Tastes and values

what you want

Chris DIllow marshals support in this post for the claim that “capitalism generates preferences which help sustain inequality, against the interest of many people.” That is, the preferences necessary for reproducing capitalism are endogenous to its functioning. He cites behavioral-economics research on cognitive biases and speculates on some possible social pressures that would make sufferers under capitalism (those on the wrong end of widening inequality) nonetheless exhibit a preference for capitalism, without having to posit a vast media conspiracy or rampant brainwashing to instill false consciousness.

Preferences seems like a strange, overly economistic word choice in this context, as if it were a considered decision to be born into capitalism. Marxist analysis usually talks about this question in terms of ideology and hegemony — means by which the range of possible preferences are constrained before it occurs to people to do any sort of preferring. Similarly, structuralism and post-structuralism often frame it as a matter of subjectivity — of capitalism engendering or fashioning subjects that suit capitalism. We are “subjectivated” within capitalism, such analysis claims, and thus our perceptions are already preformatted to accommodate incentives that suit capitalist accumulation. Profit-seeking, utility-maximization, efficiency all seem like common sense, as if they were natural-born values, not preferences. This is what it means to inhabit an ideology, or in Althusserian terminology, to be interpellated.

No matter what terminology you use, the issue is the degree of choice people exercise in assenting to capitalism — the degree to which participating in capitalism is revealing a preference for it rather than a failure to imagine alternatives in the midst of the triage of everyday life. Does it even make sense to say they can choose to resist it? Is there enough of a material basis for people living in capitalist societies to form a set of values genuinely antagonistic to it? Or are our anticapitalistic gestures aslo endogenous to capitalism and, in a sense, dependent on it and necessary to its continued function. As Chiapello and Boltanski argue in The New Spirit of Capitalism, critique of capitalism tends to be recuperated by the system, which anticipates it. The pursuit of meaningful work can be transformed into neoliberal reform of the workplace and the elimination of worker protections in the name of giving everyone the “privilege” of precarity and of being freelance “free agents.” Resistance appears as a consumer preference that capitalism can commoditize, exploit. Critique disappears into the marketplace of ideas — which remains capitalistic.

Why are capitalism’s mechanisms for inculcating its prerogatives so resilient? What sort of resistance could disrupt that process? Albert Hirschman’s “Against Parsimony” offers another way to look at these questions. In the essay’s first section, Hirschman looks at two kinds of preference changes: (1) “wanton” changes, which have nothing to do with deliberation and are at the level of tastes, and (2) changes based on consciously altered metapreferences, which occur at the level of values.

Economists, he argues, have increasingly concerned themselves only with “wanton” changes, going so far as to preclude the possibility of other kinds of considered change. From the Gary Beckerite point of view, all change is a matter of taste and revealed through behavior, and this behavior is not changed consciously but through the rejiggering of the implied incentives involved. Here’s how Hirschman puts it:

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This HIrschman finds understandably offensive, trivializing the conscious decisions individuals make to adjust their behavior for non-utility-maximizing ends and making it seem like policymakers merely need to “raise the cost” of objectionable behavior to make people mechanistically abandon it.

Economists, to protect their privileged role as the ideologists of capitalism, have a vested interest in reducing political behavior to utility functions. But it’s more than their self-protection at stake: naturalizing “revealed preference” as the only sort of preference eliminates the space for behavioral change rooted in alternative sets of values — values that might be exogenous to capitalism. Hirschman notes that “a taste is almost defined as a preference about which you do not argue— de gustibus non est disputandum. A taste about which you argue, with others or yourself, ceases ipso facto being a tate — it turns into a value.”

Economists, by arguing that there are only tastes revealed through market behavior, are trying to convince us that we don’t ever argue with ourselves (let alone others) about the nature of our choices. They are pretending that the cognitive biases Dillow highlights don’t exist or are somehow more indicative of what we “really” want than what we consciously affirm and pursue. They are naturalizing the idea that the market is the arena to which we must turn to express our choices meaningfully. The importance of our tastes to us make us implicitly grateful to capitalism for affording the arena for displaying and indulging them, and for normalizing the principle that everyone should be allowed to prefer whatever they want to prefer without reference to civic concerns.

Capitalism, with the aid of not only economists but also marketers of every stripe, seeks to make more and more questions of value appear as questions of taste. One weapon in this ideological war is the notion that “freedom of taste” is sacrosanct, and that it is somehow respectful to not challenge others on the basis of their values. (This is the thrust of the anti-political-correctness propaganda campaign.) The idea settles in that it is more comfortable to regard more and more values as tastes and view that shift as a kind of laudable, even progressive, sort of pluralism.

So resisting capitalism — and escaping the condition in which our preferences are always already programmed or recuperated — may be partly a matter of resisting the tyranny of taste:  insisting on the personal (I just like what I like) actually being political (What you want affects others).  Use social media not to like things and track attention but to insist that what appear to be tastes mask the values that are shaping social relations.

Hirschman writes: “May I urge that changes in values do occur from time to time in the lives of individuals, of generations, and from one generation to another, and that those changes and their effects on behavior are worth exploring.” It’s important to not purge them from the analytical frame, whether in the name of positive economics or poststructuralism.

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One thought on “Tastes and values

  1. Pingback: Reviews are not criticism | Marginal Utility Annex

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