No 311 Posted by fw, October 25, 2011
“You know, the emergence of capitalist markets was a gigantic struggle, a gigantic imposition against the natural inclination of people to behave in a much more collective and social fashion. It had to be coercively imposed upon people. . . . But it is the case once you have markets that they have incredibly profound impacts on our desires, on our personalities, on everything about us. That’s the whole point. That’s why I want to get rid of them [markets].” Michael Albert
Michael Albert, American activist, economist, prolific author, and political theorist identifies himself as a market abolitionist, one who favours participatory economics as an alternative to free market capitalism. The above passage is from a video recorded interview at the April 28, 2009 Left Forum in New York City. A 6-minute clip from that original 26-minute interview follows. In it, Albert responds to the third of six interview questions: Is the “Free Market” part of “Human Nature”? My transcript, with added sub-headings, follows the video.
Question – How do you respond to those who say markets are part of nature?
Well, I mean if I was in a caustic mood I would say “That’s utter dribble.” If I was in a gentle mood I would say, “Well, I understand why people feel that way because it’s repeated so often.” But let’s see if it’s true.
Can you give an example of something it is true of? Well, you breathe, right? Now that’s a function of a natural law. It’s a biological function. And in fact, if I said to you, “Violate that law,” you can’t do it without killing yourself, right? So it’s a powerful law.
Now let’s look and see whether there’s some sort of a biological imperative to behave in a market fashion. Well just ask yourself how you behave with your friends, or how you behave in your family. Right? Do you sit at the dinner table and barter the soup? Do you sit at the dinner table and decide whether the young child is going to get soup by whether or not they have enough money in their pocket to have the soup? Do you determine the relative value of things in the family by competing for them? Of course not. There’s no drive to do that.
The drive to do that that [behave] exists in society is created by the fact that we live in a market system. It’s not that the drive is inside us and creates the market system. It’s that the market system imposes an environment in which to behave any other way is to lose. So of course we behave that way. You can think to yourself that it looks like it’s coming from us; it looks like it’s a norm of nature. After all, it’s in my personality. It’s in my behaviour. That’s true. But the reason it’s in our personalities, the reason it’s in our behaviours isn’t because it was born there. It’s because we live in a context.
And historically it’s also true. You know, the emergence of capitalist markets was a gigantic struggle, a gigantic imposition against the natural inclination of people to behave in a much more collective and social fashion. It had to be coercively imposed upon people. So it’s not the case. But it is the case once you have markets that they have incredibly profound impacts on our desires, on our personalities, on everything about us. That’s the whole point. That’s why I want to get rid of them [markets]. It’s because the question arises and displays something that’s very true.
For example, a stark example, in the 1950s in the United States, it was called The Golden Age of Capitalism. And it was a certain amount of output so there’s was this much output per capita in the economy [holds his hands about 8 inches apart one above the other]. And then 40 years later there was double that, almost exactly – just coincidentally, double the amount of output per capita. So if you think about it you realize that if in 1995 people work half as long as they work in 1950, right, and from 1955, then the output per person will be the same as it was in The Golden Age of Capitalism. So you sort of ask yourself, well why not work one month on and one month off? Or why aren’t we working a thirty and a half hour week? After all, that technological innovation has created a condition in which we could do that and we’d be as well off as in The Golden Age of Capitalism. So why don’t we do it?
And the answer is because markets don’t let us. It’s not that everybody got together and decided we’d rather work twice as long as we could. And in fact, people work longer than they worked in 1955. People didn’t decide I want to do that. I mean even the rich lawyers didn’t decide I want to do that. Rather, market competition compels it, coerces it because if you don’t do it you get out-competed. So there’s this drive to accumulate, this drive to work ourselves to death in essence.
Now it’s also true that that extra – where’s the extra product go? Where’d the double the output go? Well, it partly goes to military stuff to protect the system. It partly goes to police stuff to protect the system. It partly goes to cleaning the ecological messes that the system produces. And it partly goes to the rich. And so the normal person is marginally better off. And, in fact, from 1970 to the present the normal person doesn’t get better off at all. All of the advantages go to the powerful and the rich. It’s a horrendous system.
And everybody knows it. If you look at popular TV or you look at the best seller list and you sort of read the novels in it, it is incredible the extent to which, you know, the thrillers and the, you know, the legal thrillers and the, the – you know, I read this stuff, and the mysteries and so on – it’s incredible the extent they’ll have things like the pharmaceutical company that’s trying to get a profit by dumping its waste or by creating an incredible abomination of a product or by hurting its sick people, etc. And if you read it carefully it actually understands why. Most of the time it doesn’t attribute it to the nefarious individual. It turns out to be an outgrowth of the drives and the pressures of the institution. So at some level everybody knows this. At some level everybody understands it.
But as you say, they think of it like aging. They think of it like the wind. They think of it as something inevitable. And so they feel like, “Yeah, I know it but I don’t want to wallow in it. I don’t want to keep repeating it. In fact I’m trying to hide from it because it’s so miserable. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The fact is there is something you can do about it. You can change it. I mean we can actually live under a different system Just imagine somebody saying under cannibalism or under slavery or under dictatorship – “Well, there’s nothing you can do about it.” Well, they’d be wrong. There is something you can do about it. You can get beyond these archaic systems and move closer and closer to fulfilling human capacities. And that’s what we need to do.
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