Monday, 21 May 2012

What Money Can't Buy

There are models where having 1,000 fans will help you make a living, where having a few select patrons will finance your art, where social media and personal networks can be used to create value and make money.

Then there's the flip side. It can be found in this book - What Money Can't Buy by Michael Sandel - which says that placing a monetary value on everything devalues the thing, destroys the thing in itself.

I think the idea is that there are some things that don't need a market value, that are and should be a service that is beneficial to everybody - health care might be one of those things, law enforcement another, prisons another ( remember the judge in the US a few years back who was being bribed by private prison owners to jail kids), perhaps even things such as energy provision, water, public transport and education. 

In a recent child abuse/child  care scandals in the UK, Private Eye noted how the chain of ownership oc a home for vulnerable, abused children ended at a private equity company  whose aspiration is '..."to achieve superior returns by unlocking value obscured by complexity and market dislocations" -  some way off the arduous task of providing decent homes for troubled children.'

In his book, Sandel apparently (I've only read the review) talks about how "marketising" things degrades our behaviour, how it transforms us into money-grubbing worms and how language and the simplistic market ideology of financial reward can be part of that.

Here's a quote from the review in the Guardian.

There's one example in particular that comes close to summing up the entire argument of What Money Can't Buy. It concerns an Israeli daycare centre, which responded to a problem with parents turning up late to collect their children by introducing fines. The result? Late pick-ups increased. Parents turned up late, paid the fine, and thought no more of it; the fine had turned into a fee.

The fear of disapproval and of doing the wrong thing was based on non-monetary values, and was a stronger force than mere cash. The daycare centre went back to the old system, but parents kept turning up late, because the introduction of market values had killed the old ideas of collective responsibility. Once the old "norm" of turning up on time had been marketised, it was impossible to change back.
This is such a vivid illustration of Sandel's thinking that it is almost a parable. Let's hope that What Money Can't Buy, by being so patient and so accumulative in its argument and its examples, marks a permanent shift in these debates. Markets are not morally neutral. Let's all be clear about that. As Sandel concludes: "The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?"

That's also a question in photography and the arts. Beyond making a living, is there a value in making work in and of itself. I suppose it depends on the work, but my answer is yes. I look at the recent book boom, the work being made, the people involved in it. It seems to me that the value of this resides somewhere in the community and the energy of that work, the smaller networks that have been created, the sense of possibility and freedom of expression that are being opened up. I don't think there is a value that can be put on that - neither a monetary value, nor a value that is founded on earlier norms of photobook publishing. Rather it is part of new potentials (and even though all the book publishing efforts have been done before - well, it wasn't quite the same was it) which will also have a worth that cannot and should not be measured in dollars or pounds or euros. And to its credit, it's not trying to be measured in dollars or pounds or euros - which is an achievement in itself.

I think the same can be said for all those great and talented photographers around the world who are struggling to make a living, who despite that ability and vision don't really make much of a buck from their efforts. Perhaps that's not really the point, perhaps there can be a personal fulfilment in what they are doing, perhaps there are relationships and ideas and ways of understanding that go beyond a monetary figure, even that were a monetary figure to intrude too much, the value of the work would go down -  gold turns to rock turns to sand turns to  mud turns to shit is the sequence I think. I like to think so anyway.

And anyway, what is value? What is the value of smelling a flower?

Language is central to this marketisation, so is news and the prominence we give to the state of the markets and our association of market values with a worth that can be measured in something more than pound or dollar signs. 


Blake Andrews said...

This is an issue I have long struggled with. Thanks for raising it here.

I'd recommend Lewis Hyde's The Gift (My short review: for those interested in this topic. First published in the early 80s it has since established itself as the foundational text on gift economies.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Blake - then there's the whole problem of the word economy and the language of the market. I hear it every morning with people talking about the Dow Jones or the FTSE, inflation rates and interest rates. Basically it's newsreaders rattling their fetishes and pointing to their totems with a whole industry and way of life built around it. Perhaps we should change things round and measure things by how many flowers have blossomed (who was it who said, "every time a conservative dies a flower blooms", how many people have stopped to save the roses, how many species have been saved, how many parks have been built in city centres - a real measure of progress in other words.

Eron Rauch said...

Thanks for the post. As a full-time artist, sometimes in the pressure to find a home (and an audience) for your work can be overwhelming from both the outside world and from within. This is a great reminder of the value past money and past all the "marketising" that seems to come with any modicum of artistic success.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Eron - I think finding that balance between the creative and the pragmatic is the key. Soul is the goal!

Stan B. said...

Here we are in the very midst of capitalist failure- and how many reforms to that system are being carried out? Not one on this side of the pond.

I remember my one anthropology class in college, seemed everywhere Margaret Mead went to study a specific indigenous culture- juvenile delinquency, prostitution, and just about every other form of criminality and social disorder was either introduced or magnified exponentialy as soon as "Western Civilzation" (ie- Capitalism) was introduced.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Stan - Margaret Mead did tend to be creative with her research but I get the point. I have a great book for you - called Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote - on the what happens when capitalist, communist and traditional collide. It's cynical, brutal and hilarious.

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