“The Market” Has Made Us Its’ Bitch

fundamentals of the economy

[image credit: http://fuckneoliberalism.blogspot.be/2016/09/the-fundamentals.html]

Let us begin this journey with a series organized around a subject that is a personal favorite of mine. Long before I was an anthropologist, I was a freshly graduated university student with little more than $300 and a degree in “International Studies” to my name. This is all fine and well, it’s almost a rite of passage. What bothered me then, and continues to plague me to this day, was the expectation that in order to be recognized as a legitimate member of society required a “productive” use of my time. Now, most of us would be inclined to ask immediately: “but what exactly do you mean by productive?” To which I would respond “Bravo! You’re already on your way to thinking like an anthropologist.” Productivity may be a loaded concept, difficult to define, but that does not prevent it from trickling into our everyday conversations, our political discourse, and our self-definitions. The point is, we all use this word and we all have an idea about what it means. (By “we all,” I mean we-industrial-capitalist-Westerners. And, in using this moniker, I do not imply consent to the Western industrial capitalist apparatus in its entirety).  It is not enough, however, to concede that we all know what we mean when we say productivity without coming to terms with what productivity as a concept does when unleashed upon the world.  This one concept exists in relationship to many others—most notably work, time, the market, and the economy—which I will unpack in the posts that follow, compiling them into a first blog series titled Productivity in Perspective. This series is inspired by a text message that I received from my father, just hours after Emmanuel Macron was elected France’s newest leader.  His text message (which I will share in the next post) struck a cord with me as an anthropologist, but also as a person who has found productivity to be problematic in my life and in society.

Painting with a broad stroke, concepts like productivity, work, and time are all colored by that infamous entity we refer to as “The Economy.” Therefore, it is within this domain that we will plant ourselves and remain throughout the discussion that follows. As a social and cultural anthropologist, I do not work with numbers, graphs, or projections in the way that economists do. Far too few people understand exactly what an anthropologist does, let alone the contribution that an anthropologist can make when it comes to The Economy. What is clear is that the economy is becoming increasingly enigmatic meanwhile encroaching further into the domain of the social and cultural. It is here that training in anthropology can clear a path through the thicket. As a social science, anthropology uses various methods to explore how the social and cultural context shape understandings, expectations, realities, and actions, and how these change over time. We have something to say about the people who are part of our research because we immerse ourselves in their lives and their worlds, for months or years at a time. Put simply, anthropology purports to understand and then communicate to a wider audience how exactly people go about being people— the infinite materials, words, thoughts, networks, desires, acts, and even other people— they encounter and make use of (or don’t) in the creation of selves and lives. This making of human beings, the production of proper people, is what anthropologist David Graeber estimates life to really be about.1 Therefore, if we are to talk about The Economy and consequently economics (which claims to be a human science), then anthropologists ought to be part of the conversation that deals with the humans who populate the graphs, the projections, and the policies.


Once upon a time, the economy did not exist as a separate domain, but was considered to be the management of the ancient Greek household. Households then were the core units that society was comprised of. As long as households were maintained well, meaning that production covered all that was needed for use, then society was flourishing. For centuries the economy remained as such, until the 15th and 16th centuries when trade expanded significantly and scholars and the state alike considered it necessary to explore the principles that would best guide newly generating economic activity. The interplay between individuals and the state, and what was good for whom, became embedded at the core of the discussions concerning economic order and the intervention of the state. Eventually, by the 18th century, the economy became identified as a sphere set apart from the household.2

Though in some ways the political, social, and economic spheres are neatly demarcated— particularly in public discourse— in reality they cannot be severed so cleanly. The economy is nothing if not tied to the political, and both are intrinsically anchored to the social, which I would argue encompasses all. Generally, when people talk about the social, they refer to the realms of society that do not appear explicitly economic or political— religion, relationships and family life, culture, etc. However, I would argue that the economy and the politics that govern everyday life are social by nature, being that they emerge from and are guided by the human populations that compose them. All that is subsumed under politics, the economy, or better yet—the market—then mutually influences our societies, our cultures, or whatever other term we may use. This point is important because the logic of the market—the set of principles and assumptions that steer reasoning about the way things work—has percolated into the very fibers of what it means to live and be in the world. In effect, the market has become just as much about the production of people as it has the production of goods. Let me explain.

If we stick to our initial assertion that life is concerned with the production of certain kinds of people, then it becomes our task to inquire: which kinds of people are the “right” kinds? And, how is it that people are fashioned in this way? These questions are inherently questions about morality because morality at its simplest is about distinguishing between what is right and what is wrong. Moving forward we must be careful not to omit the moral question from the discussion.

From the beginning, economic philosophers sought understanding as to the nature of the human experience and human behavior. How is it that humans could be said to act and what motivates them to do so? Though answers to these questions varied, the debate centered on whether or not people acted first in their own self-interest and to what extent the government needed to coerce people into working for the common good.3  Out of these debates arose economics as we know it today, spearheaded by Adam Smith who conceived of a market that would organically regulate the value of a good and the labor required to produce it meanwhile generating wealth for individuals and the nation. Fortified by a series of assumptions that date back to Smith, market logic dictates that labor time determines value, humans are innately economic beings with free choice and will seek to maximize gain in any decision, and that the true and natural state of the unfettered market is a balanced equilibrium.4 From where we now stand, all facets of human life are assumed to follow this logic, and economists are presumed capable of analyzing, interpreting, and mapping out human behavior. In a lecture, anthropologist Mark Breusers noted the position of power economists occupy in society as well as the dominance of market logic in our (western) understanding of the world and self.5  It is economists who decide credit card interest rates, the prices for education and healthcare, the prices we pay for certain goods. It is economists who advise on the impact of legislation or crisis, and it is economists who prescribe the policies we live by. Breusers continued, exposing how ideas about the market are reflected in our sense of self and social relations. Success, as it is currently understood in western capitalist society, is being able to commodify oneself— to invest in oneself, maximize your personal utility and contribute to the greater good. Decisions, including those with regards to family and relationships, should be considered in light of cost-benefit analysis. Is being in this relationship worth the cost? What do I gain if I say yes to this? What am I doing today to contribute to society? In fact, there is no limit to what can be analyzed through this utility-calculating lens. Value and utility are constantly being weighed and measured. Furthermore, today’s global market has become a totalizing system of measurement that subjects everything on the planet to a single standard of value that can be evaluated in market terms.6

Let us here return to my statement that the market has become just as much about the production of people as the production of goods. If value is assessed in market terms, then a person’s value must also be accorded by the market. What this means practically is that in order to have value, a person must produce something that can be bought and sold on the marketplace, and if not, then the benefit of that person’s endeavors must somehow outweigh the cost of not being on the market. Therefore, the market works to produce people in the sense that it shapes expectations about how one must be in order to be recognized in society. What’s more, these obligations appear natural and self-evident because one of the foundational assumptions of the market is that it works autonomously according to laws of nature, obscuring the abundance of legislation to which it owes its livelihood.7  Not only does the market appear to be self-evident, but also gains power from capitalism’s claim as the only viable world order.8 Thus individual survival appears to be dependent on the continuation of the market and people feel no choice but to conform to its edicts.

And so, we find ourselves in the position of valuing ourselves and our work as can be measured in terms of market value. I have never felt quite comfortable with this idea, though I myself celebrate my “productive” days and describe myself in terms of what I produce in the world. Having briefly outlined the ways in which our lives are dominated by market thinking and subsumed by the economic sphere, I will spend the remainder of this blog series illustrating these points with a specific case, turning a critical eye on the notion of productivity and how it works as a disciplinary mechanism regulating much of our lives.

  1. Graeber, David. 2011. “Value, Politics And Democracy In The United States”. Current Sociology 59 (2): 186-199. doi:10.1177/0011392110391151.
  2. Breusers, Mark. 2017. Foundations Of Economics And Economic Anthropology. Course Notes. Leuven.
  3. Wilk, R.R. 1996. Economies and cultures. Foundations of economic anthropology. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
  4. Breusers, Mark. 2017. “History Of Thinking About Economies And Economics”. Lecture, Leuven, Belgium.
  5. Breusers, Mark. 2017. “History Of Thinking About Economies And Economics”. Lecture, Leuven, Belgium.
  6. Graeber, David. 2001. Toward an anthropological theory of value: the false coin of our dreams. New York: Palgrave.
  7. Vallas, Steven. 2013. Work. Oxford: Wiley.
  8. Van Wolputte, Steven. 2017. “Neoliberalism.” Lecture, Leuven, Belgium.