Marketization of politics

William Cavanaugh’s presentation at the Wheaton Theology Conference was, as one would expect, challenging and provocative. He asked questions about corporate persons in contemporary law, tracing the background of the idea in the Bible and in medieval thought, but focusing attention on the business corporation as corporate person in market economy.

That sort of corporate personality, he pointed out, is very different from the corporate personhood of the church as found in Paul and acknowledged in medieval law. The business corporation, after all, aims to provide profits to private shareholders. It may engage in various forms of public service, but that’s not its reason for being. It exists not for the sake of a common good but for the good of private members. And there is not full participation in this corporate personality, as there is of the members of the corporation of the church.

Along the way, Cavanaugh discussed the marketization of American politics.

It begins with the idea that democracy functions like a market – individuals make their political choices in the marketplace of an election, expressing their political preferences. That has several effects on American politics: In a market, minorities can still get what they desire; producers are willing to produce for a niche market. There are no niche markets in a 2-party system, so only the majority enjoy the fulfillment of their political preferences.

As in every market, what counts is not demand per se, but effective demand. In an economic market, that means wants that are backed up by money that can purchase the things that are wanted. It ends up working similarly in a political market, with the “effective demand” expressed by large donors. When democracy gets marketized it turns plutocratic and those without the means to demand effectively withdraw from the system. Individual voters know that their votes don’t count, so they stop voting.

Cavanaugh argued that it is impossible for a democracy to work in a society where there are large differentials of wealth. Or, more simply: Democracy doesn’t work in a class-differentiated society. More generally, Cavanaugh called for more attention to issues of class in discussions of political theology.

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