Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Informalities and Markets

I was stumbling through our current periodical reading area last week and picked up a couple of issues of the Boston Review, a bi-monthly erudite collection of essays, poetry, fiction published for at least 40 years. Thank god for print collections, I would never have picked these up from an alpha scan of online listings. While there looked to be many tasty morsels of thought in the issues I carried back to my workspace, I was taken almost immediately by the May/June 2012 issue, the cover story being "How Markets Crowd Out Morals". This forum topic was keynoted by Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel who writes about concerns focused on " two kinds of arguments reverberate through debates about what money should and should not buy. The fairness objection asks about the inequality that market choices may reflect; the corruption objection asks about the attitudes and norms that market relations may damage or dissolve."

After making his case, others sound off assessing his arguments - some basically supporting, some opposing (e.g., libertarians who believe 'freedom' is the superior moral argument). This forum is very invigorating and will draw me back to this great feature every issue. But I was particularly moved by the response from Richard Sennett, who teaches at Yale and London School of Economics. A short excerpt here might offer some of the flavor:


Informality in social relations is great social glue; water-cooler conversations, street-corner gossip, and illuminating chance encounters can bind us to other people as formal rules might not. Yet social science has largely neglected the study of informality, with consequences of a political sort. The think tank, spewing out clear policy, belongs to the top-down realm. In its precision of argument, it speaks the language of command. Restoring the social element to the left means honoring the mess of informality, countering the fetish of making killer assertions. If this happens, then a space opens up for the sort of participation that consists in finding out what to do together, rather than being “guided” by someone else’s version of truth.

Yet when we think of farmers' markets we think of these 'informal' and 'chance encounters'. What we get with the emphasis on 'efficiency' is the loss of informality that Sennett notes so well in his piece here. Sennett has a new book out Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation that probably expands on some of the ideas in his brief response to Sandel here. Possibilitator readers can read Sandel's keynote and the responses including Sennett's and others, as well as Sandel's replies to them by clicking on the hot links above. Seems to me they don't put meaningful discussions of this kind in the racks by the checkout lanes in our chain groceries.... but that's a topic for a future blog.