Deeper Into Commodification

by Rob Horning

29 March 2011

Social media represents new threats to and possibilities for the perceived moral basis of capitalism.

Reihan Salam has some criticism of the ideas in a few of my recent posts here, in which he points out that as insecure and isolating conditions may be under new capitalism, they were worse before, in the Fordist era. He highlights particularly the “dramatic advances made by women in educational attainment and market production” under the neoliberal order. He suspects that I might be nostalgic for the old order of things (odd that a post at the National Review would seem to imply that I am too conservative!) and argues that Fordist conditions were a historical anomaly rather than a useful point of comparison.
I think I definitely mislaid my emphasis if I come across as though I am advocating a return to 1950s social conditions. Obviously I have reservations about how social relations are being shaped by conditions today, but I don’t think we can or should try to turn back the clock. I think Salam is right that in many ways what is happening with the “proliferation of small-units, e.g., small firms and cultural niches” is a re-emergence of some of capitalism’s early dynamism, providing opportunities that many experience as wholly beneficial. But whereas Salam writes that he would argue “that the collectivity and security we’ve lost is being replaced by new forms of collectivity and security that are preferable in many important respects,” I think those new forms are destabilizing and subtly coercive. I don’t think the old forms are preferable; I guess I keep writing about these ideas because I believe that there are new forms that aren’t being realized, that may be interdicted by the necessities of a capitalist organization of the economy. That is, the new forms of social relations offer certain freedoms at the cost of having to commodify oneself at a deeper level than wage slavery required, with more of everyday life subsumed into capitalism, made business like, subject to its procedures of rational calculation. Some of what stems from that is good: At times work is more harmonious with one’s overall life, at times it feels good to have the market assess the quality and extent of one’s sociality, at times the flexibility increasingly expected of us prompts us to be and feel more creative, at times our self-consciousness leads to a rewarding consideration of what other people are thinking, and not just what they are thinking of us.

But the negative aspects are inseparable from those positive aspects. Richard Sennett outlines some of those negative aspects in The Culture of New Capitalism, which I wrote about here. I think social media exacerbates both the positive and negative aspects, which is a pretty nebulous position, I know, but I try to disguise it by writing mainly about the negative things. I think that social media seems to promise to be a respite from the pressures of life under neoliberalism, but it ends up serving mainly as a vector for those same pressures. That suggests a missed opportunity to have structured an emerging phenomenon differently.   

Salam suggests that I am someone whom he “disagree[s] with as completely and comprehensively as one can disagree with another human,” but it seems we probably agree that economist Albert Hirschman is very much worth reading. Salam links to his paper “Rival Interpretations of Market Society: Civilizing, Destructive, or Feeble?” (sadly a gated link) which I also highly recommend and which amply illustrates that there’s nothing new in disagreeing about the predominant social and psychological effects of markets, whether they are civilizing, integrative, alienating, etc. Hirschman writes,

For capitalism to be both self-reinforcing and self-undermining is not any more “contradictory” than for a business firm to have income and outgo at the same time! Insofar as social cohesion is concerned, for example, the constant practice of commercial transactions generates feelings of trust, empathy for others, and similar doux feelings; but on the other hand, as Montesquieu already knew, such practice permeates all spheres of life with the element of calculation and of instrumental reason. Once this view is adopted, the moral basis of capitalist society will be seen as being constantly depleted and replenished at the same time.

That seems right to me. Social media represents new threats to and possibilities for the perceived moral basis of capitalism. I emphasize the threats because I tend to think that undermining the moral basis for capitalism might lead to a better economic system (as I think the downside of omnipresent instrumental reason outweighs the gains from doux commerce), though I am wary too about lapsing into a sort of “heighten the contradictions” approach. I think social media and personal branding and so on reveal what has been true of capitalism all along but in muted, and possibly more tolerable forms. If capitalist ideology assimilates social media, another opportunity for fundamental change will be lost and capitalistic subjectivity will have been retrenched at an even more intimate level and with our social lives more thoroughly organized along capitalistic lines, there will be fewer places from within everyday life where it is possible to imagine an alternative.


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