Debunking the Magnitude of Markets: A Holiday Story

By Richard D. Wolff, a Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, New York City. Originally published at Truthout; cross-posted at the author’s request

Like all human institutions, markets have strengths and weaknesses. Born in particular historical conditions, they alter over time as conditions change, and eventually die. Just as other institutions – monarchy, slavery, empire, feudalism, tribal society etc. – were sometimes hysterically exalted, depicted as sublimely perfect and eternal, so too were markets. Yet as history produces, develops and extinguishes institutions, it does the same to their exaltations. As institutions lose bigger-than-life pretensions, their weaknesses become visible (and vice versa).

Markets were and are just one mechanism for distributing resources and products among people and enterprises. In markets, prices allocate scarce commodities to the highest bidders for them, to those who can pay the most. Markets differ from many other, non-market mechanisms that human beings, past and present, have used for those distributions. Religious authorities, community elders, local or regional state authorities, democratically composed collectives, kinship and gift-based organizations developed different, non-market, price mechanisms for distribution. Because recent history exalted markets hysterically, it is time to expose their mixed and often horrific results.

Markets distribute resources and products by means of more or less voluntary, quid-pro-quo exchanges among owners of those resources and products. I offer so many of what I have and you want in exchange for so many of what you have that I want. Capitalism did not invent markets; they coexisted with all the non-capitalist production systems we know of (feudal, slave, individual peasant and so on). Likewise, those different production systems also coexisted with non-market distribution systems.

When capitalists exalted markets, they usually demonized socialism as if it ended markets (something actually existing socialists almost never did). The pre-capitalist slave economic system in the US South grew and spread by means of the markets in slaves as well as slaves’ products. In contrast, the early centuries of European feudalism saw a constriction of markets far beyond anything associated with modern socialism. Later European feudalism made more use of markets. The actual history of markets differs from the more ideology-driven renditions of that history.

Despite the pro-market ideology that suffuses capitalist cultures today, inside those cultures markets are sometimes reviled in revealing ways. A typical holiday scene illustrates the point. Some individuals are hosting a dinner; they have purchased, cooked and served the food to friends and relatives gathered at a festive table. All in attendance receive and enjoy their portions, conversation bubbles and solidarity glows. As the meal concludes, one young man is asked to clear the table. He proudly applies the market exaltation brought home from that semester’s college economics course. “Sure,” he says to all at the table, “that will be $4, please.”

Silence descends amid shocked intakes of breath. One of the hosts, red-faced, declares, “What an awful thing to do.” He explains sternly, “We are family and friends. We love one another and do kind things to express that love. Demanding money offends and undermines what brought us together. What do they teach in that overpriced college?”

This holiday host denounces the market as an enemy of love and solidarity. Might he eventually extend his critique of the market’s effects inside the home to include what markets do outside too? Modern societies mostly ban markets as mechanisms for distributing sexual services, organs for transplants and so on. Long ago, Plato and Aristotle criticized markets for polarizing rich versus middle and poor, breeding envy and thereby undermining the social cohesion that sustains community. Might people recognize that ancient Greek wisdom again?

Markets contributed the incentives and frameworks recently for Volkswagen to sell over 11 million air-polluting vehicles by deceiving buyers and government regulators. Markets did the same for GM to delay correcting fatal ignition flaws, for Toyota to delay correcting fatal airbag flaws, and for Whole Foods to overcharge New Yorkers and Californians (and how many others?) for packaged food. Every month, Consumer Reports magazine describes profit-driven companies grabbing opportunities to charge more for less in the markets they “serve.” Across the United States, every state has commissions to supervise utility and insurance capitalists because their self-serving “market behavior” hurts the public and it responded with those commissions.

Big businesses have always tried (and often succeeded) to manipulate and/or monopolize markets. The huge advertising industry enables such manipulation and monopolization by shaping the demands for goods and services that businesses supply. When government oversight commissions threaten market manipulations and monopolization, capitalists “capture” the commissions to negate that threat. The system’s absurdities multiply.

Markets work to bid up the prices of scarce goods and services. Then only those with enough money can afford them. Polarizing gentrification and unequal public schools result from scarce land in preferred neighborhoods going to the wealthiest. Markets distribute much of the best output to the richest. Is that distribution consistent with community or “family values”? During World War II, the United States rejected markets as means to distribute meat, coffee, sugar, gasoline and other products. Such goods were scarce because war production had diverted resources away from making them. Letting markets operate to distribute those scarce goods only to the rich risked undermining the social solidarity needed for war. That holiday host’s speech about markets’ unwanted effects inside the home evidently applied outside as well.

Washington therefore imposed rationing during World War II: a preferable non-market form of distributing many basic products. The ration cards used to distribute those products were allocated among Americans according to individual and family needs.

When Marx described a major part of the ideology (belief system) that supported capitalism as a “fetishism of commodities,” he meant the exaltation of the market. Marx’s point was to show that behind the market were particular social interests seeking to secure and enlarge their wealth and control atop the capitalist system of production. Hyping markets served their interests.

Markets stimulated and rewarded the proliferation of financial “products” (asset-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps and so on) that helped plunge the world into the severe downturn since 2007. The United States’ “market-based” health-care system is partly why we get mediocre health results despite spending far more on health care than other advanced industrial economies. The booming market in illegal drugs yields major social problems in cities, prisons, ghettos and beyond. The capitalist organization of production coupled with the market system of distribution has delivered many disastrous results for modern society.

Exalting markets as if they were some perfect social optimum should be rejected as the self-serving tool of societies’ richest operated at the expense of everyone else. We can and should use whatever combinations of distribution mechanisms (market and/or non-market) are democratically chosen after open debate over those mechanisms’ virtues and defects.

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      1. Paul P

        Yes, I like the way markets have distributed resources to stop climate change.
        And how markets are working to end unemployment and get us clean water, affordable education, the benefits of productivity in the form of leisure, housing, secure retirement.

        The invisible hand: I can’t see it.

        1. Art Eclectic

          Unregulated markets will do none of those things. Markets are merely a method of exchanging value for those who have money and assets. We rely on governments to regulate the markets and provide social solidarity so that the people without money or assets do not starve in the streets and/or become so desperate in their need for food and shelter for their families that they overthrow the power system.

          In many ways, the critics of socialism are right – you do run out of other people’s money at some point. Which is why it is critical that strong education and jobs are available to raise people out of dire poverty so that they can participate in the market.

          Henry Ford had it right….

          1. JTMcPhee

            Horse hockeys, maybe? You are talking about THIS Henry Ford, of course, “having it right”? And this one too, same guy, slightly different emphasis on life story elements?

            By this time, Ford had already racked up an abominable labor relations record. Which is a hard thing for many people to believe, since he was famous for instituting the five-dollar minimum wage. What nobody seems to remember is that the Ford company subsequently rescinded that wage. And that it was only available to married WASPs of high moral character who submitted their homes to surveillance by the Ford Motor Company. This didn’t exactly endear Ford to the labor unions, and that antipathy was reciprocated. Ford believed the unions were controlled by Jewish Communists, so he did his best to break them.

            In 1937, after GM and Chrysler both negotiated contracts with the unions, Ford announced: “We’ll never recognize the United Automobile Workers Union or any other union.” In May of that year, 60 UAW members and some local journalists were jumped by a large contingent of Ford security goons outside a plant in Dearborn, Michigan. One of the union men died four months later from his injuries. The incident was widely reported in the news media, and was known as “The Battle of the Overpass.”

            Henry Ford would have, did actually in his way, understand and participate in “markets” the way Pablo Escobar, also an inventive, disruptive, innovative farm boy, has done. Which latter marketing, of cocaine and heroin and all the rest of the “recreational chemicals,” is so nicely limned in today’s Guardian:

            “The man who exposed the lie of the war on drugs,”

            One wonders how MMT describes and accounts for, in the balance sheet sense, the bones that make up the part of the skeleton of the Beast that is the narcocomplex… Assets and liabilities? Debts and obligations?

            There’s a part of our ancient brains that just loves it some stimulation or depression or alternative consciousness. Wall Street and The City and those generals running the arrangements that produce every year of “conflict” a bumper crop of opium from the valleys of Notagainistan know all that, and the other addictions to weapons and organized violence…

            Yet another vulnerability to add to the list of political-economic vectors pointing mostly down.

  1. Dino Reno

    Capitalism is now our one unifying religion and our only system of government. Nothing else really matters now. “Exalting markets as if they were some perfect social optimum,” is past the point of no return. Living in a post-constituional police state presents limited options for self-expression. Breaking the “law” is perfectly acceptable if you have a company (Uber, for example) that disrupts then destroys the regulated, non-caplitalist system. Simply mentioning the ideas will result in vast riches landing on one’s doorstep, regardless of the actual profit or loss. They’re hailed as advancing the cause and reason for our existence. Disrupters are high priests of our system revealing the mysteries of the total faith we have placed in markets.

  2. cnchal

    . . . We can and should use whatever combinations of distribution mechanisms (market and/or non-market) are democratically chosen after open debate over those mechanisms’ virtues and defects.

    Well, professor Wolff, we are just not going to have that open debate. I do not see any commentary about the labor market and how adding Chinese labor supply, while at the same time paying that labor essentially zero with the results being that for practical purposes, 100% of electronic devices are now made there.

    Lets look at Apple. Apple uses Chinese labor to make it’s products. Pays them just enough to eat so they don’t drop dead on the assembly line the next day. Whenever I see images of those assembly lines, my sense is the lives of Apple’s workers in China are not much different than broiler chickens in cages, with the difference being that at the end of their use to Apple they are not killed and eaten.

    Now, Apple has amassed some $80 to $100 billion in profits from exploiting those workers, and complains that taxes are too high to bring that loot back and wants a tax holiday first, with some vague promise that if it got that tax holiday, it might hire an American. Perhaps even a tool & die maker if they can find one.

    By all accounts, Apple is a huge success, their executives among the wealthiest people alive, their products in many people’s hands.

    Shoud Apple have any moral qualms about how it makes it’s profits and is Apple a market success or failure?

    1. Zack

      In developing countries, manufacturing jobs for American companies are extremely sought after. Why? Because they are far superior to the alternatives, which often involve back-breaking work in far worse conditions. Workers in developing countries desperately want jobs in “sweatshops.” When Westerners pressure these factories into shutting down because the workers are “exploited,” the newly jobless will pursue the inferior alternatives. As a result of market-driven competition for employment among companies in China, manufacturing wages have skyrocketed in recent years. The quality of life for the average Chinese person has dramatically improved since the country opened its markets. Markets are not perfect by any means. But they are also not evil. Too many on the left have an insufficient understanding of their strengths.

      1. tegnost

        skyrocketed from what to what? Are skyrocketing wages going to push markets to find new avenues of exploitation( answer-yes they will) and what will your chinese citizen do then? markets are benign and humans impose “evil” or “good”(good in your example being not perfect but less than evil i’m guessing). You claim to have an understanding of the strengths of markets,what are they? And also how do “leftists” insufficient understandings of the strength of markets manifest themselves in the real world? Lastly
        “When Westerners pressure these factories into shutting down because the workers are “exploited,” the newly jobless will pursue the inferior alternatives.” Is it a requirement that it be inferior? after all they were doing the work and could continue without your divine guidance I’m sure.
        What is stopping these people from developing markets of their own, are the workers not exceptional people improving themselves through toil? Why can they not leave westerners such as you out of the equation? Is not the purpose of trade agreements like tpp to cement the exceptional american structure on all those people to prevent you from having to compete with them?

      2. cnchal

        In developing countries, manufacturing jobs for American companies are extremely sought after.

        American companies are just exploiting them for their own good, right? If American companies really wanted to help they would make sure the broiler chicken type workers in American sweatshops in China were paid at least $25.00 per hour, to compensate them for their productivity, and sweat.

        Now, were Apple to do that, they wouldn’t have $80 to $100 billion stashed overseas, that they want to bring back tax free for a vague promise that they might do something “good” with it. A big chunk of that money would end up in the pockets of the now less exploited broiler chicken sweatshop workers.

        Globalization is a system where all the inputs to production can freely move over borders, except for one. Labor. How convenient.

        Any ideas on what it’s like to have work ripped out of your hands and sent to China, because you couldn’t “compete” and were too expensive? That’s the real market, experienced by millions of people in North America and Europe. Depending on what you do to earn money, you might experience it too.

        It’s a forced march to the bottom for the little people, and those that control these markets are the winners, and they take all, including the crumbs.

    2. Ed Walker

      Remember, the factories that Apple uses in China are the direct result of the transfer of US capital, intellectual property (software and management techniques and more) and even machinery. This wasn’t an accident: it was purposeful, intended to beggar US workers for the benefit of Apple. Of course, the US government helped or at best stood to one side and watched those US assets disappear into China, taking US jobs with them.

      1. cnchal

        Technology tranfer. Perhaps we can get it back!

        This is the story about Golden Dragon Copper. The date of the article is June of 2014, and lots of happy talk that the Chinese are coming to town.

        PINE HILL, Ala. (AP) Burdened with Alabama’s highest unemployment rate, long abandoned by textile mills and furniture plants, Wilcox County desperately needs jobs. They’re coming, and from a most unlikely place: Henan Province, China, 7,600 miles away. Henan’s Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group opened a plant here last month. It will employ more than 300 . . .

        “Jobs that pay $15 an hour are few and far between,” says Dottie Gaston, an official in nearby Thomasville. What’s happening in Pine Hill is starting to happen across America. After decades of siphoning jobs from the United States, China is creating some. Chinese companies invested a record $14 billion in the United States last year, . . .

        . . .Mayors and economic development officials have lined up to welcome Chinese investors. Southern states, touting low labor and land costs, have been especially aggressive. In the case of the Pine Hill plant, tax breaks, some Southern hospitality and a tray of homemade banana pudding helped, too. “Get off the plane and the mayor is waiting for you,” says Hong Kong billionaire Ronnie Chan.

        . . .Among other Chinese projects in the United States that are creating jobs: In Moraine, Ohio, Chinese glassmaker Fuyao Glass Industry Group Co. is taking over a plant that General Motors abandoned in 2008 and creating at least 800 jobs. The site puts Fuyao within four hours’ drive of auto plants in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. In Lancaster County, South Carolina, Chinese textile manufacturer Keer Group is investing $218 million in a plant to make industrial yarn and will employ 500. South Carolina nudged the deal along with a $4 million grant. In Gregory, Texas, Tianjin Pipe is investing over $1 billion in a factory that makes pipes for oil and gas drillers. . . .

        . . . The United States and China have long maintained a lop-sided relationship: China makes things. America buys them. The U.S. trade deficit in goods with China last year hit a record $318 billion. And for three decades, numerous U.S. manufacturers have moved operations to China. The flow is at least starting to move the other way. One reason is that in the past decade, the cost of labor, adjusted for productivity gains, has surged 187 percent at Chinese factories, compared with just 27 percent in the United States, according to Boston Consulting Group.

        Sometimes, political pressure nudges Chinese firms into investing in America. Tianjin Pipe, for instance, began building its Texas plant after the U.S. imposed sanctions against Chinese-made pipes in 2010

        Local officials here in southwestern Alabama went out of their way to lure Golden Dragon, which wanted to build a plant to make copper tubing for air conditioners. At first, the company considered Thomasville, just across the border in Clarke County. But Thomasville didn’t have any suitable sites after Golden Dragon decided it needed three times as much space as originally sought. “I was almost in a panic,” recalls Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day. But Day spotted an industrial park in Wilcox County with plenty of space. Day says he didn’t mind the project going to a neighboring county.

        The plant would employ Thomasville residents, too. And there was another benefit: Wilcox County stuck with 15.5 percent unemployment, Alabama’s highest qualified for extra aid. It landed $8 million in state and federal grants to help build an annex road and sewage lines for the project.

        Wilcox County also gave the company 100 acres of a 274-acre industrial park it bought for $1.2 million and a break on local property taxes. And Alabama offered to reimburse the company up to $20 million of its costs for building the $100 million factory. It will get the full amount if it ends up hiring 500 people, says George Alford of the Wilcox County Industrial Development Authority.

        Local officials assembled all the public agencies and utilities Golden Dragon will have to deal with from Alabama Power to the Port of Mobile in one room on one day so company executives could have their questions answered at once. The message, Day said, was: “If you come here, we’ll hold your hand.”

        A banquet was organized with both traditional Southern fare, such as pinkeye purple hull peas, and Chinese dishes from Thomasville’s New China Buffet restaurant. When the visiting Chinese were seen devouring homemade banana pudding, “we took them the whole tray,” Day says. To prepare for future banquets, Thomasville is buying Chinese-style dining tables with built-in turntables. Still, culture and language can remain a barrier. Local officials hastily replaced a black-and-white banner welcoming Golden Dragon after learning that the colors signified a funeral to the Chinese. “Nobody wants a faux pas,” says John Clyde Riggs, executive director of a regional planning commission. Golden Dragon and the future Dothan 3D join two other Chinese firms in Alabama: Continental Motors in Mobile makes piston engines for aircraft. And Shandong Swan USA in Montgomery makes saws for cotton gins. Alabama and other Southern states have followed the example of South Carolina, which nabbed the first Chinese plant in America 14 years ago when appliance giant Haier built a refrigerator plant in Camden. John Ling, who runs South Carolina’s Shanghai office, has an empty factory he’s pitching to Chinese firms. It’s been shuttered for four years since the former owners closed it and moved the jobs to China. “We will see more and more Chinese projects coming,” Ling says. “It’s at the very beginning.”

        Meet the new boss. Not quite the same as the old boss. The old boss wanted to pay Americans nothing. The new boss wants to pay Americans up to $15.00 per hour.

        Your broiler chicken jawb awaits.

  3. Sigmund Krieger

    Markets are created by people. If you think that markets are flawed, then, you must look to the people who created them. If you think that markets do damage to society, then you must look to the people who animate the market that has been created for it is the people who are doing the damage.

    1. ng

      let’s go further with that idea. let’s look at human psychology, at the various needs people have: survival needs; needs for acceptance; needs for status; for power. most people need those things moderately, just enough to survive, to be cared for, to be respected. some have gargantuan needs that can never be satisfied. then they justify their endless desires for wealth and power. the divine right of kings. of capitalism. this psychology is unsustainable but is destructive in it’s occurring and unfortunately also in the direction it’s taking to its ending.

    2. Alejandro

      That reads a lot like the sophistic logic of corporate personhood. Some people are more equal than others, because markets.

      1. ng

        yes, some power hungry people don’t feel that they need to justify their greed. most, though, like some legal fiction, like the divine right of kings, etc.

    3. Ed Walker

      No. Markets are created and policed by governments. When the government works for the filthy rich instead of the rest of us, you get US markets, corrupt oligopolies and monopolies.

  4. Rob Lewis

    The best description I ever heard was: Markets are an efficient way to distribute scarce resources in the short term. Full stop.

    If we relied solely on markets we would today have no microchip industry, no solar and wind power, and not even the beginnings of a plan to address climate change. All these things require long-range planning and research, with no prospect of immediate return on investment.

  5. Alejandro

    Markets, the most “efficient” form of concentration…”options” are not really “options” without a corresponding purchasing power. Results are undeniable, i.e., inequality speaks for itself…wages and salaries determine distribution, not the illusory “free” markets.

    The specter haunting ‘us’ today seems to be a collective denial that Maggie was wrong about society, Ronnie was wrong about ‘supply side’ and Gordon Gekko was wrong about greed.

    1. Art Eclectic

      I had an interesting conversation with my Father over the holidays on the topic of greed. The context of the conversation was my observation that most human constructs from political systems to war to governing are mostly centered on men keeping other men in check. Dad pointed out that the males of most mammal specials are just like that – constantly fighting for dominance, more resources, more access to females. We like to think that we are more advanced as humans but a look at the world says otherwise. We have military budgets to keep men in check from stealing other resources and expending their territory (and to protect our territory). Men invade other countries for their resources (oil) because they can muster enough power to do so.

      Greed is part of the male nature, which is not to say that women don’t get greedy but it’s fairly rare that they decide to invade other countries or kill each other over it. So it’s not the greed is good or bad, it just is. It’s a male mammal thing and keeping it in check is a constant struggle.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Rare? Various Elizabeths, Marys and Maries, Golda, Mutti, Catherine, Hillary, Jeanne, Victorias old and Nuland, just to stay with a small selection of Northern Hemisphere types, the list is pretty long and those I believe are all female. Despite what Gloria and Betty and Anais and all would and did claim about the pacific virtues of the X chromosome… It’s a human thing, to seek wealth (needs a definition, of course) and the concomitant power to take pleasure and dominate — no need to link to all the kinky stuff that is everywhere, from beast to whips and chains to pedophilia. The tiny leavening of empathy and decency can’t begin to convert the huge mass of dysmia that seems to be growing faster than the population. Some mathematical function based on “sin”ergy maybe at work there?

      2. Alejandro

        Maggie was also wrong about “running out of other people’s money”…Polanyi was right about money, labor and nature being fictitious commodities…

        Greed, “just is”, in sociopaths…wouldn’t you agree that there “just is” not enough of anything for any single individual to have it all?’ Isn’t it irrational to think that you can? There are many observable examples of cooperation in the animal kingdom as well…wouldn’t you and your dad agree that the behavior of sociopaths and the pernicious effects of their greed should be unacceptable in any decent society?

  6. Maurice Hebert

    The U.S. system of chattel slavery was most certainly not pre-capitalist. The enslaved people were mortgaged and insured by capitalists, and financing extended to cover the ships that transported the survivors to the “New World”, the plantations and workshops in which they labored, the produce of their labor, and even the children that were mostly systematically ripped away and sold to raise yet more capital.

    Please don’t get it twisted – just because this cruel system was despicable does not mean that it was “pre-capitalist” in any way.

    It would perhaps be a worthwhile sacrifice by the Red and Black nations if this stolen wealth had been put to such good use by the West that they were able to give recompense for this thievery – ahem, “primitive accumulation”. Alas, it seems it may all end in Bankruptcy and Ecological Devastation.

  7. Joe Beckmann

    One of the virtues of Kindle is that every word in the book is indexed automatically. A friend’s book on affordable gentrification,Chris Leinberger’s “The Option of Urbanism,” uses “market” over 130 times, sometimes as housing, sometimes as development, sometimes as rental, sometimes as investment. These are not even complementary “markets” – since most are mutually exclusive. What is needed is to define markets by the behavior of the users of that market: as “home,” “family support,” “workspace,” “investment,” “security,” “neighborhood,” “place,” etc., and then to construct means by which communities can achieve the stability, flexibility, mobility, and security – or risks – they hope and aspire to. Framed in that fashion, the “housing market” is really different from “investor security,” and “family support” diametrically different from “speculation.”

    If we created housing and economic development policy to support incentives we all agree are valuable – from walkability to stability, friendly to inspiring – we could harness gentrification to benefit all the different “market” factors at once. In other words, it pays – big – to think about what you’re talking about.

  8. willf

    The best description I ever heard was: Markets are an efficient way to distribute scarce resources in the short term.

    Perhaps it would be more accurate to say: Markets are an efficient way to distribute scarce resources to those with the most money.

    1. LifelongLib

      Would markets be fair then if everyone had the same amount of money? It’d be ironic if the only societies with fair markets were in other respects communist…

      1. Moneta

        The problem is that some people need 3000 calories to make it through the day, others 2000.

        So equal is not fair.

  9. susan the other

    The market takes up more energy than it creates, more resources than it distributes … capitalism is very inefficient when you stop to look at how expensive all the tangle of distribution and subcategories of market there are and how all need to be perpetuated by advertising and excessive and wasteful competition and often fraud… just in the cost to society of all those lost resources used to maintain a mindless market we can see why we need to change the way we distribute goods and services to society – and then at that point we have to get honest about employment because if capitalist markets neither distribute the goods society needs nor the jobs it is obvious we cannot afford capitalist markets because they are social suicide – and this argument doesn’t even address global warming or a polluted environment.

    1. Norb

      The shortcomings of capitalism as a organizing structure for society are clear to see and are experienced more directly every day. I find it distressing when discussing these issues with fellow citizens because the initial response proposing solutions to pressing social issues is invariably one focused on selfish interest. The sentiment if only I could work for this or that corporation, or if my financial piece of the pie were made bigger, the world would be better place. The understanding, or desire for any larger social connection or responsibility for the larger world is lacking. It truly is viewing your identity as a human being thru the lens of a consumer.

      Capitalism is a failure because we are social animals that need community more than anything else to experience health and happiness. Only through collective action can we survive the randomness of nature. We need rules of social participation that ensure our personal care if we abide by them. The healthy family provides an example as a support structure. The larger social structures must follow this same support logic. Capitalism fails in this regard because its success is at odds to providing growing support society wide. It won’t do it because it is not profitable from a narrow restricted viewpoint. Capitalism subverts and obfuscates the power of collective action in order to enrich the few.

      As an example, I’m thinking about a typical workday and obtaining lunch. Being a capitalist enterprise, we are all required to solve this problem on our own. In this situation we all have three alternatives. Eat out, bring food from home/cook in the company kitchen or skip lunch. ( I work for a company trying to retain talent by using the family values approach- thus the kitchen setup) Small factions of lunch groups form, and if it were analyzed, many different strategies are employed to meet this need for food. It is a haphazard approach. Some eat out every day, frugal employees eat in. Some eat alone, some in groups. Some economize by sharing lunch pick-up rides or place large orders. The costs, if added up, are immense for the employees. The social need for eating is atomized into inefficient individual activity. The justification for such inefficient actions are personal freedom and choice. Larger responsibilities are not considered.

      The deconstruction of larger social responsibilities is what needs to be brought back together into an integrated whole. What is broken apart must be joined together again. In the long term, work and life must be one and the same.

      1. JTMcPhee


        The problem appears to be that no general organizing principal of the political-economic sort has even a tiny smidgen of any traction on the Teflon ™ surface of The Market Mindset…

        Snark rules, hence even what on the books is a pretty universal goal expression of mutuality and disinterested decency that Judeo-Christians (wonderful mashup) call the Golden Rule, gets transmogrified from “treat others as you would like to be treated” (masochists excepted) into “He who has the gold, RULES!”

        1. Norb

          I agree. What I hate the most, because of the element of truth it contains, is the common response to a negative critique of modern society, is the smug and confrontational response of “what are YOU going to do about it!” Or, get over it, that is the way the world works. At moments like that I feel deflation in my soul, it really is a physical sensation, that I know shows on my face. I cannot believe people I spend most of my time with actually have no energy to expend on confronting the corruption and destruction around them. My best response to date has been to get them to repeat simply, and in their own words, that they support criminality and inequality in society. The conversation/argument ends but it somehow drives home the point that we are all contributing to a corrupt system that needs change. Most people want to be good. And given the proper choice, will NOT, steal from their neighbors. It just that we live in a corrupt society and make our own compromises to survive in it.

          Overcoming fear is the key. Both on an individual level and changing the institutional fear generating machine that is the current US government. FDR had it right.

          For my own part, and my own sanity, the idea of helping out at a community garden in a poor neighborhood near my workplace is a starting place. It is not supporting charity. Charity supports the current corrupt system by softening its exploitation. Helping and teaching to become self sufficient puts a small break on the current system. It is working together for a common good.

  10. Ulysses

    I wonder if one of the reasons for the popularity of post-apocalyptic themes in current pop culture isn’t related to the overbearing presence of markets in our lives. We understand, at a subconscious
    level, that the cold, transactional logic of markets cannot begin to satisfy many of our human desires and needs. Yet we can’t imagine a future world that is much less saturated by neoliberal, market ideology without a catastrophic collapse of our own.

    Tales of these post-apocalyptic worlds are often full of selfless, heroic people, not at all driven by the desire to “get paid.” It’s as if the best of humanity will never emerge, as long as there are still debit cards and pizza delivery.

    1. Norb

      Power of propaganda. Its exploitation of human weakness on many levels. Instead of using the power of art to enlighten and inspire action, the medium is turned on its head and dissipates pent up frustration. The nugget of truth is leveraged to maintain the status-quo. The power of the visual arts and the written word is the ability to bring experience of the external and internal world to life. In its best forms, it is a mirror on reality and the inner life of the spirit. It is imperfect, but forms the foundation of culture.

      A true critique of the capitalist system can be found in the unblemished images of its destructive tendencies. Thru propaganda and the capture of media in all its forms, we only see the images and narratives of capitalist success. The failures are made invisible.

      You make two very important points. 1. The inability to imagine a better world. 2.Capatilism delivers the goods that keep us all in a state of deluded inebriation. Realizing these two ideas points toward a way out of our current cultural malaise. We can imagine a better world, as found in the efforts of the local movement and if we begin to disentangle ourselves from the gordian knot of capitalist excess, a better culture is possible.

      Capitalism, as a social organizing system cannot last. The key is to use our creative energy and human potential to create new structures. Resilient ones that are not based on personal profit at the expense of others. Do systems of violence and exploitation ever last for very long? True strength lies in mutual support.

  11. Sluggeaux

    Markets are only “fair” in the eyes of the winners. He was writing about Libertarianism, but he might as well have been writing about the core tenet of the ideology of spoiled children: that markets are the most “fair” way to allocate resources. Markets can never be “fair” because they reflect pre-existing asymmetries of information and capital; unless you can find a Pol Pot to level the playing field, some will always get to start with a bargaining advantage.

    “It is a pitiless, one-sided, mechanical view of the world, which elevates the rights of property over everything else, meaning that those who possess the most property end up with great power over others. Dressed up as freedom, it is a formula for oppression and bondage. It does nothing to address inequality, hardship or social exclusion. A transparently self-serving vision, it seeks to justify the greedy and selfish behaviour of those with wealth and power.”

    George Monbiot,
    Why Libertarians Must Deny Climate Change
    The Guardian, January 6, 2012

    1. JTMcPhee

      NC has in its archives a nice series of six pretty brief posts that so nicely capture the essence of “market rule.” “Journey Into A Libertarian Future,” . It’s all there, all the cancerous murderous stultifying crushing “Terminator”-“Soylent Green”-“Brazil” idiocy of the future that actually is pretty much here. All there, with the “market mechanisms” and psychology and philosophical justifications for proof that it ain’t, never will be, Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World…”

    2. afreeman

      At first I thought Wolff was the intended “he,” but much more likely it’s the about-to-be-quoted Monbiot. Sigh— I have posted this before, but it would please me no end if an extreme effort could be given here to the distinctions voters will need to right this ship any time soon.

      I just finished Lanny Ebenstein’s Chicagonomics (2015) Read it— hard not to agree with him that “libertarian,” as in end-of-life Friedman and Hayek, is more meaningful to more people that “neoliberal.” As for captialism, I’m still looking for something better than ponzi capitalism as more meaningful to the great unwashed than Hudson’s financial, rentier, F.I.R.E captialism as opposed to industrial capitalism. Help.

      1. Norb

        Just ask if you want a society based on stealing and inequality. Everyone understands the concept of stealing and the idea is given more weight because we all know the saying- let he without fault cast the first stone. The trouble is one of proportion. The vast majority of people equate in their minds the stealing of pens at work to the CEO running a control fraud. They give the actions a degree of equivalence that is unwarranted. Its insane. When the response is, everyone is guilty, or it has always been that way, you need to make them say they will support crooks. They pretend to be against crooks and liars. They are really only against weak crooks and liars.

        Living by a principle and trying to uphold that principle is key. Like freedom, democracy, and justice. It is a living process that must be reinforced every day. Are we successful every day- hardly- but it is easy to see the people who do not believe in these principles in the first place. If we want a better world our job is not to educate the “great unwashed”. It is to fight for our principles and the society we want to live in.
        The corporate capitalists don’t have any problem fighting for the selfish individual world they desire. Dammit, I finally understand what a plutocrat is! The trouble is when the plutocrat starts describing themself as a champion of democracy, they are not called out for their obfuscation. They are liars. And when the fearful use the lesser of two evil claptrap arguments, kindly point out to them that they have already lost the battle they believe they are fighting.

        I am hopeful because I believe in the goodness of human nature. We live in a time where technology has given those predisposed to evil tools of immense leverage. However, time and time again you see acts of kindness when given the opportunity. The other day I happened to be on the expressway during an accident. Multitudes of people speeding along at 75mph (breaking the law no less) when a crash occurred. The first instinct displayed, was an overwhelming desire to help someone in need. Now this happened in broad daylight on a busy road. But the motivation was one of compassion and the desire to help someone in need. Only a sociopath would use the opportunity to ransack the car for valuables.

        Our responsibility is to redirect technology and culture toward the public good. Toward the worlds good.

  12. Damien McLeod

    Blessings on you and yours, here at Naked Capatalism and world wide. To quote Mr Spock “Live long a Prosper–and I will add to that wish, in good health and with much happiness!
    I Love you all here and everywhere.
    Have the Happy-ist of Holidays and the best New Year ever!

  13. bdy

    In The Neoliberal City (lecture) David Harvey reminds us that markets are made for the benefit of their creators – Capitalists by definition. That is, while markets often distribute goods and services, efficiently or not, that distribution is secondary. Markets exist to opportune profit for those pre-positioned to extract it.

    It makes the fiction of market efficiency so pernicious. Oh, the earth is becoming a solar oven: Carbon Markets! (whether or not they actually work is secondary to profit opportunity). Oh, Americans are sick of a broken healthcare system: the Marketplace! (the best kind – one where profits are completely insulated from having to meet demand).

    With markets become completely fetishized (I recall Yves calling out those who insist upon their “virtue” – practically everyone who thinks they have skin in the game), it makes perfect sense for capital to fly to the FIRE sector, where the pretense of equitable exchange can be dropped for a straight-up siphon – pure profit from a pure market.

  14. OregonJon

    Markets are imperfect but are almost always better than any conceivable alternative. For years I lived in India where the government controlled many markets in the name of efficiency. Controls mean regulation and regulation means favoritism. If equality of outcomes is desired then the Indian government came close to achieving perfection. Almost everyone was poor. Today, there is far less equality but far more hope. Make of it what you will.

    When not living in India there were extensive business travels in Africa and the Middle East where markets were shoved aside for crony capitalism. Insiders did wonderfully, the rest survived largely because when you went to native markets one could buy smuggled goods freely traded. This made needed goods available and the income feed many entrepreneurial families. Without these free but illegal markets life would have been much, much more difficult.

    Finally, the silly illustration of $4 for clearing a table. This person presumably received a free meal and now wants to demonstrate that book learning says that the labor of clearing the table is worth a price, not noticing that there was payment in advance. Let’s not confuse markets with manners, a subject not taught in any university.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I suggest you read Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. There were social arrangements prior to markets being the dominant organizing principle that were entirely workable.

  15. Minnie Mouse

    –How to maximize financial systemic risk, maximize global pollution load, and minimize physical resource efficiency.

  16. William C

    There are free markets and then there are rigged markets.

    Much of Western discourse assumes our markets are free when, in truth, most of them are rigged.

    Rigged markets are not an efficient way to allocate scarce resources.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Example of a “free markets,” please? Since it sure appears that all “markets” end up or start out being, as you put it, “rigged”?

    2. fajensen

      Sure they are rigged to some degree, otherwise markets wouldn’t work at all for anyone: The perfect, “frictionless”, market cannot provide any opportunities for profit; however if one can pay with debts, then one does not need profits and then one can squeeze prices, interests and wages all the way down to Zero just out of principle.

      Therefore “we” like “free markets” – it’s more Bang for the Bond without all those pesky peasants and governments getting a cut of the action.

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