I live in a very English type of conurbation: a “market town.” Such settlements – over a thousand years old in the case of my Bedfordshire hometown – enshrine in brick and stone a social architecture that used to be the warp and weft of England. The center of my town is its market square, for centuries a regional commercial hub, and like most market squares, a roughly rectangular open space surrounded by shops, with streets and homes radiating from it.
At its physical center is a tiny library and clock tower. Nothing could be more evocative of an ordered, thriving marketplace, both produced by and producing civic participation, as well as helping to supply the wealth that in turn supports public amenities. It’s the quintessence of what the modern world hopes markets will deliver. The structure this building replaced, though, had a name equally evocative of a now-forgotten premodern understanding of the marketplace. It was a “shambles.”
The shambles which previously occupied my town’s market square was a common medieval phenomenon: a more or less open-air livestock market, slaughterhouse, and butchery, peopled as well with other traders and visitors. (The closest analogues today are probably the Chinese “wet markets” we’ve heard so much about since Covid-19.) More permanent shops might surround it, but the central business of a premodern shambles would be the chaotic and bloody business of trading, slaughtering, and butchering animals for food.
Today animal slaughter mostly happens in industrial premises far from town centers. Meat, by the time it reaches our plates, typically does so via a shrink-wrapped package in a supermarket. We are left with the word “shambolic” as a suggestive legacy of what it might have felt like to stride through a shambles: human and animal cries, a chaos of milling bodies, the smells of blood, entrails, dung, and cookery. Hunger and fear, commerce and death. These needs and drives are best met, we are told, via the emergent benevolence of a marketplace, whose laws are eternal and whose evolutions have no regard for contingent human phenomena such as morals, faith, or cultural specificity.
You don’t have to abolish injustice or cruelty to meet the needs of sympathy – you just have to remove anything upsetting from eyeshot.
But why the turn away from those ways commerce and bloodshed intertwine? Why do we prefer our marketplaces cleansed of dung and entrails? Today, Adam Smith is best known for The Wealth of Nations (1776), where he set out his vision of a “marketplace” whose dispassionate operation expresses the aggregate desires of countless human individuals all pursuing their individual self-interest. But some years before coining the now widely known concept of the “invisible hand,” he published a text concerned not with human selfishness as a driver of social activity, but with what he terms “sympathy”: the 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Smith sets out to answer the question: Why are humans not wholly callous in their self-interest? He argues that in fact humans have a basic instinct to feel, as closely as we can, the emotions of others, a natural projective instinct that forms the foundation of our capacity to live with one another. Sympathy operates as a kind of moral discipline, founded in an aversion to feeling the distress one would otherwise cause others. Though less often discussed by fans of Smith’s thinking, his notion of sympathy is arguably every bit as powerful as his insights on self-interest. Indeed, it interplays with the market in ways that both reshaped my small town’s physical architecture and helped to reorder the interlocking domains of marriage and commerce for the industrial era. And while Smith understood moral sentiments as the necessary foil of a healthy market, a closer look at sympathy reveals it to be as much, in its way, a vision of human selfishness as the self-interested market. Now, as the industrial era gives way to the digital one, this artificial distinction between sympathy and the market is collapsing, leaving us with a sympathetic market whose dehumanizing power we’re only just beginning to grasp.
To illustrate what sympathy is and is not, consider the way animals are depicted in premodern literature. In medieval writing, anthropomorphized creatures exhibit a degree of reference to their typical animal traits. For example, while Chauntecleer in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale has a human voice, to anyone who has ever met a cockerel the character’s vainglorious stupidity is unmistakably cockerel-ish. In contrast, eighteenth-century anthropomorphic animals often aimed to prompt moral changes by projecting human sensibility onto non-human species, as with the hare that narrates an anti-hunt story in the anonymous 1799 children’s story The Hare; or, Hunting Incompatible with Humanity.
Sympathy frames morality as having its root in a natural instinct to feel others’ emotions – that is, as fundamentally projective. In practice, this means sympathy can only be elicited inasmuch as the other’s emotions resemble those we already experience.
Another corollary of seeing sympathy as projective in this way is that pity can be assuaged just as well by sleight of hand as by an act of mercy. That is, you don’t have to abolish injustice or cruelty to meet the needs of sympathy – you just have to remove anything upsetting from eyeshot. Under the rubric of sympathy, there’s no need to stop slaughtering frightened animals for meat – you just have to move the slaughter out of town. What’s left behind in market towns is a marketplace cleansed of blood and fear: one shaped by sympathy to seem more abstract and self-organizing: in other words, one that conforms more accurately than a shambles to the ideal of the “invisible hand.” In this sense, sympathy and the market can be understood as two forces which are together driving a gradual purging of life’s more violent externalities from polite society to marginal spaces.
Over roughly the same historical period, a parallel process took place in the domain of human intimacy, as older concepts of sex and marriage adjusted to the changing material realities of the industrial era. At the time when Chaucer was writing, in the fourteenth century, it was the norm for both men and women to work – in most households, economy and family life were not separate spheres. Rather, the care of children and the ordinary work of subsistence agriculture and cottage industry took place in the same location, with children also expected to make a contribution as soon as they were old enough. In such households, women might tend a smallholding, make food or craft products for sale, make the household’s clothes and countless other tasks – along with the care of children – that were every bit as vital to the household as earning money.
But the dawn of the industrial era tipped the balance of power away from the medieval blend of agriculture and artisanship toward a new, urbanized bourgeoisie that derived its money and power from manufacturing and international trade. For this rising mercantile class, the ideal household comprised a male “man of business” supported in a private domestic sphere by an elegant and accomplished wife, whose sole occupation was managing the household’s social affairs. “Work” took place somewhere outside the home, while “private” domestic life was increasingly the repository of higher sentiments, tender virtues, and an increasingly sentimental view of childhood. As these changes rippled down through society, the emerging mainstream culture of both sexes began to look askance at the practical, multiskilled women of the past. In 1726, Daniel Defoe wrote in The Complete English Tradesman that middle-class women increasingly acted “as if they were ashamed of being tradesmen’s wives.”
Instead, the aspirational eighteenth-century bourgeoisie focused the education of their daughters on snagging a husband who possessed not the landowning power of England’s feudal, agrarian past but the commercial nous to flourish in England’s expansionist, mercantile future. That meant teaching women to be graceful, decorative, driven by emotion, and largely lacking in practical skills – for such women were not expected to do much at all, compared to their skilled and hard-working foremothers. The new, sentimental style of female education for an emerging private domain triggered moral panic more or less as soon as it became widespread. A letter in The Spectator in 1711 criticized the effect this kind of education had on young women:
The general mistake we make in educating our children is, that in our daughters we take care of their persons, and neglect their minds. … To make her an agreeable person is the main purpose of her parents; … to that all their care [is] directed, and from this general folly of parents we owe all our present numerous race of coquettes.
Both feminists and antifeminists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were united in condemning the new decorative-but-useless class of nonworking bourgeois women. The liberal feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft and her most vocal antagonist, Hannah More, agreed on the pernicious social impact of what More in 1799 called “the showy education of women,” which “tends chiefly to qualify them for the glare of public assemblies” rather than to make a lifelong contribution to everyday life.
In tandem with the feminine social cachet that came with being passive, consumption-oriented and (in the brutal parlance of modern politics) “economically inactive” came an increasingly mercenary subtext to marriage. William Hogarth’s bleak satirical series, Marriage A-La-Mode (published 1743–45), depicts a young woman from a bourgeois family whose parents in effect buy their way into society by marrying her, with her considerable inheritance, to the scion of an impoverished and morally bankrupt aristocrat.
The same cultural shifts also triggered a shift in the regulation of marriage. The Marriage Act of 1753, passed a few years before Smith published his Theory of Moral Sentiments, prohibited “clandestine marriage” – which is to say it ended the medieval practice of giving legal weight to marriages contracted only by an unwitnessed exchange of promises followed by consummation. Such clandestine marriages, it was argued, made it too easy for gold-digging men to prey on the innocent desires of young women and sweep them into a “yes” and the irreversible act of consummation. Parents who had invested heavily in educating daughters for a high-value match demanded a say in who those girls married, and the law was duly changed.
Even as women’s lives became more private, and less economically active, women themselves wrangled with these changes. Female novel-reading was itself the focus of moral panic, decried in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1789 as “useless to society” and “pernicious.” But the novels themselves reveal an effort to come to grips with the increasingly fraught intersection of emotion and economics – of sympathy and the market – in the pursuit of marriage. The famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (whose first draft was written in 1796-1797) tackles this conflict lightly but directly: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” A recurrent theme in Austen’s writing is women’s struggle with economic vulnerability, and also the moral ramifications of different strategies for coping with it.
This bleak and transactional understanding of human intimacy is predicated on a belief that maximizing self-interest is the primary driver for each human individual.
In Austen’s work we see bourgeois women left destitute because they couldn’t access family wealth held in entailed estates, as in Sense and Sensibility (published 1811), in a world where it was not respectable for such women to earn their own money. In that context, the desirability of “a man in possession of ten thousand a year” is clear. But at the same time, just as Lydia Bennet shows the downside of making a hasty, lust-driven marriage, Elizabeth Bennet voices the intellectual and moral argument against marrying for money, and for partnership based on mutual affection and respect.
In Conjugal Lewdness; or, Matrimonial Whoredom: A Treatise concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed (1727), Daniel Defoe stresses moderation, sobriety, and mutual respect as the basis of married love – much the same arguments, in fact, as Elizabeth Bennet embodies much later in her determined search not for wealth in a husband but financial security and mutual regard. Defoe’s title, meanwhile, sets out in no uncertain terms the outcome should sympathy fail: a market-only conception of marriage difficult to distinguish from its stigmatized and marginalized other, prostitution.
The economic and cultural stage was thus set for a parallel marketization and sentimentalization of marriage, as a key site both for emotional fulfillment and economic aspiration. For young men and women pursuing those twin and sometimes conflicting goals, a complex social etiquette emerged that, as it were, cleansed this “marketplace” of blood and viscera – or at least of greed and the base gratification of lust, in favor of a celebration of mutual regard and complementary roles.
In an industrial era that retained relatively stable social forms, even as the solvent effect of economic development began its liquifying work, this functioned well enough. The tension between sympathy and the market was held in check by a broad consensus that men’s and women’s interests could be reconciled in the institution of marriage. But over the twentieth century, this consensus has largely decayed. Even in the 1990s, my mother was giving my teenage self the same advice she’d received as a young woman: “If a young man takes you out you don’t owe him anything: he’s had the pleasure of your company.” She meant, of course, that I should not feel obliged to trade sexual intimacy for such a trivial expenditure of resources as a man’s paying for my dinner. But even between my mother’s adolescence and my own, social norms liquified to the extent that her advice on the etiquette of formal “dates” had become largely meaningless: by my own teen years, adolescent hookups more often took place at dimly-lit house parties than after brightly-lit restaurant dinners.
This liquefaction has brought about a slow but inexorable collapse of the artificial distinction between the individualist understanding of moral sympathy and the equally individualist conception of the market. We see this today in the way the human search for a mate is framed as essentially market-like by feminist and antifeminist voices alike. In a 2008 book, for example, radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys argues that marriage is a form of prostitution. Similarly, one website where “involuntarily celibate” men consolidate their bleak antifeminist worldview describes marriage as:
a system of legalized prostitution by which a man bribes a woman with food/drink, resource security, emotional security, amazing sex, never losing his job, transportation service, an expensive ring, enduring a lavish wedding, and often a place to stay.
This bleak and transactional understanding of human intimacy is predicated on a belief that maximizing self-interest is the primary driver for each human individual. As Adam Smith famously put it:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.
If any distinction between marriage and the market has broken down among feminists and antifeminists alike, the boundaries between public and private are collapsing in commerce as well. No longer confined to physical premises, the market is now borderless, fluid, and digitized, with shopping (and especially in the pandemic age, work as well) something we increasingly do from home. With this change, new power laws are emerging, in which the lion’s share of benefit goes to a tiny minority of market participants. For example, 21 percent of reviews on the craft website Etsy went to the top 1 percent of sellers, 42 percent to the top 1 percent of sellers on Amazon, and a staggering 60 percent of reviews to the top 1 percent of eBay sellers.
Gender roles have also long since left the nineteenth century behind, with 75 percent of UK women now working and only a minority “economically inactive.” And with social norms in flux, commerce going digital, and the old gender roles redundant, a deep uncertainty has taken hold as to how men and women can – or should – relate to one another. We haven’t lost our longing for relationship, but as digital marketplaces collide with the human longing for intimacy against a backdrop of liquified social norms, sympathy and the market begin to fuse in troubling ways.
In the twenty-first century, shopping no longer looks like inspecting physical goods on display, but scrolling through images on a screen. Eating out no longer looks like gathering in a restaurant, but selecting from options on a screen and awaiting delivery. So it is too with the search for a mate: according to a 2019 Stanford study, 39 percent of couples today met online, compared to only 20 percent doing so via friends. And just like Amazon or Deliveroo, online dating profiles have an image and product description. Just as with Amazon or Deliveroo, one can browse idly or with serious intent. Online shopping and online dating diverge at the “checkout” process: the latter case (theoretically at least) does not involve the exchange of money. But in the act of digitizing human intimacy as options that can be keyword-searched, browsed, selected, and consumed, dating websites invite us to consider the search for love as just another marketplace.
Even for those with misgivings, the predominance of these sites makes them hard to avoid. Just as you can’t go into the town square for your pork chops anymore, you can’t look for a partner where no one is looking for you. And as genuine as the intentions of participants may be, and notwithstanding the many happy connections that have been made, the platforms (the marketplace) enforce their own norms on what happens there.
It should come as no surprise that the unequal distribution of market access typical of digital commerce is replicated in the new marketized understanding of intimacy. One study of data from the dating website Hinge revealed that the top 1 percent of men on the website receive 16 percent of all the “likes,” while the top 10 percent received 56 percent. “So what?” you might ask. Well, much as the industrial-era marketplace obscured the fear and blood that’s an inevitable part of the process of turning live animals into meat, the digital era sexual marketplace obscures not only the inevitable risk and vulnerability of seeking love and intimacy but new kinds of misery that emerge as side-effects of reframing people as a product to browse and consume. The top 10 percent of men on Hinge may be having a great time, but seen from the other side the picture shows 90 percent loneliness and creeping disenchantment.
Having reformatted the search for love as online shopping, it takes only the minutest adjustment to introduce a payment – especially as feminists and their enemies alike agree there’s little difference between marriage and prostitution. There are already websites that take this development to its logical conclusion, by enabling (mostly young, pretty, female) “creators” to offer video, photo, and direct-message content to “fans” in exchange for payment from a primarily male audience. A significant part of the appeal is the ability to commercialize not just sex but an intimacy-like experience, via paid-for direct messages and the ability to commission custom erotica from your favorite porn stars. No surprise, then, that the typical e-commerce asymmetry in earnings between the top performers and the rest is found here as well, with the majority of creators earning very little and the most popular raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.
In this emerging order, the struggle is increasingly for space to be human.
In the digital age, Adam Smith’s artificial separation of sympathy from the market is dissolving, along with the industrial-era divisions between the domestic and commercial. In their place we’re offered a single order of unchained and monetized desire, in which there is no outside limit to selfhood – with even our bodies increasingly seen as infinitely malleable to the demands of self. Our emotional lives are now big business, whether in the commercialization of desire via online dating or pornography, or the countless digital temptations that hook our brains to the next social-media dopamine hit. We no longer pursue our interests in a market informed by sympathy-driven moral sentiment; rather, we are consuming units in a “marketplace of sentiment” where every desire is valid providing it can be monetized.
Where do we go now? A clue lies, perhaps, in those aspects of human existence edited out of Adam Smith’s framework. In Smith’s anthropology, morality is powered by a sympathy that renders the other a function of our own selves, while economies are powered by fundamental self-interest. What’s expelled from both these domains is the possibility that there might be something (or someone) outside the self to impel either moral sentiment or economic activity.
Smith’s framing of sympathy is as self-centered, ultimately, as his understanding of markets – and both are inadequate to explain why we grow food, sell goods, or seek life partnership. All these activities may be rewarding from an individual perspective, but they’re also relational: motivated by specific obligations, commitments, and devotions. And the act of embracing commitment to others is the key to finding a way beyond selfhood, to making space within our inner worlds for others not just as vehicles for projection, but in their otherness.
In this emerging order, the struggle is increasingly for space to be human. Our chief resource in this struggle is our capacity to love selflessly. We can resist the new regime of monetized narcissism insofar as we’re willing to embrace our obligations to others, without expecting them to be identical to us in every way. To put it another way: we’ll be able to resist the temptation to sell ourselves to exactly the extent we’re willing to belong to each other.