A short history of the market

As world conquests go, this was pretty impressive. While there were dark muttering about Islam taking over the world, neo-liberalism went ahead and did it in less than 50 years. It used the tools of an organised religion. If you wanted to be part of it, you had to forswear all others and commit yourself to a belief in the mystical powers of the Market. You could not question the powers of the Market, despite any evidence to the contrary, and discussion could only take place if both parties took the magical powers that flow from the Market as fact. Any non-believers should be demonized and condemned and their voices silenced. Of course, any benefits that flowed to the followers of the Market are right and proper as they only accrued to pure believers.

Many people living in the world today have never lived under any other religion, but some of the older people can remember when it started. It was a radical and crackpot idea, put forward by a few zealots, but quickly spread. The simplicity of the idea seduced many as difficult problems did not need to be addressed. The application of Market principles cured whatever it chose to. Non-believers were branded as the enemy within, as scroungers and skivers. They, of course, should not share in the beneficent bounties that the Market produced.

A new breed of middle management emerged to implement the will of the Market High Priests. They gained their authority through their acceptance of the only true way and their willingness to serve their masters. Everything was well. Missionaries went forth throughout the world spreading the word and, very quickly, it achieved unchallenged world dominance.

As history has shown, it is often in success that the seeds of downfall are sown. The High Priests became arrogant and started to horde their treasures. The middle management became so focussed on the needs of their masters, that they started to make mistakes in their other main duty of controlling the populace. Rumours were started, and spread like wildfire, of the great wealth that the High Priests had gained. Other rumours circulated concerning the rewards that were given to middle managers by the High Priests. The believers withdrew from contact with the populace and started to erect barriers to protect themselves. When meetings of the believers took place, they often needed forces of the state to guard them from the angry protests of the people.

This marked the start of the decline of the Market. People started to question why, when the things that they has previously owned were given to Market forces, they did not benefit from the magic. Everything, or so it seemed to them, got worse and more expensive. Instead of trying to win back belief in the Market, the middle managers just repeated their tired old mantras that nobody really believed and stopped entirely engaging with ordinary people. Stories that would have previously been ruthlessly suppressed were allowed to become public knowledge. It became common to hear tales of middle management being given rewards in the form of shares, jobs or money by the High Priests.

There was no revolution. It was not needed. All that happened to cause the downfall of this once great religion, was that people no longer believed.

* Anthony Hawkes worked mainly in the oil industry around the world. Since retirement he has become a Human Rights Activist and joined the LibDems to start fixing the world. He blogs at Crustry Old Codger.

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39 Comments

  • What the bloody hell are you on about?

  • Joseph Donnelly 28th May '13 - 3:24pm

    ‘A new breed of middle management emerged to implement the will of the Market High Priests. They gained their authority through their acceptance of the only true way and their willingness to serve their masters. Everything was well. Missionaries went forth throughout the world spreading the word and, very quickly, it achieved unchallenged world dominance.’

    I’m never quite sure why people who work in middle management attract such ire. A good percentage of the population aren’t chief executives or working with raw materials with their hands…I’m not sure why you think these millions of ordinary people are signing up to their jobs as part of some childish free market conspiracy theory.

  • Actually, I’ve re-read it and I think I’ve got a bit of a better understanding but I’m still left with one question:

    What the bloody hell are you on about?

  • Andrew Emmerson 28th May '13 - 3:28pm

    Not sure if real or…… pure trolling

  • Andrew Tennant 28th May '13 - 3:43pm

    Option 1) Complain about the rules

    Option 2) Learn to win the game

  • Paul in Twickenham 28th May '13 - 4:12pm

    As Morpheus said to Neo: I know exactly what you mean..

    Would the event that happened “less than 50 years ago” be the end of Bretton Woods? I think we’re all speculating. It’s a bit like interpreting the I Ching, isn’t it?

  • Nick Partington 28th May '13 - 4:17pm

    I am left entirely bemused. Perhaps this would get a better reception over at LabourList.

  • Tom Papworth 28th May '13 - 4:33pm

    Full moon tonight?

  • Simon McGrath 28th May '13 - 4:52pm

    The last 50 years – the period of unprecedented wealth creation with billions of people taken out of poverty. That 50 years ?

  • Simon Beard 28th May '13 - 5:14pm

    I think what people are getting confused about here is due to a simple typographical error. Where you write ‘the Market’, did you actually mean to write Scientology?

  • The Market is simply allowing people to buy goods and services with their own money. If people do not produce the goods and services people are prepared to pay for, they go bust. want. All other systems involves certain people telling others what to do.

  • You are right Anthony. The shameless middle managers of Westminster, no longer even bother to hide the fact that they are indentured to their High Priests, and their altar of wealth, and that their contracted sole purpose, is to control the poor. And with their fawning middle managers to aid them, the High Priests stride the world like a global Ku Klux Klan, ensuring that the poor and vulnerable know their place.
    And why not? What are the poor going to do about it?

  • I don’t agree with all of this alternative history but I sympathise with what (I think) Anthony is trying to say.

    Some folk do indeed treat markets as a God-substitute, an infallible omnipotent power that will cunningly harness natural greed to deliver good if only sin (read ‘regulation’) can be avoided. That’s an extreme position of course but many more go along with this notion to some lesser extent. Some see all human interaction as best mediated through the agency of a market and some go so far as to propose that where markets don’t naturally exist they should be created.

    This is a nonsense but has proved very potent over recent decades – and very damaging when taken to extremes. Perhaps they forget that greed is one of the 7 deadly sins of an older and wiser understanding of human nature. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Andrew Tennant 28th May '13 - 7:42pm

    @GF
    Don’t make the analogy yet more strained!

    @Charlie
    Quite – this bogeyman figure of ‘The Market’ is, in reality, the individual decisions of millions – free trade, personal choice, self determination.

  • I liked this bit. “Anthony Hawkes worked mainly in the oil industry around the world.”

    Because that’s an industry that isn’t at the heart of the neo-liberal, world domination game.

  • Max Wilkinson 28th May '13 - 7:59pm

    I quite enjoyed this.

    The parallel with religion is apt in some ways. For those, like the IEA, whose belief in the market is so fundamental there is no possible alternative to the free market.

    Like the vicar who says that the only answer to happiness is to have faith in god, the IEA tells us that the only answer to all our ills is to remove every impediment to the market.

  • Helen Tedcastle 28th May '13 - 9:07pm

    The simple analogy with a monolithic edifice called ‘religion’ when in fact there is no such thing, only works if one has the following assumptions – that ‘religion’ spread in a simple and simplistic way; that the secular humanist analysis of the ‘power’ of ‘religion’ is the only way to understand this dimension of human experience; that one simply follows a particular western, even Judaeo-Christocentric take on the subject ie: hierarchies and structure, mission.

    However, one point of contention – Christianity as lived and practised does not involve unthinking mantras, blindly followed – there are extreme groups like that, of course but there is another picture – mature, peaceful, thinking and reflecting Christians, Jews and Muslims – lets not forget that – we’re LIberals – we believe in diversity and pluralism – we know the value of complexity – we have fought against fundamentalist and narrow-readings of ideas in the religious and secular realms for decades.

  • Max Wilkinson. Where people have more important information they have an advantage. The difference in knowing when something is worth more than it costs gives an advantage to the buyer. When something costs more than it’s worth , the seller has an advantage. For the Free Market to be effective people need to know what they are doing.
    The problem with many politicians, civil servants, regulators , etc, etc is that they do not understand what is being traded and therefore they do not know the implications if their actions.

  • Tony Faithfull-Wrigh 28th May '13 - 11:57pm

    Looks like John , Max & Charlie are the only ones to understand the analogy of what Anthony is portraying. The global Market is becoming an uncontrollable monster with no ‘off’ switch to stop it.

  • Andrew Tennant 29th May '13 - 8:12am

    @Tony Faithfull-Wrigh
    What’s your proposed alternative? How does it give people more choice and make them more free? How does it reward an individual’s contribution to society, their talent and hard work?

  • Anthony Hawkes 29th May '13 - 9:18am

    It was gratifying to see that so many people commented on this article. Thank you.

    We LibDems are quite used to being dismissed as a protest party, but it is quite new, to me at least, to attract such ire from voters as they hold us, quite rightly, responsible as a party of government. How we deal with this is key.

    It is tempting to withdraw and talk just among ourselves, but this would be a mistake. We must talk more to voters and try and understand their hopes and fears. My own feeling is that the rise of UKIP and the low trust that people have in politics generally, is because we appear too remote and uncaring.

    Next time you go out knocking on doors, don’t move on quickly to the next door when you are not welcomed with open arms. Listen and try to understand what they are saying. Just because they have no solution does not make their views irrelevent. The future of the LibDems must surely be in our commitment to fairness for everyone. It is certainly not by trotting out tired political justifications that no one believes any more.

    As an incurable optimist, I think we are a party whose time is coming soon. We need to hold our nerve as we come to a very rocky patch, but our message is strong. There are visionaries and intellects in our party who can devise solutions to fiendishly complex problems, but unless we give them the right questions we can hardly expect the right answers. We can only do this by listening to what people say.

  • Fairness for is impossible as this requires everyone to have equal knowledge. The Rothschilds knew that who ever won Waterloo would impact on bond prices. Consequently Rothschilds paid for people to bring information on who won Waterloo to London so they could make advantageous investments. Soros and Buffet make money because they understand the Market better than others. Gates, Jobs , Dyson make money because they have insights into trade and economic life others lack. At one stage Sugar’s Amstrad was larger than Microsoft. Sugar saw electronic devices as products which had to be sold as cheaply as possible , he did not understand technological evolution and the need for R and D.

    A major problem in the UK is that many people do not understand trade, technology, profits and business in general.
    If people had a better understanding of business and what they were buying , then they would understand the difference between worth and cost. Buffet says asking the correct questions is vital and this requires knowledge.

    The creators of the Industrial Revolution were largely Non- Conformist craftsmen who attended Dissenting Academies. Those who made profits, had safes and could be trusted, became bankers – such as Barclays ( Quakers goldsmiths).

    Humans have traded goods for thousands of years and this has helped create civilisation. When Phoenicians came to Cornwall to buy tin there was no control. The Phoenicians considered the travel was an acceptable risk and made profits by selling tin goods in the Middle East.. When civil servants controlled trade we had communism and the states failed.

    The problem with much of the civil services, NHS, and banks there is no failure only income. Rothschildand JP Morgan risked their own money , as did all merchant banks , stock brokers , which were private partnerships .
    When the Phoenicians sailed to Cornwall they had to access the risk from sinking; if their judgement was faulty then they mostly died. The problem is that many organisations are run for the benefits of the employees, not the customers or clients. When a banker makes a mistake they do not risk their capital: it is then shareholder who loses.
    When someone in the NHS makes a mistakes they do not die . Until recently, when a captain or officer of ship made a mistake , they died and their were many jobs where mistakes were fatal to the person making them . Once a society and/or an organisation can make mistakes without suffering losses, they tend to stop concentrating on what is important.

  • Michael Parsons 29th May '13 - 5:24pm

    What is this excellent article about? Well, for 30 years public policy in the UK has been based on one fundamental principle; that markets should drive economic and social development, that conflict and competition are the primary drivers for that development and that the role of the state is to protect those markets and ameliorate the impact of their failings. Concepts such as that society should guide economic and social development, that development should be driven by mutuality and that the role of the state is to express the democratic will of citizens in guiding that development has been driven out of UK politics.
    These ideas – long regarded with derision as thoroughly exploded by experience of the disasters that raw capitalism and financialisation created, and the reduction of life to the cash-nexus causes – were promoted by the various ‘think-tanks’ plus the Chicago school of economics – with fanatical zeal. The ideas spread not because they are cogent, but because money poured in to the propaganda from those who saw an opportunity for unbridled looting. The big oligopolies that fix the prices of food, fuel and credit internationally (‘globalisation’) to their own gain saw an opportunity to discredit attempts to bring them under control by social economics and State taxation as unwarranted interference, and the rest you know: a whole series of “crashes” – .com boom and bust, housing boom and bust etc and the mounting attack on decent conditions, health, education and civility.

    The fact that some commentators are asking why they shouldn’t avoid tax (which alone can supply public goods like defence, health, parks etc.) and think Adam Smith would have noted these dangers shows how far ignorance has been promoted. Adam Smith was of course very alert to the dangers of business interference in State policy: he wrote that there is never a meeting of businessmen but the common good is in danger. How true! That is why our masthead declares freedom from financial dependence on such, if you note it.

  • David Allen 29th May '13 - 5:24pm

    Yes, capitalism, like communism and fascism, is an ideology, with quasi-religious overtones. Yes, most ideologies eventually fail, often when they cease to inspire belief. The hysterical denunciation of this article by right-wing Lib Dem commentators merely demonstrates that those commentators are very fearful that the article might turn out to be true. This says more about the commentators, and their desperate support for capitalism and social inequality, than it does about the article.

    Whether capitalism is really about to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions is quite another question. Communism failed because it wasn’t giving people either the material goods or the freedom that they wanted. Capitalism, for the moment, is delivering a fair amount of both of these things, though it is certainly failing to employ our youth.

    Certainly, capitalism is also at risk from climate catastrophes and resource exhaustion over the next fifty years. Until those things happen, I don’t see collapse happening. Gross social inequality angers me, and it angers Mr Hawkes, but it doesn’t seem to anger everybody.

    The Roman emperors used to believe that social unrest could generally be avoided, provided the masses were kept well supplied with bread and circuses. That seems about right.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th May '13 - 9:14pm

    We need to reverse public sector decentralisation and do one of the following with the major oligopoly industries:

    1. Break them up.
    2. Renationalise.

    This is coming from a centrist, often accused of worshipping the market.

  • It’s a creatively written piece with a sense of humour. You seem to be saying that anyone who dares to question the almighty and all curing power of the market is castigated by it’s followers and belittled. The acolytes of neo-liberalism dare allow no criticism or modification of the worship of the market.

    Not very realistic is it? Surely that wouldn’t happen would it? Certainly not on this forum anyway…

  • Andrew Tennant 30th May '13 - 7:14am

    It’s easy to be a critic and to complain about problems, far harder to offer a viable solution or alternative way forward. Perhaps that is why no-one here decrying markets has risen to my challenge to set out an alternative to capitalism that gives people greater freedom and which continues to reward social contribution and talent?

  • Paul in Twickenham 30th May '13 - 10:00am

    If the author wishes (as commentators are now suggesting) to invite us to consider the thesis that the markets are public only to the select few, then perhaps he could choose to do so in a less elliptical style?

    I recommend Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph today: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/10087843/No-saviour-in-sight-as-world-credit-cycle-rolls-over.html

    He makes the same points that I often attempt to make on these pages, but does so with much greater skill than my poor abilities permit:

    Should there be another round of QE/helicopters, we must surely find a better way to inject the money. Today’s method is enriching the uber-elites, with a painfully slow trickledown. The Gini co-efficient of wealth inequality is soaring. The better alternative is to stick the needle straight into the veins of the economy – building roads, railways or nuclear power stations..

  • Michael Parsons 30th May '13 - 11:41am

    Joe Otten
    Hi! I think what I meant was that the big oligopolies use the State in their own interests to control the rest of us; ‘market forces’ don’t come into it. We need a new model: Instead of continuing the UK’s decline into a low-wage, low-skill economy in which markets rule, public services dwindle and the gulf between rich and poor widens, we can choose a new direction..
    This could, include expanded cradle-to-grave public services, better jobs, better wages, a more diverse economy, more shared ownership, more local democracy, and less social inequality. State intervention should not be seen as a sorry last resort, but should be embraced as contributing to the common good. The so-called ‘problem’ of higher taxation does not mean higher taxes for all.

    The ‘market forces’ of supply and demand’ might sometimes work for small-scale commodity dealng and barter, but become increasingly meaningless as you move into labour, land and speculation and finance. The value-system of economics (that any gain however small is worth pursuing) drives suppliers and value systems to destruction in pursuit of marginal benefits (try dairy-farming if you disagree). Markets are also dominated by sentiment and are irrational – for example if the price of a bet (a paper asset such as a share) falls, markets sell instead of buying, the simple demand curve reverses in this and many other instances. The apparent big business triumphs rest on certainties and development expenditure by the State as an institution of enterprise; so Google, for example, is built on algorisms developed by State research, as are 75% of drug innovations, etc. In effect “big business” is parasitic on State expenditure, stability and intellectual investment; and we are justified in demanding tax-payback and social control in the general interest of our citizens.

  • Fackeltrager 31st May '13 - 11:53am

    As a historian I would be happy about a more detailed explanation how these High Priests actually are or were. By the way, if the author complains about anarcho-captialism, then I would like to remember that in most countries, which have adopted the market system, regulations were always latent. I do not see any country in the present or in the past, which could be perceived as the anarcho-capitalistic utopia.

  • Robert Wootton 31st May '13 - 11:52pm

    My comment is a tweet (millenniumbob)

  • Andrew Tennant – you’ve fallen for the propaganda. Yes, the market works extremely well for some things, but its flaws should be obvious. If you’re talking about consumption by individuals for their own limited needs – cheese or car insurance, say – it is a means of individual empowerment compared to a state planning system. However, if you’re talking about land use, say, or about a totally private education system, it does not treat individuals equally. If you have 1,000 times the disposable wealth of Joe Bloggs, you have 1,000 times the power, in contrast to the one person, one vote of democracy. Extreme marketeers precisely advocate abolishing government control or influence over such areas.

    Markets also think short, going for immediate benefits and ignoring long-term harm. They disenfranchise the poorest people. They’re easily caught up in flights of collective fantasy and then in panic (think 1929 and 2008). They can be influenced in all sorts of ways by big business so people are persuaded they want what the businesses most want to sell (still better than government telling them what they must buy). And sometimes they just don’t work as they should in areas where you’d think they’d work well. Take health insurance for old people travelling abroad. Their greater risk of falling ill should simply be dealt with through higher premiums, adjustable where there is evidence of good health. In fact many insurers just won’t take them, and as tour providers demand health insurance, they can be stuck if they want to go on an organised tour.

    Yes, the market has huge benefits. You only have to look at services in the old Soviet Union to see what they are. But the Liberal attitude should be alert and sceptical.

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