On the Imperative of Niceness, Part One
The imperative to be “nice” is, at bottom, an imperative to properly comport oneself to the demands of the market.
Like dogs walking their slow, cumbersome owners to a dog park, commodities must get their guardians, in Marx’s words, “to place themselves in relation to one another as persons whose will resides in those objects.” Doing so is the most basic reorientation that a human being must undergo in order to participate in the process of exchange. For someone who brings a commodity to market, Marx continues, that “commodity possesses no direct use-value. Otherwise, he would not bring it to market. It has use-value for others; but for himself its only direct use-value is a bearer of exchange-value, and consequently, a means of exchange.”
Before the act of exchange, the fundamental way in which human beings relate to their possessions is as use-values: the meal is there to be consumed, the coat to be worn, etc. In bringing their objects to market, which is also bringing themselves into commerce with other human beings, a crucial act of recomportment must occur: individuals must see their objects not as containing direct use-value, but as containing potential use-value for another.
Marx is talking about the airs that exchangers of goods put on to sell their wares, but his discussion extends to the commodities that are, for the great majority of us, our most marketable objects: ourselves. Anyone who has ever been to a job interview knows first-hand what it is to care about (or feign caring about) use-value for others. Very simply, in an interview, one demonstrates to another that one’s peculiar commodity—in this case, one’s own labor-power—bears potential use.
Sometimes this takes the form of out and out lies about our skills and qualifications, but it is most insidious in its banal manifestations: incessant smiling and pleasantness, confidence without braggadocio, the conveyance of “enthusiasm,” “excitement,” and the like. Indeed, in our service-oriented world, these various forms of being “nice” are as important as—and oftentimes more important than—actual job qualifications. Employers just spontaneously “like” pleasant, excited, enthusiastic job candidates. At a structural level, this is because those candidates demonstrate the proper subjective comportment to the market.
Though they certainly don’t intend to, parents, teachers, and other caretakers offer training in the prioritization of use-value for others by encouraging “good” behavior. This is not always a terrible thing, of course: children are absurdly greedy creatures and resistant in all sorts of ways to the acceptance of basic social (and physical) reality. But some of the ways in which they are resistant—being bored at school, loud at church, constantly escaping into devices—often say more about social reality than about children.
Indeed, given the degree to which our society is unequal, unfair, cruel, and alienating, the adaptation to social reality that is characteristic of adult behavior is typically much more disturbing than stubborn, childish behavior. Adults accept as commonplace the most absurd of realities, and very often this irrationality is a manifestation of the prioritization of use-value for others. Rather than fight back against a given absurdity in the name of what we want, desire, and need, we prioritize—or, more accurately, we are put in positions where we are expected to prioritize—other people’s wants, desires, and needs (our teachers, our bosses, our customers, etc.).
This structural compulsion is often psychically experienced as the impersonal thing that it is, in the form of a need to fulfill “wants” in the abstract. We are nice in the absence of both context and object.
It is as if the personality of the bureaucratic lackey and sycophant is the basic comportment of every individual in competition for any work at all in contemporary capitalism. The unemployed speak the language of an invisible corporate cage, previously faceless and anonymous civil servants publicize everything they do on Twitter, and freelancers and gig-economy workers have internalized the ideology of an employer that exists only in potentia.
Some people—the lucky ones—do so begrudgingly: they play the game, but talk shit once their manager leaves the room. But others can’t help but internalize these directives as their own. “You must listen to your boss,” “you must satisfy the customer,” and “you must be good” eventually become “I must listen,” “I must satisfy,” and “I must be good.” And with the resentment that goes along with being presented a categorical imperative, we expect others to do the same. Like us, if they don’t listen, satisfy, and participate in the nebulous “good,” always with an eye towards pleasing others over themselves, they are not “nice.”
It would be one thing if this “niceness” stayed at work, where it belongs, but it unsurprisingly bleeds out into every part of our lives. Once you have smiled in a job interview, there is no way to ever unlearn that smile. That is the smile you’re going to use with your loved ones. It is the smile that will consume your face after a bout of spontaneous laughter. And if parenting is in your future, it’s the smile that you’re going to look at your infant with, and which your infant is going to mirror back at you.
This line of thought is undoubtedly uncomfortable, and easy to dismiss: “I can see that social conditions might influence and shape our attitudes and emotions, but is being nice really, at bottom, only a reflection of adaptation to the demands of the market? Isn’t it just nice to be nice?”
Of course it is nice to be nice for subjects who have been acculturated to niceness, but the point is understood: perhaps there is indeed some form of transhistorical “niceness” out there, which human beings “ought” to model, but it is impossible to determine what this form of pleasantness might look like in itself underneath the thick fog of use-value for others.
But I have here only caught hold of a branch extending out from the banks. The river is still raging, but I will try nonetheless to make my way upstream in future parts.
Anselm McGovern is Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Culture & Cuisine at Walden University Online. He is the author of We Could All Probably Be Better at Oral Sex Than We Are Now: Haiku for Life (Forthcoming).