The Commodification of Politics
The object of capitalism is the accumulation of capital. That’s obvious. What is not obvious is the relationship between an economic system and a political one. While capitalism may drive how countries organize their economies, political systems are supposed to be separate. Democracy and capitalism are not the same.
These esoteric comments are reactions to Donald Trump’s election. He will be the first U.S. president in modern history to be a businessman with no governing experience. He brags that his value added is his accumulation of wealth. He promises to use that experience to make America great again, to put America back to work.
Not only has Trump promised to create jobs, he has also surrounded himself with other wealthy businessmen. The most glaring example is his choice for Secretary of State, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Tillerson has negotiated deals around the world and is familiar with many heads of state. But he has no political or diplomatic experience.
What are the differences between a business deal and a political deal? What are the differences between negotiating a contract and negotiating a treaty?
In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel argues that there are moral limits to markets. As in his famous course at Harvard, he uses several examples to show how we have become more and more used to utilitarian arguments in decision-making. In Sandel’s terms, “markets are crowding out morals.” “Today, almost everything is up for sale.”
This is not to say that Trump bought his election. On the contrary, he spent considerably less money on his campaign than did Hillary Clinton. The argument here is about the relationship between Trump’s business success and his ethical reasoning. He assumes, as do his followers, that success in making business deals is similar to making political or diplomatic negotiations. The assumption is that making business deals is the same as making political deals.
I believe that they are not the same. The business deal involves a bottom line, making money for the company. A political or diplomatic negotiation is supposed to benefit citizens or the common good. The latter may not be measured in dollars and cents. Trump boasts that he is an expert in making deals. He views the world through the prism of wealth accumulation. But, as Sandel points out, there are moral limits to what the market can offer.
The election of Donald Trump is a clear example of the commodification of politics. It is a further erosion of the differentiation between economics and politics, similar to the corporatization of the university, where professors are paid on the basis of how many students take their courses and college presidents are evaluated on how much they have increased endowments.
Trump’s election is a further blurring of our different values. What is right and wrong has been reduced to quantification. Trump is qualified to be President of the United States because he is rich. People assume that because he has been successful as a real estate promoter, he will be successful as a politician. There is no distinction between the two; economics and politics are the same.
To argue for the common good may seem outdated. How to define it? How to defend it? How much is it worth? Why should we fight for it? These are the right questions to ask. The answers will only begin to appear if one questions the commodification of our political lives and a bottom-line mentality.