Articles

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Values Economy

There are two types of things that we put money into; the things that we need and the things that we don't. The former represent our physical needs and the latter our spiritual needs. Food for the body and food for the mind. We need to eat, but we don't need to see a movie. We need a house to live in, but we don't need a house of worship. We need a car to get to work, but we don't need a painting on our wall once we get there.

Culture isn't a luxury, even the poorest of the poor have it. It doesn't mean a night at the opera, it can just as easily mean sitting under a tree while the village elder explains where fire came from. But it is optional in the sense that we choose where to put our money or pine cones and those choices are our values economy.

The values economy consists of the culture you support. It's the books you buy and the movies you see, it's the paintings on your wall and the house of worship you attend. It's the concerts and games you buy tickets to and it's the colleges you attend. It's all the intangible investments in the intangible things of aesthetics, faith and cultural knowledge.

In a healthy culture, these things mirror your values. In an unhealthy culture they do not. Not only do they not, but they don't even mirror any stable set of values that can go the distance. Instead they're a species of insanity, confused and convoluted bits of specialist jargon, perpetual revolutions against good taste, ideas without ideas and taboo hunters with no more taboos left to break.

Cultural industries operate on perception. Everyone must see a movie or hear a song. Everyone must go to college, even though it's mostly as useful as a donkey on a pogo stick. Everyone must accept that all religions are basically the same and can be boiled down to a love for one's fellow man. All these things are the means through which the values economy manufactures the perception of the centrality of its own values and the importance of its own products. And its only real product is convincing you of its indispensability.

All cultural products are part of the values economy. When you put money into the values economy, you are subsidizing a particular set of values and regardless of where your real tastes and beliefs lie, you will get more of what you buy. If you buy a set of lead pencils every month, the company will go on making more lead pencils. If you buy cultural products at odds with your values, then more of the same will keep on being made.

Culture is an investment. It might be the second biggest investment there is after the family. Any society can build a dam or go to the moon or harness the talents of its innately gifted artists and musicians to create great works of art... if they have the cultural framework in which that can happen. Without that framework, great engineers, musicians, poets, artists, scientists and architects  will be born and their skills will be wasted, as they are wasted in most of the world and in most of history.

Culture is the difference between making things of worth and making worthless things. It is the glue that brings together bold ideas and makes them possible. It is what explains the universe and tells us how to make the impossible, possible. And it's the most fragile of all these things because it dies easily.

The values economy is how a society maintains its culture, investing its energy, money and structure into maintaining a healthy culture that projects its values and makes its achievements possible. Like any other investments, there are bad investments and good investments. A society can invest in Bach or it can invest in Andy Warhol. It can invest in engineers or Transgender Guatemalan Poets 101. And these investments have consequences, they pay out profits or lead to losses even if they appear to initially be intangible, with Andy leading to more Andy and Bach leading to more Bach.

Highbrow culture had patrons. Lowbrow culture had people who stopped by and threw pennies into a hat. Those boundaries have mostly been erased. Highbrow culture is now the pursuit of the utterly senseless, whose senselessness verifies its superiority, and the vast territory is occupied by a populist  culture that is high and low at the same time, blending an empty intellectual superiority with bad taste and worse standards where everything is sincerely a joke, and ironic detachment is a pratfall away.

Aside from fans of one thing or another, most people don't think of their learning, their religion or their entertainment as an investment, a seed planted in the earth to produce more of its kind. And the failure to think that way leads them to make bad investments in a bad culture.

The culture that we are stuck with now has mostly been one bad investment after another, tracts of smelly swampland where nothing can grow pawned off by sleazy weasels wearing too much polyester and more gold chains than the pharaohs, who haven't even had to work very hard to pull off their malignant scam. Good has been traded for bad and then for worse.

The values economy is tanking and the economic indicators are just one sign of how awry things have gone. The social indicators are another.

Culture is how we teach ourselves to perpetuate our society. Instead our cultural investments have given us broken families who are willing to sell their rights to the government in exchange for being taken care of from cradle to grave. And the government is willing to make the deal so long as it can bring in more foreign laborers to balance out the gap in the birth rate and then increase the police forces and the military to deal with the fallout from that immigration leading to a police state.

As cultural investments go, it's not hard to see that this is a bad one.

Our society is less literate than it used to be, it's less sane than it used to be and less productive. And those are not due to some innate defect in the youth or a fault in the stars, but in our culture. If our society is breaking, it's because our cultural investments have been bad ones. And if our cultural investments have been bad ones, it's because we didn't approach culture as an investment, but as a thing of momentary enjoyment, or as a consensus that we accepted as coming from within the culture.

Reversing that will not be easy, but it is possible. Cultures have dramatically changed, particularly after traumatic events. The culture that we are living in bears the scars of such turnarounds. And that can be done again, which isn't to say that it will be easy. The first step is to think of culture as a values economy, not just as education, enlightenment or entertainment. An investment that we are making for the future.

This does not have to be some dreary Marxist exercise in art criticism or a dogma-ridden analysis of every show on television. It means, first and foremost, caring about what you consume, instead of consuming culture as junk food, by being enthusiastic about its merits. That experience can be solitary, but it should also be undertaken with an awareness that culture is an investment in the values economy and that what you pay into will go far beyond the books and movies you take in, or the house of worship or college you attend. Culture is a conversation and we are all part of it.

Every person has a set of values that they live by. The test of any cultural investment is whether it meets those values, fails to meet those values or has values that runs counter to it. Most culture is not entirely one thing or another. There are conservative impulses in even the most liberal works and liberal impulses in even the most conservative works. And so our cultural investments confront us with the entirely subjective question of whether a thing will do more to build our culture than to tear it down.

The values economy follows the old principle GIGO, Garbage In, Garbage Out. If you invest in bad culture, you will get bad culture. And your children will get worse culture and your grand-children will get even worse culture. There is a multiplier effect to decay, it feeds on itself and becomes worse with each cycle. The bad culture of five years ago becomes the horrible culture of today and the nightmarish alien culture of tomorrow until a breaking point is reached and there are too few worthwhile things left to keep it all going.

Cocooned in tangible luxuries, it becomes easy to let the intangibles slide, to consume without contemplating the cultural cost of our cultural investments. But there's only so much lotus that can be eaten before all memory is lost and there is no longer any voyage, only an island of shrinking land with the tide coming in.

The values economy is the calculus of our culture. It determines who we are and who our children will be. If our borders and our buildings, our roads and our technologies are our structure, then our culture is our soul. It is the spirit that lurks within the concrete and steel, it is the soul of the plastic, and if it is lost, then all that remains is structure no different from the pyramids and the countless fossilized relics of dead civilizations; empty stone with no spirit. 

The economy decides if our bodies have a future. The values economy decides whether it will have a soul.

24 comments:

fsy said...


A society can invest in Bach or it can invest in Andy Warhol.


My history is pretty rusty, but I'm not sure that society in Bach's time really "invested" much in him. Maybe he had a patron or two and some fans, but the reality of the time prevented him from becoming as "big" as Warhol.

In any case, this article is a classic and worthy of much review and study.

Ron Pavellas said...

You make an important distinction between the spirit and the soul. Thank you.

Ron Pavellas

Elisandra said...

Only a small example, but people now think I'm odd for not having any piercings, as I'm surrounded by young men with inch-wide holes in their ears, and women covered in tattoos.

Anonymous said...

Ringo Says: Beautifully written, well composed and very well reasoned. I would take issue with only one point......this isn't reversible.

Anonymous said...

The problem is not high culture. The problem is the culture embraced by your teabagger compatriots. It is they who want Honey Boo-boo, not those dastardly high-brows conservatives have always feared. You will not get that remote out of the hands of your fellow travelers; they don't care about your pitiful theories about culture. They just want Swamp Loggers. LOL

Randy Mast said...

To fsy regarding the popularity of Bach in his time. Bach may not have been as popular as Warhol, but he came along when music could only be listened to LIVE! No CD's, no MP3's, no YouTube, no network television, no internet and virtually no way to mass promote his music. Yet his notes on paper survive centuries later. I'm not sure Warhol's multicolored soup cans will last centuries outside of historical examples of faux art consumed by faux intellectuals.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

FSY, Bach was the product of cultural investment in his time. Just as Lady Gaga is a product of cultural investment in ours.

Ron, thank you

Elisandra, traditionalism is always a challenge

Ringo, it is reversible, whether it will be is another matter

Anon, the biggest consumers of that crap are liberal elitists who love to mock the common man. It's you people who create this crap and talk endlessly about it.

Elisandra said...

I don't know about other people who don't have piercings and tattoos, but for me it's not about traditionalism, it's about not being into self-mutilation. I'll never understand why defacing and disfiguring oneself has become so popular.

Anonymous said...

David, another magnificent post. It is so refreshing to read your intelligent and thought-provoking posts.

Interesting that I was just thinking about how our culture focuses on the mundane, mediocre, meaningless, and fleeting. We can't produce anything great, i.e., something that will last for centuries as Bach's music has, because we have sold our souls for temporary gratification and a values system that values nothing, even human life itself.

We have lost our minds as well as you pointed out because a mind focused on the worthless and meaningless is a mind without substance.

Can our culture, invested in meaninglessness be turned around? You say it can. I say it cannot without the grace of God. I say the soul of a nation reflects its relationship to God and our nation has severed that relationship and made the state its god.---Elaine

Anonymous said...

J.S. Bach, while he was alive, was little known as a composer, and his works were criticized for being dense and old-fashioned — but he was renowned as the greatest improviser on the organ in Europe

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Elisandra, people who need to feel something break things, including their own bodies.

Elaine, no long term thinking or striving means indeed that everything is momentary.

Doug Mayfield said...

Someone once said about modern art, which in my view is neither modern nor art, 'MA is created by the untalented, sold by the unprincipled, and purchased by the unthinking'

So much nowdays is the brain dead herd or group grabbing the latest trend without thinking about the consequences.

The key is thinking as an individual, reasoning independently, especially long term. If I interpret DG's remarks correctly, he makes the point that such thinking is an 'endangered species' in our culture.

In my view, it began nation wide, culture wide, with the 60s, when living in filth, with the aid of the false emotional crutches of drugs, alcohol, and indiscriminate sex, was elevated to the ultimate value in life.

Is the trend reversible as DG believes? I hope so but I must say I am dismayed by what I see
currently in politics as the choice between the rabidly Socialist Democrats, who would love to see a Castro or Chavez style dictatorship in this country, and the weak, cowardly, 'me too', semi-Socialist Republicans.

How can any nation survive as a free country when the choice in leadership is so utterly pathetic? I will be delighted to ultimately look silly and be proven wrong.

Anonymous said...

Nice post Doug

DenisO said...

This descent into the "uncivilized" world is approved and aided by Government. Keeping the masses fed and not responsible makes them very malleable and reliable voters. The "free lunch" is always attractive, and if others are taking it, why shouldn't I? The wise know there is nothing "free", but it is hard to take back something given, after they have learned to "need" and expect it.
Reversing will be painful, but it can be done, once those freebies are taken away by forces of economics. The longer the correction takes the more painful the process, and the greater the danger that public violence will generate a tyrannical police state. If I respected the intellects of those on the far Left, I'd say that was their goal, but I don't think they are capable of thinking far enough to realize they will lose power in the process.
Denis

Anonymous said...

Bach, like all great composers, lives whenever anyone plays his music, either on a recording or, as I prefer, on an actual musical instrument. Rembrandt lives whenever anyone looks at one of his paintings, either a reproduction or an original. Shakespeare lives every time someone reads or watches one of his plays. People continue to invest in art every day of the week -- ordinary people, quiet people, private people. Our cultural treasures live.

kayemigart said...

** d u d e ** Really? Elitist libs have been on the bleeding edge of destroying our cultural heritage on many fronts. On our dime. And, as they love to say, for our "benefit." The fact that many of us see that the Emperor has no clothes, and are finally willing to speak up about it, is refreshing. May be too late in coming, but it is a sign of hope.

Keliata said...

"Every person has a set of values that they live by. The test of any cultural investment is whether it meets those values, fails to meet those values or has values that runs counter to it. Most culture is not entirely one thing or another. There are conservative impulses in even the most liberal works and liberal impulses in even the most conservative works. And so our cultural investments confront us with the entirely subjective question of whether a thing will do more to build our culture than to tear it down."

Thank you, Daniel:) That was beautiful and truthful. If only more people understood that

Keliata said...

I've never been a fan of Bach but I respect those who are. I lean more towards French impressionlism in music and paintings. There is something about the blurring of colors in art and, what some call the lack of focus in its music that appeals to me, touches my heart and soul.

Great music, the arts, literature, history will never die. Every hand movement of every muscian in a philharmonic brings the music to life even after centuries.

One of the best things society can do is to expose children to these things without interpretation at first, don't adultrate it. Let them experience the pure beauty of art.

Yes, even the movies. Will film live as long as other arts? I can't say. But if it does, this stunning scene from The Elephant Man, the last sleep and Samuel Barber's adagio surely will

Keliata said...

As for education:( I'd love to see a restoration of civic classes but can't fathom what would pass for civics, being a good American, would look like in a liberal education system.

careyrowland said...

Classic art is all about building culture; modern art is about tearing it down, which leaves what Eliot called the wasteland.
Somewhere between those two polls of creation and destruction is the neverland of creative endeavor. It is no safe, nor easy, place for the artist, as Van Gogh demonstrated.
From that frontier we occasionally see some good work come forth. Beauty is in the mind of the consumer, er, excuse me, the beholder.
Great art and music arise from passion, which itself is squeezed forth from extreme cultural tension. Warhol is bread and circuses stuff. Bach is now, as it were, Greek columns. Vivaldi and St. Saens are survivors, as are Rembrandt and Wyeth. But that's only my opinion. My opinion also says Warhol is dead, but then we live in a culture that courts the thanatos death wish as if it were a legitimate art form. Maybe Freud could have explained this, but who cares what he says.
In the long run though, life goes on, not death. So each of us must pick and choose.All of life is about what we choose, and how choose to spend our time and precious attentions.
I choose to spend a few precious moments reading Sultan Knish, instead of, for instance, usa today or some other rag.
Although, I do, you know, appreciate ragtime music.
Selah

VA_Rancher said...

The thing about temptation is... Well it is so Tempting...

America is in love with its SIN. It revels in its SIN. The only pleasure, or pleasure of choice has become what in the past would have been considered a guilty pleasure.

America is addicted to SIN.

As another said, it will take the hand of God to stem this tide, and without it we humans do not have the spine to shake off our addictions...

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Yes we pick and choose and that's what everyone must remember. There is a choice and the choice has meaning.

Leo said...

Curiously, I found two very important elements of culture missing, those who I would like to call "shapers" (as opposed to mainstream "contributors" and "consumers"), people on the opposite ends of life - young children, who just learn to appreciate culture, and elders who know too well what culture means for the nation's long term well being and survival. Important investments in culture are not limited to consumer choices, like one prefers/pays for classical concert, and another for concert of Lady Gaga, we skew the picture toward the former and call it a success. Whatever cultural choices or investments people in the middle of the life cycle make, the erosion of culture is unlikely to stop, unless younger generation is given proper education. But I am certain that conversations about culture and education do not end with one important thought provoking article.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

the young spend more on entertainment than the old

Post a Comment