With all the outrage directed at Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Viacom, CBS, MTV, and the NFL, it’s a shame that nobody is directing their ire at the real enemy of decency, the root cause of the smut that pollutes our airwaves and degrades the morals of our youth. I refer, of course, to capitalism.
Imagine a typical man living in Europe a few centuries ago. If he wanted to get some beer, he would be lucky to have access to more than one neighborhood tavern. The professional guilds, the church, and the government all worked to restrict competition. As Polanyi explained in The Great Transformation, markets in preindustrial societies were always hemmed in to minimize their impact on traditional social forms. Furthermore, if this man wanted to see a forbidden part of a woman’s anatomy—say, her elbow—his best course of action would be to get married. Fornication might be entertaining for the two people involved, but the rest of the community had no incentive to permit it. The same institutions that protected the local tavern from ruinous competition strove to protect the local maidens from ruin.
Today, however, dozens of breweries, dairies, soda bottlers, and mineral-water vendors compete without restraint for the attention of every thirsty man and woman. The bourgeoisie does not invest in these companies for the sake of nourishing the public, but for yielding a certain rate of profit. Furthermore, it is now possible and socially acceptable for a man to acquire all the necessities of daily life—including, in many subcultures, sex—without binding himself in a vow of marriage.
We should not be surprised that in so many industries today, including television and professional sports, managers enlist sexual imagery to sell their products. To the extent that such marketing is effective, it would be irresponsible for them to do anything else. Marketing strategies that test the limits of public taste—and, by desensitizing the audience, expand those limits—are part of the inexorable logic of capitalism.
The only way to restore modesty to the public sphere is by destroying the economic system that rewards everything but modesty. Bluenoses of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your thongs!