On America, part 2: Of myths and markets

On America, part 2: Of myths and markets

The second in a three part series examining to some of the underlying assumptions of American political thought. Part 2 looks at the market and explores why, despite what we're told by politicians and bosses, the market fails to meet our needs as workers and consumers.

If there's one thing politicians of all stripes seem to agree on it's the market. Textbooks tell us how a free market economy is “dynamic” and “competitive”. Markets themselves are often used as a byword for “democracy”, yet very little effort is made to explain how markets even function, much less how they function for us.

Yet, when we look at the struggles most of us face on a regular basis – finding a steady job with good pay, decent affordable housing, reasonably priced childcare – it should be pretty obvious that markets don't work in our interests as working people.

There's crumbling infrastructure across the country and an acute lack of housing in America's urban centers. And yet, the construction industry is notorious for periods of unemployment. Auto plants shut down while the need for major public transport projects grows. Enough food is produced every year to ensure every single person on earth has enough to eat, yet billions suffer from starvation and hunger.

People want work, there's a need for their work, yet they don't have work. People need to eat, there's enough food to eat, yet people go hungry. This isn't how we're told the market functions.

So what's going on here?

The simple answer is that markets function in the interest of profit, not for need or use. Food isn't grown so people have enough to eat. Houses aren't built so everyone has a place to live. Shoes aren't sewn so that everyone is comfortable and movies aren't made so that everyone can relax. All these things are produced for the market, which means they're produced for profit.

Proponents of the market claim supply and demand will ensure a balancing of interests between producer and consumer, between buyer and seller, and between employer and employee. Yet, this can be easily disproven by looking at the very industry that we rely on to keep us alive on the most basic level: agriculture.

For the better part of a century the government has actually paid farmers not to grow too much food. During the Great Depression, as overproduction drove down the price of food, farmers compensated by growing more food, further driving down prices. It reached a point that farmers were burning crops in the fields and in train cars in an attempt to keep up prices, all while people across the country suffered deep privation and hunger.

And this occurred at a time when the agricultural industry largely resembled the idealized free market: many small independent producers in competition with one another on a local and national scale. That market – arguably one of the “freest” in history – left farmers, the very people who grew our food, literally starving.

In our own lives we don't have to look very far to see that all that supposed balancing of interests resides in the realm of economic fiction.

Companies make their profits last all year long. Yet our wages only last the growing season, the tourist season, holiday season or whatever the busy season may be in our industry. Companies invest in technology that puts us out of work. Landlords raise our rent. Companies jack up prices while they reduce package sizes. Banks charge us money to get out our own money.

If we've ever had a landlord or a boss or had to deal with a bank or an insurance company, it's obvious that we don't meet as equals. Bosses, banks, landlords, employers: these are the people who hold power within the market.

Markets don't meet our needs as consumers and the certainly don't meet our needs as workers. They never have and they never will. No amount of regulation, deregulation, tinkering, or government ownership can change that.

Instead, it's only through supporting one another as workers , consumers, and community members that can we begin to transform the world from one based on markets and profit to one based on meeting our needs as human beings.

Part 3, which takes a critical look at trade unions and political parties, will explore some ideas for how we effectively do that. Part 1, which took a wider look at the economy and why so many of struggle to get by, can be found here.

Posted By

Chilli Sauce
Aug 16 2015 18:49

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  • Food isn't grown so people have enough to eat. Houses aren't built so everyone has a place to live. Shoes aren't sewn so that everyone is comfortable and movies aren't made so that everyone can relax. All these things are produced for the market, which means they're produced for profit.

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Comments

Phil
Aug 18 2015 18:28

Good blogs - looking forward to part three!

Khawaga
Aug 18 2015 18:59

Yeah, this (and the first part) is great because it is short and so easy to read. One thing that I would've stressed in this part in relation to supply and demand is that the market only registers demand backed with cash, that needs are not registered as demand unless someone backs it up with hard cash. In that way, the supposedly efficient market mechanism (that is so because it efficiently transmits information) cannot distribute efficiently because "it" relies on crap information.

Chilli Sauce
Aug 18 2015 20:00

Aw, thanks guys.

I've recently moved back to the States and these blogs have come out conversations I've had with family, friends, and workmates - despite my best efforts not to talk politics! I just figure it's good to have what's hopefully really straight-forward writing out there that appeals to people's really lived experiences, not "politics" as such.

Re: money and the market. I totally take your point, I'm just not even sure a piece like this even needs that. Even without talking about the economics of it, people know that they're getting screwed. I worry that talking about the formal economics of the situation - about which I don't disagree with you - can make it a bit too abstract.

Also - spoiler alert - I might stretch out part 3 into two parts. Again, trying to keep it all pretty short and digestible.

Noah Fence
Aug 19 2015 05:33

These are great. I've sent them to several mates who, despite professing to be anti-capitalist and being low paid workers seem mesmerised by the market narrative. They honestly believe that their political power lies in where they spend their money. The end result is that they often spend money they can ill afford on 'ethical' products. How people that I would generally consider smarter than me can't see the irony of using capitalism to fight capitalism is beyond me. They seem to think the market has failed and that we need to fix it instead of realising that it isn't broken at all - it's doing exactly what it was created for.
I'll come back when I get some feedback.

Chilli Sauce
Aug 19 2015 12:53

Glad you're enjoying them, Webby - and I'll take your comment as quite a compliment. Like I said, I'd love for this series to be a sort of practical introduction to radical politics, although really not that radical as they hopefully speak to peoples' lived experiences. Definitely keen to hear any about feedback you get.

Anyway, the lefty/liberal belief in ethical consumption is a painful one. I mean, even if we just think where most of our wages go - housing and transportation - it's obvious that even if our spending habits could somehow influence production standards, the areas where we spend the most of our income are basically outside of the scope of "ethical" consumption.

Schwarz
Aug 19 2015 13:55

Another great post. Perhaps you'd have the time, after the third installment, to put these into pamphlet format? I could see these as really valuable to pass out at rallies, infoshops, etc. Look forward to the next one!

eugene
Aug 25 2015 15:39

I love these. It would be awesome to someday convert an on point, yet accessible project such as this into a podcast or web-series. Done with simplistic animation like the story of stuff, but with an actual emphasizes on raising class-consciousness.

Steven.
Aug 26 2015 11:04

Yeah, been meaning to read these for a while, they are good, thanks for writing/posting!