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Economics & Psychology

Can the Market Speak?

by Mark Bergfeld

When first reading Campbell Jones’s Can the Market speak? I simply treated it by the author’s self-imposed standards: a philosophical enquiry into the market and “the structure of the ideas and fantasies that come with the category of the market” (7). If I had finished writing this book review before Cypriot bank heist and the run on banks it would have probably remained at the level of summarizing the book, and making some snarky comments on particular points I liked or didn’t like.

Protests outside the House of Representatives in Nicosia, Cyprus, in November 2012. (Photo: Tco03displays, source: Wikimedia, modified and used under Creative Commons ASA3.0 Unported License)

The euphemistic ‘Stability Levy’, which would steal up to 10 per cent from people’s savings, breathed new life into the wide-ranging critiques of the  market advanced by Campbell Jones. The question I asked myself was whether this short book could give meaning to this European Lehman Brothers moment  and the ensuing collapse of the market the following Monday morning. In his book, Campbell Jones argues that there is a long history of personifications of the market. Adversaries and apologists of the market alike have attributed human characteristics to non-human entities to display the powers of capitalism.

While on the surface Jones’s book deals with the rhetorical device of prosopopoeia in which a speaker communicates to the audience by speaking as another person or object, Can the Market Speak? starts to raise far more interesting questions in the context of the ‘Stability Levy’. Firstly, it teaches us an important lesson of how power, authority and control, in short, hegemony, manifests itself in advanced capitalist countries. Secondly, it raises issues in regard to Lukacs’s concept of ‘reification’ which explains how people’s relations are transformed by commodity-exchange. Thirdly, the title itself reflects the current balance of forces between labour and capital in our societies.

Hegemony and the market

Every Economics, Business and Political Science student will have been taught that the markets are ‘rational’, ‘robust’, and ‘efficient’. While the reality couldn’t be further from the truth, these tenets act as an ‘organizing principle’ of the current status quo, permeate every aspect of social life and legitimize the exploitation and destruction of humans and their environment in the name of ‘efficiency’. By solely focussing on the personification of the markets, Jones reveals a contradiction in capital’s attempt to paint the markets as behaving rationally: The supposed rational actors inside of the markets are guided by “the invisible hand of the market”. In other words, underlying the very rationality of the market one finds irrationality, superstition and quasi-religious metaphysical bullshit.

Jones’s psychoanalytic and theological critiques of the prosopopoeia of the markets disclose how hegemony manifests and legitimises itself. His psychoanalytic critique analyses power as ‘displaced’ and hidden. Rather than manifesting itself through the truncheon of a police officer, the prosopopoiea expresses individual actors’ interests i.e. capital’s interests. While psychoanalytic critique remains, or once again has become, fashionable it doesn’t assist us in understanding the real social relations that the market masks behind its veil of rationality and efficiency, nor does it help us to analyse what happens when these so-called hidden powers come out into the open when losses are socialised and profits are privatised .

His theological critique of the prosopopoeia of the market, on the other hand, elaborates on what the dominance of the markets tells us about the kind of society we inhabit. In doing so, Jones links the commonly-used phrase of ‘having faith in the market’ to Foucault and the Nietzschean notion that “God is dead” – and has been replaced by the will of the market. Akin to God, the market has its priests, prophets and messengers who are endowed with god-like authority and power.

It is not necessarily clear as to why one requires these critiques to understand the function of the personification and prosopopoeia of the market. In particular, they do not help us to understand how these ideological constructs work to win the masses to accept and consent to their daily misery and exploitation as I will go on to argue. This is strikingly true at a time when power remains anything but hidden, and steps out into the open with police truncheons beating Greek protesters and the IMF stealing Cypriots’ deposits. Neither can these critiques explain how the system veils exploitative social relations at the point of production, or how the high priests of finance that were speaking through the market could not foresee the great financial crash of 2008.

It’s reification, stupid!

Inasmuch as the prophets of high finance couldn’t foresee the 2008 financial crash, Jones cannot grasp the ideological problems of capitalism without an analysis of the fundamental structure of capitalist society. In History and Class Consciousness [HCC], Georg Lukacs argues that commodity exchange increasingly penetrates all aspects and expressions of life and reshapes them in a reified manner. In his own words, it is the “universal structuring principle” [HCC, 85] beneath a “mystifying veil of reification” [HCC, 86]. What does this mean for Jones’s work?

The high priests of finance are trapped by the confines of bourgeois thought and the very logic of the system which forces them to act in certain ways beyond their self-proclaimed ethics or values. Their sooth-saying is nothing but a mere reflection of the need for capital accumulation. Lukacs argues that both workers and capitalists exhibit an ever-increasing “lack of will” [HCC, 89]. Power might manifest itself through these modern-day soothsayers but it doesn’t tell you the whole story of the structure of ideas that comes with the market.

Further, Jones analyses how human relationships are transformed by commodity-exchange permeating all aspects of society. His analysis remains limited in its achievements yet raises pertinent questions. The mysterious nature of the commodity means that relations between people take on the character of “a thing”, acquiring what Lukacs calls “phantom objectivitity”, concealing “every trace of its fundamental nature” [HCC, 83]. In other words, commodity relations and the hegemony of the market dehumanise and turn all human functions into a commodity itself totally opposed to people’s own personalities. By applying this analysis we come to understand that Jones mistakes the effect for its cause. The personification of the market and self-objectification of humans are the effect of the system’s guiding principle of commodity-exchange. To be more concise, the personification of the market is a symptom of a society ruled by commodity-exchange and the accumulation of capital.

In such a society ‘the consumer’ as the subject replaces the worker. By accepting this as a fait accompli Jones cannot answer the question where counter-hegemonic power could manifest itself, namely, at the point of production which contains within it “in concentrated form the whole structure of capitalist society” [HCC, 90].

Can zombies learn to speak?

Critics of capitalism and the market have always evoked images of monsters, zombies and vampires to describe the dehumanising effects of the system. While Karl Marx labelled capitalism “vampire-like”, Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi called Goldman Sachs “giant vampire squids”. The Canadian Marxist David McNally even published a dense 300-pager called Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Drawing on popular films and culture McNally observes that zombies have no speech. This is important in regard to Jones’s book.

Financial markets: Can they speak? (Photo: Katrina Tuliao, Source: Wikimedia, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

In Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster, the monster learns how to read revolutionary books and also learns how to speak. In a more recent zombie movies – The People under the Stairs,  – the zombies have had their tongues cut out by a rich property developer and never learn to  to speak – even at the point where they rebel. This film sums up precisely what Campbell Jones argues when he says that capitalism renders the vast majority of people voiceless. But it also can tell us something more fundamental about the current balance of forces between capital and labour.

Despite global mass movements challenging the dominance of the market zombies still haven’t learnt to speak. This is true on two accounts: Firstly, even the most radical thinkers of our day and age remain trapped within the confines of the market. Whether they advocate ‘market socialism’ such as Seth Ackerman in Jacobin magazine or simply blame the actors inside of the market – ‘giant vampire squids’ and ‘fat cats’ – they fail to blame the system as a whole. Much of today’s anti-capitalist critique seeks cosmetic changes to a dehumanising system instead of aiming to construct alternative institutions and parties which go beyond the market and at the same time advocate its destruction.

This is crucial given the weakness of trade unions and social democratic parties in challenging the market. Traditional social democracy has silenced workers by speaking on their behalf in parliament. Even those trade unions fighting austerity measures in their respective countries are mediating between labour and capital. A minor but quite telling tactic of these unions has been to give out vuvuzelas, whistles and other gimmicks to their members so to drown out rank-and-file members’ far more radical demands in a racket of distorted noises. In many ways, these examples chime with Campbell Jones conclusion that the zombies remain voiceless yet those hiding behind the markets can’t hide any longer.

In conclusion, Campbell Jones work raises a number of pertinent questions in regard to concepts such as hegemony, reification and the balance of forces between labour and capital. His book might not have all the answers to those questions but it can allow the kind of discussions which might arrive at them. Having had our tongues cut out by property developers and the priests of high finance, we will need books like Can the Market Speak? that believe in zombies’ ability to speak.

Campbell Jones: Can the Market Speak?
Zero Books, London 2013.
ISBN: 978-1-84694-537-3
Paperback, 81 pages, US$11.95/GBP7.99

Mark Bergfeld  lives in London, UK. He was a spokesperson for the 2010 UK student movement and is currently reading for a PhD in Online Networks and Political Organisation. He tweets @mdbergfeld and his published writings can be found at http://mdbergfeld.wordpress.com.

(c) 2013 by The Berlin Review of Books.


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