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Ongoing Social and Cultural Marketization and the Myth of Political Control



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I have lately been reading University of California-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s latest volume concerning the ongoing marketization and commodification of American culture and society, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times (2012). The book is the third in which Hochschild has provocatively explored how deeply a market-based frame has penetrated our culture. In this volume she examines the many ways in which Americans have now commodified previously familial and civil society functions. Among other examples, our nation’s citizens now may “rent a grandmother” to help them recall that intimate experience and they may also add the bonus of having their grandparent-for-a-day prepare them an authentic meal in keeping with their nationality or ethnic origin or tradition. One may request Mexican, Irish, Norwegian, German or other cuisine, as desired.

Individuals wishing to find a life partner may now purchase the services of “love coaches” who will steer them through the presumably sharp-edged shoals of the “romance market” and help them “brand” themselves successfully to attain that “special one” perfectly suited to their traits and personality niche. Americans may now also enlist professional closet, kitchen, playroom and bedroom organizers and pay individuals to offer support and sit with sick family members or friends in hospitals or homes when they believe themselves too busy to do so. If feeling insecure in their parenting capacities or excellence, citizens may now also hire corporate teams to come to their homes to evaluate whether, among other items, they are generating vibrant and positive memories for their children. All of these for-hire roles and many others have emerged in the last several decades in which the philosophy of neo-liberalism has held sway and our politics and culture have celebrated an unfettered market as the answer to our individual and collective dreams as well as the most efficacious answer to our most pressing political and social challenges as a people.

Until packaged as buy-and-sell commodities, these relationships and activities were previously the domain of family or household, or in some instances religious or other civil society organizations. All now are offered as consumer goods for purchase. The most intimate of intra-familial experiences have now been commodified for sale. When one adopts such practices and incorporates them into one’s daily behaviors, they penetrate one’s consciousness and begin thereafter to guide, if not determine, one’s beliefs. Thus does our widespread social embrace of the market, and of its attendant assumption that there are virtually no limits to human capacity to marketize items, relationships and activities for sale, shape our shared moral imagination. The question, as Hochshild argues, is not whether these processes are underway in American society, but instead how deeply they have already entered our collective psyche and with what social and political consequences.

This cultural drift among Americans toward commodification is characterized by an illusion of control, a penchant perhaps most obvious in the examples above in the assumption concerning creating specific memories for one’s children as a metric of good parenting. To accept this measure one must first imagine that such a thing is even feasible and then also accept that it is normatively acceptable. To make either decision one must first suppose that parents could so control their children and their environments as to make such a standard practicable. This, some Americans apparently believe, is both actionable and attainable.

A fine example of this collective cultural illusion of social control and tendency to commodify non-economic relationships and activities in the current political scene are the raft of journalists now arguing that President Obama faces huge challenges as he enters his second term, and who also contend he should be able to control all of those. These concerns include a Republican Party that implacably opposed virtually everything he sought to do in his first four years. Indeed, many of those GOP members in Congress have several times demonstrated their radical attachment to their ideologies and their willingness to take equally uncompromising stands to defeat the President. Nevertheless, these media pundits typically suggest that despite this extremely difficult circumstance and irrespective of the fact that many of those so opposed to the President are safely electorally gerrymandered in their districts, President Obama should nonetheless be held accountable for bringing these individuals into accord and compromise by sheer force of his wit and personality. In their collective view, if he does not control them, he should be judged a failure.

These writers and commentators apparently believe that the President can somehow unilaterally control relational outcomes by, in this case, apparently persuading zealously committed lawmakers to see matters differently over a beer and pretzels, as though conducting a sales deal over a meal. But this latent assumption of control is now ubiquitous in our increasingly marketized social imaginary and is ascribed here to the nation’s elected executive who is held responsible by these commentators for an outcome, as if he were merely engaged in a completely commodified transaction. The logic seems to be, “we elected this guy and no matter the difficulties, he can surely control these others to address the nation’s challenges as we would wish.” Ironically, one may not ensure freedom and permit those lawmakers with other views their rightful roles in democracy by demanding that the President somehow be able to control them. He cannot reasonably be expected to do so, nor should others demand that he do so on pain of supposed “personal failure.”

In a democracy, the representative relationship is not a good to be bought and sold and implicitly controlled by an able salesperson; it is a privilege and bond with the people, and only those people by expressions of their will can create the change these analysts desire. The President can cajole and seek to persuade; he cannot and should not be expected to control a free people or their representatives. American democratic politics and the people’s sovereignty are not a market and their exercise is not a commodity to be regulated by one or another of the nation’s elected participants alone. One may agree that imprudent lawmakers of whatever partisan stripe should change their views, but only Americans, serving as the sovereign, can legitimately produce and/or sanction that outcome. One may hope that citizens might make such judgments outside the market-based trope now so often and so deeply evidenced in their collective moral imaginary. Democratic politics is not and cannot be rendered a market place.

Publication Date

February 3, 2013