The Marketplace: Past and Present

By Elnadi, Bahgat; Rifaat, Adel | UNESCO Courier, November 1996 | Go to article overview

The Marketplace: Past and Present


Elnadi, Bahgat, Rifaat, Adel, UNESCO Courier


It has become virtually impossible to live in isolation from the marketplace. Our needs have become so diversified that they can only be met by constant recourse to products, services, finance and information available on the market. And market transactions have become so intensive and so far-reaching that they are now planet-wide. One might say that the pulse of world economic activity today is measured by the state of the market.

It has not always been so.

For thousands of years the market was only of marginal importance. On the one hand it brought into contact separate, self-sufficient communities which exchanged among themselves goods that were merely ancillary, inessential to their internal balance. On the other, the people who engaged in these transactions attached less importance to economic considerations than they did to the imperatives of religion, custom and lineage that governed their lives.

But even within these limits, the market played an extremely important role as a channel of communication. It was the only opportunity for closed communities to open their doors, however briefly, to the outside world, make contact with others and catch a glimpse of human diversity. In the long run, trade promoted the circulation of ideas, technical innovation and productive work.

In the modern age the status of the market changed. It ceased to be a mechanism of secondary exchange and became instead a mainspring of social activity, the regulator of production. The economy - hitherto the servant of non-materialistic ends which the group considered sacred - became a law unto itself, gradually infiltrating into all areas of life, harnessing everything within reach to its purposes and eventually transforming all established values - including cultural, traditional and moral values - into commodities that could be bought and sold.

Some reacted to this change by treating the market itself as sacred, regarding it as an impartial power governed by impersonal laws that would, via competition, inevitably encourage the best and penalize the mediocre. However, a closer look leads to the conclusion that while the market acts as an economic regulator and rationalizer, it tends to develop a network of inegalitarian relationships within which the law of the strongest triumphs over the spirit of reciprocity.

Freedom and inequality

In fact, the market can be seen as a kind of frontier area inhabited by two contradictory principles - freedom and inequality - between which only imperfect compromises can ever be made. …

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