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The phrase that defines our age: 'market society.'

Every once in a while, you hear a word or a phrase that encapsulates some enormous idea, an idea that changes your perception of the world. That happened to me today.

I was listening to a podcast -- the BBC's Start the Week ( ) -- featuring Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, who described the concept of the "market society."

The idea behind that phrase is that a certain type of economic system called a "market economy" -- in my opinion, the best kind given the alternatives -- can grow in power and influence to the point where its values and imperatives expand outside the economic realm and start dictating other realms. At that point, you end up with not just a "market economy," but also a "market society."

In a "market society," everything is for sale. Sandel gives examples in his book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets ( ).

* A Santa Ana, California, allows prison inmates to upgrade their cell for $82 per night.

* Doctors are making their cell phone numbers to patients for a fee, ranging from $1,500 to $25,000 per year.

* Second graders at a Dallas elementary school are paid $2 for every book they read.

He gives other examples. I have a few examples of my own.

For example, I believe the health crisis is fueled in part by our slide into a "market society." Nearly all food must be a branded product. And branded products must evolve into better products (cheaper, more addictive, more calories, longer shelf life, more colorful, etc.), which tends to make them worse food. They must be marketed with ever more effective psychological techniques, and engineered for maximum addiction.

Movie and TV product placements are rampant, and increasingly accepted by the public. Stadiums are universally named after corporations. Schools are given much-needed funds for the rights to expose kids to vending-machine and cafeteria junk food. Churches that are run as profitable businesses are on the rise. Hip hop lyrics are riddled with brand references. Teen rebellion is now just something they buy at the mall. Etc.

So what do you think? Are we living in a "market society"?

Can we have a strong capitalist economy, and also protect non-economic spheres from encroachment by the needs of the marketplace? Should we even try? If so, how?

Where is all this going?

Dominik Lukeš's profile photoDarryl Drury's profile photoMike Elgan's profile photoMark Harrison's profile photo
Great post Mike. I physically cringe every time I hear an arena's name these days. No longer are they named after people who actually contributed to our society, they are just name placards up for the highest bidder. It wont surprise me at all when they start buying up highway names. Soon we will take the Staple's express and then turn south on the Diet Coke Interstate.
Where is this going? To Hell in a hand basket, I'd say...
"Can we have a strong capitalist economy, and also protect non-economic spheres from encroachment by the needs of the marketplace? "

I say no -- as all other avenues for "marketing" dry up, the last to stand... will go like the rest.

It's ouroboric in the sense that it must consume to live (like any living thing), but it can consume itself to stay alive when all else is gone.
(read: pyramid scheme)
Johnny C
This comment is for sale - please inquire within
Are we living in a market society? Well, if chicks get casinos or porn places tattooed on their foreheads like 10 years ago (and now) then of course the answer is yes. Is it great or good? Ask the people of China.
I don't believe we can have a capitalist society (as we do) and protect noneconomic interests. We're kinda in a tech boom here in the bay area but we can't keep our parks open??? huh?
I don't know where this is going but I think we'll have chip implants, like cats do, very soon. For medical and non medical reasons. And it will be voluntary. At first.
The paper and coins have gained too much relevance. At the root of all economic activity is "this for that". There were past times, though littered with a lot of problems that had the benefit of being closer to the original trading. This made for more interaction between, for instance a farmer and a carpenter where social interaction helped keep people more important that the products. I wasn't around back then, so I'm theorizing but I have heard and read a bit that seems to support this.
เห็นชัดๆๆๆ แล้วค่ะ
..This also reminds me of Locke:

A good overiew, relevant here: ( from
"He differentiates between spoilable goods, i.e. fruit and food and non-perishable goods such as property, gold or silver. He suggests things it is un-godly or sinful to waste nature’s bounty, therefore hoarding of perishable objects is wrong. However he states that there is nothing wrong with hoarding or trading non-perishable goods, thus many regard Locke as a precursor of Capitalism. Locke’s Theory is in contrast with Philosophers such as Marx or Proudhon."

But see.. the fucking problem is that:

You can't obtain necessary spoilable goods, at least now, without "non-perishable" goods (such as 'property, gold or silver')

Too many people worship property.. and this little fact is overlooked.
The main danger of a "Market Society" is that there is no one in charge. It's aimless, remorseless, relentless and will maim, crush & kill anything that gets in the way. Governments the world over are just along for the ride perhaps occasionally being able to rein it in but only temporarily.
It's time to stop blaming manufacturers for the ills of the world. They make what we buy!
This is the society we created and we're doing it wrong.

I'll probably live to see an advert on a coffin.
Spot on +Mike Elgan, but let's go deeper. Are we a #marketsociety , or are we a market society that believes being shallow and greed driven is shameful? We are definitely a market society, but we also:
- hate ourselves for it
- try as hard as we can to believe our hearts are in the right place
- try as hard as we can to believe we aren't a market society
- try as hard as we can to believe it's purity makes it the only solution, free market only - not free market bent to serve mankind.
Don't sweat it. People have been trading since the caves, and we're intelligent enough to discriminate value.

You should fear instead those who think they can figure it all out for you and price everything fairly.
Many things we buy collects dust and was only purchased because of some irrational impulse that could be the result of a combination of factors which likely include fitting in with what appears to be normal. If you're lucky you manage to keep the kind of friends who promote your individuality.
What about the concept of an "Isolation Age"? Why do we sell and buy things? Somebody has a monopoly ... collaborations, synergy and syndication are bombarded all the time.

What if we let average people loose on health problems? Everybody would cry "foul" ... because a professional has to do it!?
I personally know quite a few people who suffer that so called experts could learn a lot from ...
Ooo good style for advertising
"When deep space exploration ramps up, it'll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks. "
+Mike Elgan I totally agree with you.

I used to visit the US fairly frequently. However, prior to my recent visit in April this year, there was a gap of ten years. Maybe it was always like this and I had simply forgotten, but; one of the things that instantly hit me after that gap is the sensory overload marketing that you are bombarded with in the US by comparison to Australia. There are so many decisions to make about mundane transactions no wonder you are all stressed. Maybe you just get used to it. I don't know.

A society that has no ethical limits on what is negotiable is surely teetering on a precipice. The example of the prisoner being offered an "upgrade" on his cell -- like he was choosing a suite at a hotel -- has historical precedent, but not in recent penal history.*

In the 18th century it was common in the most severe Australian penal colonies (e.g. Norfolk Island) for newly arrived British convicts at that penal colony to be loaded up with extra heavy restraints. The prisoner would "pay" (read as: bribe) their guards for 'relief of irons' (I'm paraphrasing ex tempore as I do not have the reference at hand).

Do we really want to go dredging back to the 18th century for penal ideas? Well they used to have public hangings. Maybe we could have pay-per-view executions too?</sarcasm>

*Reminds me of the original "The Italian Job" movie with Noel Coward as Mr. Bridger :)
I think we should remember that "the free market" is an economic theory, not a political one. It seems to work well for generating wealth - but it has no moral values. Therefore I think some (democratic) government intervention is needed to insure that some moral standards remain. Unfortunately, many (most?) politicians have become so addicted to the dogma of economic growth that they can't do anything but let the free market run rampant.
Why do you think that market economy is better than the alternatives? Are there any? The very notion of an economy in a group extending beyond the family implies an exchange of value = market. What you mean, I suspect, is a free market economy. And that is obviously the worst alternative for most people. The communist experiment showed that economies without free markets in them do not prosper. But any economy that is itself a free market is a disaster. Congo or Sierra Leone at their worst have or had free market economies - the US even in the heyday of laissez faire never did.
Market Society = Age of Distraction & Confusion: more & more decisions required about less & less important issues, products and services; consumer-media-driven wants trump sustainable needs; disposable this and vote-off-the-island or contest that; untested, inexperienced youthful guesses promoted as inspired generational genius... the list goes on but the needed clarity doesn't.
But has there ever been a more rewarding time to tinker and hack?

There may be a lot of marketing going on, but there's also a lot of networking, access to the world's knowledge, and cheap commodity goods going on.
Watch Idiocracy with Luke Wilson by Mike Judge and you will see the result of a market society.
I haven't read the book or heard the interview yet but it sounds to me like a bit of old times=good times tropery. If markets are a metaphor for an interplay between the social and the commercial, then all societies are market societies. They just make it possible to express the exchange value of non physical goods in different ways. If anything our society makes that more difficult - you can no longer purchase a commission in the army, teachers are not paid in produce by their pupils, women are not used to seal property deals, children are not conceived as a source of labor, etc. I may not be happy about vending machines in schools or private prisons but that doesn't mean we live in a unique kind of society. It's simply that our society draws on market metaphors for implementation of non market policies. But that seems like a much easier problem to solve.
I agree with +Kim Bülow Bonfils that economic theories lack ethical structure. When a society has become so entangled with their economic policies that elections become the result of market forces then that country has lost its identity. Are we even still a democracy?

There is a fine balance between a government 'of the people, by the people and for the people' and an economic system that is based on capitalism, which benefits only the few who can control it.

In the U.S, we have lost that balance. And while many believe as +Phil Dunn does, it is incredibly difficult for a family suffering from year long unemployment to just relax, sit back, enjoy their sugar water, and not 'sweat it'. Self-interest and apathy are the cornerstones of that sentiment.

It would be nice to recover that balance, so that the middle class grows again as it once did (without fear that their livelihood will disappear on a whim), the wealthy can prosper (without being obscene), and the poor are given fair access to high quality education (without being left behind by charter schools who can choose not to take them).
Paying kids to read books is just a more immediate short-term version of telling kids to get a good education and eventually they'll get a good job.
In a market dominated and an increasingly litigious society, the individual (by extension the people) become subservient to market forces and increasingly punitive and exclusionary laws - both of them complement (for lack of a better word) each other.

The market and the laws should serve the common good ... at the very least start by avoiding evil - encourage players that are too big to fail to fail faster and completely.
I think that what has been lost in this "Market Society" is the idea that the decisions of an individual can have effects. Advertisements sell that "everyone" does or buys something, one shouldn't be left out! Look at politics, people will vote one of two ways. Why, because nobody votes a different way and they don't want to "waste" their vote.

When did we stop thinking that one person can make a difference?
Morally, Some things need to exist outside markets. Prisons are one. Prison owners are just as self interested as everyone else in a market. So they are naturally going to contribute to the campaigns of legislators and judges that are tough on crime. Not ones interested in rehabilitation and the repel of failed drug policy.
I think you have Professor Sandel's idea a bit wrong. The idea, as far as I understand it, is that things that are not best distributed through a market system are done so anyway, or thought that they should be distributed like that, because we have lost any alternate epistemologies. For example, the degradation of infrastructure in bridges and roads can be chalked up to this problem. The way people use commercial bookstores like libraries. Or how people regularly dump unwanted animals at the doors of pet stores. People lack a conceptual frame outside of a market - there is no longer an outside. We even think of voting in market terms now. Your comment that you believe a market system to be "best" also shows this trend - why does there have to be a best? Can't a government distribute different things like health care and infrastructure using different economic models?
This topic reminds me of the novel, Jennifer Government by Maxx Barry. I highly recommend. 
+Tom Dignazio - that book is so funny in parts, really good satire I think. Good suggestion!
+Steve Llano His larger point (which I did not address, choosing instead to focus on the narrower "market society" phrase) is that a market society ultimately separates people and prevents us from all living in the same world. As such, it's corrosive to democracy.

That's how I understand it from the interview, anyway. I've downloaded his book, and will be reading as soon as I can. 
I think that's right +Mike Elgan - it reduces the ability for us to see alternative ways to interact. Democracy would be one of them for sure since it is antithetical to a lot of market assumptions. Sandel is no joke, he writes some good stuff. Enjoy!
I've now listened to the whole conversation and I think there are some important caveats here. Sandel admits that historically the market society is nothing new. It's a return to old imbalances in the last 30 years. But he then contradicts himself when he advocates a return to the old days when economics was a branch of philosophy. It seems to me that he is really more interested in making what he says is good count. His examples are persuasive only because they are selective. He also seems to assume that money is the only way to exchange value. Which is why he can give an example like not purchasing votes. As if money was the only way to do it. The problem is that the market is being used as a reductionist metaphor. Meaning that once something is seen as a market, it cannot be seen as anything else. But reducing something to a market is just as silly as denying that it could be viewed as a market. Both sides think that once something is a market it cannot be anything else. But that is obviously not the case. Even an actual marketplace can be thought of as other things: communal area, place for public debate, etc. There's no need to separate the market from society. We just shouldn't equate the two in absolute terms as so many "market triumphalists" seem to want to do.
This is such an "American" problem. Very little of this is true outside of the US.
*wipes brow*
+Mike Elgan Then I just read this at the NYTimes:

I am a history geek and one of my interests is Georgian England in the 18th century. Further; the origins of my own country, Australia, from the political mire of Georgian England.

This story has so many echoes of early Australian history. All that is missing is the cat-o-nine-tails ('_nine_tails) and a rum based economy ( Louisiana already has capital punishment covered off!

Everybody let's party like it's 1788! -- with apologies to Prince.
+Darryl Drury As Michael Sandel points out in the interview (highly recommended by the way), America is merely the most vivid example. It's a growing phenomenon in many countries, including and especially the UK.
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