Salvation by Transaction: On Institutional Decline

Economists, look alive. Transaction Man, the new book from Nicholas Lemann, details the recent history […]

CJ Green / 9.12.19

Economists, look alive. Transaction Man, the new book from Nicholas Lemann, details the recent history of big ideas, the “master organizing principles for society.” Heady at first blush, the book becomes a keen survey of anthropology and how actual people live and work. Lemann employs “Transaction Man” as a catchall denoting some or all of the following: someone who believes “there is a rational efficient solution to every big problem”; whose “spirit is about speed not stodginess; individual expression, not conformity; undoing restrictions, not adhering to them”; who hopes his or her work will “benefit humanity”; and who aims to replace archaic institutions with “something more fluid and unconstrained” (20). “Transaction Man” is in large part a rejection of the midcentury “Organization Man” who, many said, gave too much authority to institutions. But Lemann suggests contemporary impulses — move fast, break things — might also find roots in feelings of personal insignificance (32).

Lemann balances theory with biography, including quirks, journal entries, and personal details about the book’s main players, who insisted there was a solution to the “puzzle of humanity” in politics and numbers. These figures include an adviser to FDR, a leading theoretician at Harvard Business School, and Silicon Valley ‘titans,’ all of whom, we are reminded, were human beings inasmuch as they were “remarkable individuals who epitomized and helped create their eras.” Armed with big ideas, they tried to rescue not only markets but everyone. As Lemann indicates, the redemption project of Christianity did not decline with religion but was transmuted. A savior complex shaped the twentieth century, heightening considerably in the era of networks and online transactions:

[Silicon Valley’s] view of itself is as a place with a comprehensive and workable idea of how the world could function far better than it does now and for the benefit of everybody. It is an unofficial requirement of its leading figures that they be able to put forth a grand, all-encompassing program, just as the early industrial tycoons did, only with different touchpoints: innovation, mass empowerment, cultural tolerance, and the overturning of existing arrangements, instead of Christianity, order, obedience, and social Darwinism. (225)

It’s no surprise that “eschatological scenarios” take up much of these figures’ conversations: populating Mars, constructing cities in the ocean on floating islands, replacing humanity altogether with “ethical AI,” etc.:

What all these grand musings had in common was an impatience with the current forms of society, or at least an inclination to see them as only temporary, and a powerful optimism that the new world that most people in Silicon Valley thought was aborning would be far better than the present one because it would reverse the currently unfair power equation between older established institutions and the great mass of powerless people. (244)

In his review for the Times, contextualizes this: “The four decades of the Transaction Man economy have not been good for most Americans. Wage growth has been slow, and life expectancy has stagnated. The public mood is sour.” In reality, Lemann argues, the neglect of institutions leaves most of us unwell. After all, “institutions are an inescapable part of human life, and the real question is what form they will take” (21). The author goes on:

In the manner of someone who thinks the cure for a hangover is another drink, the country keeps reacting to troubles produced by the deterioration of its institutional life by embracing further deterioration. In polls, faith in the core institutions of American life — government, business, religion, public schools, news organizations, the legal system — has been falling for decades. In response, we persist in thinking about solutions that would continue to weaken these institutions (254).

This is Lemann’s general movement: from the abstract to the concrete, from big ideas to the particularity of action. He cites philosopher John Dewey who wrote that “Wholesale creeds and all-inclusive deals are impotent in the face of actual situations, for doing always means the doing of something in particular” (252). In a similar way, you wouldn’t recite a plan for economic welfare to a starving person; you would give them food.

If big-scale redemptions are lingering responses to ‘love your neighbor,’ maybe one ought to reconsider that command, and where it came from. Though “history moves in only one direction, forward” (268), the “public” remains faceless — who is my neighbor? Creeds, doctrines, big ideas pass by, overhead; these never deliver wholesale for the vast abstraction “humanity,” which is nothing if not particular, varied, and endlessly problematic. But citing schools, local government, and, most notably, places of worship, Lemann concludes that “Reaching people, doing right by people, building the next good society means using these institutions. Not transactions. Not big ideas” (268). Or you might say, not another, less institutional-seeming model of capital-C Church but simply one foot in front of the other—this coming Sunday at 9am, from the parking lot to the pew—to hear once again, God-willing, about the transaction to end all transactions.