Inicio > Economía marxista, Teoría crítica acumulada > «Market Mystification in Capitalist and Market Socialist Societies»: Bertell Ollman

«Market Mystification in Capitalist and Market Socialist Societies»: Bertell Ollman


Amidst all the turmoil and exultation that marked the final days of the German Democratic Republic, an East German worker was heard to say, «What bothered us most about the Government is that they treated us like idiots». In the capitalist lands, of course, people are first made into idiots, so when they are treated as such few take notice. The difference is one of transparency.

One major virtue of centrally planned societies, then, even undemocratic ones, even ones that don’t work very well, is that it is easy to see who is responsible for what goes wrong. It is those who made the plan. The same cannot be said of market economies which have as one of their main functions to befuddle the understanding of those who live in them. This is essential if people are to misdirect whatever frustration and anger they feel about the social and economic inequality, unemployment, idle machines and factories, ecological destruction, widespread corruption and exaggerated forms of greed that are the inevitable byproducts of market economies. But to the extent this is so, only a critique of market mystification will enable us to put the blame where it belongs, which is to say—on the capitalist market as such and the class that rules over it, in order to open people up to the need for creating a new way of organizing the production and distribution of social wealth.

Most of the debate over the market has concentrated on the economy, particularly on the economic advantages and disadvantages (depending on who is talking) of organizing exchange in this manner. Relatively little attention has been given to the ideas and emotions that arise in market exchanges and their role in reproducing capitalism’s problems as well as in limiting the possibilities for their solution. Without wishing to minimize the importance of this economic debate, it is the latter lacuna to which this essay is addressed. By viewing market ideology as the subjective side of a thoroughly integrated organic whole, however, I also hope to cast a clearer light on the nature of the market overall.

There are, of course, many institutions, conditions, and practises that serve as «factories of ideology». Among the busiest of these are the state, the media, the family, the church, school, the workplace, and wherever it is that sport, entertainment and gambling go on. Capitalism uses all this to make the abnormal appear normal, the unjust appear fair, and the unacceptable appear natural and even desirable. To be sure, not all the ideas, values, etc. that come out of these other sites are compatible with market ways of behaving and thinking. Yet, few people have allowed whatever contradictory pressures are felt—arising from religion, for example—to interfere with their buying and selling, or how they rationalize either. With the explosive expansion of consumerism —of the amount of time, thought, and emotions spent buying and selling and preparing for (including worrying about) and recovering from these activities—the market has become a dominant, if not the dominant, influence on how people act and think throughout the rest of their lives.

The market also stands out from the other sites on which ideology is constructed, with the possible exception of production itself, in relying more on actual experience than on teaching with words in producing its effect. We learn through what we see, hear, and feel, and especially through what we do and what is done to us, that is through our experience. This is because experience usually combines activity with perception and a stronger dose of emotions than accompanies just seeing and hearing on their own. In addition, the ideas that derive from our buying and selling appear to be privately confirmed every time—and that can be several times a day—such behavior succeeds in obtaining what it is we want. While the fact that everyone seems to be acting in the same way provides a certain public confirmation of their truth. Why/how else would/could they behave in these ways? Few of the ideas we acquire during our socialization can count on this much support. The mystifications associated with the market, then, result mainly from people’s experiences of buying and selling (and witnessing others buying and selling) from early youth, with the thousands of ads we absorb every year as children putting down the first foundations. The lies, omissions, and distortions laid on by what some have dubbed the «consciousness industry» only confirms and gives finished form to the world view and more particular beliefs forged by this personal involvement with the market.


What do these market experiences consist of? Before answering, we need to make clear that what is called «the market» really refers to four interrelated markets, one for finished goods or commodities, one for capital, one for currency, and one for labor power. In all four markets, individuals compete with each other to get as much money as they can for what they have to sell, and to pay as little as possible for what they wish to buy. Furthermore, it is obvious that there are important class differences in how people participate in these markets. Only capitalists, for example, buy and sell capital and currency, while labor power is sold exclusively by workers and bought chiefly by capitalists. And while everyone buys finished goods (naturally, not the same ones and not for the same price), most of the selling is done by capitalists, including, of course, small capitalists. Despite such discrepancies, however, there are remarkable similarities in the market experiences of people from all classes.

Among these are—

  1. buying is experienced as the only legitimate way to acquire what you want, and selling—whether labor power, capital, currency, or commodities—as the main way to obtain the money needed to buy anything;

  2. each person acts in the market as an individual rather than as a member of a group (corporations, though legal individuals, may be an exception, though their shareholders are not);

  3. each one decides for himself what he wants to buy and sell;

  4. choices are largely made on the basis of personal interests and felt needs;

  5. everyone can buy something, if he can pay for it, and everyone can sell something, if he owns it;

  6. no one actively restrains another when making or carrying out his or her choice;

  7. the human quality that gets most attention in the market is the act of choosing, however watered down, along with the rational calculation that goes into it;

  8. everything that is sold is recognized as something that is not only owned by someone but separable from him (if he does not own it, he cannot sell it; if it is essential to his identity, he cannot part with it);

  9. everything and virtually everyone (if not yet everything about them) is found to be available for sale, as evidenced by the fact they all carry a price;

  10. because there is not always sufficient demand for the good one has to sell at the price one would like to get (or perhaps at any price), and because there is not always sufficient goods that one would like to buy at the price one would like to pay (or perhaps at any price), one is forced to compete with others in selling and buying anything;

  11. to engage in such competition, let alone be effective in it, people become indifferent to the human needs of their competitors (otherwise, learning that another person’s need for food, a job, a home, or a sale in business is greater than one’s own would inhibit one’s ability to compete);

  12. workers, capital, landed property, and money are all seen to earn money which is then called «wages», «profit», «rent» and «interest» respectively;

  13. as the medium by which prices are paid and goods obtained, money becomes everyone’s prime want and the immediate object for which anything is sold;

  14. with everything carrying a price, quite different things get compared on the basis of their relative cost;

  15. people seek to amass as much money as they can, not only to buy what they want (whether now or in the future) but to enjoy the power, security and status that money brings;

  16. given the generally inadequate amount of money that each of us has and the kind of competition we face, the outcome of most of our efforts in the market is highly uncertain (people can never be sure of getting what they want, no matter how badly they need it); the result is a deep seated anxiety that never completely disappears;

  17. yet, despite all the competition and individual decisions involved in buying and selling, a surprising equilibrium gets reached, so that the market not only appears to be just—because no one interferes with our choices—it also appears to work.

While not the sum total of what everyone experiences in the market, I take this list to contain what typically occurs in the buying and selling of capital, labor power, currency, and especially commodities. Repeated daily, long before most people hold their first job, these experiences produce a very distinctive view of the world. With the market occupying such a central place in people’s lives, it is not surprising that how people behave there gets taken for what human beings are really like, and the same misuse of induction determines how most people understand the nature, the fundamental nature, of whatever else they encounter in the market.

Market Mystification in Capitalist and Market Socialist Societies


  1. No hay comentarios aún.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Deja una respuesta

Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Salir /  Cambiar )

Imagen de Twitter

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Twitter. Salir /  Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Salir /  Cambiar )

Conectando a %s

A %d blogueros les gusta esto: