Tuesday, July 14, 2009

radin, contested commodities: the trouble with trade in sex, children, body parts, and other things

What's wrong with universal commodification in society? In her book Contested Commodities, Margaret J. Radin provides a philosophical answer, appealing to sentiments expressed by a wide array of social scientists who reject the libertarian program of Becker and company that aims to frame every interaction in society -- from sex to work -- in terms of a market exchange.

Radin places herself in a rather more difficult position than the universal commodifiers she aims to attack because, as she identifies at the outset, she is arguing against a framework which asserts that any situation is capable of being modeled as a market exchange as long as the model's assumptions are explicitly stated and its conclusions are logically consistent. To argue against this view is to appeal to some inner sense of "personhood" she claims we all have but which, precisely because it is an inner "sense" and appeals to notions of morality, is difficult to formalize itself. This difficulty in formalization, in turn, makes it harder to argue with the neoclassicals (as she terms them), who conceive of their arguments entirely in formal language. One can sense the underlying frustration here:

What language, what conceptual scheme could I use to prove this to someone who reasons in universal market rhetoric? Can I use market rhetoric to show its own incompleteness? Perhaps a partial way of doing that is to point out conceptual instabilities such as those mentioned above. The notion that I could use market rhetoric to show its own incompleteness in a more complete (more algorithmic?) way seems to involve the contradiction of admitting that market rhetoric is the master paradigm while trying to use it to deny that very thing. On the other hand, any other discourse I use (incommensurability of value, for example) will immediately be "translated" by the [neoclassical] economist into market rhetoric. She will say my stubborn committment to incommensurability means I value it very highly so that it would "cost" me a lot to give it up, and therefore I'm willing to "trade off" certain other things against it, and so forth. (121)

Radin does ultimately succeed at presenting a coherent theoretical response to the neoclassical model using this criterion of "personhood", but some of her conclusions (that we need a carefully regulated market of body parts, etc.) seem out of tune with the historical or practical aspects of capitalist markets. The result, for me, is a weak theory but with good potential. For example, she supports a policy response to prostitution where it is legalized but where contracts defining exchanges should not be enforced. According to her, the policy accomplishes two goals: it brings a legal means of subsistence to poor women who choose become prostitutes, and (through keeping the contracts unenforceable) it prevents sex (in theory) from being completely commodified. The problem is that in theory, this seems perfectly understandable because you need private property plus enforceable contracts to obtain the liberarian vision of society. But completely enforceable contracts are hardly the norm even in capitalist institutions and this does not preclude power relationships. Furthermore, in some ways, capitalist institutions are actually able to expand due to the lax nature of enforceability. The result is a wider proliferation of markets that turns on deeper commodification in society -- exactly the opposite of what Radin intends with her theory.

Radin would respond to my argument by saying that we cannot take agency out of the social theory: we can't argue that the social system will inevitably turn all of us into complete commodifiers. Radin's model of the individual is radical to the neoclassical economist because in it, individuals are postulated to have an inherent sense of doing a "respectable job" at work, where we take pride in what we do. So, each individual agent, while under the winds of a capitalist social system, will be swayed toward commodification but is ultimately able to defy it due to his own understanding of what it means to be a "person", in Radin's sense of the phrase.

My rebuttal to this response is that the worker is still working towards satisfying the demands of the market. The ultimate goal is therefore to make the woman (in this particular example) or the participant (in general) a part of the market economy, and subject to all of the inherent power relationships that go with it, whether directly through the relationship with her customers, or indirectly through her participation in a society that is full of economic inequality and the social consequences of it. The fact is, as Radin notes, the public and private spheres cannot be separated. So, the private freedoms associated with a free market methodology interact with the social system that is predicated on political regulation (control) of the distribution of wealth.

Even if we admit that a duality may exist between our market and nonmarket understandings of work, Radin's assertion of this "careful" type of regulation is not practical. An example of the impracticality is the labor market in early 19th century U.S. history. Here we saw a general movement away from strict enforcement of contracts toward one that made the contracts between capital and labor as easily breakable as they were originally formed. For example, early court decisions (in the beginning of the 19th century) required workers to specifically perform the full length of their time of service (typically a year or more) and if they broke the contract before the time of completion they could not recover compensation for the work they did complete. Over time there was a gradual shift toward workers being able to leave the employment relationship (or for capital to terminate it) at will.

Thus, the employment relationship became less about specific enforcement of the terms of the labor contract and more about keeping a flexible labor market operational. This meant control over the general supply of labor, or alternative means of coercion in the capital-labor relationship (see Steinfeld's work on this): either through technical change (textiles in the mid 19th century and other industries somewhat laater), efficiency wages (Ford's 5 dollar day), welfare state policies, or other legal means of control. The result is while labor contracts may not have been enforced, this did not lead to decommodification. In many ways, it further entrenched the market economy in society and led to a belief that capital and labor can exist harmoniously, where I would at least question whether such a harmonious relationship can never exist.

Nevertheless, Radin's argument is interesting and in other cases, I think she makes some excellent points. For example, she has been known to argue in the past for rent control based on the idea that it supports stability of one's environment in a way that promotes personal development (I'm looking for some editorials on this; stay tuned). Such a fresh and interesting perspective on how personhood can relate to governmental regulation is one which we could use more of in discussions of policy today which tend to speak only in terms of market rhetoric, the "costs" and "benefits" of various policies as measured by market value.

A very interesting book overall, and I would recommend it to those who want to see a well-tested argument against the classic liberal view of society if it were not for a few weakspots with regard to the applications of her criteria of personhood.


  1. care to indulge us with your views on prostitution?

  2. Alyssa,

    That's a very broad question. And many aspects of that question have no relevance to a critical analysis of whether prostitution should be regulated in society and in what ways. I purposely left out my own views of prostitution because of this irrelevance, so in short, no, I don't care to indulge you (all) with my views on prostitution.

    But I will elaborate on my criticism of Radin on this point.

    People should be freely able to sell or do otherwise with their bodies, body parts, labor power. The problem is that we don't live in a vacuum: we live in a capitalist society where the laws of the market are not autonomous, where the social relations imply a set of power relationships that act as additional forces on the laws of the market. So, market exchanges are NOT politically neutral! That's a danger in labor markets, and it's a danger in body parts markets, and it's a danger in the market of prostitution. I don't mean that the seller of their body is necessarily subjected to the power of their buyer, so that the seller has no agency of their own. I mean that in a capitalist society, that's the pervasive ideology of the market. So, any policy that confirms that social system, or (worse) ignores it, like regulation, is not really attacking the root of the problem, and is therefore an incomplete critique in my book.