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CPEL Seminar series - 3 November 2021

Marketization: how capitalist exchange disciplines workers and subverts democracy?

Speakers: Dr Charles Umney (Leeds University Business School) and Professor Ian Greer (Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labour Relations)

Event 3 November 2021 13:30 – 15:00 (Uk time)


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Participation at the event is free of charge, but registration is required. 


Abstract: In this talk we present a theory of marketization and its effects. By marketization, we mean the creation, extension, and intensification of price-based competition, whether through government initiatives or business decisions. While the empirical effects of marketisation are often immediately evident, various academic traditions understate its importance. For example, comparative institutional theory has tended to focus on delineating areas where marketization is presumed to be unlikely (as in the well-worn distinction between “coordinated” and “liberal” market economies). Polanyians and believers in “Social Europe” have argued that marketization is always likely to be limited or pushed back by social countermovements. Classical Marxist theory has generally emphasised concentration and centralisation of capital rather than the intensification of market competition. But in fact marketization is more prevalent, persistent, and pernicious than these theories may lead us to expect. Certainly, there is plenty of discussion of “the market” as an abstract entity. For instance, advocates of value theory have often presented it as a totalising social force from which there is little escape. For many liberals the market is invoked as a benign organising principle. But these sources often leave no room for a more empirical study of the concrete ways in which price competition is actually engineered in the real world. Who creates markets, through which mechanisms, and with what outcomes? We base our argument on five years of interviews in five European countries and with EU-level administrators, concentrated in healthcare, welfare-to-work services, and the arts. We show how dedicated European states have been in engineering market competition. They have laboriously created new institutions and procedures to instigate and govern competition, persisting in the face of escalating costs and bureaucratic complexity, not to mention various damaging social outcomes. We argue that marketization initiatives can be understood as a means of class discipline: they have subjected workers to the effects of competition while protecting capital from them. Class discipline is important to capitalist states, and this partially explains why marketisation remains on the agenda despite its evident problems. Moreover, marketization has created new procedures and mechanisms which are insulated from democratic accountability, while also disorganising existing institutions that might limit price competition. Nonetheless, plenty of examples suggest that marketisation remains a dysfunctional and brittle process which can be effectively challenged “from below”.

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