The End of the Market

Is there an alternative to the market and what is it?

‘The market’ may be taken as a generic term to include markets of all kinds: places (not necessarily physical) in which goods, services and people are bought and sold, offered for sale, rejected or bargained over. Markets imply a medium of exchange, usually money in some form, although barter is a form of exchange without money.

The market system is one way of regulating relations between producers and consumers and between owners of capital and labour. There are in fact three ways of regulating relations between producers and consumers: by the ‘free’ market, by the unfree or controlled market and by no market. These represent market capitalism, state-controlled or ‘command economy’ capitalism, and socialism respectively.

No society has been or is 100 percent free-market capitalist. Every human activity and item of wealth would have to be marketed to make it so. No society has been or is 100 percent state-controlled capitalism. Some private enterprise or free marketing was always allowed or even encouraged in so-called communist countries. The principle of ‘no market’ means simple giving and taking based on understanding, reasonableness and trust. It is present in some activities and some goods and services in all societies, in domestic and voluntary work, for example. But nowhere (except in small communities) have productive and social relations been dominated by the non-market principles of common ownership and free access. In other words, since the first form or property was introduced in ancient civilisations, some form of class society based on some form of possession and market transactions has always been dominant.

The history of the market would make a fascinating subject for research, but there is no space to go into it here. However, a few words about the relative strength of free-market capitalism and state capitalism during the 20th century may be useful.

State capitalism probably reached its high point with the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1917. Fraudulently using the labels of socialism and communism, the leaders of the Communist Party put as much economic activity as possible, including markets, under the control of the state. Eventually, the controlled, centrally organised, ‘command economy’ form of capitalism proved less efficient than the ‘mixed economy’ form, and now the former Soviet Union countries are as free-market capitalist as most other parts of the world.

In post-war Britain there was a similar reaction against free-market capitalism. Beveridge reorganised poverty in the welfare state. The original National Health Service enabled people to get glasses and false teeth free at the point of consumption. This was hailed as socialism, but again it was a fraud. The best that can be said of such measures is that they were the result of a feeling among supporters of capitalism that it could in some respects be better run by the state intervening on behalf of all capitalists rather than letting uncontrolled market forces produce too much inequality and discontent.

Today free-market capitalism is in the ascendancy around the world, despite all its crises. Not everything is privately owned and bought and sold in a market, but more and more industries and services are being privatised. As compared with a century, or even a decade, ago, what might be called the market for markets has grown enormously. To take just a few examples, labour markets for parliamentary lobbyists, spin doctors and corporate headhunters have developed. Bankruptcy specialists and leisure consultancies are flourishing. Sperm is marketed on the internet. In the information market, business skills video providers rub shoulders with computer dating agencies and weather forecasting bureaux. Genetic testing at a hefty price will tell customers who is the real father of their child. In Japan if your child is short of a grandparent you can go into the market and hire one.

Of course, market penetration, as it is called, is never complete. Much human activity is still outside the market. However, it is not too cynical to say that if a way could be found to bottle the air we breathe, such a market would be created. Domestic work, voluntary work, and serious leisure are largely, but not wholly, outside the market. We still have to buy household cleaning items, but we don’t usually charge for doing the washing up. About one in six people in Britain – more in America – give up some of their spare time to help others voluntarily (though some employees do paid work for voluntary organisations). Serious leisure – regularly getting together with others to pursue common interests for pleasure – is mostly a non-market activity (though some participants have to buy things from the market to pursue their serious leisure).

What are the good things and the bad things about the market system? The good things are said to centre around being able to exchange things, stimulate competition, and produce new goods and services. It is claimed that without a means of exchange, expressing the price at which goods and services are bought and sold, no one would be able to exchange what they had for something they needed. Obviously, within capitalism this is true: without a labour market (free or controlled) no one would be able to sell their labour power and ‘make a living’. But this is only because both capitalists and workers accept that labour is a commodity to be bought by the capitalist class or the state and sold by the worker. If, instead of being in the hands of a small minority, the means of wealth production were common property, then that ‘advantage’ of having a market would disappear. We wouldn’t need to sell our labour power to live, and it wouldn’t be possible for capitalists to buy it and live on the surplus value it creates.

A second supposed advantage of the market system is that it stimulates competition, especially if it is ‘free market’. This means that buyers shop around for what they want (or are persuaded to want) at the cheapest price, while sellers hold out for the highest price. This may sound a good idea if you are deciding which supermarket to shop at for the best bargain, but it’s not so good if you are competing to sell yourself on the labour market. You may get a slightly better wage or salary if you join a union, but there is no guarantee you won’t be ‘priced out of the market’, i.e., sacked and unable to compete successfully for another job.

A third stated advantage of the market system is that a market can be created for almost anything – in theory for everything. Is this such an advantage? As compared with feudalism and early capitalism, late capitalism offers those with money a myriad things to buy – unnecessary things, ludicrous things and sometimes harmful things. A fourth television set for the bathroom, a fashion haircut for the dog, a state-of-the-art security system or weapon to protect yourself against robbers. The worst obscenity is the indifference to real poverty and suffering that the market-mediated pursuit of trivia brings: people worry if they miss an episode of their favourite ‘soap’ while millions in the world starve.

Now for the bad things about the market system. I have already touched on some of these when questioning the good things. The labour market is unlike all other markets in two respects. The owners of labour power have to sell something that is capable of producing more than its own cost. And, by having to sell themselves rather than something they possess, they are at the mercy of the buyer, who can dictate, with the help of the state, not only the terms of the transaction but whether it takes place at all.

Competition is an essential feature of the market system. It rewards winners and penalises losers. Socialists may disagree about whether all competition will disappear in a socialist world (I would personally argue that playing games and sports where there are inconsequential winners and losers can develop skills and be good fun). But the kind of cut-throat competition engendered by capitalism cannot be justified. Making excuses for the excesses of the competitive market system is a kind of Nuremberg defence: ‘I was only carrying out orders given by my customers’. The invisible hand of the market can be a cruel hand, destroying and damaging its victim losers, while enabling its ‘top’ winners to live selfish, pointless and distorted lives.

The waste involved in the market system is tremendous. Think of all the useless and harmful jobs (often dignified by the title of profession or career) that are created. People working in banking, insurance and financial services produce nothing of real value, nothing that a society based on production for need and free access couldn’t happily do without. Commercial advertising uses up far more human and material resources than required to inform people of what is available. The worst example of waste is war and preparation for war. A mind-boggling $1,000,000,000,000 is spent each year on this around the world. Countless deaths and injuries have been caused by weapons used to defend and acquire markets and associated spheres of influence in which the workers of the world have no real interest.

To turn now to the marketless, moneyless world that will replace the capitalist market system. First, the absence of money, though it is certainly a feature of socialist society, is not a defining characteristic of that society. The absence of money is a negative idea. Money will not be needed as a means of earning a living or registering the ownership of capital (incidentally, money may well survive but only in inconsequential money games or historical re-enactments).

The positive definition of socialism is a society in which the means of wealth production and distribution will be commonly owned and democratically controlled in the interest of the whole community. It will only be possible when a majority of people (workers) understand, want and work for such a revolutionary change. They will work, not in a labour market, but to produce goods and services that they and their fellow human beings need.

Marx once said that he didn’t want to write recipes for future cookshops. We can agree with him that we shouldn’t try to draw up blueprints for the details of how to run a socialist world of the future. The people at the time will decide those details. But we ought to be interested in principles, in the ingredients to be used and the social relations to be entered into in future cookshops and other places.

A socialist world will only be possible by people behaving in pro-social ways. We do not ask for a fundamental change in human nature. None is needed. Even today, with the market system dominant and people encouraged to look after themselves first, most men and women behave pro-socially when they see someone in need of help. Market forces are forces alien to the best in human nature (human behaviour would be a better term). The building of the world socialist movement is a task for those not passively submitting to the discipline of the market but able and willing to help create something better for themselves and their fellow humans.


Leave a Reply