Work and Dignity   /   Fall 2012   /    Book Forum

Does Money Undermine Social Relations?

Eva Illouz


The growth of the viatical industry is one of the many examples discussed by Michael Sandel in his new book What Money Can’t Buy. A viatical settlement is the sale of a policy owner’s existing life insurance to a third party for less than its net worth at death. Typically, such sales are performed when the person selling is terminally sick; they provide the policy owner with a lump sum, which she can use to improve her life until her death. In this scheme, the third party becomes the new owner of the policy, pays the monthly premiums, and receives the full benefit of the policy when the insured dies. for economists, this is an optimal transaction, which improves the fate of all parties involved. for a moral philosopher, conditioning a profit upon the death of someone represents a serious corrosion of moral values.

The same economic reasoning is behind selling the naming rights on public property (for example, a corporation buying the right to have its name given to a subway stop or advertised on government police cars) and behind the phenomenal rise of gift cards, which have replaced the social meaning of the personal gift with cash transfer. What is common to all these phenomena is the fact that they substitute sheer economic transactions, defined as a cash transfer between two parties that each stand to benefit financially, for moral norms. These are illustrations of what rightly worries Michael Sandel in this book. Making a profit out of an impending death, selling a public space to a corporation, or substituting the social meaning of a gift with its cash value constitutes a corruption of our moral intuitions, civic institutions, and social relations. In lucid and elegant prose, this book pursues Sandel’s previous preoccupations with the erosion of civic sense and community and documents the crowding of norms by markets.

Undoubtedly, this book will prove to be immensely useful to sociologists of capitalism, despite the fact that there are no references to Marx’s, Weber’s, or Simmel’s various claims that money has debased social relationships through reification, rationalization, or abstraction. More surprising perhaps, because closer in spirit to his thought, is the absence of reference to Karl Polanyi’s classic study of capitalism, The Great Transformation. Indeed, the book elegantly pursues Polanyi’s reflection in its claim that voluntary action based on norms is often as or more efficient than action motivated by financial reward, thus suggesting a powerful insight: the corrosion of norms is morally problematic, and economically irrational. yet, despite its focus on norms, the book remains unsatisfying because conceptually sketchy.

In a series of brilliant and by now classic studies, Viviana Zelizer has disposed of the sociological cliché that money debases social relations. She has shown that instead of corroding them, money espouses the forms and cultural meanings of social relationships. for example, intimate and economic transactions are closely, regularly, and routinely intertwined.11xViviana A. Zelizer, The Purchase of Intimacy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005). More than that: money sustains social relationships in a variety of ways (think of dowry, inheritance, pocket money—all fundamental to family relationships).22xViviana A. Zelizer, “The Social Meaning of Money: ‘Special Monies,’” American Journal of Sociology 95.2 (September 1989): 342–77.  If that is the case, how and where does Sandel suggest to draw the line between norms and interests, between a social relationship that is pathologically structured by money and one that is “normally” structured by money? It is impossible to say. Sandel does not address Zelizer’s powerful call on changing our conceptualization of the relationship between money and social relationships.

Zelizer has further shown an even more perplexing phenomenon: that commodification and decommodification can and often do go hand-in-hand. for example, the rise of the insurance industry—which no less than the viatical industry represents a commodification of life and death—was accompanied by a sanctification of the child’s life.33xViviana A. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994). Norms do not simply melt or evaporate under the pressure of monetization or even economization; they sometimes take a different form and migrate to different spheres (for example, contractualism, which is central to economic exchange, is generative of norms). Along similar lines, one may think of the spectacular growth of gift-giving practices that has accompanied consumer culture. In contrast to gift in traditional society (exchanged for status), the capitalist “West” has developed the ideology of the “pure gift,” according to which the ideal gift has a strictly emotional value, presumably disconnected from its monetary or social value.44xJames Carrier, Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700 (London, England: Routledge,1995).

This ideology of the pure gift is not foreign or extraneous to the monetization of relationships. On the contrary, such gift-giving holidays as Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day are simultaneously emotional celebrations and ways to commodify relationships.55x Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). If both processes occur simultaneously, this is bound to offer a more complex picture of how money shapes or corrodes social interactions. Indeed while the denunciation of interest and money preceded the market per se, these were intensified precisely with the rise of the market.

Finally, and perhaps more crucially, Sandel never tries to rise above the myriad powerful examples he gives to conceptualize what is at stake in them. Many of his examples seem to illustrate a process of economization of relationships (my phrase, not his). “Economization” is distinct from the more familiar “commodification”: it designates the fact that economic thinking transforms social relationships and goods hitherto governed by such norms as civic duty, fairness, or moral values (for example, the sanctity of the body and of death). The book would have been considerably stronger had he made some important conceptual clarifications, such as distinguishing between economization and commodification, identifying the power of economists as a social group of experts (rather than “money” per se), and discussing the pervasive infiltration of economists’ mode of thinking into social life. It is somewhat unclear whether the crowding of norms by markets is the result of monetization, commodification, or the domination of the specific form of thinking of economists.

This is not to deny that there is something very worrisome about the sell-out of public services, space, and goods to private interests. But the critique of this process cannot be divorced from the larger and already existing critiques of capitalism. It is a pity Sandel has ignored them.