Many anarchists and libertarians today insist that [free[d]] markets are not at all problematic in society, it’s just capitalism that is the problem. This includes David Graeber, speaking from a historical anthropologist perspective, examining the markets of China and the Middle East, for example. While there are certainly historical examples of functioning free markets, historical examples do not imply present promise. Free markets cannot function as a (ubiquitous) basis for social activity without resulting in consumerism and superfluity in the context of today’s technologies. There are three important premises to make before discussing the main point, here:
It is always important when discussing something as contested as free markets to ensure the language I’m using is clear: Markets are a [transferic] institution where the shifting of social relations takes the form of the swapping of rights to physical goods or use of services. In simpler terms, it’s a social process of pairs of people (or groups) trading goods or services free of outside coercion. It is key to note that swapping/trading/exchanging is the primary and defining mechanism of markets as opposed to any other transferic institution; free market proponents will not fail to point out immediately that a truly free market allows us to create whatever social relations we want, but this is not what distinguishes a free market from freedom itself. Freedom is when we can create whatever social relations we want; if “free market” literally means “freedom”, then there would be no point in distinguishing the two of them. Free markets are about swapping things, and not merely about freedom.
It is also important to note that there is a certain degree of objectivity in value. Some proponents of free markets claim (as a premise for more sordid ideas) that all value is subjective (citing the “disproof” of the labor theory of value as proof of this subjective theory). This is really nothing more than the observation that “value” (though what they are actually thinking of is prices) can vary through time and space and relationally; someone who has just eaten “values” (is willing to pay for) food less than someone who is hungry. However, the value of food, along with water and shelter is objective: you either value food, water, and shelter, or you die of starvation, dehydration, or exposure. Willingness to pay has little relation to value, since it is affected by these exogenous factors, and others such as ability to pay. A device that lets you access infotainment can never really be more valuable than food; food permits survival which is a premise to all other value–a dead person cannot value anything, even the ability to obtain food. Someone who lives hand-to-mouth cannot reasonably be expected to obtain anything besides the necessities, and if they did, we would call this irrationality. Subjectivity only enters the equation when we are able to ignore objective values, such as when a person has plenty of income or ability to self-provision to ignore the need to obtain these objectively-valuable things.
Finally, it is important to point out that most of our objectively valuable goods (shelter being the biggest exception) are consumed at some non-zero rate. We need to consume food and water, we can’t simply use it. Clothing gets worn out or stops fitting eventually. There is always a nonzero demand for these items and there must always be a nonzero supply for them. We certainly have the ability to produce durable goods that could provide us with these objectively-valuable goods without needing a continuous input of human labor. However, whether or not we produce these autonomous durable goods, the need remains for them to be produced continuously, because we need to consume them continuously.
With these premises, let’s look at how markets work in their context:
To contrast from objectively-valuable goods, subjectively-valuable goods seldom need to be consumed. Transportation, communication, social spaces, beauty, these are all subjectively-valuable things. They are things that we don’t really need for basic survival, but that we need for a fulfilling life; these things can all be provided with durable goods, and their use can be accomplished without consuming much of anything (if anything at all). We are capable of providing transportation to people without needing to release dozens of brand-new automobile designs and produce thousands of them every year. We are able to provide communication to people without having 800 different smartphone models that are not built with durability, longevity, reparability, or upgradeability in mind. The list goes on and the examples get no more interesting than this.
The problem of consumerism starts from the fact that markets require exchange in order to function. A continuous need to consume objectively-valuable goods means that there is a continuous need to produce things to exchange for these goods. The only way this can be avoided is through the use of non-market transferics. Market economics requires the principle of scarcity under its heels to form the foundations of its incessant production. Human wants must be unlimited to justify the use of exchange to obtain objectively-valuable goods in exchange for increasingly-durable subjectively-valuable goods. If there were some limit to human wants, there would clearly be some point at which there is nothing that could be freely exchanged for the objectively-valuable goods. There are only two possible outcomes from this: Provisioning these goods using non-market transferics, or turning durable goods into consumption goods.
Clearly, today we have chosen the latter: Durable goods have lost much of their longevity over the last century, whether through obsolescence, fashion, or simply the reduction in their quality. As people’s appetite for stuff becomes satiated, as the processes that produce these objectively-valuable goods become so efficient their cost falls to trivial levels, there is an ever-greater need for luxury production to accelerate in pace. If we depend on exchange, there is no point at which everything will just shake out and this process will cease or become efficient. The need to continuously consume goods means there is a need to continuously produce goods of equivalent price. When human ingenuity is finite, this eventually means producing things of inferior quality or durability to make up for the lack of things to exchange for that which we must consume. The only way we can fix the problem is by leaving markets behind for other transferic institutions.