Market Imperative

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Ellen Meiksins Wood:

"There is a distinctively Marxist way of focussing on the market and competition, which I’ve tried to identify in a kind of shorthand by talking about the difference between market opportunities and market imperatives, or market-enablement and market-dependence.

What, then, are the political consequences of thinking in terms of market-enablement instead of market-dependence?" (


Ellen Meiksins Wood:

"Market-Dependence vs. Market-Enablement

I’ve been arguing for a long time that we need to think of the capitalist market not as an opportunity but as an imperative.1 I’ve also argued that, as familiar as this idea may seem to Marxists, we haven’t been consistent in pursuing all its implications. So let me briefly go over the basic argument again, before moving on to some of its political implications.

To understand the market as imperative, we have to understand not just how people have been able to respond to the capitalist market but how they have been forced to do so. Capitalism doesn’t just allow people to avail themselves of the market in the pursuit of profit. It forces them to enter the market for the most basic conditions of survival and self-reproduction—and that applies to both workers and capitalists.

In conditions where the market has this historically unprecedented role in organizing human life and social reproduction, where people must go through the market to gain access to the most basic means of self-reproduction, the provision of all goods and services is governed by certain imperatives: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labor productivity. Under such conditions, producing use values becomes just an inconvenient medium for generating exchange value, so the primary objective of capitalist production is not the provision of goods and services at all but the self-expansion of capital. Human needs and wants are always subordinate to capital accumulation and subject to all the crises and contradictions associated with an anarchic competitive market.

No other system of class exploitation has been mediated by the market or driven by its specific imperatives. In pre-capitalist societies, the market was not the medium of self-reproduction, for either direct producers or exploiters. Direct producers were generally in possession of the means of production—typically peasants in possession of land—and exploitation took the form of direct surplus extraction by coercive force. To increase their surpluses, exploiters needed to improve not the productivity of the producers’ labor so much as the effectiveness of their own coercive powers of appropriation.

Only capitalism has a system of exploitation in which exploiters depend on the market to gain access to labor power and to realize their profits. Only capitalist appropriation depends on market competition and therefore on the systematic improvement of labor productivity. Only capitalism, then, depends on constantly improving the forces of production. And only in capitalism is it necessary to grow just to stay in the same place.

Let me now formulate my argument about opportunities and imperatives in a slightly different way. Let me suggest that there’s a fundamental difference between saying that people in capitalist society are market-dependent and saying that they’re market-enabled. For example, conventional explanations of how capitalism emerged talk about how the market itself was enabled, how the market was liberated to grow and to operate freely according to its own internal principles, once impediments had been removed.2When that happened, these arguments suggest, people were enabled, they were empowered, by the market: given unimpeded access to the market, they were enabled to pursue their own interests, to achieve prosperity by hard work or commercial skill, to supply society’s needs and wants in the most efficient way.

Now you might think that Marxists would never say that people were market-enabled in that way. But Marxism too has produced its own versions of the conventional account, explaining how capitalism emerged when the bourgeoisie, or, in other versions, rural commodity producers, were freed from feudal constraints. We’re told more about how people were enabled to avail themselves of market opportunities than about how they came to be market-dependent and subject to market imperatives." (

=More Information-

  1. See also: Market Dependence Theory
  2. Wood's book: Empire of Capital