Friday, January 4, 2013

Thesis 1 of 95: Are conversations markets?

Part of the blogging project about the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto

Markets are not about selling or buying. Markets aren't about commodities. They aren't about investing in finance, money, not about the right to own property, and not a scheme to either liberate or enslave mankind, either.

Because we hear so much about markets, in their present form, about whether they're free or not, or whether they should be, what they should do, how it should be regulated or deregulated, if it turns us to economizing rational actors or irrational consumerists, etc. etc. we tend to assume that what we today call The Market (as if it was a singular thing) is The Market that would have happened 400 B.C, or in the Mesolithic period, or in the middle ages, or in the future, say some 500 years from now.

This is obviously false. The Market of Late Capitalism is different from markets as such. Let me quote some Marcel Mauss, from his analysis of gift-giving in archaic societies at you:

It has been suggested that these [archaic] societies lack the economic market, but this is not true; for the market is a human phenomenon which we believe to be familiar to every known society. Markets are found before the development of merchants, and before their most important innovation, currency as we know it. They functioned before they took the modern forms (Semitic, Hellenic, Hellenistic, and Roman) of contract and sale and capital. We shall take note of the moral and economic features of these institutions. The Gift: Form and Reason of Exchange in Archaic Societies - Mauss, Marcel 

Now, at first, this quote sort of annoyed me. Being the commie-pinko that I am, saying that markets is a "human phenomenon... familiar to every known society", especially in a book that was recommended to me as an example of how societies without markets can be sustainable, seemed to me as just a restatement of bourgeois ahistorical claims about how capitalism is "human nature". However, I quickly sobered up to what Mauss was actually saying. Of course, as I was well aware, Markets are Not Capitalism, and what markets Mauss were talking about seemed fundamentally different then what capitalist markets were about. Let's quote some more:

In the systems of the past we do not find simple exchange of goods, wealth and produce through markets established among individuals. For it is groups, and not individuals, which carry on exchange, make contracts, and are bound by obligations; the persons represented in the contracts are moral persons—clans, tribes, and families; the groups, or the chiefs as intermediaries for the groups, confront and oppose each other. Further, what they exchange is not exclusively goods and wealth, real and personal property, and things of economic value. They exchange rather courtesies, entertainments, ritual, military assistance, women, children, dances, and feasts; and fairs in which the market is but one element and the circulation of wealth but one part of a wide and enduring contract. The Gift: Form and Reason of Exchange in Archaic Societies - Mauss, Marcel 
So, what Mauss is saying here is basically: markets are markets, regardless of what they exchange, and who is exchanging in it. The point here is not to romanticize these archaic markets, their hierarchy, patriarchy and spirituality, but rather to bring home the point: people exchange things. They all do. They don't have to appear in the form of the of the commodity, exchanged for money, nor do they even have to have anything to do with material wealth as such.

So, you may be asking now: cool, but what has this to do with the thesis?

Markets are conversations. It doesn't take much thought to understand the concept. But are conversations also markets? In the internet age, where conversation has entered a new paradigm, where media and commentary are in the process of being liberated from the high-overhead market that dominated, excluded and disengaged people just some decades ago from making their thoughts public, I'd say the conversation is emerging as a new form of market, where new values are exchanged. Of course, conversations have been had since time immemorial, but the act of communicating publicly is emerging as a new form of value-exchange.

Conversations, by the common man, used to be held in private, as a secondary, but still necessary act to the primary acts of making, buying, selling, and consuming commodities. Far away was the thought of the agora of Ancient Greece, where conversation-making and opinion-stating was the highest form of social activity. The philosophical, spiritual, scientific and political argumentation at the agora, which was also the commodity market of the Greek cities, fits neatly into the Maussian concept of a market being something else than just M-C-M^ exchanges.

Now, it is not my intention to praise the slave-owning and patriarchal Greeks, but I can't help but make the connection. A modern agora is reemerging, where I can have this opinion, you can read it, critique it, praise it,  respond to it, and share it. Understanding this as a market is understanding it has a new form of value exchange, just like the value exchanges in those old societies often labeled "communistic" were also markets. It is separate from capitalist markets in that it doesn't turn the basic necessities of existence into exchangeable goods and commodities.

Call it a market where losing out isn't that much of a threat to your basic rights.

See you soon, thesis 2.


  1. Nice. Slight word use quibble--"A modern agora is reemerging, WHERE(not were) I can have this opinion"(adjusts blue hair, takes off monocle)

    1. Actually, every instance of "were" after the second block quote, except the one after "communistic", should be given an h. There are five of them. Here, take these: