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Artistic Economics | The Nation

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Artistic Economics

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At work recently, I went to get a ham sandwich from the university cafeteria. I discovered, to my vocal dismay, that the well-loved food counter offering homemade fare had been torn out and replaced by a Burger King franchise. Questioned about this innovation, the head of "food services" insisted that
it had been implemented in response to consumer demand. An exhaustive series of polls, surveys and questionnaires had revealed, apparently, that students and faculty were strongly in favor of a more "branded feel" to their dining environment.

It is worth pausing over the term "branded feel." It represents, I think, something profound: The presence of Burger King in the lunchroom is claimed to be a matter of affect. It addresses itself to "feelings," it meets a need that is more emotional than economic. This need has been identified, I was informed, by scientific and therefore inarguable means. The food-services honcho produced statistics that clearly indicated a compelling customer desire for bad, expensive food. According to his methodology, my protests were demonstrably elitist and undemocratic.

It is hardly news that opinion polls are frequently used to bolster the interests of those who commission them. But in recent years the notion that opinion can be measured in quantifiable terms has achieved unprecedented power and influence over public policy. The American penal system, for instance, has been rendered increasingly violent and sadistic as a direct response to opinion polls, which inform politicians that inhumane conditions are what voters desire. The thoughts and emotions of human beings are regarded as mathematically measurable, and the practical effects of this notion are now perceptible in the most mundane transactions of daily life.

This quantified approach to human nature is the result of the importation of theoretical economics into the general culture. Since the marginalist revolution of the late nineteenth century, neoclassical economists have rigidly confined their investigations within the methodological paradigm of positivist science, and they aspire in particular to the model of mathematics. Economists seek to produce empirically verifiable, statistical patterns of human behavior. They regard such studies as objective, unbiased and free of value-laden, superstitious presuppositions. The principle of "consumer sovereignty" hails this mode of procedure as the sociological arm of democracy, and it has made economics the most prestigious of the human sciences.

As David Throsby's Economics and Culture and Don Slater and Fran Tonkiss's Market Society show, the procedures of academic economists are now being further exalted to a position of dominant influence over everyday experience. Homo economicus is fast becoming equated with Homo sapiens. When airlines refer to passengers as "customers" and advise them to be "conservative with your space management," this development may seem trivial or comic. But in their very different ways, these books suggest that beneath such incremental cultural mutations there lurks an iceberg of titanic dimensions.

The Australian academic David Throsby is about as enlightened and humanistic as it is possible for a professional economist to be. He is also an accomplished playwright, and his influence on the political culture of his native land has been extensive and unvaryingly benign. He begins from the accurate supposition that "public policy and economic policy have become almost synonymous," and his intention is to rescue culture from the philistinism of businessmen and politicians who are incapable of lifting their eyes above the bottom line. It is a lamentable sign of the times, however, that he sees no other means of doing so than by translating aesthetic endeavor into quantifiable, economic terms. As he puts it, "If culture in general and the arts in particular are to be seen as important, especially in policy terms in a world where economists are kings, they need to establish economic credentials; what better way to do this than by cultivating the image of art as industry."

In order to cultivate this image, Throsby makes extensive if ambivalent use of the "rational-choice theory" derived from the work of Gary Becker. In Becker's opinion, the kinds of decision-making that economists contrive to abstract from the actions of people conceived as economic agents can be extrapolated to explain their behavior in areas of life that were once, romantically and unscientifically, thought of as lying beyond the arid terrain of rational calculation: love, for example, or aesthetic endeavor. This emboldens Throsby to ask whether we "might envisage creativity as a process of constrained optimisation, where the artist is seen as a rational maximizer of individual utility subject to both internally and externally imposed constraints," and to postulate "a measure...of difference in creativity (or 'talent'), in much the same way as in microeconomic analysis differences between production functions in input-output space measures differences in technology."

There are enough caveats in Throsby's book to indicate a laudable reluctance to engage in this project; however, he evidently feels that the current climate of opinion leaves him no other choice. He is thus driven to apply the economic understanding of "value" to cultural phenomena, and to engage in a "consideration of culture as capital...in the economic sense of a stock of capital assets giving rise over time to a flow of capital services." Much of this book consists of a monomaniacal reinscription of life itself into the technical discourse of neoclassical economics. We are therefore subjected to lengthy discussions of "cultural capital" (formerly known as "culture"), "social capital" (a k a "society"), "physical capital" (née "buildings"), "natural capital" (alias "nature") and of course "human capital" (once referred to as "people"). There is, it seems, no limit to the colonizing potential of economics: "If broader cultural phenomena, such as traditions, language, customs, etc. are thought of as intangible assets in the possession of the group to which they refer, they too can be brought into the same framework."

We are faced here, essentially, with the quantification of all human experience. Not merely economic behavior but every aspect of life and thought can be expressed under the statistical rubric and studied in mathematical form. The notion of the "stakeholder," dear to Tony Blair, whose ambition to create a "stakeholder society" is overt and unapologetic, is fundamental to this project.

A stakeholder stands in relation to the world as a shareholder does to a corporation. He (or she) casts a cold eye on his surroundings and perceives only his "stake" in them; he rationally considers the means by which he may optimally maximize their benefits. The stakeholder, then, is not human. He is rather a quantified abstraction from humanity, a machine designed for the calculation of marginal utility. Good-hearted economists such as Throsby would retort that the stakeholder does not enjoy an empirical existence; he is merely a useful theoretical construct. Would that it were so. But in fact, as Hannah Arendt said of neoclassical economics' cousin, behavioral psychology: "The problem...is not that it is false but that it is becoming true."

There is an interesting convergence between rational-choice theory and the venerable tradition of socialist materialism. Both approaches insist that the real factor motivating human behavior is economic self-interest: that of an individual in the former case, and that of a social class in the latter. The British sociologists Don Slater and Fran Tonkiss address many of the same questions as Throsby in their book Market Society, but they view the conquest of intellectual and social life by economics from a more traditionally leftist perspective. Like Throsby, Slater and Tonkiss acknowledge that "market logic has come to provide a means of thinking about social institutions and individuals more generally," but instead of concluding that students of aesthetics must therefore incorporate economic concepts into their practice, they envisage a movement in the other direction. Today, they claim, "the economist's task of explanation is as much interpretive or hermeneutic as it is mathematical."

Slater and Tonkiss are influenced here by the "rhetorical turn" that economists such as Deirdre McCloskey have recently attempted to introduce into their discipline. The increasingly abstract nature of money, it is claimed, lays bare the fact that financial value, like semiotic meaning, is an imaginary and therefore arbitrary mode of signification. As such, money can be studied using terms and concepts drawn from rhetoric and literary criticism. (An amusing parody of this idea occurs in Will Self's novel My Idea of Fun, which features a "money critic" whose job is to pontificate about the aesthetic qualities of various forms of finance.) Slater and Tonkiss present this as an appealing reversal of intellectual roles: "Whereas the central preoccupation of critical social analysis has traditionally been the way in which economic rationality dominates culture, contemporary social theory has been increasingly concerned with the central role of cultural processes and institutions in organizing and controlling the economic."

Although their emphasis is different, Slater and Tonkiss's argument leads to the same essential conclusion as Throsby's: It no longer makes sense to distinguish between "economics" and "culture," or between "the market" and "society." In practice, it makes little difference whether one regards this as an incursion of aesthetics into economics or vice versa. Indeed, Slater and Tonkiss are a good deal more pessimistic than Throsby about the consequences of this development. To their credit, they are willing and able to introduce into the discussion concepts like "commodification" and "alienation," from which even liberal economists like Throsby recoil in horror. But they stop well short of the bleak dystopianism of Adorno, and their slightly anodyne conclusion is that "markets are not simply good or bad, because they are highly variable." This pluralism is forced upon them, because their book is intended as a historical survey of various theoretical approaches to the market: Market Society provides admirably lucid and meticulously fair readings of Smith, Ricardo, Durkheim, Simmel, Weber and Polanyi. Despite its historical approach, the most beguiling feature of the book is that its treatment of such past thinkers is undertaken with a prominent sense of our present predicament.

Discussing the economist whose theories have had the greatest influence on that predicament, Slater and Tonkiss remind us that "Hayek held that ultimately there were no economic ends as such; economic action always served ends that were non-economic in character because needs and desires are exogenous (or external) to the market setting." But to say that there are no economic ends is the same as to say that there are only economic ends. It is, in other words, to abolish any distinction between the economic and the noneconomic. Toward the end of Economics and Culture, Throsby observes that "in primitive societies...culture and economy are to a considerable degree one and the same thing." By this definition, as each of these important and timely books suggests, our society may be the most primitive of all. Can anyone, today, escape the "branded feel"?

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