Here's an interesting empirical and ethnographic question: when do any of us ever encounter a market? Sure, we believe we live in a 'market society', respect 'the market', worry about how 'markets' will respond to various government policies. But I wonder how many of us ever actually see or use a market. Like 'cold fronts' in the weather forecast, markets are things which we are led to believe dictate social and political conditions, but which we very rarely encounter directly.
This thought arose when I was responding to this post by a psychologist over at the Prospect blog, which claims that:
The ‘free market’ both perpetuates and receives its justification from the concept of the survival of the fittest, a perversion of Darwin, that gives force to a primitive morality: that might is right. It thus supports a narcissistic, ego-centric character type.
As a sociological, cultural or political statement, this would be just about plausible, though still something that Albert Hirschman, Max Weber or Luc Boltanski would take issue with, on the basis that it grossly under-estimates the role of justifications and conventions within capitalism. But as a psychological claim, it is far harder to endorse, given how rarely we ever actually encounter a market. Here's what I mean by this.
Firstly, a market needs to be defined quite narrowly, in order for the term to be useful. As an institution (as opposed to a metaphor), a market refers to some combination of a place, a technology, a set of rules and a set of symbols via which buyers and sellers find one another and have the opportunity to carry out exchange, mediated by price. Yes, competition in public services or for funding in higher education produces market-like behaviours, but without the institution of markets. Yes, trying to find a spouse can be a bit like entering a market, but to establish an actual marketplace in spouses would be illegal in a liberal society.
To understand what a market is and why it exists, one need simply consider how a society would operate without markets: individuals with goods would have to roam the countryside, hoping to bump in to individuals with money who wanted those goods. Individuals who behave like this do exist in our society, but they are either valorised as 'entrepreneurs', or criminalised as 'touts', 'hawkers', 'drug dealers' and general irritants. Of course there are also grey areas of the economy, that are emergent, informal or semi-permeable markets, as analysed by Viviana Zelizer as 'circuits' or by Ravi Sundaram as the 'pirate modernity' of post-colonial bazaars. It would be wrong to suggest that there is an absolutely clear-cut distinction between markets and other forms of competition and exchange.
So the question then arises - when do most of us ever encounter markets in our day-to-day lives? One very clearcut example of a market that we actually use is eBay: buyers and sellers can not only find each other, but they are supplied with a set of technologies, rules and symbols with which to facilitate possible transaction. Zopa does the same thing for credit markets. There have been other proposals to use the internet to spread the benefits of markets to grassroots individuals, such as Slivers of Time.
Then there is the small minority of people who trade in financial markets, moving their money (or our money) around in response to movements in prices and other information. Stock exchanges are the most formalised platform for this, but Over the Counter financial products are increasingly common, meaning that financial markets now have greater emergent, less formalised and less transparent qualities. But in any case, most of us only access such markets indirectly through stock brokers, pension funds and (whether we mean to or not) savings accounts.
What about the housing market? Certainly, this is a market that the majority of individuals in the UK encounter a few times in their lifetime. But only for short, very stressful periods of time, when moving house. The fact that people worry about the 'value' of their home the rest of the time only suggests a paucity of imagination on their part, and a failure to recognise use value (I wrote a bit about that here). It doesn't meant that they are actually in any way in the marketplace, although the possibility for equity withdrawal means they are again indirectly affected by market forces. They could quite happily - I suspect, in practice, very happily - forget all about the market price that they might or might not receive once they come to sell their home.
And labour markets? Many of the unemployed and casualised labour force do encounter labour markets on a regular basis, visiting job centres and having various opportunities and wages shown to them for them to make decisions and calculations. Others are being shunted into the labour market. Then there is the 'war for talent' and market for CEOs that is promoted at the very top end of the labour market, which seeks to present very well paid individuals as constantly for sale to even higher bidders.
Yet this leaves the vast swathe of the workforce in between, whose working lives are affected by all manner of pressures, stresses, management concerns and competitive dynamics, yet only rarely influenced by the possibility that they might sell their labour elsewhere to a higher bidder. And when they do seek to switch to another employer, it is debatable whether a market is necessarily at work (Granovetter's network theory effectively suggests that there is a sliding scale between a 'firm' and a 'market', and grey areas between the two, as used when finding a job).
Which leaves shopping. There is lots wrong with shopping and consumerism. I might well have agreed with the Prospect blogger had he written that a great deal of shopping "supports a narcissistic, ego-centric character type". But that's not because of markets; that's because of marketing. And the logic of marketing is not only different from that of markets, it is entirely opposed to it. The logic of the market is to support one-off, spot encounters between strangers (even if, as Granovetter shows, this ideal is never attained in practice), interspersed by rational, atomised choice and calculation. The logic of marketing is to support repeat interactions, fuelled by emotions, loyalty and an irrational, instinctive attachment to certain vendors, products and brands.
As Franck Cochoy argues, marketing came of age in the 1930s at precisely the time when faith in market forces was at its lowest ebb. If the 'laws' of supply and demand could no longer connect buyers and sellers, new techniques and institutions would be required to do so. Producing and sustaining attachments between consumers and things is the purpose of a brand. For this reason, it's not at all clear that a supermarket is a market, seeing as how each brand seeks maximum differentiation from its competitors, largely with the complicity of the supermarket. Individuals do not enter these environments with a mindset of choosing and purchasing a new variety of jam, but of hunting out their jam as efficiently as possible, while the supermarket tries to distract them not with other jams (unless they have been paid specifically to do so by a jam wholesaler), but with orange juice, toilet roll, apples, shower gels and other things that the consumer might happen to buy on their way to the jam section.
As for classic nostalgic images of pre-supermarket rural townsquares and village centres, these aren't exactly markets either, as there is one butcher, one baker and one candle-stick-maker, each possessing a monopoly. Buyers and sellers certainly find each other, thanks to some form of marketplace, but they don't have much choice as to where and what to buy, unless some form of haggling is permitted (idea for policy proposal for our economically 'liberal' government: make haggling a legal right).
None of the above is to say that markets aren't powerful institutions in our society. Nor is it to say that we don't encounter markets at decisive and stressful moments in our lives, as when being laid off or moving house, or perhaps suddenly wondering where to put our money. Yet the notion that these are institutions which we inhabit constantly and are psychologically governed by seems like something of an exaggeration, when one considers the regularity with which we encounter institutions such as family, employer, newspaper, retailer, pub, advertiser, school and so on.
The fact that economists such as Gary Becker and neo-liberal politicians from Thatcher onwards have sought to extend the metaphor of markets and some of the characteristics of markets (i.e. competition) further into social and public life is another issue altogether, which brings with it its own specific politics, and cuts to the heart of what neo-liberalism is. But I would suggest that market institutions are typically only encountered by the very top and very bottom of society on a week-by-week basis, and only encountered every few years by the rest of us.