It seems all of Britain is watching TV and the Internet this Sunday, catching up in the news on a downgraded US and waiting for the opening of a stock market that has once again fallen apart. I am on vacation, but I decided to go for a bit of market research myself. This took me to Spitalfields Market in London, on the periphery the banking district.
As I stand at the entrance to this chaotic place, I take a moment to reflect on where we are in the world today. Our politicians have failed us, driven by greed and voted in by the champions of the politically correct, the religiously mad – or both. Market risk mechanics go for regular, chaotic walks – with their corporate lapdogs on leash. In order to make money in a society obsessed with the service industries, our best talent is sucked into investment banking to come up with new algorithms to predict the next big move, with about as much certainty as we predict the weather – which is not very certain at all.
I step into the hall of the market, with its Brunel-like steel pillars, holding up what looks like a makeshift roof. Underneath this roof, hundreds of vendors make their living, peddling their wares. The noise hits you like a wall, but this is not the noise of phones ringing, keyboards typing or air conditioning trying to cool the latest generation of CPU cores and suit clad armpits. It is the noise of humans selling the goods they produced themselves, in unbranded stalls decorated for the day. One skill is traded for another: I have something you want or know something you don’t. We can do the transaction right here in my 4 m2 booth. You walk home with something new – we both win. This is the oldest form of business: the bazaar. But today, it is fuelled by technology: If you want more goods (perhaps to resell?) you can contact me on my homepage or follow me on Facebook. You can pay me with credit card, using a WIFI or 3G connected POS device. I can even hack technology for you on demand (phone unlock anyone?). Soon, I can create something for you almost instantly that lives in the cloud. My profit and loss statement is simple. I save up money, I invest it in materials, I sell my skill – I have cash flow. The bazaar has high availability and scale built in. Like the cloud, it remains in business even when several of the self sufficient units fail. There are very few rules and regulations here in the bazaar – common sense does a good job at keeping the peace and stability.
Society enables this modern, super powered bazaar through the infrastructure it provides: Phone lines, WIFI networks, money printing (soon to be extinct if this keeps going!), safe streets, roofs, heating, electricity, education, healthcare, roads etc. Once basic civilisation and technology is available – the human race sorts the rest out. Soon, computing power itself will be part of that infrastructure. Some basic policing of the rules is required – but if we don’t go to bed hungry or cold, or worry about he health of our children, it is amazing what we can achieve when powered by a morality that is not driven by greed. In this market, I can buy goods that are hand made, creating jobs, at a price that is highly competitive to the high street shops. I can have a chat with the vendor who may not be trained in the art of selling – but who is proud of the goods he has created or the skills he exhibit. The air feels fresh here in Spitalfields. These people are empowered in a way that no MBA motivational rant comes close to mimicking.
I realize that I may come across as communistic to some US readers. Though I see no need to defend myself against a failed system, you may want to consider that I am FOR private property and AGAINST stupid, government spending, I am not in favour of the nanny state. But, I am beginning to wonder if capitalism, in the big corporate form it has mutated into, distracts us from what it truly means to be human: to flourish in life, interact with each other, and to feel the correlation between your labour and the happiness it creates in others. It seems to me that the “crisis” we are experiencing is not one of liquidity. Instead, it is the unexpressed frustration of loosing our true priorities – and becoming slaves to market mechanics that were meant to power the bazaar and serve the people, but today answer to only one master: the balance sheet.