Continuing an aborted blog series of a few years ago, I was walking through Manhattan a couple of weeks ago, and overheard the following three conversational excerpts within a couple of blocks of each other:
- Immaculate woman disagreeing with companion on street corner: "No, he has a much more nineties hairstyle than that."
- Perfect-looking man, gazing adoringly at silhouetted woman under street-light: "I mean, I'm not sure, but I'm gonna say... sesame seed."
- Furious-looking, sharply-dressed woman, mouthing into her mobile phone: "no! Get three litres!"
Taste. Everywhere, taste. Glorious, pointless, incomparable, comparable, perfect, stupid taste. Get over the taste you morons! Don't you realise it's only taste? There you are posing, beautifully tatooed arm struck angularly on hip, quiff artfully folded above forehead, rivettingly expressionless vocal intonation that would make Lou Reed weep, just to specify what kind of seed was on your frigging bagel this morning? Hell man - if I looked like you, I'd be reciting Coleridge off the top of the Seagram Building through a nuclear-powered megaphone.
As The Great Gatsby peerlessly testifies, everything that is pristine and mesmerising about New York culture is also strangely weightless and disappointing. This issue points to one typically under-explored feature of a genuinely competitive, dynamic marketplace: the importance of cultivating endlessly diversifying individuals, holding endlessly diversifying tastes. As Caliskan and Callon argue in their paper on 'economization' (working paper [pdf]):
[The neo-classical economic] model of instrumental rationality is sufficiently abstract (it is enough to distinguish means from ends and to posit that individuals are endowed with adequate calculative capacities) to have a universal scope and simultaneously to account for the wide diversity of observable realities. From this point of view, the concept of culture is crucial because it makes it possible to explain why certain ends and means are valued more than others within a particular community, as individuals can moreover conform to these values or reject them.
Or to put this another way, a philosophy or methodology that strips people right back to what they are deemed to have in common, generates a great deal of space for some parallel philosophy or methodology to dictate what differentiates them. In the case of Rawlsian liberalism, the sheer emptiness of its anthropology arguably necessitated the subsequent communitarian critique, merely to fill the huge descriptive space it had opened up. In the case of neo-classical economics, this space is filled by taste: we are all rational maximising consumers, but we simply want different things.
Institutionally speaking, it's important to note that it is only open, competitive markets (as imagined by the liberal economist) which require this assumption about people. Capitalist institutions, which seek to constrain and dominate, pursue precisely the opposite strategy, to determine and clamp down on taste. Somewhere in between the appeal to freedom and choice, and strategies for control and predictability, is marketing; this is what Franck Cochoy explores brilliantly in his work.
The reason I think New York has such an extraordinary appeal to so many inhabitants of capitalist societies is that, on the face of it (and ignoring Wall Street), it is scarcely a capitalist city, but a market city. It is full of people and businesses doing the things Adam Smith imagined: trading, competing, differentiating, innovating. British people never get over the fact that restauranteurs and cafe owners in New York attempt to profit from producing better food, offering good value and coming up with better ideas. Yet isn't this miraculous system of incentives precisely what 'liberal' economies such as ours are supposed to be founded on? New York (or certainly downtown Manhattan) offers a glimpse of what economic modernity might look like without corporations, large management hierarchy, advertising and monopoly.
Of course it's an illusion mainly. Every perfectly spherical tomato got picked by a labourer on a temporary visa without any rights or social insurance, and if you return to the restaurant where you received it at 9am the next morning, it's being mopped by a Mexican man who travelled two hours to work that morning. Exploitation comes in various guises. It's just not quite a capitalist guise, in the orthodox sense of serving capital.
Who is it serving? Above all, our friends with the nineties haircuts, the sesame seeds and the three litres of whatever. It's their tastes that have spiralled so out of control, and narrowed so surgically, that requires this level of perfection to be upheld. Their energy, their capacity to want and to know - to want their eggs done in a style that is unique, but also to know which of the 2,000 breakfast joints in Manhattan will do this for them - is an absolutely necessary feature of a this liberal economic utopia.
As Caliskan and Callon point out, by simply assuming some model of a rational choosing consumer as the driver of competition and efficiency, neo-classical economics also assumed a great deal else. It assumed that cultural diversity would prevent everybody wanting the same thing. It also assumed that people had the capacity to pursue what it was they wanted, and to calculate how much energy or money to invest in this pursuit.
The problem is, as the example of my overheard New Yorkers testifies, the capacity to desire and to calculate varies tremendously. To be blunt about it, nobody in London gives that much of a fuck. If you offered them that level of choice, and that level of perfection, they'd probably still go to Pret a Manger and select an All Day Breakfast and a white Americano please. We lack what Caliskan and Callon call sufficient 'socio-cognitive prostheses' to behave as New Yorkers, a fact which neo-classical economics conveniently ignores. We're not trained to hold sufficient information in our heads to know exactly which egg we desire, nor where we can find it. This can be as much an explanation for why markets don't function as the standard definitions of market failure (and, no, it's not a bloody 'information assymetry').
Interestingly, policy-makers are now conscious of this 'socio-cognitive prosthesis' issue: behavioural economists now advise consumer protection agencies on how people can be helped to take better decisions, when faced with a range of choices. (A Callonian economic sociologist friend of mine recently described his empirical object as a 'device' to a government policy-maker, and they loved it; hence the overlap between performativity school and behavioural economics). Whether anyone - perhaps the School of Life? - will ever offer to teach people the skills to behave like a desiring, calculating Manhattan shopper remains to be seen.
Caliskan and Callon ultimately reject the plausibility of the neo-classical framework, but only on the grounds that it fails to appreciate its own important role in socio-economic constructions. It fails to appreciate that, in the cases where it is most plausible, a huge amount of cognitive and social work has gone in to the production of this self-serving, calculative, maximising behaviour. Callon says elsewhere that 'homo economicus does exist'. What he doesn't add, in view of soliloquys to haircuts, sesame seeds and litres, is that, when he exists, he tends to be a little banal, and sometimes even a brat.