The Ideology of "The Market"


[On sexism and cronyism in "free market capitalism" and the demand for equitable redistribution. *RON*]

Stumbling and Mumbling, 22 July 2017

One curiosity of the row over top BBC pay has been the attempts of past and present BBC bosses to defend high pay by invoking “the market”. “There is a market for Jeremy Vines, there is a market for John Humphrys” says James Purnell. “We operate in a market place.” Pay is based on a “market-based calculation” say Mark Damazer (9” in). “The BBC does not exist in a market on its own where it can set the market rates.If we are to give the public what they want, then we have to pay for those great presenters and stars" says Lord Hall.

However, the “market” here is a queer one. There aren’t many firms who want to hire someone to read the ten o’clock news, and there aren’t many who can supply the proven skills to do so. It’s a thin market. In such a market, we should understand pay as being set by a bargaining process in which power is exercised on both sides.

Talk of the “market” is therefore what Georg Lukacs called reification – the process whereby “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity.’” It obfuscates the fact that wages are set by the power of one person over another. Such obfuscation serves a profoundly ideological function; it effaces the fact that the capitalist economy is based upon power relationships.

Of course, BBC presenters aren’t unusual here. It’s generally the case that the labour “market” is in fact a power relationship.

For example, (many) capitalists have bargaining power and (many) workers do not. This means that, generally speaking, capitalists exploit labour.

And the “market” has given us a relative decline in low-skilled pay since the 1980s. This isn’t wholly due to technical developments but to changes in power, such as the decline of trades-unions and welfare state and adoptions of surveillance technologies that have reduced the efficiency wage element of their pay.

Similarly, “market forces” have given us stagnating real wages over the last ten years. But again talk of the “market” disguises what are in fact dysfunctional emergent features of capitalism – the stagnant labour productivity that has arisen from, among other things, low innovation and capital spending.

What’s more, “demand” is in part an ideological construct. Bosses are well-paid in part because of an ideological belief in the transformative power of leadership – a belief that isn’t wholly backed by facts. And carers and cleaners are poorly paid because of an ideology which devalues their work.

Talk of “the market” is often question-begging; it begs the question of how, exactly, prices and wages are determined in the market. The answer usually involves some element of power.

Now, Hall, Damazer and Purnell are not stupid men and they probably fancy themselves – not perhaps wholly without justification - as among the more liberal and humane members of the ruling cadre. And yet they guilty of an unreflecting inability to see that market relationships are also power relationships. In this of course, they are not unusual. I’ve long complained that centrists and “liberals” have a blindspot about power; we saw just this in this week’s Taylor report for example.

This blindspot, of course, serves the interests of the rich well. The BBC is not impartial.

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