There’s No Such Thing As Markets

Back in 1987 Margaret Thatcher very famously made the following comments in an interview with Woman’s Own magazine.

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

Well, surely the same argument applies to the concept of ‘markets’. If the concept of ‘society’ is not legitimate because ‘society’ is just made up of millions of individuals making their individual choices, then surely ‘markets’ don’t exist either?

Indeed, Neoliberal economic theology rests on the proposition that our combined individual choices will inevitably bring about the common good. Which seems to contradict Thatcher’s assertion that our individual choices and decisions remain individual and don’t have collective outcomes.

All too often commercial corporations and Neoliberal governments justify policy decisions that impact negatively on citizens on the basis that they are simply ‘responding to the market’, that it is market forces that drive their actions. The idea here is that ‘markets’ are an uncontrollable force of nature and that corporations and governments can only react to market forces, they cannot control or influence markets.

Yet according to Thatcher’s logic ‘markets’ as such simply don’t exist. ‘Markets’, just like society, are simply individual men and women making individual choices.

So it appears that what Thatcher is saying is that the bankers, stockbrokers, hedge-fund managers, commodity traders and corporate managers of the world have a moral responsibility for their actions, just like the rest of us do, and that to hide behind the social construct of the ‘market’ is simply a way of them avoiding their moral responsibilities.

I never, ever, thought I’d write these words, but it appears that I agree with Maggie, there are no such things as ‘markets’ just individual men and women making individual choices for which they, as individuals, are morally responsible.

Of course she wouldn’t say this because she would want her cake and to eat it…. and mine…..and yours…..and theirs.

Thatcher and the Neoliberal theologists would claim that there is no such thing as ‘society but there are social mechanisms called ‘markets’. This is yet another example of the incoherence of Conservative political philosophy as it relates to Neoliberal, free-market theology (see On The Incompatibility Of Free Markets And Conservative Philosophy)


About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders. In 2008 he was appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Recorded Media in the School Of Music & Performing Arts at Bath Spa University. He currently presents, Agitpop, a pop & politics radio discussion programme on North Cotswold Community Radio He is currently the Communications Officer for UCU at Bath Spa University and a UCU SW Regional Rep at SWTUC.
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4 Responses to There’s No Such Thing As Markets

  1. Neoliberalism is indeed a theology. That it has no coherence doesn’t matter to its promoters; a theology need only benefit a select few. We endlessly hear about the wonders of free markets, only to have the loudest proponents of “free markets” run to the government for bailouts when the bubble they created bursts. It takes a theology to keep such a system in place.

  2. moelarrythecheese says:

    As we formulate explanations for economic and social reality and devise schemes to manipulate society we must always keep in mind that people are inherently selfish creatures whose behavior, even if initiated with lofty moral goals, will inevitably degrade to selfish pursuits. Any attempt to coerce people to act otherwise will fail as surely as trying to hold back the tide. As people pursue their selfish ends they are operating as single individuals, but just as single water molecules can unwittingly pool their masses to create a tsunami so too can populations of selfish individuals unwittingly impact society with the combined effect of each of their individual selfish pursuits. Society can only be successfully “steered” if the “direction of travel” results in the satisfaction of the selfish interests of each of the discrete members of the overall group.

    • “people are inherently selfish creatures whose behavior, even if initiated with lofty moral goals, will inevitably degrade to selfish pursuits.”

      And that statement is at the heart of the matter. Neoliberal and Conservative ideology is underpinned by the idea that human beings are first and foremost individual, selfish, competing individuals. In fact human evolution and all of human history is actually founded upon the biological and psychological fact that we are first and foremost cooperating social animals. Homo Sapiens have evolved physically and psychologically to be entirely inter-dependent upon each other. The worst psychological punishment for a human being is to be put in solitary confinement.

      And the evidence from archaeology, anthropology, biology and neuroscience just keeps piling up – there is no doubt about this, human beings are not first and foremost selfish individuals, first and foremost they are cooperating members of social groups.

      Indeed, the evidence for this is so overwhelming that many Neoliberal theorists are now claiming that the idea of the rational, self-interested, competing consumer was a sort of economic metaphor. They now say that they were never claiming that people are actually like this, just that it was a useful way of describing how individual choices aggregate into market forces.

      Individual human beings are clearly capable of being both selfish and altruistic and we are all inclined more or less, one way or the other, along an altruism spectrum from the entirely self-centered psychopath and autistic at one end to the entirely self-sacrifing hero at the other. But as a species human beings are first and foremost a cooperating social species whose entire existence is based upon establishing meaningful and mutually supportive relationships with other members of the species.

      This is why those who are opposed to Neoliberal market theology find it so morally repugnant. Because the idea that we are all, “inherently selfish creatures whose behaviour, even if initiated with lofty moral goals, will inevitably degrade to selfish pursuits”, is clearly not true and is used by the greedy and the selfish to justify their behaviour and alienates the rest of us as members of communities, as workers and as citizens from our fellow men and women.

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