Markets and Commons

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1. Adam Arvidsson

Throughout the Late Middle Ages and the early modern period, the guilds along withfraternities and social movements would support the development of a modern civil society,along with imaginations of modernity centred on ideas of freedom and justice (Black, 1984).Such early commonism was based on a vision of a more egalitarian commons based marketsociety. Here market exchange and communal sharing were thought to be complementary,and commercial exchange was understood as an integral component of a new civil societyfounded on reciprocity, freedom and a new kind of secular individualism. This vision wassupported by the guilds and new universities that acted as sources of legal and institutional innovation. It also affected the development Franciscan economic thought and inspired innovations like the Monti di Pietà and the rural monti frummentari that combined anembrace of markets with new kinds of solidarity and reciprocity. Arguably it remained influential also for 18th century thinkers like Genovesi, Ferguson and Smith, who envisioneda kind of market society that was radically different from the industrial capitalism that wasemerging around them as they wrote. This tradition became an important source of the ‘protestant ethic’ dear to Weber and his followers (Linebaugh, 2008, cf. Bruni and Zamagni,2004, Nuccio, 1983, Rothschild, 2013)." (

2. Adam Arvidsson:

"Contemporary capitalism is increasingly organized around large and powerful corporations and financial actors and, lately, platform unicorns like Uber or Amazon. They do not engage in market competition as much as they seek to sit on and own markets. In the 20th century, and ever more so in the last decades, capitalism has come to rest on monopoly power, rather than market competition (Baran & Sweezy, 1966, Foster, 2011).In this situation, a Braudelian perspective is more plausible. To Braudel capitalism is not the same thing as markets. Instead, capitalism developed historically as a series of attempts to control and regulate markets on the part of small cliques of powerful interests, like the Venetian and Genoese traders who fought it out over the control of trading routes in the 13th century, the large agricultural entrepreneurs that took control over the wool trade in 16th century England, or the Italian bankers who shaped the European financial economy in the 14th to 15th centuries. Markets are universal in recorded history going back at least as far asthe origins of urban civilization. Capitalism is more recent, and is usually imposed ‘from above’ in some way, mostly via the exercise of state power. This perspective opens up for the possibility of non-capitalist markets. Braudel acknowledges this, looking at the Italian textile districts in Prato while composing the final words to this three volume work on Capitalism and Civilization, he hinted at the persistence of such a mid-level economy, different from ‘true capitalism’ in its small-scale nature, its egalitarian nature, and its vicinity to the social fabric; to the longue durée of everyday life (Braudel, 1984:630, cf. Deka, 2018). Marx also discusses such pre-capitalist market-oriented relations of production as ‘petty production’ (or ‘petty industry’). He defines this as a condition where capital concentration has not yet proceeded beyond the limits of individual property; where ‘the labourer is the private owner of his own means of labour set in action by himself: the peasant of the land which he cultivates, the artisan of the tool which he handles as a virtuoso’ (Marx, 1976:541). While private property of the means of production remains an essential precondition, contemporary historians of ‘alternatives to mass production’ has stressed how such petty production has also relied on various forms of commons (Sabel & Zetlin, 1985). This can be a matter of the common skills of the Marshallian industrial district where ‘the mysteries of the trade become no mysteries, but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously’(Marshall, 1922 [1891]:271), or the ‘sharing; and ‘community’ painstakingly achieved by contemporary co-working spaces (Bandinelli, 2019). In other words, market oriented petty production has not simply been based on private ownership of the means of production, but has also drawn on various kinds of commons. " (


* Article: Capitalism and the Commons. By Adam Arvidsson.Theory, Culture & Society, 2019