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Refusing Market Society, what can it mean ?

Bernard Perret

United Nations Seminar on "Values and Market Economies"

19-20 January 2000, Paris

One of our common convictions is that the necessary growth of market economy must not lead to transform our societies in " market societies ", expression that significantly takes place in the preliminary paper transmitted to us. The distinction between market economy and market society has become these last years a key rhetorical figure in the French debate, employed by the Prime minister himself, as well as by several columnists, essayists and academics. Its general meaning is rather clear. On one hand, market – that is free private economic initiative, concurrence and the right to personal enrichment – is recognized as the basic mechanism of a dynamic economy apt to bring about a continuous growth of economic wealth. On the other hand, it is firmly stated that market should not embody social life in its totality, and that all values, aims and forms of social development can’t be reduced to it. Taken in its literal sense, the rejection of market society entails the objective of limiting the market logic impact on basic structures and mechanisms of social life, and a critical attitude towards money.

I therefore propose to put ahead of our preoccupations the commodization or " monetarization " of social exchange in the broad sense of this expression including all the processes that contribute to expand the role of money as mediation of social relationships. Processes including the growing intervention of private firms in services domains that used to be within the sphere of domestic economy, the growing role of money in sports, cultural or leisure activities. Refusing market society should mean first refusing the colonization of social relationships by money, in the name of an obvious diversity principle. The mere good sense leads to consider positively the plurality of valuation criteria that underlies the variety of social exchange figures and human activities regulation. Could be mentioned here non monetary exchanges anchored in family, community and neighborhood solidarity, more sophisticated forms of ‘gift and counter gift’ relationships that found benevolent commitments in non profit organizations, unions or political parties, or even non monetary components of the ordinary retribution of professional activities.

In order to illustrate the decline of this value pluralism, I will take the example of sport. Some decades ago, sport champions could glorify themselves to be amateurs, competing for pleasure, honour and surpassing of oneself. Things have completely changed, up to the point where doping appears as the necessary consequence of mediatic and financial huge stakes of high level competition. It is more and more often admitted that sport is a means among others to earn money (an American athlete recently interviewed confessed without hesitation that he would not make such efforts if sport was not so lucrative). It is hardly necessary to underline the extreme tension, not to say contradiction, between social and ethical values carried by sport - fair-play, fellowship, team spirit, learning of art of losing as important in social life than the art or winning -, and the massive intrusion of money. One could as well take other examples in domains such as culture, education or health care…What is in question here is the sense of disinterestedness, and more widely the diversity of values and motivating forces of human activities. French press has repeatedly evoked these last months a vocation crisis in some unpaid social activities (local elected members, firemen…) and some weakly remunerated professions (social workers, nurses…). These persons traditionally draw their motivation from ethical, political or spiritual values, from the conviction to be essential wheels of social life, as well as in the approving glance of other people and community’s gratefulness. Should we be surprised of this identity crisis in a society where all individual values tend to be measured in monetary terms ? Our societies, as you know, rely more and more upon law and justice. The growing social power of judges is a matter of debate, and sometimes of worried concern. In any case, one should be filled with wonder considering that we can rely upon so many honest judges, and raise questions about the social conditions to the perpetuation of this race of individuals.

These problems, you will admit, should be placed in the heart of a reflection aimed at resisting to the drift towards market society. But the truth is that the demarcation between market economy and market society is not interpreted in these terms in the public debate. To be more specific, no public policy addresses the question of monetarization and the need to value non monetary social exchange (domestic and neighborhood economy, unpaid activities in the domains of sports and arts…). Public interventions usually associated with the containment of market logic are connected to more traditional objectives dealing with economic regulation (juridical framing of concurrence, financial instability limitation, fair trade), fight against poverty, exclusion and inequalities, protection of individual freedom in work and, at last, environment protection. But the question of social life commodization is not taken into account as such. Let’s be clear : policies and measures mentioned above have lost nothing of their importance. But it becomes necessary to elaborate a new generation of public policies devoted to the objective of limiting social life commodization. Social cohesion can’t rely only upon redistribution mechanisms, and individuals dignity as well as cultural vitality requires the preservation of the diversity of social autonomy sources. We need " life politics " (expression used by Antony Giddens) centered on the defense and promotion of ways of living, producing and exchanging that bring into play other resources that those made visible by market economy. Such a design implies among other things the fostering of what is sometimes called " solidarity economy ", namely collective services production schemes that value mutual aid, community solidarity and civic initiative. This only subject would require long developments, but I will conclude with another point, even more crucial in my opinion : social time regulation. Collective rhythms are one of the basic structures of social life, and a key factor of containment of market logic expansion. To put it clearly, the respect of a fixed weekly rest day is essential not only from the point of view of individual social rights, but also for preserving non economic dimensions of social life. We need a time organization that supports the development of non-monetary activities within families, communities or non-profit organizations. Beyond this specific issue, I plead for a social life ecology that should be recognized as a major aspect of a sustainable development strategy. In both domains, social life and environment, the reproduction of resources vital for human life is in danger. Market economy can’t produce these resources and it could even destroy them if its impetus is not contained by voluntarist policies inspired by a larger vision of common good.


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