June 10, 2010, 5:03 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

At the genesis of  American society are two dominating myths: Jefferson’s agrarian utopia and Winthrop’s city on a hill, says Thomas Bender in his article excerpted below.  He says they are almost opposite in many ways, but that the one thing they agree on is a commitment to sameness.  Homogeneity, the myth of equality and “natural harmony”; in opposition to heterogeneity, conflict, even democracy.

A healthy city is built on difference and the healthiest was founded on it and remains so today.  New York is a good example:  its founding principles and conditions were based on difference:  different religions, different languages, different races, different markets.  Bigotry and religious sameness were expunged and the place flourished.

In this excerpt Bender claims that the idea of an autonomous market – the iconic claim ‘let the market decide’ – is one of the insidious results of this culture of sameness.  If we live in natural harmony and we are all the same, then there will be no conflict in markets and, more significantly, there will be no need of political intervention or regulation or power in the naturally harmonious economy.

Here is the excerpt:

Myths of sameness inevitably misrepresent the condition of life in a modern and urban society.  Not only do they favor provincialism over cosmopolitanism, but they undermine our ability to bring economic life within the purview of a democratic politics.

If there are fully shared values – either as a fact of nature, as Jefferson would have it, or as a result of very strong communal institutions, as Winthrop proposed – the market need not be an arena of conflict.  It would be no more than a mere mechanism of exchange, essentially without implications for power relations.  If, however, the assumption of consensus is false, then the market, unless politically controlled, becomes autonomous and self-legitimating – an all-too-faithful representation of modern power relations.  Just this happened in the course of the nineteenth century, but for many Americans the myth of equality and of natural harmony masked the implications of this development, allowing the bulk of economic decisions to be insulated from political control.  Americans, more than any other people, came to accept the market as a law of nature, as a public philosophy.

-Thomas Bender, “New York as a Center of Difference‘” Dissent, Fall 1987


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