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Overcoming free market apathy

Alexia Eastwood
13 May 2010

Despite the oft-repeated claim that ‘there is no alternative', today’s market society is neither natural nor inevitable. Acknowledging and exploring other forms of economic organisation may be the most powerful form of resistance to the status quo, argues Alexia Eastwood.

Building alternatives to the dominant market economy is a project that begins in the imagination. A two step programme to overcome the mental straitjacket of the free market model is an instructive starting point for building an economy that provides for the needs of people whilst operating within ecological limits.

The first step is to overcome the naturalised appearance of the self regulating market system, and to challenge the underlying assumptions upon which it is based; the second is to recognise that there are other forms of economy in existence both throughout history and in the current age. Our current market society is neither natural nor inevitable, despite the oft-repeated proclamation that ‘there is no alternative'. In fact, by making the economy the dominant organising feature of society, the existing market paradigm is in many ways unnatural and peculiar when compared to humanity's long-term economic history.[1]

This particular economic system has only come to dominance in recent human history, during which time it has transformed the face of the planet along with the lives of its peoples. Rooted in modern Western thought, it is defined by concepts of individuality, rationality and utility maximization. It rests on the principle that there exist natural laws of economy; that markets left to function without outside interference will automatically tend towards equilibrium. This suggests that not only is the market system inevitable, but that it is somehow a pure state of economy that is universally applicable.

Liberal democracy and the market economy were notoriously declared to be the ‘End of History' following the end of the Cold War, and the free market economic model was seen to have taken its rightful place in the perceived evolutionary order of human society as its pinnacle.[2] Recognising the historical limits of this economic structure, however, reveal that it is no more predicated on eternal truths than its precursors. Against a dominant ideology that rests largely on presenting itself as both the best and the only way to organise society and the economy, this can be a powerful realisation. Building alternative futures must begin by contesting notions that for too long have passed as common sense or self-evident truth.

The discipline of economics is today regarded as close to hard science, based on pure reason and complex mathematical equations. Economists create sophisticated models to simulate reality, which are then used as a basis to formulate economic policies in the real world. The economy, both as an idea and in practice, today constitutes a separate sphere from the wider social context, and is often portrayed in the media as an entity in and of itself. In the wake of the recent British parliamentary elections, for example, The Economist declared that "if the markets were counting on a Conservative majority, they should be disappointed," concluding that the current outcome is "unlikely to deliver the kind of fiscal package the markets want."[3] Anthropomorphising markets and the economy in this way serves to reinforce the now entrenched idea that the existing economic system is a natural and unstoppable force of nature, rather than a construct of man. 

Challenging this naturalisation of the market system liberates us to envision different ways of organising the economy and society. Markets have existed for most of human history and form a valuable part of our social and economic network, but this is just the point; they are one part. Throughout history and across the world, the economy has been rooted in its social context. Imagining an alternative to the dominance of the market form must begin by putting the economy in its place, first and foremost prioritising the needs of people rather than financial capital.

The second step on the road to building alternatives is to acknowledge and explore other forms of economy. Three major principles have been suggested as ways of organising the economic sphere based on historical and cross-cultural evidence; reciprocity, redistribution, and exchange.[4] Whilst modern economics recognises only the latter, highly complex socioeconomic systems based on the two former principles have been documented by anthropologists, bringing into question the inevitability of the market paradigm.

The Kula exchange of the Trobriand Islands is one example of a large and complex economic system which operates solely on the principle of reciprocity, whilst networks based on redistribution have been noted in numerous societies throughout history. Economic behaviour in such societies is guided by wholly different principles than the self-interested, rational human being assumed by market theory.[5]Rational economic choices based on a notion of individual gain are simply not relevant in such contexts; more important are the social ties and relationships which bond individuals and communities. The!Kung Bushmen, for example, find it shocking that one man could eat while others in the community went without. "Lions could do that", they say, "not men".[6]

A patchwork of experimental communities and economic practices all over the world are constructing a new type of resistance that doesn't look for alternative global economic blueprints, but builds local solutions. Subsistence and house-holding economies, such as those often practised by indigenous groups or peasants, are one alternative way of imagining an economy based not on accumulation but on sufficiency. Modern Western economics, which is based on allocating scarce resources to meet man's unlimited needs, is challenged by this way of thinking. As has often been noted, there are two routes to affluence; one is by producing much, the other is by desiring little.[7] Challenging the market assumption of scarcity by adopting the latter route offers a different imagining of economy that may be based on traditional ways of living, allowing space for alternative cultural visions of the ‘good life'.

In the global North a network of alternative economic practices is also emerging in initiatives such as the Transition Town movement, community-supported agriculture, time banks and alternative local currencies, as well as eco-villages and cooperative business models. Small-scale and local by definition, these actors are engaged in actively promoting and creating new economic strategies in opposition to the dominant economic model. Localism here is not a withdrawal from the global, but a foundation from which to navigate the bigger picture.[8] Building local alternative structures can in this sense be thought of as social experiments, creating best practices that can then be shared or scaled up. This network of local and community solutions is emerging both as resistance and alternative, building new political structures as well as economic ones and creating new notions of democracy that are horizontal and participatory.

The increasing encroachment of the market mode of production and the commercialisation of ever more aspects of our lives is often viewed as a natural and inevitable process of economic development. However, research has shown that even in the developed world, where this process is most advanced, non-market forms of production such as unpaid household work, volunteering and community organisation continue to play a major role in social and economic life.[9] The existence of these multiple economic practices challenges the idea that assigning market value to every area of our lives is unavoidable. It can also make us aware of the extent to which these activities which are vital to our society and indeed to human life itself, such as the care that parents give to their children or the support of elderly or dependent members of our communities, are devalued by the current economy to our detriment.

These two simple steps serve to remind us that part of the battle against the market paradigm must be fought in the popular imagination. Big ideas throughout history dominate by convincing people that they are natural and unavoidable, but we must be able to see through this representation to a more nuanced reality. Acknowledging and exploring other forms of economy and ways of producing value may be the most powerful form of resistance to the status quo, as it not only challenges the notion that ‘there is no alternative' but also begins to lay the foundations of the next economy. This does not diminish the importance of global political and economic reform, but creating alternatives based on different assumptions of the ‘good life' is an empowering and tangible way to imagine another future, and to begin building it in the here and now. There is no one alternative to the current economic system; there are many, and they are already here.


[1] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. The political and economic origins of our times, Boston, Beacon Press, 2001, p257.

[2] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History? The National Interest, 1989.

[3] Buttonwood, Just do the Maths, The Economist (online), 7 May 2010

[4] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. The political and economic origins of our times, Boston, Beacon Press, 2001, p53.

[5] See Alexia Eastwood, Revisiting Economic Man, Share The World's Resources, 16 April 2010.

[6] Lorna Marshall, ‘Sharing, talking and giving: relief of social tensions among !Kung Bushmen', Africa 31(3), 1961, p231 -49.

[7] Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, London, Routledge, 2004, p1.

[8] J.K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press,2006, pxxi.

[9] Colin C. Williams, A Commodified World? Mapping the limits of capitalism, London, Zed Books, 2005, p5.