A theoretical perspective

By: Gisele Dewitt

As a political economy major, my entire course of study has been to understand and critique neoclassical economics, especially the expansion of market culture.

This has often made the topic of microeconomics difficult for me to grasp because it often feels so removed from moral reasoning, especially when it’s such a small fraction of what economic theory is as a whole.

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Neoclassical economics has lost its element of political and moral philosophy, and it feels quite impossible for economics to be a value-neutral study when it is constructed by people to serve humanity. We must be wary of the extent to which we can establish markets on goods and phenomena, even when it theoretically benefits our rational self-interest. 

Karl Polanyi, a prominent 20th century theorist who observed how the industrial revolution has extended market society to aspects of human lives that have not previously seen a price-based relationship. The fact that we see time as money, that we quantify our days by the output we generate each hour, is an ideological force that has arisen from hourly wage labor, which was not common until the industrial age. 

During  my time at UC Berkeley, the dogma of productivity has reached every corner of my life. People plan out two hours for a brunch date on their schedule and consider it a sufficient block of time to generate pleasure from friendship. Thus, we see that market culture encourages individuals to maximize utility by placing minimum input to garner desired output, at an equilibrium that just touches satisfaction.

Political philosopher Michael Sandel raises the contradiction of budgeting abstract conditions like altruism, civic duty, and solidarity because there is an inherent contradiction between market behavior and these values. We cannot economize love because we cannot rationalize its utility, and the more we have it, the more we desire it. 

Market culture, especially under the division of labor as theorized by Adam Smith, encourages the view that a person is a collection of parts and abilities instead of an innate whole being. Michael Sandel questions the ethics of selling organic body parts like blood and kidneys that can be put up for sale, for it has a “crowding out” effect on altruism and voluntary donations. The marketization of blood/organ donors loses sight of the original intrinsic value of donation—that people derive satisfaction in nonmarket altruistic fashion.

Theorists like Louis Althusser would argue that altruism, like market behavior, is an ideology that has been conditioned to us. It could be argued that if someone wanted to sell their body parts under non-coercive conditions, it is fully their prerogative, and morals are only an abstract pushback. I would like to believe that there is a line that cannot be crossed in introducing the market to the nonmarket, for it’s hard to accept that this dichotomy is simply competing ideologies.

Under the digital economy, people have more means to justify our unproductive behavior by placing a price on their abilities. Playing video games was once seen as pure entertainment and utility minimizing behavior, but can now become a career through online streaming. Platforms like OnlyFans further encourage the characterization of the human body as a profit generating mechanism.

However, mankind actively pushes back in the extension of the market into the nonmarket. We help our friends and coworkers in need, we spend hours automating a program when it could’ve been done half the time manually, we seek that specific birthday gift that our friend would love instead of offering cash. It is simply not possible for the market to reach every facet of our lives, because human nature so often counters it. 

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