The Malaise of Modernity under Consumocratic Order

By Dumas, Martin | Economics & Sociology, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Malaise of Modernity under Consumocratic Order


Dumas, Martin, Economics & Sociology


ABSTRACT. My purpose in this paper is to demonstrate that a nascent and transformative consolidation of consumer regulatory power (referred to as the consumocratic order) calls for a reconfiguration of premises relating to the analysis of market liberalism and to the distribution of wealth in liberal societies. The solicitation of solidarity and egalitarian forces within private markets being here envisioned with realism, the general intent is also to identify, ex post facto, unexplored avenues in the philosophy of economics. Charles Taylor's Malaise of Modernity serves as a reference point in this examination as it characteristically ties the growing influence of private transactions and decision-making to the functions generating such malaise. It is also a revealing point of reference in the sense that consumocracy leads one to review the tenets of individualism and instrumental reason, the expressive sources of the same malaise, according to Taylor.

JEL Classification : A12, A13, A19

Keywords: consumocracy, other-regarding behaviour, distributive justice

Introduction

At the center of the debates generally raised by the intervention of non-state regulation, the following question remains inescapable: does the enterprise owe society anything apart from its state-defined legal obligations? At the most basic level, the literature suggests that legitimate attempts to guide corporate conduct from outside the sphere of state interference are either exclusive (involving shareholders only) or comprehensive (involving a plurality of 'stakeholders').

On one side of the spectrum are theoreticians who maintain that corporate managers are not justified in listening to any organised social groups whose demands are not already translated by applicable law, that 'self-appointed individuals' cannot decide what society's interest is and, following a well-known formula, that "the sole responsibility of business is to make a profit" for shareholders (Friedman, 1962), or maximise long-term shareholder value subject to respecting distributive (meritocratic) justice and 'ordinary decency' (Sternberg, 2000). On the other side of the spectrum are the advocates of the 'stakeholder theory' of the corporation for whom firms represent a constellation of cooperative and competing interests (Donaldson and Preston, 1995) expressed by a variety of stakeholders who can influence, or be influenced by, corporations' activities (Freeman, 1984) or else by groups and individuals who voluntarily take risk in such activities or are exposed to the risk (Clarkson, 1995).

Somehow in between lies an approach which draws attention to the external control of an organization, that is, the organizational response to the power of entities (such as shareholders, consumers, and dominant suppliers) on which depends its access to vital resources, hence its survival (Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978). An external perspective on organizations requires a serious consideration of the demands of such external entities which are in a position to alter corporate conduct and organizational conduct more generally. While stressing the dependence of corporations on the demands expressed by their resourceproviders, it is useful to qualify the power of the latter - that of consumers, most specifically - in order to introduce this approach within a proper perspective.

The power thus invoked is marked by at least two characteristics of importance. It is firstly communicational, in that it necessarily implies the transmission, between diffusers and recipients, of a message through a messenger. On certain markets, corporations in effect send to consumers, via a label affixed to a product or other means of 'societal marketing'1, a signal according to which a code of conduct is being enforced by them or along a given chain of production. The marketing signal can vary in clarity from one chain to another, but it invariably conveys information destined to meet the expectations of consumers who pay heed to non-traditional attributes of consumer goods. …

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