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The fly and the cookie: Alignment and unhingement in 21st-century capitalism

Abstract

© The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press and the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics. All rights reserved. This SASE Presidential address given at UC Berkeley in 2016 discusses the entanglement between morality and capitalism. Moral sentiments-and especially what Adam Smith called the sense of propriety, the sense of merit and the sense of justice-play a productive role in organizing the extraction of economic value. Conversely, relative valuations in the economy (prices, for instance) can be thought of as moral engines that reward or sanction certain behaviors, and are presumed to index underlying moral differences. Economic value is produced both when individuals are morally aligned with the rational goals of capitalism, and when they perform unhinged deviations from the moral standard. I show how modern digital capitalism organizes profit extraction through these twin processes of alignment and unhingement, building new economic moralities in the process-moral sentiments that are the result of people's interactions with opaque but powerful forms of behavioral fine-tuning, surveillance and manipulation.

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