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85 What Are Markets? In complex societies we rely on a vast number of other people for the goods and services we need to survive. We acquire many of these goods and services via “the market.” In today’s world, markets have assumed a peculiar power. They are heralded as the ideal system for coordinating complex transactions between producers and consumers. Price setting is the hallowed technique whereby supply is calibrated to meet demand. It’s simple. If supply increases but demand is stable, prices go down and demand expands. If demand rises and supply can’t keep up, prices rise and demand stabilizes—that is, until supplies increase and prices come down again. These market dynamics are often portrayed as naturally operating, like tides or weather systems. Certainly they are seen as capable of efficiently allocating scarce resources. If left on their own to operate freely without barriers and handicaps, so the story goes, buyers and sellers meet each other as equals and prices are adjusted so that both get a fair deal. On the level playing field of the market, we are all members of a “democracy of consumers,” free to exercise choice over what we want and free to achieve the highest possible standard of living we can buy.1 In this democracy, price mediates our encounters with other people and environments that supply what we need to live well. The efficiencies and freedoms of the market were especially praised in the eighteenth century as Europe cast off the obligations and tributes that structured relations between people under feudalism. Today they 4. Take Back the Market Encountering Others 86   take back the market are praised in postsocialist countries that have abandoned the centralized inefficiencies of state allocation. The responsive, if anarchic, fluidity of markets is seen as preferable to the orchestration by autocrats and bureaucrats of the way our survival needs are met. In our globally connected world, a large proportion of the products we consume comes from a great distance. But when we acquire what we need from distant others via the market, the nature of our encounters is masked. Say we get a bargain by buying a supercheap T-shirt or pair of jogging shoes. We’re probably thinking about the savings this will make to our personal or household budget. Perhaps our most immediate survival needs are being addressed, with the new items replacing our torn Ts or worn-out shoes. Or perhaps it is the psychological need to shop to feel good that drives us to add to an already overloaded wardrobe. Whatever the situation , the only thing we’re thinking about is the price tag. It’s hard to shift attention away from the pleasure of a good bargain to think about what lies behind its price. But what kind of encounter with others is represented by the price of a commodity ? Does the price tell us about the working conditions of the young men and women who produced our bargain T-shirt or jogging shoes? Do we know if they were paid decent wages or whether their working environment was safe? And what about the environmental impacts of our bargains? Does the price indicate whether the cotton for our T-shirt was grown using genetically modified crops or pesticides that leave residual toxins in the soil? As long as the price commands our attention, it’s easy to discount these concerns. We can focus on our own consumption wants and seek satisfaction in consuming more. We can erase the ways our survival is interdependent with that of other human beings and natural environments . Ignorance is bargain-basement bliss. 87   take back the market But is that all there is? Beyond the thrill of the bargain is the reality of stuff—mountains of it that we buy only to throw it away barely used.2 And masked by the price that appears to be fair are unknown people and distant environments whose situations may be far from fair. Markets are one way we connect with others to obtain the things we need that we can’t produce for ourselves. But what kinds of encounters do they really produce? Let’s start by having a look at how one group of producers and consumers is devising ways of encountering each other. Making Trade Work for People In the late 1980s, Japanese consumer cooperatives responded to the needs of starving sugarcane workers on the Philippines island of Negros when the international sugar market collapsed...


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