The Conservative government recently announced their Spring budget via the near universally derided Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. My loathing for the Tories is undisguised but when they announce their budget for the year ahead it is time to pay particular attention as it describes, better than any rhetoric, what the beliefs and ideologies of Conservatives are and most importantly where their faith lies which is (and seemingly always has been) in that strange and ephemeral thing: The Market. This reliance, even dependence, on The Market demands a close examination of what it actually is, ironically something it resolutely resists. Economists, theorists and sociologists have spent centuries attempting to understand the abstract notion of one country’s market going to a market where other country’s markets are; a Common Market or a Market for Markets. Something that conjures the image in my mind of a town market of wooden stalls selling fish, fruit and vegetables piled on top of one another.
But The Market is somewhere we all sit and something all our lives are irrevocably tied to. Any job we have is apparently part of this metaphorical Market place and anything we buy is defined by this Market. What most interests me about The Market is its abstract (ultimately fictional) nature those invested in it, literally i.e. all of us are, by involvement or association, also abstracted. Dehumanised. We can see this in the language used to describe anything as soon as The Market is involved: people who buy products are ‘Consumers’, a work of creative art like a novel is a ‘Unit’, the Employed & Unemployed are reduced to a figure with no context as to the circumstances of their Employment status. In relation to this and most interestingly The Market actually responds poorly if people are humanised or a company caters to this need for context surrounding the individual that purchases goods or services. JC Penny in the States removed all reduction sales, offers and coupons from its stores and instead passed those onto the shopper by favouring low prices. It did away with attempting to fool customers with deals and treated them as adults with a respect that they would appreciate in a move to simply lower prices. Sadly, sales dropped and their Market share plummeted straight after. EA with the release of their videogame Titanfall 2 at the end of 2016, decided to buck the trend of pure profit online sales after the initial purchase of a game, seen in things like Season Passes and MicroTransactions that allow for further downloadable content, by doing away with these and treating customers with maturity and not attempting to milk further cash from a game that would already cost $60. Yet despite critical praise and a more than favourable audience response, EA found the title under performing in sales and no doubt the bucking of the Market Trend will be blamed for a significant hit in profits in their pre-Christmas sales. In short, if choice or personal/individual response is introduced to The Market it shuns this.
Yet the curious dichotomy remains that we talk about The Market as if it is a living entity or in some way is aware; it ‘responds’, it ‘moves’, it ‘dictates’. Marx in the Grundrisse says that Capital – and make no mistake when we refer to The Market we are explicitly referring to Capitalism – cannot abide limits, it has to turn it into a barrier which it then circumvents or transcends. This language of Capital consciously not abiding resistance further muddies the water by personifying The Market further. Some say this is because The Market is run by people, nations, that this anthropomorphises occurs but as stated above The Market ‘resists’ the introduction of consciousness or choice or simply our humanity. Which begs the question: what is it? Well the official answer is that it is a systemic process, an algorithm dictated by the interactions of other financial algorithms. Yet a market ‘personality’ exists, we see it in the post Referendum plummet of the Sterling and most interestingly in the crash of 2008-09 when, in a letter to the queen, leading Economists and business leaders said they “failed to account for Systemic Risk”, which put bluntly means they didn’t expect The Market to change its mind. Yes we know the crash was due to hedge funds, loans and credit reaching a critical mass but the simple fact this was not planned for or foreseen indicates an element of whim (or if you don’t agree with that then its simply supreme idiocy on the part of financiers and business leaders). Beyond this the fact that whole governments and nations bow to the deference to the all powerful, all knowing MARKET could easily be transposed to a religious context replacing that respective deity with any other. Yet I doubt any modern economist or politician would accept that they are kneeling at the alter of Financial Consciousness. It might be easier to understand both the actions of the Market (and by extension any deity’s) actions by looking at the more Economically palatable idea of Automation.
The word Automaton comes from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning self, therefore meaning ‘acting of oneself’. Today it is used when referring to robots or machines acting as people but there is an interesting legal obfuscation in the definition of the word. If you were to kill a passenger in a car because you sneezed and caused a crash this can be legally defined as ‘Death by Automata’ and you avoid personal culpability, a reflex or ‘knee-jerk reaction’ is an automated response, conscious thought and brain function is not involved when a doctor taps your knee and your lower leg springs forward. Most of our definitions of Automation rely on an attachment to, if not a reliance on, human conscious thoughts or at least our human abilities, so the idea of automation within The Market is still problematically human with its capricious changes yet continually resists our introduction. Is this independence from, yet reliance upon humanity and our choices from The Market a sign of a form of intelligence?
Artificial Intelligence has long ceased to be a question of if but when. The greatest minds in the world are trained on developments in this arena as whilst it could vastly increase our quality of life it conversely presents substantial threats to our existence not to mention the moral implications of a conscious mind not bound by the frailties of the human body. We already talk to Siri on our phones and algorithms on Google already predict our diaries, our journeys and destinations, what we buy and who we want to call. The Market is an entirely abstract entity now, the cash in our hand’s worth is dictated by digits being changed in millions of computers across the globe. We have already personified it and left it in charge of our careers and livelihoods to our great cost as we repeatedly discover but still defer to the apparently objective wisdom of this Automated System. This objectivity is supposedly The Market’s greatest strength but objectivity can be a dangerous thing. Objectivity is what we see in the animal kingdom where parents neglect or actively kill their offspring, where many animals are cannibals, or in nature where every volcano, tsunami and earthquake has no subjective interest. And need it be reminded of the existential dilemma presented by the total objectivity of the cosmos in which we sit. Objectivity provides science with some of our greatest innovations yet continually confronts us with moral dilemmas as a direct result of that objectivity coming into conflict with our human subjectivity. Scientists must often intervene with subjectivity on the objective experimentation with foetuses for discoveries within the field of stem cell research, the moral discomfort of using dead foetuses to further the health and prosperity of the human race. As such, is a purely objective Automated System really the best thing to guide our lives and political discourse?
The biggest concern, as mentioned above, is how closely this all relates to magical thinking akin to religious faith. A true regression to the pre-enlightenment era where we create causal relationships where perhaps there are none. We know this Market exists but are its movements and changes a response to our input or vice versa? Is the Market responding to titanic shifts in political power, business mergers, credit sales or are we just responding to The Market shifts?
With Thatcher’s faith in The Market still casting its long shadow, this year’s budget was a terrifying reminder that it is The Market that matters and not people. The tax hike on the self employed is an excellent example of this. With the removal of any sort of job security in the current job Market with the prevalence of zero hour contracts and utterly unreasonable demands being placed on the workforce, the financial market must be appeased with monetary recompense for these foolishly human instabilities. What is most notable about this budget is what it didn’t say and what it did not acknowledge. No mention of climate change, threats to the environment or clean energy, no mention of library closures, not even a mention of the Conservative’s manifesto that promised no increases in NI contributions. And most worryingly not a single mention of ‘Brexit’ which will undoubtedly push the Sterling into another free fall, yet Hammond comfortably made Market predictions well into the 2020s despite the very swift approach of one of the most tumultuous political eras in living memory. Again, The Market will decide. All hail The Market.