How the invisible hand keeps order

The Market. First Edition
February 24, 2006

It is arguable that Adam Smith has had a more profound impact on contemporary political thought than any other classical economist. In The Market , Alan Aldridge has chosen to highlight the influence critically, seeking to rescue Smith from the gross distortions of his latter-day neoliberal champions.

According to Aldridge, Smith was perhaps the first major social philosopher to see the market as a kind of "invisible co-ordinator" of social order. On this view of Smith, the market - through the promotion of material prosperity - is civilising in its unfathomable depths, instilling virtues such as hard work, thrift, punctuality and politeness. Markets are thus internally contradictory - generative of both the entrepreneur's lust for profit and Weberian Protestant virtue.

Such an understanding of Smith's implicit sociological world-view is starkly at odds with those neoliberals who invoke his name to sing the praises of unconstrained laissez-faire capitalism. In a superb irony, according to Aldridge, it is the very uncoordinated and unregulated character of markets (the "invisible hand", in Smith's famous phrase) that generates cultural cohesion by mutual adjustments. Because the making and remaking of markets cuts to the core of our social life, it is the place where the opposition between freedom and constraint, hedonism and altruism, is most dramatically played out.

But there is more to Aldridge's argument than this. For he is not interested in the usual economic arguments about the powers and limits of markets: he is interested in their cultural dynamics. How, exactly, do we create markets through our everyday activities? How, in the wake of the collapse of communism, has a seemingly universal consumerism come to dominate the world? What chance global governance of the market?

In pursuing these questions, Aldridge writes with remarkable clarity and insight, surveying the rise of sociological ideas on marketisation, charting the political history of markets and analysing various responses across the social sciences. Ranging from Smith and his acolytes, through Marxist critique, to contemporary discourses of rational choice theory and globalisation, Aldridge raises big political issues about the rapid global expansion of markets and its consequences for contemporary cultural life.

The Market is an important contribution to the sociology of culture, and the themes that run through it would lend themselves to a more detailed scholastic treatment. The book appears in Polity's excellent textbook series Key Concepts, and Aldridge's work is certainly likely to be widely read by students in economic sociology, political economy and social theory.

Such is the disciplinary division of intellectual labour between economics and sociology, however, that his culturalist reading of Smith is unlikely to get a good press beyond the field of social theory. Nonetheless, this interesting book convincingly shows the enormous amount of emotional labour, of cultural work, that goes into sustaining faith and trust in markets.

Anthony Elliott is professor of sociology, Kent University.

The Market. First Edition

Author - Alan Aldridge
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 167
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 7456 3222 X and 3223 8

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