In what sense are markets “totalitarian”?

Peers support each other[Previous article in series: Why not just pay someone when needed?]

Michel Bauwens challenged my claim that markets are totalitarian:

well, this is absolutely factually and historically incorrect … even in tribal times, there have always been a multitude of exchange and reciprocity mechanisms, except for perhaps really small bands who had no contact with outsiders […]. market mechanisms were used with strangers and enemies in tribal societies …

Which however missed the point of my remark, since actually I had written:

Market production is totalitarian: if some goods (e.g. health care in your example) are only available on the market (by paying for them), then everybody must remain a market producer (engaging in some form of paid work or else living from the work of others), since otherwise how would they get the necessary money?

Clearly, reciprocity (possibly in the form of generalized reciprocity) exists in every society, as I pointed out before. And if “exchange” means relations of the form “if you do/give me this, I’ll do/give you that” (e.g. a little boy saying to a little girl [or vice versa]: “show me yours and I’ll show you mine”), then exchange will also exist in any society. That’s uncontroversial, and pretty uninteresting.

If we want to learn something about specific forms of society, we have to be more specific. Modern market-based societies have the following traits, which I would consider as necessary when we want to reasonably talk about “market production” (as opposed to: some other form of production, in which markets might have played a side rule):

  1. Most people’s livelihood depends on their being able to acquire goods on the market. (As I said above: some goods [that are essential for people’s survival] are only available on the market.)
  2. Most people are free to sell their own labor power, as well as the results of their labor. (In other words: there is a job market.)

In tribal, feudal, and most other non-capitalist societies, neither of these conditions was true. Maybe a whole tribe actually needed exchange with outsiders to get what they couldn’t produce themselves, but people’s individual survival depended first and foremost on the tribe. Likewise in feudalism, different manors might have needed trade, but the survival of individual serfs depended on their own subsistence production and the protection they received from their lord of the manor. Also, serfs might have had the right to sell surplus produce on the market, but they certainly had no right to sell their labor power. And tribe members wouldn’t have been able to sell their labor power without leaving the tribe, probably forever.

So whenever we look at a society, whether real or imaginary, we have to ask whether these two conditions, especially the first one, hold. (Obviously, if the first condition was true but not the second – you need access to the market to buy necessary goods, but you have nothing to sell – only misery would result. Indeed that’s the situation of a majority of the world’s people today: while nominally free to sell their labor power, they cannot find a capitalist interested in buying it, and they lack the means to successfully run their own business.)

I predict that whenever these conditions are true, the resulting society will look pretty similar to what we have today, since the basics of market competition are then in effect. (You are forced to out-compete others in order to successfully sell your labor power or some other goods; you can grow your market niche and possibly expand your market share [thus increasing your likelihood of long-term economic success] by destroying non-market access to the goods you would like to sell; etc.)

And yet people tell me we can get out of capitalism without overcoming condition 1, people’s dependence on the market. I won’t believe that for a second.

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