May 13, 2010
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.
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. 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."
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. 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.
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".
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.
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. 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.
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.
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