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.