Economistic thinking is the default setting for understanding how the world works. Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than the theory of supply and demand. From hedge fund managers, to professors of economics and business and psychology and plant breeding, to policy makers and analysts, to students, to journalists, to grandma, to your average Joe(lene), when confronted with issues of resource distribution, supply and demand is the go-to explanation. The idea that markets simply respond to “what people want,” pricing those things based on “what is available,” might in fact be the most powerful idea shaping our world today.
But it’s an idea.
I’ll be quite forward: I don’t believe in supply and demand. I don’t think it’s a real thing, and I don’t think it’s even a good idea for organizing the allocation of resources. In relation to the hegemony of supply and demand thinking, one of the most difficult problems to arise is that we tend to mistake something that is a concept and a construct, for something that is natural, inevitable, and just “the way things are.” We reify it.
Pig Progress news from today provides a concrete example of this process: the article US: Funding to drive pork demand is a peek into the way that millions of dollars are expended to create consumer demand, and at the same time, to funnel capital to agribusiness. Demand, in other words, is a construct, with powerful forces behind every turn.
I imagine that one of the reasons we’re so keen on the idea of demand is that it makes us, as individuals, feel we have something to contribute – some power – in shaping the course of economies and societies and histories. But thinking of our engagement primarily in terms of what we do with our wallets is outrageously disempowering, and suggests more about the ways in which we’ve actually been disempowered in the course of the attempted marketization of everything.
What we buy is not who we are.
Purchases are not votes.
We are not empowered through consumption.
Understanding supply and demand as a theoretical construct has important implications, not least of which is the parallel that we should take the concept of demand and turn it into something real. I’ll start with a few ideas:
I demand a food system that isn’t controlled by corporate elites who use “food, agriculture, land” as investment categories; a food system that doesn’t make our air, water, and soil toxic; a food system that operates in a way that gives people dignity and nutrition and community; a food system that is inclusive and equal.
These demands have no price or market. We can’t buy them; we can only make them.