We Are All Perfect Strangers Now

By Graham Peterson

I once made the point in a Marx seminar that markets make us more intimate with one another.  That didn’t go well.

And I cannot disagree with people’s intuitions that markets feel impersonal some (alot?) of the time.  I had the distinct sense when I was a bit of a businessman, myself, that many of the friends I had in my field weren’t real friends, and only acted friendly for instrumental reasons.  I often felt used, and that feeling was supported by my intuitions that business corrupts human intimacy.  Many people feel this way: everyone has had a $20 loan go bad, or a ridiculous boss fire her.

But I want to complicate the intuition that markets make us nasty, or at least impersonal, folks.

Where does this intuition come from?  I think people have always been suspicious of the humanity of the marketplace exactly because markets do such a great job of bringing people together across social space who otherwise wouldn’t interact.  Think I Pencil.  Since markets bring together people who wouldn’t otherwise hang out, people observe a preponderance of arms-length social relationships in markets.

But to claim that markets make people alienated from one another is to claim the causation goes in precisely the direction that it actually does.

Groups of people begin life alienated, in small tribes, who slaughter each other regularly, and believe religious myths about unclean outsiders that amount to Jerry Springer gossip.  Markets in fact bridge those social distances and provide people with a precedent of peaceful negotiation over which to resolve their competing interests, with mutually agreeable bargains.  Imagine that.

In this view, when social exchanges in the market break down into betrayal, and lies, and thievery — and oh boy do they ever — we witness the failure of a mechanism that has in the first instance ameliorated the ancient human problem of dealing with pesky neighbors on the other side of the forest.

I think this theory works because it helps also explain why people have sensed that technologies, and in particular communications and transportations technologies, alienate people from one another.  Here again, we have a social mechanism, locomotives and cellphones, designed to bring together people who otherwise would not have interacted.  “But nobody makes eye contact on the train and stares at their cell phone.”  Indeed – and this is an incredible improvement over those same people eagerly raiding one another’s homes.  Moreover, many of the people you are texting on your morning commute are not blood relatives – and thank God for that – because you don’t get to pick your blood relatives.

Still, there is the altogether reasonable sense that relative to one’s high-school sweetheart who one first met at the neighborhood BBQ, many of the relationships conveyed over new transportation and communications technologies, just like many of those in markets, are less socially intimate.

Cities generally get the same bad rep for the same reason.  Sup with that?

The modern world, through its combination of markets and technologies (with a dose of state meddling to keep black people and women from participating unless people really complain about it) has made Perfect Strangers out of billions of people.  Somehow it became fashionable for critics to deny this altogether obvious fact.  To look at the modern world and decide that it is in fact turning people into strangers, is to confuse correlation with causation in the worst possible way.

Whether a glass feels half full or half empty will depend, probably, on whether you’ve just seen someone pour a half glass of water into an empty glass, or pour a half glass of water out of a full glass.  The modern world has poured a half glass of social relationships into an empty glass, not the other way around.

One thought on “We Are All Perfect Strangers Now”

  1. Good point. Markets are impersonal in a sense because they’re defined as the economic interactions of people without regard to, and possibly existing independently of, social and cultural institutions. This does not mean that they erode the social institutions that actually exist; in fact, the effect is likely a small effect in the other direction because it provides many more opportunities of social interaction – which are usually not taken up because of people’s choices and selection, not the market’s dictation.


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