There’s no such thing as ‘the market’

2 Sep

You might gather that the title of this post and this blog is intended as a kind of riposte to Margaret Thatcher’s silly claim that there is ‘no such thing as society’.  Those of you who want to make out she was being more subtle than that clearly have a problem with divining meaning in words.  Look again.  Or, actually, just look anywhere but here.

But, actually, there really is a case that there’s actually no such thing as ‘the market’.  I can feel your hesitation – it’s a little bit like the young atheist who is scared to shout up to the sky that there is no God.  Get over it, just like you got over God.  ‘The market’ is nonexistent in the same way exactly as God.  It’s everywhere – and therefore nowhere.  It’s all-powerful – and therefore controls nothing.  It knows everything – and is therefore blind.

The market, when we look at it as a single entity, has no actual existence.  It is simply the combination of factors that impinge on the economic sphere at any given time – whether political or cultural or social or military or technical.  Indeed, even this is a little favourable to the market because there is, using words accurately, no economic sphere that is impinged upon by separate modes of life.  The field of reality held to be that governed and constituted by the market is itself a chimera.  It is just the interplay of other modes of life.

This is not splitting hairs.  The idea of ‘investor confidence’ or shareholder confidence that underlies the fortunes of the myriad financial ‘markets’ is a political and cultural thing.  A failure to analyse those factors is key in the failure of ‘economics’ as a discipline.  ‘Political economy’ means something, although something wide and difficult and involving words and doubts.  ‘Economics’, on the other hand, is narrowing the understanding into narrow certainties and claiming that they can be mathematecized.  They can’t.

The absence of the (singular) market from reality means that governments that trust it to rule them – or even merely their ‘economic’ arrangements – are in fact handing power to institutions that aim to determine the systemic arrangements that economistic myths leave to ‘the market’.  And generally, the point at which the vacuum of the market is given a free hand, is the point at which already-dominant cultural, social and political institutions choose to shut out all other contenders for power.

And maybe that is why Thatcher did not, after denying that their was such a thing as society, move on to point out that she was serving a God that was infinitely further from human experience.

There’s some caveats to be made relating to this argument.  I’ll be dealing with some of them shortly.  The most important – the difference between the market and ‘markets’ – will be my starting point next time.

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2 Responses to “There’s no such thing as ‘the market’”

  1. pinkagendist September 16, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    I’ve wondered about this for quite a while. Perhaps because politicians (and the media) talk about the markets precisely as if it were a god that must be appeased. I think they intentionally frame the discussion this way to mislead the general public.
    By saying for example that ‘the markets have no confidence in Greece’, they can dissimulate the fact that actual people and actual banks are betting against Greece and making money in the process. Other banks (or the same) are even happier because they then lend to Greece at much higher rates.

    • nosuchthingasthemarket September 19, 2012 at 10:25 am #

      I think the term ‘intentionally’ is overstating the case, except in the case of a small number of very highly powerful individuals who happen to have brains. More often the ‘market makers’ practice a capitalist doublethink, both believing in ‘the market’ as an abstract idea and in their ability to manipulate it as a concrete thing. The compromise solution for the mainstream and uncritical media is to talk markets in the plural, thus avoiding confronting the void at the centre of their belief system whilst still acting as if it regulates their beliefs and behaviours. Thanks for getting in touch. NSTATM.

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