"Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble that picture" - Iris Murdoch

Thursday 22 December 2016

Beauteous Markets That Have Such Morals In Them

By William Hogarth - 1. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.2., Public Domain, Link
The crash of 2007-8 strengthened an old critique about the troubled relationship between markets and morals.  This critique found its way into the discussion during the Bank of England's Open Session a year ago, which is (indirectly) how I came across the paper I am going to write about, Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy's "Moral Views of Market Society".  You can find it here.

Fourcade and Healy guide us through economic sociologists' (and others') investigation of this question, and point us to one approach in particular, which I will focus on.  But my interest in their review goes wider than the question of markets.  My initial post about Owen Flanagan's recent book noted that he brings together cross-cultural philosophy, anthropology and psychology, but doesn't have the space to add consideration of "macro-structures" which might affect ethics, through disciplines like sociology, political science and macroeconomics.  So I wanted to pause my blogging of The Geography of Morals, and get at least part of this picture in view.

Fourcade and Healy frame the paper as a revisiting of Albert Hirschman's classic 1982 paper "Rival Interpretations of Market Society".  They use Hirschman's history of interpretations—the doux-commerce thesis that markets soften and civilise morals, the self-destruction thesis that they undermine them, and a combination of the "feudal shackles" and "feudal blessings" thesis that existing moral customs either help or hinder the market—as a map of the more recent work they review.  They label their categories the "liberal dream", the "commodified nightmare", and the "feeble markets" views (the last being dominant in economic sociology).  But they then look at a fourth emerging literature which sees markets and morals as more closely intertwined, the "moralized markets" view.

The paper is a wonderful and clear guide to the literature.  If I try to review a review paper like this one, I'll end up having to reproduce most of it.  Instead, at the end of this post I will include a quick signposting of what happens in those first three sections.  I will use the rest of my post to talk about the moralized markets view, which struck me (as it does the authors) as particularly creative and promising.

The overall idea is that markets themselves are cultural and moral projects which involve making sense of our lives and guiding our behaviour.  Fourcade and Healy break down their consideration of this (and the literature) into three parts.  First, we can analyse markets and the exchange relations they involve, to understand how they shape the moral categories we live by.  "Moral categories" should be understood here widely and in Emile Durkheim's sense, as covering a social group's ideas of goodness, badness, appropriateness, legitimacy, etc.

So, for instance, there is work by Viviana Zelizer looking at how systems of moral classification reinforce, and are reinforced by, the earmarking of money for different social uses.  Richard Biernacki investigates how different kinds of payment act as status signals and cultural representations.  There have also been many studies—again Zelizer is a key figure here—on particular markets.  Through the interactions and exchange of various goods in markets, these categories and behavioural rules are formed, fought over and reformed.

Fourcade and Healy remind us that we need to look at exchange generally.  Gift exchange may be non-monetary, but also brings up questions of power and exploitation, as in Nancy Folbre and Julie Nelson's study of care work.  Also, these processes of exchange do not happen in a vacuum, but are influenced by technological change, the mobilisation of interest groups, and the actions of moral entrepreneurs.

However, the authors also remind us that social scientists themselves are involved in these processes and battles through their study of markets, and cannot avoid using moral concepts, supporting different interests and furthering particular justificatory principles.  This brings us to our second part of this approach.

This literature naturally focuses on the role of economists.  Central here is Thomas Callon's notion of the performativity of economics: intellectual tools can also reshape the world.  As economic thinking spreads, it reshapes people in particular into calculative agencies, actors who behave in the way that models describe them.  Fourcade and Healy discuss weaker and stronger versions of this claim (is it just that we increasingly use economic concepts and language?).

The literature investigating this has been primarily European (and includes studies of particular markets).  The authors review the parallel literature by American sociologists on how consistency and comparability of categories are put into practice.  There have been several studies of techniques of quantification and commensuration (comparing things according to a common metric), as well as Harrison White's work on decoupling, whereby people simplify their social settings to make their identities and products comparable.  The moral dimension is this: these techniques build moral categories, which make certain social statuses legitimate, and allow people to be regulated according to these categories.

Fourcade and Healy see the third area of the literature as combining these two types of analysis—the analysis of the morality inherent in markets on the one hand, and the analysis of the implicit moral activity of market-shaping economists (and other experts) on the other—to show that markets are actively moralised.  Market exchange, and the activity of policymakers and activists, put moral concepts into practice in society.

Here we need to bring in government: agencies which monitor and regulate individuals, corporation and nations act, in Foucault's terms, as surveillance organisations which apply technical methods to govern, but also to encourage these agents to monitor and regulate themselves.  Here they cite studies on a range of areas: credit reporting, transparency, corruption, accounting, financial analysis and bond rating.

The word "neoliberalism" is overused and has been criticised for lacking content, but the picture Fourcade and Healy present here of the neoliberal economy as a governmentalised economy, a moral order put into practice through social and political means, is an interesting one and deserves further exploration through the sources they mention.  They are also careful to point out that the forces that shape "the economy" include non-economic ones like social movements, though social movements' engagement with the economy is itself shaped by the processes we've seen above.

I'll leave things there, though there's much in the paper I've had to miss out.  There were many promising avenues mapped out here—for instance, I'd like to read and write about Zelizer's work soon to understand how exactly exchange relations and interactions shape moral categories.  As I mentioned at the outset, I'd like to know more about how to understand moral meanings through a sociological lens.  Similarly, I found the Foucauldian picture of the macrogovernance of morality quite convincing, and would like to see whether we can fit together with the cleaner and sunnier picture of liberal and democratic processes we would like to think that we live under, and which we perhaps still need to guide our relationships with our fellow citizens.

Finally, I'd reiterate my earlier implication: all this work (including the other approaches I'm about to summarise) seems crucial if we are going to use moral-philosophical work and ethical considerations in an effective way to bring about social change.  We need sociological realism too.

I'll finish, for those interested, with the summary of the other three approaches discussed by Fourcade and Healy:
  • The "liberal dream" view includes but goes beyond the idea that markets are useful tools.  Here the authors discuss work arguing that, and how, participation in markets helps the development of certain virtues (pp.286-8), and cooperative social relations (pp.288-9).  They then look at views linking markets to freedom, both through satisfying and empowering people, and through protecting them from others' power (pp.289-90).  Finally, they consider the effects on creativity and innovation, and cultural goods in particular (pp.290-1).
  • The "commodified nightmare" view aims to rebut the "liberal dream" claims in each of these three areas, i.e. the effects on civil society, politics and culture.  So there is work arguing that the markets provide or interact with indivdual-level or macro-level mechanisms to undermine certain virtues (pp.291-2).  There are literatures on markets damaging social relations through allowing commodification or coercion, on which Fourcade and Healy provide helpful evaluation (pp.292-3).  There are critics and critiques of markets' supposed democratic nature (p.294).  And there is work attacking standardisation and illusory diversity in culture (pp.294-5).
  • The "feeble markets" view reverses the direction of explanation.  Here, it is a society's ethics and cultural practices which explain how markets emerge and economic development occurs.  "Realist" views hold, roughly speaking, that certain cultures are just better suited to support markets, and use a range of explanations ranging from comparative religion to game theory to the stickiness of past institutions (pp.296-7).  "Voluntarist" views argue instead that the correct supporting institutions can be introduced anywhere, though there are sophisticated studies exploring how exactly to do so (pp.297-8).  Finally, the main, "differentiated", view in sociology is that different cultures will lead to different types of market arrangements, though opinions vary on how direct the relationship is (pp.298-9).

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