Screen-shot: Iron cage.
In order to understand the times that we are going through, we should go back to concepts such as Max Weber's iron cage and Karl Marx’s alienation. While neoliberalism and populism are perceived as conflicting narratives, they share some common elements, such as economism (policies and choices are assessed almost exclusively on the basis of their ability to provide material welfare), individualism (i.e. the mere freedom to choose how to access material welfare, as opposed to individuality i.e. the ability to freely decide on what makes a good life) and conformism (for instance, through consumerism). Economism, individualism ( as opposed to individuality), and conformism…
Most people usually refer to values such as freedom and nation almost exclusively in a partisan way, for the benefit of who holds capital and political power, i.e. monetary and symbolic resources. Even when citizens genuinely believe in principles such as social justice and multiculturalism, they seem unable to discursively spread these values to the rest of society.
To a great extent, social change is currently hindered by the lack of an authentic sense of community. Our societies are mainly instruments aimed at allowing individuals to pursue their private aims through a framework of common legal rules. Societies are not also communities, because there is no public shared identity, no public discourse on the importance of moral, organisational and cultural values. Societies are simply the place where the clash among different values take place, in order to choose which ones will be dominant. This happens because there is no autonomy: our values – be it tolerance or racism, material or spiritual welfare – are simply instrumental to our role in the social fabric. Therefore, there is no incentive to spread these values to the rest of society. Social change is currently hindered by the lack of an authentic sense of community.
Values as capital
Nevertheless, against this backdrop, economics and ethics could still be reconciled, to the benefit of authentic individual autonomy, a sense of community, deliberation, and, therefore, democracy. My proposal, already described in my book “Exchanging Autonomy”, may be summed up as follows: a market for values would offer individuals, companies and local communities an economic incentive to adopt and spread values that are not a mere mirror of their roles in the social fabric, thereby contributing to the common good and to a sense of community.
In a market for values it would be possible to exchange some briefing documents, each of which would describe relevant experiences that highlight the benefits of a given value, such as environmentalism, social justice or multiculturalism. Any individual, company or local community, after purchasing such a document to access the benefits that it describes, and after implementing the value in his/her/its personal and professional activities, would be able to add new experiences to the document and profit from reselling the latter at an higher price (because of the new experiences added and the higher demand on the part of the rest of society).
As each document would be a list of experiences lived in different sectors of society and by different kind of actors, a market for values would offer a viable alternative to the alienating division of labour that is intrinsic to our economies. Values would become a form of capital, that could also be owned by individuals deprived of other forms of capital. Societies would also have the chance to identify their own centre, the one that they miss out on, according to Niklas Luhmann. This centre would be the set of moral, organisational and cultural values that are dominant, not on the basis of the dominant social roles and prevailing egoistic aims, but on the basis of a cooperative search for truth. A market for values would offer a viable alternative to the alienating division of labour.
While neoliberalism uses markets without values (as long as it needs transactions to be value-neutral, in order to involve the greatest numbers of individuals) and populism refers to (and imposes) values without proposing a public assessment and discourse on them, a market for values would get us out of both narratives, by way of reconciling economic utility with moral principles, fostering individuality and a sense of community instead of a mere mass society.
While there are many interesting analyses on populism and neoliberalism, they seem to miss the point represented by the paradigm of the homo oeconomicus exploited by these two political and cultural narratives.