Those who claimed that the economy could be understood as a system of commodity production also made greatly exaggerated claims about the market’s ability to dissolve older social hierarchies. Henry Sumner Maine’s famous formulation that society was evolving “from status to contract” was echoed by many nineteenth- and twentieth-century social theorists who imagined that older distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, and national origin would soon disappear in the new system of voluntary contracting to buy and sell commodities.5 Even Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto insisted that in the new bourgeois order, “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away. . . .”6 Such assertions were recycled in the twentieth century in Gary Becker’s argument that firms with a taste for discrimination against women or racial minorities would be effectively punished in the marketplace.7
The reality is that the market economy has routinely exploited and intensified many of these old hierarchies. Plantation owners in the Caribbean and the American South used sophisticated management and accounting schemes to organize the labor of their slaves.8 Employers routinely used differences in gender, race, ethnicity, and national origin to play groups of workers off against each other. Meatpacking firms in North Carolina replaced undocumented Latino immigrants with workers from Haiti and Honduras who are in the United States with Temporary Protective Status. And while employers and businesses have alternated between pushing women into the housewife role and pulling them into the labor force, gender inequalities persist.
In sum, the view of the economy as a system of commodity production was never completely accurate. It mistook a part of reality for the whole, with the consequence that both the autonomy and the emancipatory potential of markets were greatly exaggerated. And yet, at another level, there was and continues to be some truth to this formulation. Marx highlighted this in his discussion of “the fetishism of commodities.”9 He argued that the buying and selling of things in the marketplace, including the labor of human beings, had the consequence that people came to misunderstand actual social relations among people as relations among things. People routinely make the calculation, for example, that it is necessary to work another week to purchase a specific product rather than questioning why the owner of my firm earns many times the wage of an average worker. What we learn from Marx is that it is important to examine the actual social relations that lie behind buying and selling in the marketplace.
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