Markets Are Politics vs. Markets Have Politics

A couple days ago, I stumbled upon an excellent article by economic sociologist and blogger Peter Levin about markets and culture. Levin digs into the contrast between the “markets have culture” and the “markets are culture” positions at the intersection of economic and cultural sociology. The debate had not made much sense to me when I first ran across it studying for prelims, but Levin’s explanation crystallized the differences and offered two nice paths to reconcile them. Briefly, Levin shows how one set of authors look at the way culture constitutes markets in the first place by fixing the kinds of objects and actors involved (through commodification, commensuration, etc.), while another set looks at the social and cultural influences within functioning, relatively stable markets (e.g. the Granovetterian tradition in economic sociology). The first shows how culture constitutes markets, the second shows how culture acts on existing markets in a complementary way to purely economic forces.

So what does this have to do with politics? I think we can usefully analogize the two. Authors looking at the intersection of political sociology and economic sociology have analyzed, on the one hand, how markets are politics, and, on the other, how markets have politics. The markets are politics approach you can associate with the like of Karl Polanyi, who shows that the constitution of markets is political all the way down. The economy is not, and can never be, disembedded from the social world in general, and from the state in particular. Laissez-faire was planned. Etc. The kind of politics referred to here is often macro, state-centered politics, but also can be the little, everyday sorts of politics you might associate with James Scott, or, even cooler, the subtle networks of power of Michel Foucault. Markets are politics because they act on our actions, defining our possibilities and our spaces of possible interaction. So the markets are politics approach covers the big P historical politics of states and the little p politics of the everyday. What’s missing is the middle level – overt, but not state-centered politics.

And that’s where the markets have politics approach comes in. This style, perhaps mostly cleanly seen in recent work on the intersections of social movements and markets such as Brayden King’s stuff, focuses on organized, public politics aimed at markets or market actors – a boycott, or a buycott, or a campaign to push for a certification like Fair Trade or Organic. The markets have politics approach looks at meso-level politics and how they influence markets.

What do you think?

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1 Comment

  1. Peter

     /  May 15, 2009

    Well, I don’t want to speak for the rest of your commentariat, but I found that Levin piece to be just brilliant…