The Virtue of Informality

As always, Michael Sandel is both incisive and sensible: markets can crowd out morals. His argument is two-fold. First, that some social transactions lose value when they are quantified; second, that calculations of individual self-interest diminish collective understanding and recognition of mutual need. He is worried about reductive thinking in economics, though, to be fair to the dismal science, not all economists think this way. In my generation, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Edmund Phelps have thought differently, as do many younger development economists in Latin America and Asia.

My question is what follows from Sandel’s critique. The economist Richard Layard and others point to one potential path forward with their work on “happiness,” which is perhaps an unfortunate label, since we often have to struggle painfully to achieve goals that ultimately give us a sense of self-worth or honor in the eyes of others. Still, this seems a school in which Sandel might feel at home because it emphasizes job quality, work-life balance, and giving something back to the community. In each, judgments of value guide economic behavior.

But “happiness economics” is too confined for Sandel’s argument. As he observes about Lawrence Summers, the big lapse in current thinking is to personalize and individualize conceptions of value and worth. We need to do the opposite by systematically addressing the social practices involved in making a life together. Which means that we should be thinking about an old, stained, seemingly dead subject: we need to reimagine the social element in socialism.

By 1900 the left, in Europe and America, had divided. The social left drew on the experience of mutual aid societies, tenement houses, and credit unions, affirming the value of what was then called “associationism.” Associationist ideas have inspired a range of activities and groups, from building societies—cooperative financial institutions—in the North of England in the 1880s to potent parent-teacher associations in Norway today.

The political left emphasized the alliance of unions and political parties to contest capitalism within the framework of the state. While the social left believed in cooperation as an end in itself, the political left’s goal was solidarity. Cooperation was but one tool in its armory. The social left believed in collective action built from the ground up; the political left asserted that collective action had to be organized and disciplined, top-down.

During the course of the twentieth century, the political left triumphed over the social left, with the old associationists dismissed as fuzzy-headed and ineffectual. But the political left proved at the extreme both malignant and self-destructive. More reasonable, sustainable forms of democratic socialism in Scandinavia yielded mixed economies. They have also devolved power over education, health care, and other common goods to local communities. The central state provides funds, and the community discusses and decides how they are to be used. Scandinavian localism diverges sharply from the right-wing American version, in which the central government starves civil society, leaving communities to cope on their own.

Does this Scandinavian social model have any value to us? I think it does. It means, partly, a re-balancing of attention on the left: greater engagement with local issues, less obsession with national politics and politicians. Revival of the social element in socialism means embracing what the community organizer Saul Alinsky called the “mess” of local action—the fractures, adaptations, and ambiguities that inevitably result from personal encounters. Those dour Scandinavians have made a cultural virtue of this. They stress listening carefully and showing respect for the opinions of others, no matter how confused, rather than engaging in the “fetish” of assertion, as the philosopher Bernard Williams described it.

We need to think about an old, stained, seemingly dead subject: the social element in socialism.

Informality in social relations is great social glue; water-cooler conversations, street-corner gossip, and illuminating chance encounters can bind us to other people as formal rules might not. Yet social science has largely neglected the study of informality, with consequences of a political sort. The think tank, spewing out clear policy, belongs to the top-down realm. In its precision of argument, it speaks the language of command. Restoring the social element to the left means honoring the mess of informality, countering the fetish of making killer assertions. If this happens, then a space opens up for the sort of participation that consists in finding out what to do together, rather than being “guided” by someone else’s version of truth.

A dream, or at least a reality only for countries near the Arctic Circle? The various Occupy movements were a glimmer of the energy that resides today in informal associationism. Students, pensioners, and the middle-class unemployed stayed together week after week not for the sloganeering but rather for the shared experience of establishing the settlements, chatting with people they otherwise might not have met. Accused of having no policy, the occupiers replied that the policy wonks had missed the point. It’s correct that the Occupy movements were marginal in the sense that no bastions of capitalism fell before their onslaught, but the energy revealed in them is not marginal.

The left has to tap that energy—and indeed is beginning to do so. In Britain the Campaign for Community Banking Services has gotten tens of thousands of customers to take their money out of big banks and put cash into small, locally owned banks and credit unions. Food cooperatives are a flourishing concern in America, now becoming a larger movement through the National Cooperative Grocers Association. Unions are returning to the associationist principles first laid down by Robert Owen (via the so-called Rochdale Declaration) in the mid-nineteenth century, emphasizing local democracy and self-organization rather than top-down representation.

I suspect Sandel appreciates this full well. In an earlier phase of his life, he made a sophisticated communitarian argument against the philosopher John Rawls. That argument emphasized mutual obligation, which for him is the very nub of community. In affirming moral obligation, Sandel harkens back to the mindset of the nineteenth-century associationists, who viewed mutual aid as a necessity for daily survival in a hostile world. We perhaps need now to take a more expansive view. Economics of the sort Sandel attacks crowds out not just morals but also sociability—a much broader church that includes curiosity about others, the craft of good listening, the pleasures of chat, and the pains of shared struggle—and duty.

Summers-style economics is a recipe for a socially impoverished existence. I hope Sandel would agree that an open, local, informal sociability should be the left’s goal in countering this deadly as well as dismal science.