Many markets are on hold, as societies such as ours fight the pandemic. But how else might things be valued, and how much of that alternative could survive when economic normality returns?


The primary economic fact about the coronavirus crisis is how it has brought existing class divisions into much sharper light. The New York Times expressed things most succinctly:

A kind of pandemic caste system is rapidly developing: the rich holed up in vacation properties; the middle class marooned at home with restless children; the working class on the front lines of the economy, stretched to the limit by the demands of work and parenting, if there is even work to be had.

For those of us who find themselves in the middle of these three categories, there is a mixture of deep frustration with the monotony of the situation, with relief and gratitude that we do not find ourselves confronting the hazards of those in the third of them. None of what I write here discounts how many people remain locked into capitalist markets (especially in the United States), only now with their health on the line. But it remains worth reflecting on how the world looks once market-based exchange is no longer the primary yardstick of value, as many people have been doing from across the political spectrum.

The starting point of the ‘new’ economic sociology that developed out of social network analysis in the United States during the 1980s, around the example of Harrison White and the landmark papers of Mark Granovetter, was that markets aren’t ’embedded’ in society (as Polanyians like to argue), but that markets are social institutions. Granovetter showed this most famously with labour markets, but any market is amenable to this approach, and the emergence of ‘social studies of finance’ in the late 1990s was also indebted to the ‘new’ economic sociology, via Michel Callon.

The social character of markets has become visceral and undeniable in 2020. The physical act of buying groceries has become fraught with risk of contagion between buyer and seller, and amongst themselves; the social nature of markets for entertainment, food and drink has meant that entire small business and cultural sectors have had to be closed down, at least temporarily; anyone who can avoid ‘going to work’ now does so. The crisis has made it impossible to ignore that the exchange of goods for money, and of labour for money, bring people into often sustained social contact with one another. For this reason, it has had to be cancelled, limited or digitised wherever possible. As a result, we have been shown quite how far things were from 1990s  predictions of ‘virtualism’ and ‘the death of distance’, though are also now belatedly hastening their advance.

Because markets are social, and not as neo-classical economics imagines, they have had to be ‘furloughed’. With the caveat of where I started, this has created the surreal experience and spectacle of exchange value – the value represented by the price system – going on holiday for a while. Marx argued that commodities (things which are produced solely to be sold) exert a kind of mystical hold on our consciousness, resulting in a situation where we come to believe that material things possess greater autonomy than human beings. But with many spheres of exchange suspended, this spell is briefly broken: things and humans are now on an equal footing, albeit equally trapped. This is witnessed both in consumption and production, with some undeniably positive effects.

Beyond exchange

For those middle classes “marooned at home with restless children”, the overwhelming question is what to do with all this time, when it can’t be used on going out, consuming and forms of social exchange. Streaming and video games pick up a lot of the slack. But other alternatives to consumerism have had to be found, which often morph into production: cycling, baking, gardening, creative activities. During this exchange value holiday, in amongst the tedium and the stress, I occasionally find myself feeling unexpectedly moved by or grateful for something ordinary and free but nevertheless valuable: a piece of music on the radio, good weather, the new blossom on the trees. The environmentalist demand that we abandon consumerism for post-materialist or ecological values is being heard more widely. The tragedy of being unable to use public parks fully is especially hard to bear at this time.

Then there is the question of how to value work, once the labour market is no longer the main basis for the distribution of social recognition, and the state has effectively nationalised much of it. Capitalist societies are now virtually united in recognition of the fact that workers in essential services, such as supermarkets, postal, care work, utilities mainteance and above all health, have been taken for granted and underpaid for too long. The distinction between these jobs and many of the ‘bullshit’ ones that David Graeber criticises now appears plain. Pay differentials can be debated and criticised more openly and widely under these circumstances, and it seems a uniquely good opportunity to raise the question of progressive tax increases on income and wealth, as Thomas Piketty has sought to do over the past few years. For the time being, there is a palpable sense of solidarity between public and ‘essential’ workers, and it is worth trying to remember how it feels.

It’s not just markets that have lost their grip on society, but instruments of neoliberal modernisation as well. The most significant of these is clearly the ideology of welfare reform, which since the 1980s has assumed that the key problem facing the welfare state is ‘dependency’ and fraud. Where the typical claimant is morally framed as lazy and deceitful, that shapes the entire architecture of the benefit system, and was pivotal to the justification of austerity from 2010 onwards. But with that moral imaginary destroyed (at least for the time being), other ways of conceiving mutual dependence and vulnerability come to the fore, as witnessed in the widespread demand for a universal basic income. Once ‘dependency’ and fraud cease to be non-negotiable problems to be solved (because dependency is universal, and fraud vanishingly rare), new vistas open up for policy reform.

In addition to this, it has also struck me how parents have responded to primary school closures (I think secondary schools may be a different issue for various reasons). Amongst the considerable difficulties of being stuck at home with small children, finding them things to do, supporting them emotionally and so on, nobody I know has expressed any real concern about their educational progress. This is partly a middle class privilege, of feeling confident that one has enough time and informal ‘cultural capital’ to sustain one’s child, but it also reveals that a great deal of the ‘progress’ established in primary schools under neoliberalism is of relative value, not absolute value. It is all about measuring children relative to their classmates and measuring schools relative to other schools – i.e. it’s about competition, not flourishing. When the competition ceases for a time, there is no intrinsic concern for a child’s well-being, indeed there may be opportunities to expand a child’s horizons beyond the demands of SATs.

But this exchange value holiday still leaves two questions unresolved. Firstly, what will be the valuation scheme that fills the void? And secondly, how much of that valuation scheme will survive, when the holiday ends?

Capturing use value

Many have made the analogy between the present crisis and wartime economies, where market values (prices) are subordinated to use values. The example of the First World War indicated to the Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath that ‘calculation in kind’ (focused on the qualitative of things) could be more efficient than monetary calculation, spawning the ‘socialist calculation debate’ that later inspired the development of new, neoliberal defences of the free market. A similar precedent is being set today, where medical equipment needs producing at a rate that the market will not support. It places huge strains on state capacity to manage aspects of production and distribution that it has spent much of the past fifty years trying to distance itself from.

Alternatively, James Meadway has suggested that the problem is the opposite of that presented by war. War required an escalation of overall economic production (leading to new interest in GDP, as an indicator of collective potential), whereas the difficulty now is to de-escalate or de-mobilise people. It’s the switching off of most of the economy that is the central policy challenge. But even so, this still casts a critical perspective on the problem of what and who do we need, while the hiatus is underway. Some version of ‘socialist calculation’ is required, whether we are trying to put far more people to work in the national interest, or far fewer.

For the time being, the definition of ‘essential’ services and work has emerged fairly haphazardly, as one would expect. We all recognise we need to eat and be kept alive. Children and the infirm need to be cared for. From this kernel of instinct, a clumsy sort of new political economy has emerged. What’s happening is the fleshing out of a Polanyian vision that many on the Left (such as Nancy Fraser) have been asserting with increasing vigor since the Global Financial Crisis. See, for example, CRESC’s 2013 Manifesto for the Foundational Economy, which sought to build outwards from those services (in public and private sector) which we cannot do without and cannot be off-shored.

Alongside this, there really ought to be a yet more vigorous challenge to the levels of inequality in a society such as Britain. It’s now well-known that, once their needs are met, people start to care more about status (a relative measure) than absolute welfare, and that life satisfaction ceases to correlate to income above around £70,000. It’s also known that comparatively rich people can feel just as aggrieved (and Brexit would suggest even more so!) by the relative gains of those above them, as poor people can. For these various reasons, a smaller spread of income inequality produces less resentment overall. Instead, inequality should be sufficient to reflect some differentials in social status. This issue was confronted by Robin Blackburn when considering the future of socialism after communism, where he argued that entrepreneurship is entirely conceivable in a society organised around social need: “In a generally egalitarian socialist society quite small differences of pay could be quite highly valued by certain individuals.”

Then there is the rediscovery of Adam Smith’s basic insight, later abandoned by economics, that if markets are social institutions, then they must also be moral institutions. Once one’s attachment to a local pub, sole-trader or shop is represented in social terms, then it also comes to appear like one of mutual dependency and sympathy. Everything that economists consigned as ‘externalities’ to the price system is suddenly essential to our economy. For the time being, the obligation to keep paying people where possible, regardless of such crude concepts as ‘consumer satisfaction’ or ‘value for money’, has become a moral norm. Sympathy for the check-out assistant or the bin collector has become normalised. Amongst everything else, we are witnessing the boundary between charity and the market, the gift and the exchange, dissolving in all the ways that economic anthropologists have long tried to point out.

There is, however, a rival system, that one shouldn’t bet against. This is provided by a combination of the platform economy with the generalised forms of credit rating, that Michel Feher sees as the accidental achievement of neoliberalism. The new architecture of digital surveillance that has been built over the past 15 years means that it is technically possible to quantify the ‘value’ of individuals, independently of their market value as wage laborers. The dystopian statist version of this is the Chinese ‘social credit score’; the dystopian capitalist version of it is extreme financialisation, in which all social behaviour is judged in terms of what it reflects of an individual’s ‘credit-worthiness’. Either way, moral reputation (honesty, industry, citizenship, you name it) can be rendered calculable, once data is being scraped from all manner of interfaces without limit.

In practice, we can already see how dependent we are on platforms such as Amazon, Whatsapp and Facebook, and how much more dependent we become once non-digital markets and spaces are restricted. These are truly social utilities, which ought in principle to make them targets for collective ownership. But with their unprecedented calculative and surveillance capacities, they also offer a corporate-led alternative to neoliberalism (as I discuss in this paper), which renders ‘social value’ calculable in the ways that Neurath hoped socialism would do in the 1920s, but which free marketeers have always denied is possible. Platform social-ism is an entirely viable future model for our economy, which may alleviate a social crisis but exacerbate a democratic one.

When the holiday’s over

We probably all recognise the feeling of being on holiday and planning a new start upon returning. I’m going to write a novel! I’m going to get into avant-garde music! I’m going to start volunteering! Unlike many holidays, the current crisis will not leave everything as it is, but we should be wary of trusting our present affective states, hopes and critiques as a guide to the world that will emerge in due course. One of the only certainties is that it will be collectively poorer, at least financially, for most liberal democracies. The fact that the state becomes more active during an emergency tells us nothing about whether that activity is desirable or how it will behave afterwards.

But there are small sources of hope nevertheless. Firstly, this talk of ‘essential workers’, clapping the NHS and new way of seeing low-wage service sector employees will leave some kind of residue. One of the more useful insights provided by behaviour change experts is that behaviours often drive norms, not the other way around – if you ban smoking in public places, people then become more anti-smoking in their attitudes. The present emergency has forced a vast behaviour change programme upon the country, through closing schools, restaurants and public events. Any change of norms is happening in its wake. This means that the difference between the bus-driver (risking their life for £10.20/hour) and the advertising exec (producing fake needs for twenty times that) is writ large in actions, and not merely being spoken of.

The fact that elite liberal institutions, such as The Financial Times, are now expressing views that border on socialism will also be significant. Unlike the stream of nonsense that emanates from Donald Trump, these sorts of statements can’t be so easily denied or reversed in the future. At the very least, they (alongside the current emergency labour market policies) will become markers or data-points that can be used in the future, making it impossible to argue that certain policies are ‘nice but unrealistic’. Ideologies work by presenting themselves as non-negotiable. Once they’ve been shown to be malleable, the logic of ‘no alternative’ ceases to work rhetorically.

Equally, a vast number of people suddenly understand more about their own dependency and vulnerability, in ways that will have been stressful and therefore unforgettable. This isn’t to say that this is ‘good for people’, far from it, but simply that attitudes towards things like the welfare state and taxation could conceivably shift in a way that is more forgiving of people’s weaknesses. The visceral and local dimensions of this crisis mean that it isn’t merely a matter of ‘ideas’ and ‘policy’, and the way out of it won’t be found through some shift in intellectual hegemony (of the sort that led to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s). Nor is the pain easily contained in specific groups (such as students and benefit claimants, as George Osborne sought to do after 2010). The market will eventually return as one of the central ways in which people engage in public space and public life, but the monopoly of exchange value over social values may be a little harder to restore.