Today’s Supreme Court oral argument, in the case of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, is correctly understood to pit defenders of religious liberty against those who believe that the government has a compelling interest in requiring employers to provide contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization services through their healthcare policies. In significant part, the case hinges on whether the companies—privately held businesses whose owners are unquestionably deeply religious individuals, and who run their businesses informed by those views—can be considered “persons” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I, like many Christians, hope their case prevails.
But while the businesses are often characterized as “family-owned businesses,” each is a national business with hundreds of employees and multi-state operations. Hobby Lobby is by far the larger chain, with 640 stores that employs 28,000 individuals. While it has religiously-themed goods, plays Christian music, and closes on Sundays, in most respects it is identifiably a “big-box” store that can usually be found in major retail corridors, surrounded by acres of concrete and provisioned largely by merchandise made in China. While it is a “family-owned” business, it is hardly a mom-and-pop shop.
The dominant narrative—religious liberty against state-mandated contraception—altogether ignores the economic nature of the case, and the deeper connections between the economy in which Hobby Lobby successfully and eagerly engages and a society that embraces contraception, abortion, sterilization, and, altogether, infertility. Largely ignored is the fact Hobby Lobby is a significant player in a global economy that has separated markets from morality. Even as it is a Christian-themed brand, it operates in a decisively “secular” economic world. It is almost wholly disembedded from any particular community; its model, like that of all major box stores, is to benefit from economies of scale through standardization and aggressive price-cutting, relying on cheap overseas producers and retail settings that are devoid of any particular cultural or local distinction. The setting where one finds Hobby Lobby near us—on Grape Road in nearby Mishawaka—is about as profane imaginable a place on earth, accessible by six lanes of concrete roads where there is a heavy concentration of large chain retailers, where it anchors a sensory-deadening row of retail store fronts that border acres of cracked and barren pavement, awash in discarded plastic bags and crumpled fast food wrappers. On the rare occasion that I enter the store, even amid the Chinese mass-produced crosses and the piped in Christian music, under the endless florescent lighting and displays carefully-managed to optimize impulse buying, I am hardly moved to a state of piety, prayer, and thanksgiving. I am, like everyone else, looking for the least chintzy item at the cheapest price.
Hobby Lobby—like every chain store of its kind—participates in an economy that is no longer “religious” or even “moral.” That is, it participates in an economy that arose based on the rejection of the subordination of markets embedded within, and subject to, social and moral structures. This “Great Transformation” was detailed and described with great acuity by Karl Polanyi in his masterful 1944 book of that title. He described a sea change of economic practice that took place especially beginning in the 19th-century, but whose theoretical groundwork had been laid already in the 17th- and 18th-centuries by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith. As he succinctly described this “transformation,” previous economic arrangements in which markets were “embedded” within moral and social structures, practices, and customs were replaced by ones in which markets were liberated from those contexts, and shorn of controlling moral and religious norms and ends. “Ultimately that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.”
To summarize a complex argument, Polanyi (and more recently, Brad Gregory in his masterful work, The Unintended Reformation) described how economic arrangements were “disembedded” from particular cultural and religious contexts in which economic arrangements were understood to serve those moral ends—and hence, that limited not only actions, but even the understanding that economic actions could be considered to be undertaken to advance individual interests and priorities. As Polanyi describes, economic exchange so ordered placed a priority on the main ends of social and religious life—the sustenance of community order and flourishing of families within that order. The understanding of an economy based upon the accumulated calculations of self-maximizing individuals was largely non-existent, and a “market” was understood to be a part of the whole, an actual physical place within that social order, not an autonomous, even theoretical space for the exchange of abstracted utility maximers.
Polanyi describes how the replacement of this economy required concerted and often violent reshaping of the existing life-world, most often by elite economic and State actors disrupting and displacing traditional communities and practices. It also required not only the separation of markets from social and religious contexts, and with that move the “individuation” of people, but their acceptance that their labor and nature were nothing more than commodities subject to price mechanisms, a transformative way of considering people and nature alike in newly utilitarian terms. Yet market liberalism required treating both people and natural resources as these “fictitious commodities,” as material for use in industrial processes, in order to disassociate markets from morals and “re-train” people to think of themselves first and foremost as individuals separate from nature and each other. As Polanyi pithily described this transformation, “laissez-faire was planned.”
How delicious he would doubtless find the irony of a “religious corporation” seeking to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy. Yet, the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.
Most ironically, its entire business model is premised upon the conception of the disembedded self. Its stores are located generally in the middle of nowhere, in a sea of asphalt, providing the simulacra of ancient craft with goods produced by Chinese and transported by massive container ships, accessible only by automobiles generally by people living in suburbs. They have contributed to the displacing of smaller, local businesses with the extensive assistance of government, especially in the form of free-trade agreements, military-protected fossil-fuel production and transportation along with international shipping corridors, state-sponsored infrastructure that give major advantages to businesses that rely heavily on economies of scale based on trucking, and zoning laws that encourage the evisceration of downtowns in favor of national chains. Purchases in these chain stores result in a net outflow of money from these communities into the coffers of distant and absentee owners.
This economy—like the one it displaced—is not neutral; it is based on certain assumptions about human nature and implicitly teaches its participants to model their own behavior on those assumptions. The anthropology at the base of our modern economy is that of rationally calculating, utility maximizing individuals who have learned to understand both human labor and resources as commodities, who seek always to calculate economic activity in terms of price (hence, are always called “consumers”) in ways that obscure any connections between what is purchased and its implications for our communities. We have thoroughly accepted the separation of markets from social, moral, and religious structures—indeed, the only way that we generally speak of “morality” in economics is that which is provided after the fact not by communities and the people within them, but only by the now-distant State through regulation and redistribution.
I hope Hobby Lobby wins its case. But we should not deceive ourselves for a minute that what we are seeing is the contestation between a religious corporation and a secular State. We are seeing, rather, the culminating absurdity of what Polanyi called the “utopia” of our modern economic disembedding—the absurdity of a chain store representing the voice of religion in the defense of life amid an economy and polity that values turning people and nature into things. Our entire economy is an education in how to be “pro-choice.” What it most certainly is not in any way, shape or form, is about helping us to understand our true condition as embedded human beings.