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Geographies of marketization: performation struggles, incomplete commodification and the “problem of labour”

Authors:
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Geographies of marketization: Performation struggles, incomplete
commodification and the “problem of labor”
Christian Berndt and Marc Boeckler*
As part of a wider, pluralist project to go beyond the hegemonic and stifling orthodox
conceptualization of “the” market as perfect and all-encompassing, geographies of
marketization is interested in really existing markets, studying them in the making with an
emphasis on marketization as a process rather than market as a self-contained entity.
Marketization is the collective work of a large number of actors, human and non-human, who
form market assemblages that are structured according to a diversity of institutional logics
and rationalities. Studying marketization “from within” and “from below” we put particular
emphasis on the geographies of really existing markets.
Our approach is inspired by Michel Callon’s adaption of Science and Technology Studies
(STS) and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to the study of economic processes, under the label
of “social studies of economization” (Caliskan and Callon, 2010). With the term
“sociotechnical agencement” (STA), Callon introduced a compelling concept to describe
economic entities, putting particular emphasis on “the market”. Borrowed from Deleuze,
“agencement” has two meanings: first, it refers to the idea of a (spatial) assemblage of
heterogeneous elements that have been carefully arranged; and, second, this arrangement, as
a hybrid collective, shapes “distributed” agency in the sense that a given task is performed
not by a single unaided human being but by a “human-nonhuman working group“ (Bennett,
2010: xvii; see also Callon, 2007a: 320).
In these constellations equipment, instruments and infrastructure play a crucial role. As
“methods for knowing and handling the world” (Law and Ruppert, 2013: 238) these devices
have their own social life in at least three ways: (1) they “assemble and arrange the world in
specific social and material patterns” (Law and Ruppert, 2013: 230); (2) they enact particular
forms of organization and format social relations; and (3) they can be used strategically by
social actors in the “pursuit of political, economic and cultural advantage” (Law and Ruppert,
2013: 239). Our particular focus in this chapter is on methods for knowing and handling the
* published as: Berndt C and Boeckler M (2020) Geographies of marketization: Performation
struggles, incomplete commodification and the “problem of labour”. In: Berndt C, Peck J,
and Rantisi N (eds) Market/Place: Exploring Spaces of Exchange. Newcastle upon Tyne:
Agenda Publishing, pp. 69–88.
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economy, or to be more precise markets. We emphasize the performative nature of economic
entities and conceive of them as effects of heterogeneous networks that appear to be stable
and permanent but always remain incomplete and open to contestation. This is another reason
why we employ the term geographies of marketization rather than geographies of markets.
The key contribution of the social studies of economization approach has been the study
of markets as performances and the attention accorded to economic knowledge and devices in
enabling such performances. While earlier contributions have tended to work with
performativity in a narrow linguistic sense (how a particular economic model realizes itself;
for example MacKenzie, 2006), there has been a subsequent shift towards a broader
understanding of the concept as a particular way in which to approach the economic world
(Ossandón, forthcoming). Instead of “performativity” (which could easily be reduced to
performative statements) Callon (2005, 2007a) proposed to speak of performation in order to
stress the materiality and recursivity of scientific practices. The term emphasizes the fact that
knowledge, for example economic models, has no effects without well-designed
interventions and that interventions are useless without well-designed models. Accordingly,
economists are not powerful because they make people believe their statements to be true.
Rather, they are powerful because their (and other's) manifold material interventions are
successful in constituting the object that economics is accounting for. This insight is at the
heart of studies of marketization/economization.
In order to be successful, performation involves a double play of association and
disassociation. On the one hand, a large number of elements and agents have to be assembled
and entangled to make markets and calculative behavior possible. Material elements such as
warehouses, roads, data sheets, computers and so on have to be connected with procedural
ones, for instance price negotiations, auctions, marketing, consulting, and with regulatory
structures, such as institutionalized property rights or technological specifications (Callon,
1998a, 19ff). All this is informed by economic knowledge and economic models, both from
economics and from economic practice disciplines such as marketing or supply-chain
management.
On the other hand, however, before these heterogeneous elements can be assembled into
market agencements, they have to be separated from their respective contexts and settings.
Material elements are decontextualized and agents are disembedded from social ties; only
then is it possible to make transactions calculable and to realize markets as realms that enable
anonymous exchange. Borrowing from Erving Goffman (1975), Callon referred to this highly
selective ordering process as “framing” (Callon, 2007b: 140). As we have demonstrated
elsewhere, this ambivalent double play of association and disassociation, or entanglement and
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disentanglement, acquires particular force whenever it is translated into spatial b/ordering
processes (see Berndt and Boeckler, 2011, for an illustration on the example of the fresh
tomato commodity chain; see Barnes, 2008 for a broader discussion of performativity and its
application to economic geography).
However, the framing of a market is never straightforward. The sheer complexity of
reality, that is, the contradictory outcomes of other associational practices, politics, identities,
desires and so on, is a constant source of irritation and resistance. Framing is a delicate
process that can evade control and is never complete. Callon introduced the term
“overflowing” to express this, arguing that under certain conditions economic markets spur
the proliferation of new social identities and trigger the creation of unexpected social
communities with positive and negative consequences. In all these cases connections are
made visible that challenge a conception of the market as bounded and predictable.
It is crucial for the smooth functioning of economic orders to veil these contradictions
and “overflows”. Economic entities, their rules and boundaries, have to appear as pre-given
in the eyes of those who are subject to them. The crucial link is this: as long as overflows can
be contained and controlled and as long as an appearance of market purity can be
maintained, it is possible to realize a range of asymmetrical economic orders that diverge
from the pure world of the model. As long as the status of the seemingly neatly framed
entities is not challenged, we can create all kinds of hybrids, whether in the realm of the
“economy” or elsewhere. In the case of markets there are multiple examples for this. Even
those markets that appear most closely to resemble the neoclassical ideal, for instance,
financial market places, are hopelessly entangled with a host of other institutional logics. This
also connects with the question of geographical borders, for instance, when apparently open
or closed national markets are in fact structured by selective bordering processes.
An understanding of framing as incomplete and contested, and of performation as
struggle, allows for a dialogue with political economy. It lends itself to a more differentiated,
less one-sided view of the “performativity of economics”, adding resources, instances of
legitimation and valuation, and power relations to the project (Godechot, 2018). At the same
time, it goes beyond familiar representations that draw sharp lines between an ideal market
economy and capitalist realities. Rather than criticizing this division merely as a
misrepresentation and pointing to the embeddedness of market exchange, the performativity
of abstract market knowledge is highlighted that sees to it that neoclassical ideas of the
market, for instance, turn into quasi-natural facts that people take for granted. When this is
the case, powerful actors can happily make connection across the artificial divide, mobilizing
the type of heterogeneous, more-than-human networks that make up market STAs.
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In his work, Callon singled out three dimensions of framing: the work involved to
organize and stabilize the terrain on which the heterogeneous elements making up market
agencements can meet (calculated encounters); the work involved to qualify and singularize
market goods and services (making goods calculable), and the work involved to constitute
actors capable of evaluating the properties of singularized goods in a moment of transaction
(distributed calculative agencies) (Callon and Muniesa, 2005).
We have used and adapted this “trinity” of marketization in various ways (for example
Berndt and Boeckler, 2012, Ouma et al, 2013). In what follows, we aim to relate our
understanding of marketization as performation more closely to traditional questions and
topics of political economy. First, we consider how the construction of the formative settings,
through which encounters between goods and agents are organized, results in the framing of
concrete market places as spaces for exchange (diverse markets). Second, we examine how
tradable objects are constructed by emphasizing particular qualities in unambiguous and
unchallenged ways and concealing certain relations, such as those involving labor
(commodification). And, third, also with reference to the “problem of labor” we highlight the
formatting of calculative human agencies, seemingly unburdened by social obligations,
enhanced bodily by tools and prostheses and objectified into the kind of subjects needed to
perform markets (market subjects).
Framing market places: Market models and institutionally diverse markets
Whether we look at “experts” – including both academic economists and “economists in the
wild” as Callon (2007a) put it – or lay people, just about everybody has some understanding
of what the term “market” means, how markets work and what their key characteristics are. If
we were to conduct a short random survey, we would likely get a surprisingly coherent list of
responses: supply and demand, prices, competition, and perhaps individual interest. But this
is surprising only at first sight. After all, this is how market exchange has been defined ever
since economic behavior has been a subject of academic study. Liberal political economists
worked with this understanding in the 18th and 19th century, as did Marx, who based his
critique on the same model of the market. Neoclassical economists then saw to it that the idea
of the perfect market became firmly wired into our collective consciousness. This perfect
market would become the tool for price discovery and the most efficient allocator of scarce
resources, and subsequently – as Philip Mirowski observed – the neoliberal “information
processor” in the wake of “the informational turn in economics” (for example the rise of the
computer and of game theory and related fields after the Second World War; Lash and
Dragos, 2016: 130; see also Mirowski, 2002).
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Ever since the orthodox sleight of hand has firmly established a sharp divide between an
abstract, universal imagination of the market and imperfect market realities, there has been a
debate among heterodox scholars how to best counter this powerful construction. Political
economic accounts tend to confirm the dualist view, only pointing to the market’s destructive
potential instead of celebrating its positive, civilizing impact. Socioeconomists stress the
utterly unrealistic nature of the market model and are only interested in real market places.
According to this view, the market cannot do its work without help. A prominent stance here
is advanced by “new” economic sociologists who argue that economic behavior is always
embedded socially (Granovetter, 1985). At a wider social scale, this is echoed by those who
stress the role of institutions in giving stability to markets. Such a view of markets as “feeble”
points to the enabling role of social networks, state regulation and so on (see Berndt and
Boeckler, 2009; Hirschman, 1982).
A marketization perspective turns the argument around. It rejects the idea that there is a
theoretical market logic on the one hand and a market reality (concrete market) on the other
that somehow exists prior to that knowledge (Boltanski and Thevenot, 2006: 71; Callon,
2005: 8). Rather than debating what the essence of the market is – whether the market is
destructive, creative, feeble – work in this tradition is interested in the particular ways in
which economic thinking informs attempts to understand, design or adapt markets. The
crucial agents here are academic economists and economic practitioners, but also their
respective models, procedures and material elements. A wide spectrum of market devices
intervenes in the framing of concrete markets and the formatting of exchange mechanisms
and evaluation processes, bringing about distributed calculative agency (Muniesa et al.,
2007). They contribute to framing processes that seek to bring economic and social realities
in line with the models of the neoclassical laboratory. But it would be shortsighted to focus
narrowly on neoclassical economics. Markets can be designed with the help of a wide array
of theories and models, such as game theory, evolutionary economics or behavioral
economics. This extends to critical approaches as well, as in the case when anarchist ideas
perform projects designed to establish community economies and commoning projects.
The key question for us is how economic knowledge is capable of performing market
realities at particular historical and spatial conjunctures. Our emphasis is on how lower-case
m (real-world) markets emerge as concrete socio-spatial realizations of capital M (ideal-type)
Market designs (see Berndt and Wirth, 2019) and “the ways people conceptualize and enact
their understandings of the economy and its workings in daily life” (Collins, 2017: 2).
Concrete markets take shape at the crossroads of a host of different logics and rationalities,
among which an ideal-type understanding of the market – however defined – is but only one.
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As agencements, concrete markets cannot be reduced to market exchange as an institutional
logic. There are parallels here to the way that concrete business firms are never only
hierarchical “islands of conscious power” (Coase, 1937: 388) in a sea of flat market relations,
or the ways in which communities are never only constituted by symmetrical reciprocity. In
sum, the point is that economic entities are diverse and have to be studied in their diversity.
With their focus on real markets, heterodox political-economic approaches share this
interest in institutional diversity, analyzing economies as “hybrid, more-than-capitalist and
variegated,” often in dialogue with the work of Karl Polanyi (Peck, 2013: 1552; see also
Peck, 2012). Polanyi identified four ideal-type institutional forms, each associated with a
particular social pattern: price-making markets, grounded in what he called “market society”;
reciprocity, stabilized by symmetrical ties of kinship and community; redistribution,
undertaken by collection into and allocation from a center (usually, the state, but also
potentially a business firm), and householding, autonomous allocations within family units
(Berndt et al, 2019: 4).
By reading markets STAs as projects of framing and overflowing, a marketization
perspective offers a lens that allows us to understand processes of market-making as an open-
ended struggle between different economic and noneconomic logics. In a stylized way –
stylized because these processes do not flow in a neat, linear sequence – it is possible to
understand marketization as a three-step framing-overflowing-reframing process. First,
concrete markets can only work in a satisfactory way when interactions and transactions
adhere to the norms and rules that a given ideal model prescribes, and when a clear line can
be drawn between that which belongs to the market and that which does not. The framing of
markets in the neoclassical way, for instance, involves clear prescriptions of competitive
price formation, calculation of profits or notions of efficiency and competition. The kind of
calculative agencies constituting these markets create a world in which relations and
encounters are reduced to a bare minimum: a “rarefaction” and “singularization” that does
away with social complexity, enables the circulation of goods and agencies as monetary
value (Callon, 2005: 15), and establishes a clear boundary against the world outside the
market. But markets may take different shape depending on the performed script. Economic
behaviorism, for instance, at least at first sight reintroduces some degree of complexity by
allowing for systematic deviation of human behavior from the rationality principle. Yet
regardless of the underlying model, markets always emerge as concrete social entities with
the active involvement of nonhumans. The nonhuman members of the collaborative working
groups differ according to the knowledge mobilized (a computerized platform enabling
almost frictionless trading or behaviorist nudges and prompts, for instance).
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Second, in response to criticism of a perceived apolitical thrust of his argument, Callon
(2010: 166) argued that the misfires and overflows that result from the enactment of markets
offer the possibility for struggle and debate. And it is obvious that these misfires have a lot to
do with different frames and logics and the particular ways in which they demand to be
enacted. The perfect neoclassical market, or perfect markets of any other theoretical stripe,
can only exist as incomplete performances, because there are always also non-calculative
agencies, social values, emotions and so on. It is these misfires that provide openings for
resistance in different ways, enabling alternative valuations that challenge perfect market
scripts. The ongoing drive towards economic alternatives, community economies,
commoning, or degrowth is testament to this.
In pointing to the contradictions involved in framing processes, social studies of
economization/marketization align with other heterodox approaches. Polanyi himself offered
a forceful account of this when he discussed the limits imposed by the fictitious commodities
and the necessity of counter-movements. The same holds for more recent scholarly
contributions. Jane Collins (2017: 2), for instance, reasserts that things and people easily fall
out of the frame, how “‘settled principles’ of market value become unsettled” and how this
may open “space for public discussion”. In addition to this, the ambivalent double play of
framing and overflowing that shapes concrete markets has an obvious geographical quality.
Regardless of whether we deal with a territorially regionalized market, a globally dispersed
“production-distribution-consumption” network (for example global commodity chain, global
production network) or market configurations that stretch partially or totally in virtual space,
framing/overflowing in principle also involves the drawing and transgression of spatial
borders (bordering/debordering).
Overflows can play different roles in markets STAs. As necessary elements of
marketization, they can have a stabilizing effect. There can be no social boundary or spatial
border without relations that transgress and movements that cross. As long as there is a way
to control these overflows, they allow us to legitimize the particular framing at work.
However, as soon as overflows proliferate, that is, when they get out of control, the situation
gets unstable. Callon has usefully introduced the distinction between cold and hot situations
to take account of this distinction. The former refers to moments when framing is the norm
and overflowing the exception, and the latter to situations when the opposite is true. Markets
can be cold and hot: they can work more closely according to the rationalist fantasies of
mainstream economists, but they can also be unruly, shot through with the heat of feelings,
emotions, open violence, pain and resistance (Callon, 1998b).
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Third, it is not difficult to see that the disruption and disorder characterizing hot
situations pose a threat to the smoothly functioning machine that capitalism is supposed to be.
Accordingly, there is a need to redraw the line, to re-border. If successful, these (re)framings
establish control. Only when overflows once again become an exception, that is to say, when
the boundary between market and its outside is reestablished and the market realm
naturalized as the desired state of being, is it possible to represent the outside as incomplete,
deficient or pathological. This lends legitimacy to attempts to expand the market frontier into
uncharted terrain and to partially integrate the outside with all its well-documented
geographical effects (for example dispossession of land, production of nature). When markets
appear to be cold, the relational and contested character of marketization slips out of view.
Such an understanding of markets and other economic entities as contingent outcomes of
the articulation of diverse market and non-market logics serves as a reminder that these
articulations are a far cry from the harmonious view of market exchange underpinning much
of the mainstream economic literature. At the same time, our acknowledgement of the
misfires that go along with market struggles is not the same as mechanically representing
marketization as destructive. And neither does it amount to a romanticization of seemingly
non-market realms that often inform alternative commoning or degrowth projects. It is by
decentering and denaturalizating in all these ways that a marketization perspective can shed
light on the possibilities for contestation and resistance.
Framing commodities: qualculation and incomplete commodification
There has been a longstanding debate in the scholarly literature about whether
commodification or marketization should be given priority. Political economy traditionally
prioritizes commodity production over the sphere of market exchange and circulation
(Sheppard, 2011). From this perspective, (over)emphasis on the market is characteristic of
bourgeois economic theory, above all the neoclassical orthodoxy. However, there have also
been occasional debates within the left whenever heterodox approaches seemed to
(over)emphasize market exchange. This includes, for instance, criticism of Karl Polanyi’s
work by Marxian scholars or the dispute between modes of production scholars, and
dependistas and world system theorists during the 1970s. More recently, the divide between
scholars who prioritize the realm of exchange and those who focus on the realm of
production has had a strong presence in the critical globalization literature and continues to
haunt our discipline today, for instance, when a marketization/economization approach is
criticized for being silent about questions of power and socio-spatial inequality.
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We think it is true that renewed interest in markets and marketization has tended to
neglect commodity production. “In this shift”, argues Carrier (1997: 5), “many academics
found themselves speaking of ‘consumption’ and ‘the market’ to describe what they had
previously spoken of in terms of ‘classes’ and ‘capitalism’”. Recently, we have been involved
in efforts to remedy this omission (see, for instance, Bair et al, 2013; Berndt and Wirth,
2019), and we are convinced that we can only come to terms with the ambivalent mutations
of capitalism if we “view production and circulation as inextricably entangled with one
another in social practice” (Narotzky and Besnier, 2014: S5).
Standard accounts of commodification read as follows. First, the thing in question has to
be separated from the social relations and material conditions necessary for its emergence
(production). Second, objectification is completed by the (re)valuation in money terms and
subsequent mobilization (circulation, exchange). And third, the process finds its temporary
endpoint in the attachment to a new social context (consumption). A key element of
commodification is the need to draw boundaries around things, to dissociate and disentangle
– or engage in framing (Callon, 2005: 17). But this is not enough. In order for things to be
able to change hands, functioning markets are needed. Commodification finds its completion
with price formation and the designation of exchange value. A wide array of sociotechnical
economic disciplines, economists in the wild and calculative devices actively intervene in this
process, ranging from particular ways of calculation, marketing and pricing to the displaying
of commodities. The performation of commodities takes place both in physical spatial
settings such as the supermarket (Cochoy, 2018) as well as virtually on digital platforms and
in networked algorithmic markets (Lash and Dragos, 2018).
Both moments of framing – the framing of concrete markets and the framing of
commodities – therefore presuppose one another. Markets allow the circulation and exchange
of commodities, and framed commodities are market actors in their own right, actively
engaged in the construction of market agencements. Just as any other performative process,
however, commodification is never fully successful, given that exchange value,
disentanglement and disembedding are constantly confronted with their respective others –
use value, entanglement and embeddedness. Commodities are therefore also prone to
overflow.
In highlighting overflows, we part company with those representations that depict
commodification as a universal, all-encompassing process in which almost everything
assumes commodity form and where there is nothing non-commodified left. Gary Becker’s
work and his attempt to frame all sorts of tangible and intangible phenomena in terms of
market transactions comes to mind here (for example Becker, 1978). But the same holds for
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one-sided critical accounts that depict complete disentanglement from the self and social
relations. Jane Radin (2001) has criticized this view of “universal commodification”,
developing her notion of “incomplete commodification” in response.
Within critical political economy, such a one-sided account is criticized as trivializing
more nuanced processual conceptualizations of commodification already present in the work
of Marx (zur Ware werden). There is an acknowledgment of the ambivalence and the
“resistant hesitancy” of commodification, involving moments of decommodification as well
as (re)commodification and having both demeaning and dehumanizing as well as liberating
and productive effects (Haug, 2010). By taking up Radin’s notion of “incomplete
commodification”, we seek to highlight precisely the hesitancy, the irritation, the
ambivalence of commodification. In addition to this, we connect with the above
conceptualization of markets as institutionally diverse and extend our notion of performation
struggle to the terrain of the commodity itself. Convinced that nothing can be commodified
“all the way down” (Fraser, 2014), we highlight two dimensions of incomplete framing.
The first refers to those commodities that are not originally “produced for sale” (Polanyi,
2001: 76). Karl Polanyi famously observed that the emergence of a capitalist market society
rested on the far-reaching reorganization of the supply of the “elements of industry” – labor,
land, and money – through the market. For Polanyi, the paradox underlying this
transformation was that while these elements are indispensable for a capitalist market system
to thrive, they simultaneously set limits to its expansion. No society can live with completely
commodified physical (land) and human nature (labor), as they are essential for societal
reproduction and not produced for the purpose of sale; thus, commodification creates a
counter-impulse that constrains marketization and commodification. Fictitious commodities
and double movement have been Polanyi’s chosen terms to account for incomplete
commodification and the fact that there are always non-commodified elements that resist,
express a different logic and complicate the expansionary drive of the capitalist market
(Polanyi, 2001: 74-80).
Polanyi arguably overemphasized the power of market forces, giving the market a
colonizing role that state, community and family can only ever hope to contain temporarily.
The incomplete commodification of labor, land/nature and money impels capital to
constantly go beyond its limits, to forcefully integrate humans, nature and things that hitherto
were positioned “outside”. There are obvious connections here with Harvey’s concept of
accumulation by dispossession: The violent proletarianization or informalization of labor, the
relentless production of second nature, the assetification of ever more exotic income streams
and the appropriation of rents in the context of neoliberal globalization (Harvey, 2006;
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Andreucci et al, 2017). Against this, scholars advance a more nuanced picture. This concerns,
for instance, J.K. Gibson-Graham’s diverse economy project (2008) and more recent
interventions by Caliskan and Callon (2010), Nancy Fraser (2014) or Brett Christophers
(2015) who in their own distinct ways acknowledge the potential of humans/labor and nature
to resist and to open possibilities for alternatives.
Let us briefly illustrate our point with the example of labor. There is always a non-
commodified human element in any form of commodified labor. Of course, the labor market
produces working conditions that we would have tremendous difficulties in labelling as
“humane”. But as Radin observes, even in extreme instances of “inhumane commodification”
people express their humanity, for instance in their relationships with coworkers, making
“humanity (...) hard to suppress completely” (Radin, 2001: 105-106). In different, less one-
sided constellations, the line between commodification and decommodification is more
difficult to draw. Fordist labor arrangements were associated with at least partial
decommodification as the state set regulatory limits to the marketization of labor. But at the
same time, this decommodification further disentangled workers from their products (see
Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005). And while the neoliberal rearticulation of labor in terms of
“human resources”, “creativity” and “diversity” can be seen as (re)commodification, it also
offers moments of (re)entanglement and attachment. The proliferation of “non-standard”
employment and the declining importance of traditional waged labor globally is certainly a
source of preoccupation, but it also generates a host of unexpected alternatives and
opportunities to rethink economy (Ferguson and Li, 2018). We elaborate this in more detail
in the next section.
But we would go a step further and contend that commodification is even incomplete for
“genuine” commodities, that is, those things that are more readily seen as being produced for
sale (Radin, 2001: 104). This moment of incomplete framing has to do with the impossibility
of drawing hermetical boundaries between the realms of production, circulation and
consumption and this stems from at least two reasons. The first is a necessary element of any
attempt to turn a product of labor into a marketable commodity. The performative framing of
commodities is never exclusively a transformation into bare exchange value. Certain existing
sociotechnical qualities may strategically be made bigger, for instance, when a commodity is
qualified with regard to a particular production method (for example artisan); or other
qualities may be newly constructed, for instance, when a particular service acquires new
meaning after being performed in the digital world of apps and platforms (for example tourist
accommodation). Work in the tradition of economics/sociology of conventions has
demonstrated how the framing of commodities draws on a diverse set of valuation logics that
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cannot be reduced to a narrow monetary pricing rationale. Problems arise whenever
constructions of delicate equivalences of qualculation (that is, the legitimation of higher
prices because of singular qualities) break down. The second limiting moment refers to the
impossibility of cutting off all relations and thus the continued presence of unwanted
entanglements. These entanglements characterize the stubborn, non-commodifiable residual
that is an integral part of any “genuine” commodity. We may think about irritations
originating from the material characteristics of the good in question, the persistence of
alternative social values, or deep-seated emotional attachments.
This is why commodities always assume form in the conflictual interplay of
marketization and demarketization processes (Narotzky and Besnier, 2014). Such a
decentered notion of the commodity is open to a wider range of social relations and regimes
of value. It reminds us, on the terrain of the commodity itself, that marketization is a diverse
process that cannot be reduced to the workings of a particular ideal economic logic. And we
have to be aware that overflows or misfires apply to commodities as well. Only when
overflows can be controlled and rendered exceptional is it possible to attach commodities to
the realm of the market and separate them from the sphere of production. Accordingly,
considerable investment is needed to render misfires invisible and passive.
Fictitious commodities play a particularly important role here. As particular “production
inputs”, they facilitate commodification and turn into boundary objects that separate the
market from the non-market. It is on the terrain of labor, land and money in particular that the
struggle over incomplete commodification connects with the diverse institutional logics
discussed earlier. It is indispensable in our view that research informed by marketization and
economization engages with these misfires and overflows, being attentive to those agents that
are excluded and disarticulated in processes of commodification and marketization
(Ossandón, forthcoming). Such an approach allows us to include a wider range of agents and
activities and to be attentive to visions of a less commodified society in addition to the
interest in commodification. After all, “little more” is needed than the breaking of the
seemingly taken for granted equation between things, people and ideas and their respective
prices (Guyer, 2009: 204).
Framing market subjects: quasi-subjects and the problem of labor
Social studies of economization/marketization are often criticized for giving “things” undue
priority over the human subject and colluding with attempts to get rid of human agency all
together. But this is a misunderstanding. Both objects and subjects are treated as “quasi-
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entities” in these arrangements, that is, as constituted relationally as networks effects and as
always being “under construction” and therefore never self-contained.
Looked upon from the perspective of the human subject, marketization is about
qualifying behavior in such a way that the framing processes discussed above are enacted
according to the models and scripts in question. Calculative devices once more play a crucial
role. As boundary markers, they disentangle the individual actor from his/her environment,
formatting calculative agencies by drawing a line between individual subjects who are
seemingly unburdened from moral obligations on the one hand and social contexts on the
other.
Historically, the hegemonic framing is provided by the idea of the perfect economic
subject modelled after the famous homo economicus (Barnes, 1988). From a marketization
perspective, the subjectivity performed by neoclassical economics is never simply the
expression of pre-given natural human behavior, but a relational effect of distributed
collective calculative practices (see Callon, 1998a).
1
However, this insight notwithstanding,
we recursively refer to the idealized figure of homo economicus when thinking about the way
people act in a capitalist market economy. As J.K. Gibson-Graham (2014: 82) point out so
well, subjects are routinely reduced to narrow roles and motivations in their various
economic realms: investors always look for greater returns on financial investments; business
owners cannot stop wanting more and more profits and lower and lower costs; consumers are
motivated only by low prices; property owners cannot live without higher and higher rents;
and the only thing on the minds of workers are higher and higher wages.
What is needed for a perfect market according to the neoclassical script is an
environment that enables humans to act rationally according to these preferences. This
translates into particular devices that are mobilized in order to achieve this desired state,
either to correct for the failures of existing markets or to design new markets altogether.
Examples would be the installation of a nonhuman Walrasian auctioneer as an equilibrium-
generating force (for example computerized pricing models), computers as “market-on-the-
screen”, or the introduction of per unit prices on supermarket shelves. All these devices bring
market behavior closer to the neoclassical ideal. If successful, rational calculation and
1
We are aware that our representation of neoclassical economics is very stylized. What exactly is part of
neoclassical economics and what is not has always been a matter of dispute. Critics may point to strands of more
mainstream economic thinking that have widened the narrow assumptions of neoclassical economics, for
instance behavioral and experimental approaches (see Berndt, 2015). Indeed, it is well-known that the term
neoclassical economicsis less a self-description emerging from the inside of what was to become the
economic mainstream than a label coined by skeptical scholars. It was Thorstein Veblen who pointed to the
differences between historical and Marxist schoolsand modernized classical, or what he chose to call “neo-
classicalviews (Veblen, 1900: 261).
14
selection become an almost all-encompassing grammar, one that allows us to make sense of
our behavior and shapes our identities and relations to others (Gudeman, 2012: 1-3).
However, the standard individualist script emanating from neoclassical economics is not
the only frame performing market subjectivities. If there are different ways of knowing what
a market is, there must also be different understandings of market behavior and different
ways to frame market subjects in their various roles as commodity consumers and producers.
A good example is the recent convergence of behavioral and experimental economics into an
influential script that challenges the neoclassical mainstream (Boeckler and Berndt, 2013;
Berndt, 2015). The devices mobilized by the practitioners of economic behaviorism have a
different quality than the ones mentioned above. Examples include various forms of nudging
(for example framing, anchoring, simplification of products and procedures, “commitment
devices”; Thaler and Sunstein, 2008) and experimental methods (Guala, 2005).
2
It is possible to approach the making of different kinds of market subjects as
performation struggles, shedding light into the way subjectivities are accomplished, pointing
to the ambivalent role of overflows in subjectivation processes, and identifying entry points
for resistance and alternatives. Among the many possible roles played by humans in the
market economy at large, we choose the example of labor to illustrate this in the remainder of
this section.
To start with the long-dominant orthodoxy: what does a neoclassical framing of labor
look like? Scholars across the disciplines have long argued that the assumption that labor
power is allocated according to the same universal laws that match the supply and demand of
ordinary goods, such as apples, is fundamentally wrong. Yet this critique notwithstanding,
this is exactly how human labor is imagined and represented in public discourse and in our
daily life. Standard economic theory claims that “profit-maximizing employers evaluate
workers in terms of their individual characteristics” (Reich et al, 1973: 359), that labor
markets will always clear as long as the price mechanism is not interfered with, and that
“wages and access to employment are (...) determined only by workers’ marginal
2
The scripts of market-based policy interventions articulate “irrational” and “abnormal” behavior with
imaginations of subjects in need and biographies in need of improvement. According to this logic, it is these
“deficiencies” that provide the legitimation for interventions that correct behavior and enable those subject to
them to fit into a marketized world. In their different ways, these classes of market devices see to it that
individual subjects change their behavior in a way that approaches the ideal homo economicus. The recipients of
behavioral and experimental interventions are almost forced to calculate and rationalize. It is obvious therefore,
as we have argued elsewhere (Berndt, 2015), that the gap between both strands of economic thinking is not
nearly as wide as we are made to believe. As a positive intellectual project (that is, describing and predicting
what people actually do), behavioral economics has indeed played an important role in further breaking the spell
of the perfect rationalityhypothesis. However, such an argument neglects the fact that behavioral economists
share the normative view that rational maximization is what people should do (see also Gudeman, 2012: 3). In
so doing, the perfect rationality assumption re-enters the stage through the backdoor, transforming behavioral
economics into a normative endeavor.
15
productivity and employers’ marginal costs” (Streeck, 2005: 254-255). This is another
example of how orthodox economics works: These statements are not about how real labor
markets operate, rather they are about how they should work. The idea of labor as a
“commodity-just-as-anything-else” creates its own social realities.
But the same is true for alternative framings that attempt to solve the “problem of labor”
(that is, the need to secure the consent and collaboration of wage-earners in order to realize
capitalist profits). Historically, one could point to the beginning of the 20th century and the
rise to importance of Taylorist Scientific Management. The over-exploitation of human labor
in this early industrial period was unable to deliver the productivity needed for the new era of
mass production, thus a new framing was needed. This was provided by Scientific
Management, a socio-technology that delivered the scripts and devices for an army of
human-relations managers, industrial psychologists, and other experts in their quest for the
perfect organizational design. Taylor’s famous core principles were implemented with the
help of the practice discipline of “time study”. This was the work of an assemblage of
material devices, codified procedures and humans. There were stopwatches, foremen, pencils
and sheets of paper. And the results were visualized, for instance, in the form of Henry
Gantt’s famous charts that continue to pattern our daily work practices through to the present
day. The Taylorist worker is imagined as a weak or rebellious subject, in urgent need of some
prosthetic support and disciplining guidance. Taylor himself loathed what he referred to as
“soldiering”, that is, the tendency of workers to underperform either by “taking it easy” out of
natural instinct or by way of calculated resistance (Friedman, 2008).
Taylorism turned into the dominant approach performing labor for a large part of the
20th century. But the performation of Taylorist labor had contradictions and overflows that
could only be contained with increasing difficulty. The dehumanizing reduction of labor to
ever tinier wheels in ever more gigantic machines homogenized and alienated workers to an
extent that there was growing discontent. The solution, or reframing, was to strike an implicit
contract: workers would continue to endure Taylorist labor conditions in exchange for being
able to seek fulfillment in private life. The wage increases that facilitated consumerist
lifestyles redrew the line between the realms of production and reproduction. This was
institutionalized in the Fordist welfare state, providing the environment in which corporate
capital could enlist labor unions and secure the collaboration of privileged workers in order to
realize corporate profits in a climate of social inclusion, at least for the insiders of this
societal formation (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005: 217).
In facilitating fulfillment outside the workplace, organized labor contributed to a
standardization of social life much in the same way as the rationalized labor process
16
produced standardized mass commodities (Beck, 2000: 39). The “normalizing discipline”
inside and outside the workplace and the deeply uneven distribution of its gains and costs
became increasingly visible. The sharp boundaries between the realms of production and
social reproduction framing the Fordist subject became increasingly difficult to maintain
(Haug, 2003). This fueled what Boltanski and Chiapello (2005) termed “artistic critique” and
contributed to the demise of the Fordist compromise. A new generation sought to break out
of the stifling conservative climate and demanded recognition, mobility and freedom while
capital restructured production by devaluing labor in-situ and/or moving production offshore
to the emerging industrial zones of the new international division of labor.
When methodologically nationalist Fordism gave way to globalist neoliberalism, this
opened a window of opportunity for new ways of framing labor with the help of new socio-
technologies. With the rise to prominence of the resource-based theory of the firm after the
Second World War, human resource management (HRM) emerged as a booming social
science discipline. Insofar as individual knowledge and creativity and the social networks of
the workforce replaced hard assets as key factors determining economic success, traditional
management tools declined in importance. Because of the non-calculability of these
resources, there was an urgent need to develop different means of evaluation and a desire to
format new subjectivities. The individual worker, his/her/their skills and his/her/their social
connectivity took center stage. And HRM developed into a powerful calculative tool to
evaluate employees according to their individual capabilities.
Underlying the transformation is a shift in the way that diversity in the workplace is
perceived and handled. A socially and culturally diverse workforce is valued as a competitive
asset in its own right and HR departments are expected to actively manage, promote and
harness workforce diversity. In the newly emerging configuration, the discovery of diversity
and identity as a corporate asset and resource is clearly underwritten by a liberal notion of
equality. Workers are treated as individuals, with varied capabilities that can be extracted
strategically. It is only those identity prescriptions that fit into the representation of workers
as human capital and entrepreneurs of themselves (Foucault, 2008: 226), however, that are
acknowledged.
While the new workplaces offered by the likes of Google or Apple lead us to believe that
they akin to – or even better than – home, more recent forms of digital work go a step further
to promise complete liberation from the shackles of traditional waged labor. Driven by
digitalized platform interfaces, work across the skills spectrum has seemingly become so
deeply entangled with reproductive activities that the separation between the two realms
becomes almost meaningless. Industrial production is being replaced by “social production”
17
and work appears ever more collaborative, carrying with it emancipatory potential and the
promise of dignity and autonomy (Hardt and Negri, 2017: 242). Those unfortunate workers
who lose their livelihoods with the emergence of automated work tasks find consolation in
the promise of income that is finally decoupled from work.
From a more critical position, one may argue that we are confronted with new
extractivist powers of capital, entailing the (re)framing of multiple subjectivities as
manageable human resources and human and/or social capital. It is by “[putting] the social
terrain to work” and by entangling production ever more tightly with pure life itself that
capital regains the profitability that was lost in the old industrial mode of production (Hardt
and Negri, 2017: 112). The optimistic modernizing narrative celebrating “disruptive” digital
technologies hides from view that this particular modality of marketization always emerges
as the effect of political struggles that inscribe new social differences onto existing ones.
It is often argued that readiness on the part of workers to perform the subjectivities
inscribed by these narratives partly explains the success of the new world of work. In her
account of the type of labor that is mobilized in what she terms “supply chain capitalism”,
Anna Tsing (2009) is adamant that tiring, repetitive and physical work has certainly not
disappeared. However, the problem of labor is now addressed in a different way. It occurs
less through the collective, political integration of workers into a society that equates
economic and technological progress with social justice, and increasingly by means of
developing entrepreneurial projects of self-realization that emphasize individual performance,
responsibility and mobility. Through this logic, the individual worker’s autonomy serves as a
means for her control, turning labor into active agents of self-regulation (Berndt, 2010).
This ambivalent coexistence of individualized difference and self-exploitation, and the
simultaneous reframing of work as a social, co-productive process make neoliberal capitalism
possible. But as workers become individualized human resources, they trade their position as
members of a relatively homogeneous and stable middle-class for the weak sociality of co-
production, digital platforms, and project ecologies. While empowering for some, this new
labor market situation exposes many workers to a world of insecurity, social exclusion and
precarity. This includes dehumanizing working conditions in the Global South and the Global
North that guarantee profitability and affordable consumption in global commodity chains,
for instance, the ongoing use of temporary labor, a rising global labor-market precariat unable
to find anything other than spurious employment, and the unemployed (Bair and Werner,
2011; Bair et al, 2013; McGrath, 2018).
The multiple exclusions at play in what are often presented as “more inclusive” forms
and worlds of work call attention to the fact that the flipside to celebrations of diversity is
18
marginalization and insecurity for those whose worth is not recognized. Critical observers
point to the persistence of racialized and gender-based segregation at the workplace. They
argue that diversity management practices ignore collective sources of disadvantage,
privilege those in society who happen to display the right mix of individual character traits,
and render attempts to make claims based on collective, social aspects of identity positions
extremely difficult (Gedalof, 2013).
It is obvious from the discussion above that the framing of human subjects as labor is
shot through with contradictions and overflows that are necessary for marketization to do its
work. Just as is the case with other framings, the key question therefore is not to establish a
harmonious state of purity, but to see to it that the necessary overflows are managed. When
situations turn hot, when people, things and practices fall out of the frame, then seemingly
stable orders collapse. This is also happening with neoliberal interpellations of labor as
autonomous and self-disciplining subjects. The contradictions arising from increasing social
inequality make it increasingly difficult to continue controlling overflows by keeping subjects
insecure, hypervigilant and constantly under stress (Law and Ruppert, 2013: 237). The “cold”
neoliberal landscape populated by human capital, social production and human resources
waiting to be extracted and stabilized by new rounds of Taylorist rationalization has turned
into the postneoliberal heat of disenfranchised subjects fueling movements that mix struggles
for equality and recognition with racism, xenophobia and misogyny.
Conclusion
In this chapter we have advanced an understanding of marketization as an incomplete,
distributed process, one that involves struggles over competing framings and their overflows.
In so doing, we open geographies of marketization to questions of power and sociospatial
inequalities, highlighting the productive role of performation struggles both for the
reproduction of, and resistance to, capitalism.
More specifically, we have developed our argument along three interrelated dimensions
of framing – the framing of market places as diverse markets, the framing of things, people or
ideas as commodities, and the framing of humans as market subjects. In all these cases,
framing implies the accentuation of certain qualities over others, the selective cutting of ties
and an understanding of what belongs to the frame and what lies outside, a bordering process
that has obvious spatial qualities. At the same time, we have shown that these processes are
always incomplete: The framing of heterogeneous arrangements as markets involves the
articulation of a variety of economic and non-economic logics that may be complementary,
but more often stand in conflict to each other. The framing of genuine and fictitious
19
commodities is limited by that which is non-commodifiable. And the framing of market
subjects cannot be successful without (re)inscribing social inequalities. These
incommensurabilities are the consequences of overflows that may disrupt and destabilize
marketization processes. As long as these contradictions can be kept under control, when
markets, commodities and subjects can be reframed, can capitalism be adapted and
reproduced.
This reminds us that capitalism has always made productive use of a seemingly
disconnected outside, establishing its identity against the realm of social reproduction, against
human subjects and alternative economic practices that are devalued as atypical,
unproductive or backwards. Following from the sociomaterial perspective that informs
geographies of marketization, it is important to point out that the non-human market devices
animating concrete markets, commodities and market subjects are never innocent and neutral;
they actively take part in the reworking and reproduction of social difference. It is in this way
that market devices can be regarded as political.
Whenever situations turn hot and frames collapse, opportunities emerge to make things
differently, to realize alternatives. But this more optimistic observation notwithstanding it is
equally obvious from the discussion above that alternative practices can also not emerge in
pure form. Alternative economies or commoning projects similarly emerge around
performation struggles that oscillate between economic and non-economic logics, between
market, state, community and family (Hardt and Negri, 2017: 236). The strength of heterodox
projects does not lie in the same exclusionary framings as advanced by the economic
orthodoxy; rather, it lies in the co-existence of competing positions and the readiness to
accommodate diversity and impurity.
20
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... Framing, however, is a delicate and incomplete process that can evade control, leading to "overflow." This inherent instability not only requires constant stabilization but can lead to crisis and efforts to reframe-to contain overflow-so that the entity in question can be stabilized again (see also Berndt and Boeckler 2020). The phenomenal growth of glyphosate clearly reflects this dynamic of stabilization and destabilization. ...
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