How do we judge the worth of a person? Philosophically this is a question almost too vast to address, leading beyond morality into much headier questions about existence, death etc. But sociologically, it can be much easier to take a bite out of. The economic sociology of Luc Boltanski, Laurent Thevenot and David Stark broadens the analysis of worth beyond narrow economic categories of value or efficiency to highlight the fact that such categories are parasitical upon larger, foundational accounts of what is morally valuable. On a technical level, Lucy Kimbell has explored the techniques of human evaluation in various artistic projects. And then there are those such as Kevin Kelly who are looking at this issue of self-auditting. If a philosophical defence of this sociology of moral pluralism is required, it is provided by Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice.
Times of economic and political upheaval offer an opportunity to move from one evaluative framework to another. Boltanski and Chiapello's New Spirit of Capitalism is an outstanding exposition of how this can occur, focusing mainly on the moral-economic transitions that followed '68. This recent report on 'Prosperity Without Growth' shows a canny understanding of the possibilities to reinvent our economic evaluations, after the present crisis.
In line with some of my recent postings, and this thoughtlet about moral bragging, I keep coming back to this one question: why is it that 'citizens' seize social media to portray an optimal cultural representation of themselves, while avoiding any moral representation, but politicians seize mass media to do the reverse? As the two forms of media begin slowly to merge with one another, the issue starts to become even more striking.
Imagine, for a moment, that the state is just one organisation amongst many, simply with larger, more complex responsibilities for socio-economic coordination and investment (this shouldn't be too hard: it's what the neo-classical 'market failure' brigade and the Shirky-influenced politics2.0 crowd already appear to believe. This excessively economistic worldview is ultimately only able to distinguish between a nuclear warhead and an e-petition in the language of price). Then also imagine that a citizen is already a politician, just with a smaller remit and fewer people to represent. The convergence of broadcast and social media makes this easier to do on both fronts - after all, we're constantly told by Jeff Jarvis et al that a newspaper is just a blog with higher overheads, so why not view the state as a facebook group with prisons?
From this perspective, might we say the following: that in the age of a decentralised, network society, where people demand autonomy - primarily as consumers, but that could change - the problem politicians face is how to be more like 'us' and the problem 'we' face is how to be more like politicians. Matthew Taylor writes regularly on this latter issue of how to enable people to take active, collective responsibility for the world around them.
Might this issue about aesthetic vs moral reputation be part of the problem, and hence part of the solution? Gordon Brown's central problem is that he conveys endless moralism, duty and calling, while failing entirely to communicate who he is. The civic deficit, on the other hand, is that people aspire to optimal identities, tastes and fashions, but only rarely gauge themselves in terms of 'the good life'. The politician measures worth in ethical terms while the citizen does so in aesthetic terms. Now that we all have equal access to the means of media production and can organise without organisations (still disregarding the substantive distinction between a nuclear warhead and an e-petition), politics has become a pro-am pursuit, but where the 'pros' are trading in social capital and the 'ams' in cultural capital.
When politicians do start trading in cultural accounts of worth, we need to remain vigilent. At best it involves Tony Blair inviting Noel Gallagher to Downing Street, and at worst it involves something much more troubling, as we saw in the European election results. I wonder if we'll miss Gordon Brown's rather dreary, 1950s promises to 'do his duty'. In some ways it is rather comforting to be governed by politicians who are 'out of touch' as it relieves the citizenry of responsibility for the state of things. But anyone who is committed to the 'radical' devolution of power, to autonomy, to organising without organisations, grass-roots democracy and so on might seriously want to consider what a new moral economy might look like. How will ugliness, blandness, tastelessness be trumped in the future by virtue and participation? Or is the challenge simply to make ethics 'cool'? So how then is that different from the marketing strategies and 'reputation management' of ethically dubious companies? There must be a limit to how neatly ethics can be collapsed into aesthetics.
In the realm of consumption, optimists argue that ethical accounts of worth are beginning to fight back against aesthetic ones. In time, this may occur with use of media and mySociety-type initiatives may become a dominant force. But until then, the risk is that social media makes us spin doctors of our own lives, tweaking our cultural identities, where democracy in fact requires the opposite. As uncomfortable as it makes the British (not the Americans), perhaps virtue needs audiences and platforms for celebration.
One of Lucy Kimbell's evaluation projects, 'Pindices', looked at this issue of how to evaluate an individual's democratic worth. On the face of it, the project is absurd, beyond the realms of how we imagine ourselves living, but that poses the question 'why?'. I've noticed that people 'donate' their facebook statuses to a given cause, but 'moral bragging' is still taboo in comparison to 'cultural bragging'. I have no deep desire to see this reversed, but suspect that it signifies something about the challenges involved in creating the type of decentralised society that most of us purport to want.