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The Free Market Will Not Make You Free

One of the most compelling arguments that William Clare Roberts makes in his new book, Marx’s Inferno: A Political Theory of Capital, is that the market dominates not only workers but commodity producers.  Rejecting the moralism of socialism, which suggests that capitalists just need to be kinder and gentler, Marx argues that the subjects of capitalism are not individuals who could make more ethical decisions, but the relations of production.  It is because capitalism is unable to render individuals free that capitalism dominates everyone under its purview.  Roberts writes:

The significance of [Marx’s] comments about individuals in modern commercial society being bearers of economic relations is not that these individuals suffer an impairment of their agency, but that they suffer an impairment of their freedom.  Commodity producers in a commercial society are dominated agents, not nonagents (95).

He continues on the next page:

Under these conditions [the pressures of the market], producers–regardless of their personal idiosyncrasies or perfect-world preferences–will tend to act on market incentives, and to be price sensitive in their decision making.  Their agency remains intact.  They continue to make decisions based on their beliefs and desires, and to have all the characteristics attributed to persons by the standard accounts of agency.  But they are not, for all that, fit to be held responsible for their actions in view of the market.  They are not forced to act as they do, but they are subject to a kind of hazard that rules out discursive deliberation except within arbitrarily narrow parameters (96).

Defenders of the market maintain that it is the most free system because no one dictates to anyone else what must be produced and at what price.  That is the dictation they call “social engineering.”  But Roberts argues that Marx’s critique is to challenge the supporters of the free market on this very point.  Affirming that freedom need not be sacrificed for the sake of equality, Marx argues that the market dominates the decisions a producer can make.  Sure you could make what you thought was best for the community, but absent a deliberative engagement with the community about what was best, making such things will only lead you to bankruptcy.  Against those like Arendt who say that Marx’s concerns are only for necessities, Roberts presents a reading of Marx that shows that the problem with the economic system of capitalism is that it forecloses the political engagement over what is good and best for the community.

As Roberts then argues:

The problem is not that individuals cannot do exactly what they each want to do, but that they cannot get together and talk about what sorts of things that should and should not be done, and what sorts of reasons should and should not count as good reasons.

Or several pages on:

Buyers and sellers on the market are not asked to justify their preferences for money or goods.  I think it is safe to say that we would all find it very strange if the cashier at a story asked us to supply reasons for our purchases: “Why do you want that?  Do you really think it is the best thing for you?”  If anything, we expect our counterparts in exchange to justify our desires for us, to give us a litany of reasons for wanting what they have to offer.  To a large extent, we offer money and commodities in exchange precisely as an alternative to offering reasons for wanting what we want (99).

Roberts’ point is that for Marx the market is not free, neither for the worker nor for the capitalist.  While there have been plenty of arguments for how this is true for the worker, much less focus has been placed on how this is true for the capitalist or the consumer.  Roberts’ argument is not just that commodities dominate, but that the relations of production block any collective deliberation about what is good and true.

This blocking off is why “market-based solutions” for public services is a threat to democratic political life.  Market-based solutions explicitly aim to take the decision about what is best away from the citizens who would have to present their reasons why one position is better than another and convince others to agree and place that decision in the market, where markers like “efficiency” and “cost” are the measures of what is best rather than judgments about what will best serve the public good.  In this way, I would argue following Roberts that market-based solutions are anti-democratic not because they put the decisions in the hands of the few or serve the interests of the few, but because they take decisions out of the public square where cases must be made with reasons for what is best for the community.

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