The Harsh Reality of a World That Changes, Research Time, 05/02/2014

I’m running behind on some of my projects, but I got some work done on my formal publishing proposal for my Ecophilosophy manuscript yesterday. I’d say the pivotal chapter in that manuscript is the fourth, which comes in the middle, which develops my conception of the reality of change, that idea that there is nothing eternally stable in the universe and only processes exist. When you consider it in a purely abstract sense, it sounds just fine. But I’ve noticed that in its more concrete versions, it can be very frightening. 

Here’s one example. In my conversations with my libertarian friends over the last few years, and in a lot of the economic policy points of conservative politicians, there’s a lot of talk about the ability of market processes to arrive at optimal conclusions. But I think faith in market processes are misplaced. It’s not because the basic idea is wrong; I think that a market process will tend to an optimal relationship. But the relationships among consumers, prices, and the supply-demand dynamics of production and consumption of different goods don’t guarantee that optimality will be stable. 

There's a long tradition of conservative politics that
advocates faith in market processes. They may work better
than state-run economies, but a lot of people still get hurt.
Here’s the basic framework of Zizek’s discussion on this idea. Imagine an ideal market situation that has reached its optimal point: supply and demand perfectly balance each other and hold the price of a product at a stable and broadly affordable level. The way we typically think about the nature of balance implies that a balanced relationship will exist in equilibrium. Having found the optimal relationship of supply and demand for a product, that optimality should settle into an equilibrium.* 

* I should make clear that I’m not talking about the concepts of economic science itself here, but my sense of the popular perception of economic relationships. We associate balance, conceptually, with stability and equilibrium. Economists themselves understand that these relationships are dynamic, and an optimal relationship won’t stay optimal for long. But the public rhetoric about markets being the best systems treat all results of supply-demand relationships as optimal and any instability as a temporary correction on the way to the next stability. This, I think, is why many people who aren’t economists and don’t know much about that science so easily parrot Republican and Conservative talking points about the just nature of markets. 

But arriving at this point doesn’t create stability. There is never stability in market relationships; the field is so complex, so full of colliding forces, that it’s always in flux, always dynamic. An optimal point in some supply-demand relationship may act as an attractor drawing price to this point of balance. But the location of that attractor can change radically.

Zizek himself doesn’t go into the details of how the dynamic processes of markets work, probably because he’s more deeply trained in the Marxist tradition of economic theory-making instead of the mathematical science of economics. But he concentrates on a temporal dimension of how markets destabilize themselves. 

Humans interact with markets (we’re the one’s building the supplies and making all those demands), and our planning for the future is one of the forces that determine market fluctuations. However, because we can’t know the future for certain, our uncertain predictions about future demands (if we’re suppliers) and future supplies (if we’re demanders) will change the point of optimal market balance when we act on them. In preparing for the fluctuations of the market, we destabilize the very optimal market whose future we were trying to predict.

Preparation for the future itself destabilizes the future for which you’re preparing, invalidating your preparations. I think Nikolai Gogol wrote a story about this.

Of course, it's not as though I'd advocate state intervention to stabilize markets. That only results in a stultifying inability to adapt to changing situations. Living in flux is frightening precisely because all your plans for the future are uncertain. Everyone thought owning a home was a surefire route to financial security until about 2007. And states often are too draconian to intervene in any way that doesn't cause destructive distortions, not just of markets, but of people's lives. Short of the I-know-not-what that would emerge from the utopian revolution Zizek dreams about in Living in the End Times, I don't know what would actually provide the stability people crave. Honestly, I don't think there is a solution.

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