The Market Principle

I could just as well have called this “In The Shadow of the Enlightenment IV” but the iteration of the same heading was getting a bit tedious.

Today, I want to speak to the hegemony of the market, and what it means, as one of those same remnant “grand narratives” or metanarratives which much that is called “postmodernism” seems to overlook, having not gained much in the way of “ironic distance” from the ubiquity of it. This post is an experiment in that “ironic distance” or in “deconstructing the myth of the market”, since the myth of the market, as we might call it, insinuates its logic and infiltrates our habits of though in practically everything we do at our “end of history”.

The search for a principle of unity — which we might just as well call a principle of integrity — has a long history. It might even be said to be the very substance and meaning of what we call “history”. Heraclitus claimed to have discovered it and called it “the Logos”. In Christendom, it was the quest for the “Holy Grail”. Today it is called “Theory of Everything” or “Integral Theory”. And while the Greek quest for the principle of unity and integrity within the context of the many (and proliferating)  gods and goddesses, and the strife and competition of the elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, is a very interesting and extensive subject in itself, I want to restrict myself here to the Modern Era. By “Modern Era” I mean the last 500 years, and which I date from the discovery or invention of perspective which allowed for the systematic (conceptual and perceptual) coordination of spaces, or the dimensions of space, in terms of length, width and depth.

The principle of integrity or unity at the onset of the early Modern Age is still “God”. That’s still reflected in the, then, name of what we now call “Europe”. Then, it was called not “Europe” (which is the Greek name for everything north of Greece) but “Holy Roman Empire” or simply “Christendom”. Monotheism is the principle of universality and therefore also of unity and integrity. “God”, however, is beginning to become distant and remote by this time, rather than as presence — becoming the “Great Clockmaker” or “Architect” now lost somewhere in the mists of antiquity and at gates of dawn and in the beginnings of time and not, as earlier he “in whom we live, move, and have our being”.

The universal God, as central or core value representing unity and integrity, began to fall apart and disintegrate into schism and sect with the Reformation (Lutheran or German Revolution) and Counter-Reformation . The Cross splintered and fractured. This was, in effect, the beginnings of that event that Nietzsche calls “death of God” (or really “murder of God”), and by the time the dust had settled, “Christendom” had been replaced by a system of autonomous Nation-States (Treaty of Westphalia), and was even rebaptised with the Greek name “Europe”, and a new principle of integrity and unity was sought out in the absence of God and was called “Reason”, or more specifically “Universal Reason”, although it was hard to disguise the fact that “Universal Reason” was simply the new name for “God”, as “Reason” was considered to be identical with the “Mind of God”, and figuring things out was simply “Reading the Mind of God“. This new conception of God was represented in Deism — the God apart and who has become really peripheral and marginal to existence, as exemplified in the physicist Laplace’s remark that “God” was an hypothesis that he did not require to explain his system of the world.

Some confused people seem to think that that statement marks Laplace as an atheist. But in fact Laplace was a Catholic and a Deist. But the God apart, as Great Clockmaker, simply reflected the new perspectivist attitude to the world — it’s division into subject and object. God was the New Mind, but that mind was not present in the Machine it had engineered. God had created it, then stepped aside to let it run along according to its own laws of motion.

In the absence of God, therefore, the principle of “Universal Reason” stepped into the breach as principle of universality, unity, and integrity, nurtured by the university, made manifest in the rational and enlightened State. For a time, this novel faith in the universality of Reason worked, which we call “the Enlightenment” or “the Modern Project”. If “Universal Reason” wasn’t identical with God, then at least it was an adequate substitute for God in human affairs.

This faith in Universal Reason as ruling idea or principle of human unity was abruptly shattered by the First World War and subsequent events. The whole period 1914 – 1945 represents a major disillusionment in the Age of Reason and in the adequacy of “Universal Reason” to serve as a principle of unity and integrity. It began itself to fracture and disintegrate, as the “two cultures” of Arts & Sciences, and even within the natural sciences and within humanism itself the unity of knowledge represented in the “university” became incoherent, so much so in fact that people now speak of the “multiversity” rather than “university”. And the university itself is in decline as being “ivory tower”.

The loss of confidence and faith in “Universal Reason” to serve as the principle of unity and integrity is pretty much the whole meaning of “postmodern condition” and the problem of cynical reason. The fracture and disintegration of “Universal Reason” is what Gebser means by “the mental-rational structure of consciousness now functioning in deficient mode”, which has many symptoms.

Into the breach represented by “death of God” and disintegration of “Universal Reason” now steps the “Universal Market”. Economism is the name we give to this new faith in the hegemony of the universal market to function as the principle of unity and integrity. The universal market is seen as the linchpin of global economic (and human) integration, the happy meeting place where the world’s peoples can meet in mutual peace and concord to exchange their goods and services and ideas, or what we call “Commerce”.

Church, State, University, Corporation are four experiments in the hegemony of a principle of unity and universality. The current obsession with the marketisation and commercialisation of everything, 24/7, is the very naive belief, even delusion, that the market can function as centre and as principle of unity and integrity where the others have faltered and failed. The market will serve as universal altar, advertising as its mythology, brands and logos as its sacred symbols, commerce as communion.

Does anyone really believe this will work?

The hegemony of the market and commerce, and the Earth seen as a global marketplace, cannot serve the purpose that is envisioned for it. This is even becoming clearer to neo-liberals themselves (Amy Chua’s World On Fire being one example). The market is, amongst other things, also cunning and craftiness, deceit and deception, dissembling, contention, conflict of interest, competition of interests, inequality of interests, disinformation, “irrational exuberance” and “animal spirits”. The market is, amongst other things, also “law of the jungle” and “survival of the fittest”.

The myth of the market as the “borderless world” (including the erasure of the borders between “public” and “private”) is doomed to fail also. The market cannot perform the function envisioned for it — the centre and principle of unity.

You probably all remember the famous Coke ad, “I’ld like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” while everyone holds a Coke. That’s the new iconography of the market hegemony and brand as integrating and unifying principle. It’s absurd. It’s lunatic. But it’s “the new normal”.

The “end of history” really was intended to buttress this faith in the hegemony of the market as the new principle of human unity and integrality. All the old gods have failed, so why not this new god? But it too will fail and is, in fact, failing. But, essentially, “economism” is the delusional belief and totalising worldview and paradigm in which the hegemony of the market serves as new unifying principle and principle of integrity.

A lot of postmodernism, because of its continuing retrospective critique of Enlightenment, has also been accused of feeding into that market paradigm, consciously or unconsciously, and of not being sufficiently self-critical in that regard. There’s some truth in that, I think.



7 responses to “The Market Principle”

  1. abdulmonem says :

    It seems that worship is basic in human affairs and that dropping from the universal god in his unidentified form is the default situation of humanity irrespective of the name chosen for the new associations. It seems that humanity is always pushed back to the universal god. These cycles are ever-recurrent events across the landscape of history, the difference is only in the grade of consciousness and the number of those who become conscious to the new reality. It is an age of revelation pointing to the truth of the divine reality, the light energy of the cosmos, creating and activating. Nothing moves aimlessly without the guidance of the divine.

  2. Ed Levin says :

    When I saw the phrase “deconstructing the myth of the market” in the first paragraph I kept looking for mention of “The Great Transformation” by Karl Polanyi. I’ve seen that name associated with that phrase so many times that I recently started to read the book, which apparently is a fairly serious endeavor. When I finally saw there was no mention of Polanyi in your post I wanted to ask if youre familiar with him, but I was a little shy because I haven’t read the book yet. I went off to do more research, and ran across this video, called “Crisis of Capitalism, Crisis of Governance: Re-reading Karl Polanyi in the 21st Century” by Nancy Fraser, which expands on Polanyi’s argument.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks. I’ll have a look. And, no, I’m not yet familiar with Polyani’s book, although i keep hearing things about him.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks for the link to that, Ed. I’ve always been a bit partial to Critical Theory and I enjoyed Fraser’s presentation, and her very interesting “three prong” theory (rather than “double-movement”) — marketisation, social protection, or emancipation. In some ways, those other two (social protection and emancipation) I think are connected with the prior two principles of universality that went bust — God-centred society and Enlightenment Project. So, are “social protection” forces and “emancipation” forces just lost causes? I’ll have to read Polyani and reflect on that.

      Right next to Fraser’s video is another that looks intriguing and that I’m going to view, because it poses the question that I ask about “the strange non-death of neo-liberalism”, because the damnable thing should have died already, especially after 2008. But it hangs around like a zombie.

      Fraser didn’t mention anything about “myth of the market” in the sense I’m using it, though — disembedding the market from the social milieu becomes a myth of transcendence, and that’s often how it’s described, in nearly quasi-religious tones. So I’m less interested in dissecting the market “mechanism” than the market “meaning” in those terms. Most people haven’t got a clue how the global market really works, and yet they give it their full allegiance despite not having the sniff of a clue about how it actually works. It’s the “myth of the market” that they give their allegiance to, not necessarily the mechanism. Their loyalty is to “the Market Story” we might call it.

      Certainly, some of this is deliberate propaganda, like that Coke ad of which I wrote. But there’s also, even in the propaganda, even something of a naive faith in the myth of the market as the universal principle of integration and human unity. The belief that the Universal Market will unite the world (“One World, Ready or Not” in Greider’s terms). So by “myth” I don’t mean “fictitious” so much as “meaning”.

      By coincidence I was just beginning to read Aurobindo’s “the Supramental Manifestation Upon Earth” — a short “bulletin” that I received in the mail today — and his use of the term “divinisation”. It occurred to me that “commercialisation” or “marketisation” is the profanation of divinisation. And I think, it some real ways, this is what Gebser means by “the double-movement” of our time — the ironic in the sense that commercialisation is the profane aspect of divinisation. That’s a pretty good characterisation of what I mean by “myth of the market”. Commercialisation is the profane or exoteric form of a sacred impulse towards divinisation (the sacred or esoteric), both having to do with the realisation of “value”, but of value debased or value exalted, ie, value understood in its sacred or esoteric sense and “value” understood in its profane or exoteric sense.

      • Ed Levin says :

        Vis a vis “The Market Story” as a transcendent unifying myth of our time:

        “I now see a world gripped in a values struggle between money and life. Global corporate power aligns with the interests of money. An expanding global people-power movement aligns with the interests of life. Corporate power mobilizes around a well-defined Sacred Money and Markets story with a pervasive public presence in corporate media and a corporate dominated educational system. The people-power movement is far less visible and mobilizes around a wide variety of peace, justice, and sustainability initiatives that lack a recognized and accept-ed framing story.

        “A New Story for a New Economy” outlines what I call a Sacred Life and Earth Community story. It is a story I have come to believe lives in the human heart and provides the implicit frame for the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people who are spontaneously acting to bring a life-honoring human future into being.

        Based on the lessons of my life experience I have no doubt that the choice between the well-established Sacred Money and Markets story and some version of the Sacred Life and Earth Community story will determine the human fate. If the Sacred Life and Earth Community story is to prevail, it must gain clear articulation and public presence.”

        A New Story for a New Economy
        David Korten, page 28 of 29

        • Scott Preston says :

          That’s it exactly. “The Sacred Money and Markets Story”. I’ve read Korten’s When Corporations Rule the World but not this one. I’ll have to give it a go.

          The problem is that the existing story isn’t transparent. It’s seductive. It’s opaque. For that reason, deformative.

          In trying to think of a parallel story to the “Sacred Money and Markets Story”, the only thing that comes to mind is the Ecumenical Movement. Oddly enough, economism and ecumenism both branch off from the same word “oikumene” meaning “home”, “household” or “the whole world”.

          Now, the reason the ecumenical movement (“interfaith dialogue”) is intriguing is because it represents the quest for the omnipresence of God or the Sacred or the Divine in everyday life, despite the plurality of faiths, as the integrating principle. To even be effective, the faiths have to reach out beyond themselves, their positions, and their own horizons just to try to discover that common ground from which they all arise — the “vital centre”.

          Now “globalisation” (as distinct from globalism) really means that the universal market is being massaged and made into this “vital centre”, which is a function it cannot perform, in the naive belief that “money makes the world go round” of that “time is money”. Somehow, we’ve got to explode those memes because they are patently untrue. And yet, despite the fact that they are untrue, people give that story credence.It’s the mythology of the bourgeois world order. It’s not even rational. It results in what Gebser calls our existential “guilt about time” or Angst.

          What we’re after when we speak of a principle of integration or unity is the “vital centre”. The market can’t do this because, really, it’s a machine, a mechanism but is bestowed with its own mana or teja or charism hidden in phrases like “market forces”.

          An idol in other words. But even idols symbolised something real. The problem of idolatry (as of narcissism itself) is that the idol (image and appearance) became mistaken for the real itself.

    • davidm58 says :

      A few weeks ago I happily came across Polany’s book in the free give-away section at my local library. What a find, I was quite excited. However, I’m not sure when this will rise to the top of my reading list.

      I also recently came across a write-up by Dave Bollier on Polanyi, who he called “one of the great economists of the twentieth century,” who “had the misfortune of publishing his magnum opus, The Great Transformation, in 1944, months before the inauguration of a new era of postwar economic growth and consumer culture. Few people in the 1940s or 1950s wanted to hear piercing criticisms of “free markets,” let alone consider the devastating impacts that markets tend to have on social solidarity and the foundational institutions of civil society. And so for decades Polanyi remained something of a curiosity, not least because he was an unconventional academic with a keen interest in the historical and anthropological dimensions of economics.”

      My comment:
      Thanks for the write-up on Karl Polanyi’s work.
      The most interesting recent economics book for my money is Peter Pogany’s “Rethinking the World” (2006). Pogany references Polanyi, among many others, but has the added benefit of a thermodynamics/energy realism approach. Pogany was peak-oil aware, and wrote a number of essays published by Resilience (when it was Energy Bulletin) –
      He also had an interesting take on what he called the “Global System” of socioeconomic arrangements, referring to the initial period of global capitalism as Global System 1, followed by post WWII as Global System 2, and hopefully a coming Global System 3.

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