The Pathology of Market Care Substitution: “High Touch Service” and “The Girlfriend Experience”

Many businesses pride themselves on offering so called “high touch service.” With high touch service the client not only pays for a particular product or service; she is treated in a personable manner in which her server not only provides her with a needed good or service, but appears as someone who genuinely cares about the client, rather than someone who is merely providing a good or service in exchange for payment. The service provider in this context thus appears as more of a friend or associate than a stranger. In this sense a corollary of the “high touch service” is the notion of “the girlfriend experience” in the sex trade. Like high touch service a client pays a sex trade worker to appear as if she cares about her client and is in a mutually committed relation with him. What unites both high touch service, and the girlfriend experience is that the client pays for a substitution of a pure market relation in which one provides goods or services in exchange for payment, for the appearance of a relationship that transcends market relations in which the client and service provider encounter one another in a relationship of mutual affection and concern.

For the sake of simplicity I will refer to this behaviour of substituting a relation of buyer and seller for the appearance of a relation of affect and care as “market care substitution.” I know this neologism does not have the same pleasant ring as “high touch service,” but it should suffice for this piece of writing. In what follows I will try to at least partially set out what the relevance of market-care substitution is.

One thing that the presence of market care substitution reveals is the way in which market-driven societies encourage a distorted understanding of the good and are based on a distorted relation to the good. Market care substitution seems to arise in any market driven culture as we can see from the way in which both the food and financial service industry operate in North America. Focus is always placed on making the client feel as if they were deeply cared for, rather than just as a source of revenue that must be provided with certain things. Consequently market care substitution seems to be quite prevalent in market-driven societies.

Now that it is clear that market care substitution seems to arise in market-driven societies we can turn to how this affects the agent participating in these relations. When I participate in a relation of market-care substitution as buyer or consumer I must separate myself into two distinct elements. One element is the buying self who decides that it wants to pay for the appearance of a relation of care and affect. The other element of the self is that which enjoys the appearance that has been bought. In this sense we must separate the economically rational “I“ that pursue what it wants from the “I“ that enjoys the appearance. This occurs as in order for the self to enjoy the appearance of the caring relation it must suspend its relation with the enjoying element, so the enjoying element can enjoy the appearance in ignorance of the fact that this appearance is a mere appearance. For if the self remained as a single entity, it would know that the relation was merely apparent and this would sully the enjoyment of the apparently caring relation.

In itself this separation of the economically rational “I“ from the enjoying “I“ may not seem like a particularly large problem, but on further reflection there is a certain perversity about this mode of operation that encourages a distorted understanding of the good. If we ask ourselves what a good life is we don’t think that it is one with lots of pleasant experiences of the appearance of affection or care, rather we tend to think that the actual development of relations of care and affection that mutually enrich and develop the interlocutor’s lives constitutes a central aspect of the good life. Some might disagree with me that most have this understanding of the good life, but I question this because when a friend betrays us we are upset with them not because they have failed to keep up an appearance of care and concern, but because they have shown that they actually do not care in the way we thought he or she did. This shows that what is actually valued and enriches the lives of friends is not the simple appearance of affection and care, but the presence of an actually constituted relation of affection and care.

From the preceding we can see that the practise of market care substitution seems not to fit with this understanding of the good life as through market care substitution what is sought is the mere appearance of affection and care, rather than its genuine presence. Thus, given that market-driven societies seem to encourage market care substitution it also encourages a distorted understanding of the good as participation in these kinds of relations will reinforce the tendency to see the good as the appearance of relations of affection and care rather than their genuine presence. If our economic lives are spent pursuing the appearance of caring relations this will only make us more vulnerable to viewing the good life as consisting in the presence of relations that appear to be genuinely imbued with the spirit of mutual concern and affection, and this is clearly a distortion.

In addition, market care substitution leads to a distorted understanding of the good because it encourages us to see the good as a separate object that we as subjects come to possess just as we hold a pen in our hands. This is an erroneous understanding of the good as we long to become one with the good through our participate in it. To explain when, as with market care substitution, we have a self or “I“ that reasons and decides standing in opposition to the self or “I“ that enjoy we have a situation in which the good always remains separate from me. The enjoying self may momentarily possess the good and ravish and enjoy it, but the good always remains as an object separate from myself that I have in my possession. On the other hand in actually constituted friendships I do not possess the good as an object, instead I, in some sense, become one with the good through my participation in it. The good of friendship is not an object for me and an object for my friend, rather it is something that we mutually share and participate in. Furthermore, this participation partially constitutes our relationship as a friendship.

Now this raises the question of what our actual relation to the good is as I have only shown that friendship does not fit the model of the good as something we possess. Nonetheless I think that the understanding described in terms of friendship more adequately represents our relation to the good as beyond the relationships we have to others many other goods are best described as things that we participate in, rather than things we possess. For example let us look at virtues like courage, generosity and justice as these on most accounts can be considered to be genuine goods. The courageous person is not a person who exists independently who happens to have the skill to be courageous, but a person whose identity is partially constituted by their courageous spirit. In a sense this person participates in the essence of courage through their very identity as courage is a quality shared by them and many others both living, dead and to be born. If a person merely had the skill to be courageous as something separate from their identity they would not necessarily have the virtue of courage as they could choose not to deploy that skill. So thus our relation to virtue goods is not one of possession, but of something that constitutes our identity and that we participate in. As a result it seems to me that it is quite plausible and convincing to view our relation to the good not as that of possessor to object, but rather as something that we participate in and to some extent become one with. Therefore, the activity of market care substitution is based on a distortion of our actual relation to the good, as it always places the good as an object that stands at a distance from us that we need to possess, rather than as something that we can commune with and participate in. In addition as was noted earlier participation in relations of market care substitution will reinforce a distorted understanding of the good, as when we participate in these relations we tend to reinforce the vision of the good as an object separate from us that we possess.

Do you agree with the basic thrust of this essay?

Is our relation to goods distinct from our relation to the good?

Are there any other important aspects of market care substitution that have been ignored and should be recognized?

Thanks for reading and please respond to the questions if you wish to.

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Market Economy, Market Society and Economocentrism

In the video above Michael Sandel makes some poignant and insightful comments about how, over the last thirty years, within the post-industrial world, market thinking has begun to enter arenas that have traditionally operated according to non-market norms. Sandel laments this fact as he thinks this entry of market thinking into traditionally non-market oriented social practises has a tendency to corrupt certain social practises by crowding out intrinsic motivation. For example, he points out that some schools have started to pay students to read and this is troubling as it encourages students to read for money, rather than to read for the sheer enjoyment of it, or to learn as much as they can. I am largely in agreement with Sandel that the entry of market thinking into spheres such as education, love, and friendship is deeply problematic.

Furthermore, Sandel characterizes the shift that I have described above as a shift from a market economy to a market society. A market society uses markets as the predominant tool to generate economic growth, whereas a market society tends to see that everything operates according to market principles. Sandel may be right that the scope of market thinking has greatly expanded over the last thirty years in the post-industrial world, however, he seems to fail to adequately address the question of why there is such a tendency for the market to expand into arenas that have traditionally operated under non-market principles. I will argue that once we have a market economy and economocentrism there is a tendency towards for market logic to spread to all spheres of life.

Post –industrial societies tend to be intensely focused on economic growth. Within these societies aside from individual rights and equality, one of the things you cannot question in public life is the need to constantly increase economic growth. In this sense, post-industrial societies are economocentric. That is they are centred around economic growth and work, rather than some other value. Furthermore, for many post-industrial societies economocentrism is nothing particularly new. While writing in the 19th century Tocqueville noticed how dominant the focus on work and the economy was in the American mind. He notes that Americans tend to have little regard for those  who live the life of leisure and view the life of productivity and work as having a great deal of dignity. In this sense, 19th century America already was economocentric.                                                                                                                                                

Now within societies with market economies the focus on economic growth tends to encourage people to want to maximize the efficiency of practises that have not traditionally operated through the use of market incentives by applying market mechanisms to these practises. The idea being that just as market forces have spurred on technological innovation and material improvement in particular areas that now operate according to market mechanisms, so too will market forces be able to increase the efficiency of practises that have not traditionally operated according to market principles such as educational or healthcare practises. Consequently, we see the push to pay people to read as this would efficiently maximize the good of people reading.  As a result, within a society that has a market economy and is economocentric there is a natural tendency for the logic of the market to be applied to all arenas of social life.

 To put this slightly differently,  within a society that is economocentric and has a market economy, our desire to maximize the things we value leads us to use the tool at hand (market mechanisms) to maximize every good that exists, even if the use of markets to maximize that good compromises the meaning of the good in question.  In this sense the trouble with a market economy paired with economocentrism is that we are ever focused on economic growth and are always thinking in terms of market mechanisms, and thus we tend to lose our ability to think in terms of other forms of valuation and lose sight of the complex nature of non-market values like love, friendship and education. As we lose our ability to think in terms of other forms of valuation and lose sight of the complexity of non-market values we begin to apply market rationality to all spheres of life.

I  am not suggesting that people within post-industrial societies are generally unable to reflect and understand non-market values and non-market practises, but rather that in terms of pre-reflective everyday thinking, living within an economocentric market economy will tend to make us think in terms of market valuation and market mechanisms.  People are perfectly capable of understanding non-market values and appreciate practises that operate according to non-market norms when they live within a society that is economocentric and has a market economy, but if they do not reflect in such a situation they will begin to understand all values in terms of markets, and thus fail to appreciate non-market values.

Sandel is right to call attention to the way that market norms have spread to all spheres of life, but it is important to also notice that the very structure of the public culture in which we live tends to reinforce the spread of market mechanisms to all social arenas. This encroachment of market mechanisms into all spheres of life was not something that was simply imposed on us by elites, it is something that our own thinking and culture legitimates and reinforces.  Thus, if the culture of postindustrial societies continues on the path it is currently on the marketization of social practises will tend to continue.