Time to Limit the Logic of the Market


Must the path to a better world go through the market? This is something to ponder in 2017.

In December 2015 Playboy magazine released its January/February 2016 issue. It featured 48-year-old every-pubescent-boy’s-fantasylifeguard Pamela Anderson on its cover. This was a historic issue, marking the end of an era spanning more than six decades. For a magazine infamous for the nude photos it carried in its pages, this issue was the last in which Playboy will feature nudity.

Some say it was a victory for feminism; others, a triumph for religion.

But what really happened? In its own words, Playboy had this to say about its decision to cover up:

“Tens of millions of readers come to our non-nude website and app every month for, yes, photos of beautiful women, but also for articles and videos from our humour, sex and culture, style, nightlife, entertainment and video game sections. We are, and always have been, ‘entertainment for men’ – with award-winning journalism and fiction to boot.”

The keywords, really, are “tens of millions”.

Oddly enough, what won over nudity was not feminism (Playboy issues, after all, “are, and always have been, 'entertainment for men’”). It was the desire to stay afloat financially in a changing world. In other words, it was the desire to continue making a profit.

No Point Blaming Religion

Was it some kind of religious awakening that changed Hugh Heffner’s heart? Obviously not. Did society become more moral? No, not with the proliferation of free pornography online. Simply, norms and tastes change, and it did not make sense to do nudes anymore as Playboy had done for decades. Hence, in order to survive, it had to try something new.

There was nothing religious or ethical about it.

So when I read about the rise of a certain Malaysian kosher airline (now defunct), or hypermarkets segregating trolleys for ritually-pure products, or a fast food restaurant chain banning non-kosher outside food, even birthday cakes; I do not blame religion. Just as I do not credit religion for Playboy’s change of business strategy. I mean, why should we blame religion when a major conglomerate who would not think twice about exploiting people in all sorts of ways decides to comply with some values, all because of profit?

There is a deeper dynamic at work here.

Time to Limit the Logic of the Market The cover of January 2016's Playboy issue.

The Logic of the Market and Religion

Yes, to be sure, there is religious language involved. But the pattern is clear. Some use political language (Make America Great Again), some nationalist language (1Malaysia, Brexit), and some ethnonationalist language (Hidup Melayu! or, Make America White Again), but again and again, the aim is the same: to triumph on the market.

Whatever it takes, really; because the final aim is to make a profit. All other things are subordinate to this, if they are relevant at all.

It is the same logic that establishes the high prices of houses to such an extent that we can end up with as many empty homes as there are homeless people. The same logic tells us we must spend and spend in order to fuel the economy only to crush ourselves under a burden of debts. This logic insists on meritocracy, but only for the poor and the working class. It decides that a product made by lowly paid shop-floor operators is priced higher than months of wages for those workers.

It is a logic that allows us to buy anything from better education to better exam grades. We can purchase fast lanes at airports, yes, but also in hospitals. We can pay premium for VIP services in hotels or for favours in government departments; we can buy security and protection from and against law enforcers; we can buy human services, human organs and, heck, even human beings. Alas, we can also buy good conscience and religiosity.

Little wonder why there is so much depression in the world. But the sad truth is this: very few can imagine a way out.

One way to look at religion is how it poses a challenge to the present order of things. I mean, that is what “heaven” is all about, really, isn't it? The best of our religious traditions imagine a radically different future where the logic that causes untold pains and miseries will be no more – e.g. Jesus’ call to cancel debts, and Prophet Muhammad’s call to ban interest loans…

We should be worried that the rich religious traditions ... are now so comfortably in cohort with “the current world”.

So, do not praise Playboy, or an airline, or a bank or a fast food restaurant for being Bible-compliant, or Quran-compliant. It is not a victory for religion.

Time to Limit the Logic of the Market "Make America Great Again" cap in support of Donald Trump at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona.

In fact, we should be worried that the rich religious traditions that are supposed to offer a radically different world are now so comfortably in cohort with “the present world”. Instead of transforming this world for the better, they are happy to be part of the existing scheme and therefore part of the problem.

I am not sure if there is a grand solution. But surely talking about it more, forcing the logic to the surface and challenging its limit, even little by little, is a good start.

May 2017 be a bit more “illogical”.

Steven Sim is the Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam.

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