods.” Faintly echoing another religious tradition which says, “Judge not!,” Marketism commands, “Be not judgmental!”
Thus Marketism seeks to free itself from the domination of an enfeebled critical Reason, leaving the judgment of the market triumphantly holding the field. It expresses what people really want, the desires whose satisfaction means a happiness deeper than might appeal to a thin, bloodless reason and to an intrusive political meddling, in the name of that “reason,” in the deeper affairs of the heart. The dying faith in the Responsible Mind gives way to the faith in the Invisible Hand.
These, then, are the elements of the religion that seems poised to take over the world. The consummation of desire is the bottom line. Competition is the exhilarating motivational spur. A tolerant nonjudgmentalism is the democratic, peacekeeping, universalizing spirit. The irresistible simplicity of this trinity is buttressed by a powerful and subtle intellectual structure — a “model” with principles like “comparative advantage,” elaborated beautifully at such theology centers as Chicago and the other business schools. Mathematics is the sacred tongue, a universal language accessible to the educated on all continents, in all modern cultures. With the collapse of the powers that claimed Marx as their prophet, there is really no serious competitor in the field. Who can challenge the claim that the world is now a “global marketplace” whose imperatives relentlessly displace faintly persisting older creeds and ignore archaic political landmarks?
Seeing the triumphant progress of Marketism, one can sympathize with the old Roman who contemplated the rise of Christianity with a kind of resigned incredulity. Only Marketism is easier to believe in; it requires much less raw faith. And its heroic novelty — its transformation of the unabashed pursuit of the satisfaction of desire from almost a vice to very much a virtue — is, for those with lingering moral scruples, a pleasant bonus. Regardless of what may have been said once upon a time about “the eye of a needle,” we can now say reverently, “Rich is beautiful!”
There is little hope that anything can really avert the triumph of the marketplace faith. Trying to stop it by “refuting” its doctrines is an exercise in futility. Its appeal, especially its anti-political animus, is, I think, impervious to rearguard theological sniping. In concrete struggles between the political and the economic, between the Forum and the Market, as in the attempt to protect political borders against the market-driven (“fast-track”) mobility of labor or goods, the few victories of politics seem only stopgap and temporary. How can we resist the vision of the world as one great shopping mall with each of us, regardless of color, creed, or sexual preference, a happy shopper holding universally accepted credit cards?
Nevertheless, I will point out some soft spots that may, in the long run, mar or trouble the triumph of Marketism.
Problems With Desire
It seems we are fated always to relearn the hard way that the pursuit of happiness is not to be confused with the pursuit of pleasure, with the quest for what we desire, the search or struggle to get what we want — with all those consummations for which we may devoutly and misguidedly wish. The Market offers to give us what we want. And yet….
It is obvious that we don’t always know what we need. But more bafflingly, we don’t usually know what we want. We are mistaken in what we think we want. We regret having chosen what we thought we wanted. We are disappointed when we get it. This is one of the oldest stories in the world, and I bring it up only to remind us that in building on “desire” we do not avoid the perils of uncertainty, error, regret, disillusionment, and the emptiness of achieved desire. “I know what I want” is a pervasive cognitive error.
That “what I want” — even if I know what I want — is “good” for me, is another familiar error. One cannot place the desire for nourishing food and drink and an addictive desire for cigarettes on the same level. From the point of view of what is “good for me” there is a hierarchical array of desires, some good for me, some disastrous, that the life of satisfying desires must come to terms with, about which we learn — if we live — to become judgmental.
However “inclusive” we may wish to be in asserting a democratic equality of desires, we are forced, in spite of our reluctance, to invent or discover or fall back upon some old and boring moral categories. We discover that some of the things we may desire are — dare I say it? — not good for us, but bad. Faced with a glittering array of temptations, unhindered by admonitions like “Is this really necessary?” or “Less is better,” subjected to skilled blandishment and to cold professional seductiveness — still we learn to say “No” to some desires, we learn to judge.
This means that there is a built-in conflict or tension in the marketplace way of life. We need to develop the art and discipline of choosing, to become skilled defensive shoppers. But, on the other hand, the marketplace develops the arts of enticement and seduction (advertising is a major industry) and claims the right to fan the flames of desire. Protected as “freedom of speech,” the seduction industry, strangely legitimized, largely freed from moral disapprobation, has become a formidable social power, threatening to dominate political life as it has come to dominate the marketplace. The pitchman now overpowers the teacher as, long ago, the Sophists were able to silence the voice of Socrates.
I hardly pause to note that some great religions and many secular sages, seemingly unaware of the facts of life, of the glory of the Mall, still refuse to locate happiness on the carousel (or treadmill) of desire. But their reticence does not echo in the marketplace.
Problems With Competition
In a gaming or sporting culture, it is hardly necessary to explain “competition.” We know how it evokes greater effort, discipline, and excellence, and creates a world of winners and losers. The winners are better, reaching new heights, setting new records, and achieving what, without the drive of competition, would never be attained. The “contest,” as an old professor of mine would have said, is for our culture a “root metaphor.”
The problem is, however, that life is not a contest and that competition is overshadowed in significance by its modest little brother, co-operation. For some of the best things in life, competition is a destructive intruder, and even in the world of the contest, losers are often — in important respects — better, healthier, nicer, and even happier than winners.
In the world of the corporation, where Marketists gird their loins for battle, the operative unit is, surprisingly, the “team,” and the internal life of the team forces the discovery or rediscovery of ancient moral insight about trust, truth, responsibility, interdependence, dedication, and subordination to a common cause. The world of teamwork is crippled by internal competition. The arts of co-operation to achieve a common goal dominate, even as a team prepares itself to compete, and the spirit of co-operation can become so infectious that, among corporations, “merging” offers itself as an alternative to competing. Co-operating is so appealing, in fact, that we have had to invent anti-trust laws — a political intervention — to keep competition alive among those who, left to their own tastes, would prefer noncompetitive peace, collusion, and even monopoly. Wherever there are teams, the co-operative arts subvert the competitive, even in the strongholds of the marketplace.
However energizing it might be, competition is really out of place in the world of things that we value for their own sakes. True lovers are not in competition with each other. The fellowship of scholars in pursuit of truth is maimed and corrupted by the intrusion of competition. I remember the shock of reading how a pair of scientists shamelessly hid some photos from Linus Pauling lest he should figure out what was going on and beat them to the Nobel Prize — that great corrupter of fellowship. Every teacher knows that competition among students for grades destroys genuine learning. In the greatest of things, the challenge is to master an art, not to defeat or outdo others.
Problems With Nonjudgmentalism
As for nonjudgmentalism — this is perhaps the deepest of the theological roots of the new order. Essentially it rejects the great normative categories that define a civilization. It transforms the older notion of Original Sin into the conviction that the human world is a “sick” world, that what we need is not the minister scolding about violations of a list of commandments but rather the therapist to restore the healthy self-esteem destroyed by the sense of guilt that haunts the neighborhood of commandments and moral rules that, of course, we inevitably violate. Our need is for treatment, not for moral disapproval and punishment.
It’s true, of course, that rules, exhortations, and punishments will hardly cure a sickness. Scolding may be out of place when we are engaged in treating and curing. “Ministering” is wonderfully ambiguous in this respect, and even the old faiths affirm that there is a time to judge and a time not to judge. But market-based nonjudgmentalism goes beyond this, teaching not that judgment is sometimes out of place but that judgment is always intrusive and inappropriate. Who are you to judge that my taste is bad?
At its starkest, then, market nonjudgmentalism rejects the appropriateness of the great normative categories: true–false, good–evil, right–wrong. “I want, I like, I believe” is for each of us, for each culture and subculture, for the least among us, the ultimate assertion. “Relativism” and “skepticism” name traditional philosophic positions summoned to rescue the dignity of our private feelings and points of view from demeaning subordination to external normative standards.
The current image that perfectly expresses this mood is the image of the mind as a “marketplace of ideas.” The best test of truth, we are told, is the ability of an idea to prevail, to seize its share of the market. If it sells it is, to that extent, good or true or (for that matter) beautiful. Thus, significant judgment is simply the judgment of the market. But it is hard to think of a more inept metaphor for the mind than “marketplace of ideas.” In truth, the mind is related to a marketplace as a keeper is related to an insane asylum.
It is really pointless to say that the whole thing is silly. Desires are real and important, but we know that a life spent in the service of desire is a disappointing perversion of the pursuit of happiness. Competition earns its garlands, but as a world-turning force it is not in a class with Love. Nonjudgmentalism has its legitimate moments, but the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not simply matters of taste about which there is no point disputing. The common sense of social animals can be momentarily suppressed by ideological zeal or silenced by confusing sophistical loquacity but it will, sooner or later, reassert itself and display sanity. But in the meantime we will have to live through a period of militant Marketism. We will live in the glow of the global economy that reduces parochial cultures to obsolescence, that will transcend the barriers of political boundaries. We will all become, if we adjust to the new creed, canny consumers, prudent investors, imaginative sellers or marketers, temporary employees constantly honing new skills and polishing our CVs as we seek new temporary jobs, living shallow, restless, miserable lives, reaching for fruit that, as Satan discovers in Paradise Lost, turns to ashes in one’s mouth.
Marketism, even as it claims and shapes the future, will still need a supporting and even supplementary structure that is political. The enemy, of course, is the “welfare state,” but the approved political conceptions are comforting and even stirring. They are The Rule of Law and Democracy. These are emblazoned on the banners that the marketplace’s emissaries carry into backward areas preparing them to receive investments, and they are oddly appropriate for the global marketplace.
The Rule of Law suggests a situation governed by certain rules, laws, or principles whose violation can be appealed to essentially nonpolitical, independent judicial tribunals. I say rules, laws, or principles in order to make the point that more is involved than mere local positive law and the enactments of local “sovereigns.” Here we tap into the great and ambiguous tradition of Natural Law — a tradition always concerned to check the arbitrary will of a local “tyrant” by an appeal to Reason or the Higher Law or even Divine Positive Law. It attempts to limit the willfulness of rulers, especially as rulers attempt to violate the sanctity of private property — the most firmly asserted of “natural rights,” more deeply felt than the relatively modern conception of “human rights.” Thus, the Rule of Law stands for something above mere politics, and to insist on it is to attempt to put some things (especially property rights and the sanctity of contract) beyond political peril, to reduce the threat of political power. The Rule of Law is an attempt to limit the scope of “politics,” of government.
There is, of course, a scandal, almost a secret scandal, about the “nonpolitical” character of the Rule of Law. Even as we proclaim it, our most sophisticated legal practitioners — the priesthood of the Rule of Law — deride such views as that judicial judgment can be “nonpolitical,” that there is, even when there is an apparent legal text, a “correct” reading of the Law, that Judges do not project their own “values” into their presumably nonpolitical decision. Such arguments about “judicial activism” undermine the view that the Rule of Law is above politics and that international judicial tribunals to which we may submit disputes will not simply impose their political views upon us in the feeble guise of “objective” legal rulings.
So we may discover that some international court dedicated to the defense of the principle of “free trade” will overrule archaic American political attempts to protect dolphins, or the environment, or the wretched of the earth, from the imperatives of the marketplace. There will, I think, be some backlash against the inevitable challenge to our sovereignty, but mere national political dominance is an ordained victim of the triumph of Marketism, even though one of Marketism’s tenets is labeled “the Rule of Law.”
As for Democracy: If we include in this category all regimes characterized by holding “elections” that exhibit some degree of freedom or fairness, it is the boast of our Marketists that this form of government has spread through all of Latin America even as market economics have displaced varieties of “command” economies. Who can minimize this achievement? Political democracy and the free market!
And yet! The conception of Democracy that flourishes in the shadow of the marketplace is a far cry from that which brought unique dignity to the mere subjects of a nondemocratic polity. Democracy is a kind of two-job theory of life. In addition to his profession or craft or primary function, each member of a democracy (even an entrepreneur) has, ex officio, a political role, a role as participant in the ruling function. At the very least, each is a member of the electorate, the ultimate tribunal. The exercise, by each of us, of that function is what gives significance to democratic life.
The tragedy of much of modern democratic life, however, lies in the corruption of that role. Largely under the powerful influence of a marketplace culture, the citizen-voter is seen as a consumer demanding a share of the goodies, not as a ruler exercising disinterested judgment about the common good. We have turned our elected representatives, in ways that would have horrified both the conservative Burke and the liberal Mill, into our Designated Shoppers. Political discourse has been degraded into advertising. Money, a foolish Supreme Court has said, talks. The political Forum comes, sadly, to resemble the Marketplace — a place in which we are to act as customers demanding and getting what we want.
Why do we complain that citizens have come to despise “politics”? It is a mark of their sanity that they do. They know, or at least feel, that our politics is a corruption of what it should be. They despise its practitioners (though they may like the work of their own Designated Shoppers) for corrupting “taking thought together” into “bargaining” — the corrupt paradigm of the mind in action. We have turned electoral and even legislative life into an ugly scramble for partisan advantage, a perversion that turns the normal stomach. To a depressing degree, the “democracy” we proclaim is only a bazaar version of politics.
So our Marketists promote a “democracy” transmuted into its marketplace version, with Citizens seen as Customers who, when politically active, are merely on another shopping trip. Among all forms of polity, Democracy is the one least hostile to the identification of the “public good” or the “public interest” with consumer demand. Thus Democracy is a form of politics most compatible with the Marketist creed and — given the primacy of desires, competition, and nonjudgmentalism — most inclined to take “privatization” in stride as simply a bit more efficient and less hindered by sentimentality. Democracy is the form of politics least likely to threaten the domination of the marketplace.
By promoting the Rule of Law and Democracy, Marketism defangs the political threat to its global economy while, of course, allowing the political institutions to provide the necessary infrastructure of economic life: the broadly conceived law and order necessary to promote investor confidence; education or rather “investment” in the value of employees; bankruptcy and bail-out provisions so that those who take risks should not be made to suffer too much and possibly lose confidence in the system. And even, perhaps, to do some things that the Market, intent on its own way of promoting happiness, may overlook, things like fresh air or clean water or the forests or the animals or safe food or even health (whatever that is). A nicely tamed politics may be permitted to do some useful things so long as its institutions do not get too big and do not presume to interfere with the global economy or the world market, with the elevating and liberating conception that at last, for all of us, life can be a perpetual shopping trip. My fear is not that the devotees of Marketism will fail in their venture but that they will succeed.
As we contemplate the future of life in a global marketplace, we may forget that real life begins when we leave the store, after “shopping,” that nothing which makes life significant happens in the marketplace, and that everything — the search for justice, beauty, health, wisdom, love — is coarsened and degraded when it is brought under the sway of the marketplace, when the measure of all things, robbed of their glory, becomes the “bottom line.”
Joseph Tussman is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Obligation and the Body Politic, Government and the Mind, The Burden of Office, and The Beleaguered College.