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Protecting Higher-Order Values from the Profanity of the Market

A friend recently brought to my attention on online article about the destruction of a pre-Inca pyramid in Peru by land developers.

It’s a short article and I haven’t been able to find anything else in the news about the incident, but given that the recent Turkish protests started with another commercial encroachment on public space, I think it’s worth considering what’s going on here. Look around the world and you will see the pattern again and again in the ongoing struggles of people in Alberta to stop tar sands development, and in many other places including anti-fracking groups in New York and Pennsylvania.

Whether people are concerned with protecting a forest, an ancient site, a public space, or their water supply, this is a common theme: there absolutely must be places, things, and values that money does not touch and cannot reach. This assertion directly opposes the agenda of powerful economic interests seeking to bring everything from DNA to public lands, waters, and airwaves under market control — hence the battle.

I once looked up the etymology of the word "profane." I found that the word is derived from the Latin words for "before" (pro) and "temple" (fanus). So, that which is profane is that which is not allowed into the temple, is kept outside of it, and is unworthy to enter.

And what exactly is it that must be kept "before the temple?" What is it that must not be allowed to enter it? What is profane?

Answer: The market.

In many traditional towns and cities, this is literally true — the marketplace occupies a space in front of the place of worship, often in the city square. Nobody would think of hawking bananas or haggling over the price of a basket inside the local Cathedral. But this principle also holds for anything of a higher-order value: clear boundaries must be drawn that keep the profanity of the market from entering and defiling things of higher-order value. There have to be places where priceless things are protected from the instincts of market mentality to throw a number at them and determine their relative value. Whenever the market does this, higher-order values and the things they represent are in jeopardy, and every protected place is threatened with defilement: our parks, our waters, our ancient sites, our homes, our beds, our bodies, and our minds.

“Is nothing sacred?” goes the old cliché. In the market, the answer is clear: No. Where numbers and money rule, all things of higher-order value, from our children to our local rivers, are just so many things in the marketplace.

From a metaphysical point of view, I don’t see how such a system can endure. There have to be things of absolute or at least higher-order value to bring the relative valuations of the markets into right relationship with life as it is lived. But as we see, our society is remarkably schizoid in the way the eroding bulwarks against market hegemony are maintained. We hold as criminal those who exploit children in the sex trade or the market for child pornography, but on the whole we seem comfortable with and even willing to enable the wholesale commercial exploitation of children through television advertising and pharmaceutical drugs. Many people say a blessing over their meals, but much of the food marketed today by industry should be reckoned as a slow poison, and it is produced in ways that the writers of the ancient food preparation laws of great religions could not envision and thus could not prohibit.

As I wrote in my previous blog, whenever money moves into a place of primary value in society, values are inverted and bad things happen. Regulation, the demon of neoliberal economic liturgy, amounts to the place where society erects a barrier between things of primary or higher-order value on the one side and the profanity of the marketplace on the other. This barrier is by necessity somewhat moveable in places as a society negotiates the tradeoffs of resource allocation to find balance. Nonetheless, our health, the safety and quality of our food, the preservation of water, air and land for future generations, the care of our children, and the ability of citizens to peacefully operate in an environment without excessive threats — these are broadly embraced, higher-order values. Where regulation is lax, tailored to industry, or badly enforced, then buildings fall down, tainted food finds its way to family dinner tables, and lakes, rivers and the air we breathe become dumping grounds.

Perhaps worst of all is when commercial interests find their way into the honorable duty of national defense. Next thing you know, people are fighting, killing and dying for no higher cause than the profitability of a given war to defense contractors and other interested businesses. While there is by necessity always a commercial element to war, the degree to which warfare is a product of commercial interests is a very good gauge of how far into our imagined “temple of higher-order values” the marketplace has advanced. If we extend our original metaphor and identify one of the “holy of holies” within this temple as being human life itself, the taking of lives and the destruction of nations for monetary gain will demonstrate how deeply into the temple that these profane market interests have penetrated. Once again: when the relative valuations of the market take the place of the higher-order values that guide our living, ultimately all values are reduced to rubble.

Bill Clinton said something during an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last year  [9:20] that I thought was pretty remarkable, and which I paraphrase here: All markets tend to self-destruct. If true, this begs the question: What does this mean for a nation that has hitched its destiny to these markets?

Perhaps this sobering thought will shed some light on why the ancient Hebrews set aside a day without commercial activity or productive labor of any kind and called it “the Sabbath.” Granted, we don’t see many people in contemporary society following the guidelines set forth in the Bible, even though the text is rather specific. I’m neither religious nor a scholar on things biblical, and I certainly don’t want anybody telling me what day to work or rest. However, I think it’s worth considering why a culture with such remarkable powers of endurance made it a matter of fundamental law that one day each week the butcher should put down the knife, the farmer hang the hoe in the barn, and the lender of money turn away from business.

Part of the reason, I suspect, may lie in the fact that the knife, the hoe, the stack of shekels and the international corporation are, basically, tools. Human beings have a peculiar relationship with the tools with which they shape the world. The wielder of the knife, the hoer of the earth, and the corporate executive are in turn themselves shaped by those tools, both in body and in mind. Consequently, if we cannot let go of the tools that extend our range of influence, we in turn become mere extensions of these tools, and less than fully human.

Viewed in this way, a day without labor is a way to push back the pernicious and dehumanizing effects of commercial activity and productive work, and with them the dangerous blowback they generate if the energies of a society are entirely monopolized by economic activity. The Sabbath presents a balancing counterpoint, a day when our hands can unwrap themselves from their accustomed handles, so that we may find in that release something of greater value that may guide us in our work when we pick them up again.

Of course, I am not suggesting that this is a desirable approach to the problems we now face; I’m pointing to the larger pattern here, which is that there must be places in our lives, both public and private, from which the market is excluded if we are to endure. Getting money out of politics looks to me like a very good place to start, but wherever it is, however it is, whenever it is, and whatever it looks like, we need to protect our higher-order values and subordinate the market to those values rather than the other way around, in both our private and public lives. Otherwise, there is clearly a danger that, both as individuals and as a culture, we will become lost without knowing it in the profanity of the market, and ultimately destroyed by it.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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