[OPE-L] Marx and markets

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Wed Jan 25 2006 - 16:12:40 EST


What are the freedoms that are created by markets?

It's surprising to hear that from an American! That's a jolly good question,
but it is a big, wide-ranging topic that takes a long time to answer, and I
don't have sufficient time to do just to it just now beynd a quick mail
(incidentally, if anybody knows where my bicycle keys are, I'd like them
back). I went to the supermarket yesterday, and freely bought the foods I
wanted to eat. Hundreds of millions of people don't have that freedom. I
look around my dingy room and I see all the things that I could never have
acquired, without market trade spanning the whole globe and a vast network
of cooperation between people linked by trade. Here in Amsterdam people do
cherish their market freedoms, and there are markets now of type you would
scarcely believe. Here's just a thumbnail sketch though, of my trend of

The basic thesis I offered was that markets don't imply any particular
morality of their own, beyond the requirement to settle transactions. This
provides a source of freedom of choice (as Milton Friedman highlighted) and
personal autonomy, the ability to develop/emancipate oneself in a
self-directed way according to one's own good judgement, including choosing
one's own morality in the relations of giving and taking, getting and
receiving, sharing and excluding (in religion, this is articulated
spiritually in terms of the choice of following God or following the devil
and so on, the option of sinning, or walking the path of righteousness and
so on). The argument holds, so long as you have money in pocket, or at least
credit cards and the possibility of "trading up".

This aspect is defended by those who defend the market principle, believing
it will result in a superior allocation of resources. In reality of course,
that may be far from being the case (the chosen moralities might be bad
ones), but there is that potential at least. The argument easily becomes
circular also, i.e. the fact that you have markets MEANS that you have a
better allocation of resources.

Of course, precisely because markets don't imply any morality of their own
beyond settling transactions, an enforcible juridical-moral framework of
rights and obligations is also practically necessary, which in genuine
liberal thought is however viewed as only setting constraints or limits,
without specifying exactly how people should be, that's a perpetual debate,
till the end of history.

Suppose you don't have market mediation, then, effectively, you give more
decision-making power to some people over other people influencing the
allocation of resources, i.e. the allocation of resources becomes more
directly political, and more directly influenced by power relations,
according to some dominating morality or rules/norms. In the extreme
centralised case, you have some kind of totalitarian bureaucracy or military
dictatorship prescribing and enforcing norms for how people should be. In a
more democratic case, you have the rule of the majority, but even that could
also be oppressive in the given case... if you're in the minority.

Suppose now that the goal of the political economy is to reduce the power
people have over other people, or the power to oppress them (increasing
their self-acting and self-realising ability) and increase the power of
people to shape the physical universe in accordance with their needs, what
role should different allocative principles play in this? What "mix" of
institutions is desirable? You can allocate things via markets, by law, by
custom, by vote, by experts or leaders, by individual initiative etc.

If all we're saying is is that workers are exploited, capitalism is all bad,
markets are all bad etc. that is not very interesting and it is moreover
mistaken - to argue that, suggests that people were on balance really better
off with feudalism and its "great chain of being", reaching from God at the
top, to serfs crawling around in dirt, to lodestone at the bottom, within
the perspective of an eternal and immutable social order, in which your
place in life is more or less predestined from birth, if you're lucky enough
to escape from bubonic plagues and the whims of the lords.

A better sort of argument I think is to say with Marx that capitalism
implies a highly contradictory form of progress (meaning both steps forward,
and steps backward, from a human point of view), but in that case we have to
get much more specific about the pro's and con's of particular markets, and
the interests served by them, and more specific about non-market allocative
principles which are more just, equitable or efficient.

If I say that markets are all bad etc., I have already assumed what I have
to prove, whereas a genuine critique of markets would elucidate their
benefits, disadvantages and limits, to supply insight into what is necessary
for more superior forms of resource allocation. The best thinkers actually
do do this, but there are also many people just bitching about a "capitalist
den of inequity". They may pull out a lot of scholarship, but they've lost
the purpose of the critique, in which case there is no alternative... but to

If however we tackle to job with a bit more integrity, we try to assess
objectively what exists, in order to supply alternatives. At a personal
level, that can take the form of exploring different forms of association
and social organisation, equipped with some historical thinking telling us
that "things were not always this way, and will not always be this way" and
consequently that, whereas as some conditions can be taken as given, other
permit the possibility of progressive change.

If my analysis consists only of stating how conditions are bad, it really
isn't a very good analysis. If on the other hand my analysis enables
conclusions about how things could be different, it's a better analysis. And
if my analysis shows what is to be done, to improve things... well then it
becomes a good analysis. The best analysis is, of course, simply to do what
is good, right, just, efficient, etc. and in this way set a sane example, as
the great thinkers of our age encourage us to do. I don't pretend to be a
great analyst in my fragmented lifestyle - you can e.g. have these funny
thoughts sometimes, about "what am I an example of, in this situation" - but
there's the challenge I think.

Terry Eagleton claimed that Marxists "recognise that there can be no
authentic socialism without the rich heritage of enlightened bourgeois
liberalism" ("Where do postmodernists come from?", in E.M. Wood & J.B.
Foster (eds), In Defence of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda (NY:
Monthly Review Press, 1997), p. 24). What else is that heritage, if not an
efflux of the growing market economy?


PS - perhaps we should deconstruct Jenkins's contention a bit more, and
relish his poetic truth.

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