In a small town in a poor part of the Peruvian Andes I was sitting in a cafe eating cake (not, by most standards, particularly good cake – the significance of this will be revealed in a moment). An old Quechua woman, a campesina, came to the entrance of the cafe and sat on the step waiting to be served. The waitress ignored her for a good long time but eventually came over to her and took from her a bag of freshly dug potatoes. In return the old woman received a single slice of cake.
A whole bag of potatoes, probably dug by her own hands, carried on her bent old back, for a single slice of cake! It’s true the cost of the two would be similar back home, but there the potatoes would have been harvested in 2 seconds by a machine. Of course, even if prices were consistent across countries, ‘the market’ is not interested in how the potatoes were grown, harvested or transported.
An economist would say that what I witnessed was free exchange. And the woman had, at a particular point in time, chosen to exchange potatoes for cake. No-one held a gun to her head while she did it. But if you look at the history of Peruvian campesinos and the history of cake, the story looks a little bit different.
Cake is a nice thing and in the form sold in that cafe has spread across the world carried by rich people and the people who cook for rich people. It is something that people want to eat and those with cake-making capital have a certain power over those who cannot afford the ingredients for cake, or the oven in which to make cake.
The history of Peruvian campesinos meanwhile is the history of perhaps the most consistently oppressed people on earth. First the Incas, then the Spanish conquistadors, then global capitalism. The latter, while less obviously (it depends how much attention you’re paying) or constantly violent than the slave labour imposed under the previous two systems, prefers wi-fi in central Lima parks to installing water to campesinos houses.
The old woman presumably offered a bag of potatoes for cake because that was what she had to offer. That was what she had to offer because of various systems of violence imposed upon her and her ancestors since the beginning of recorded history. Can this – just because the woman wanted cake enough to offer something – really be described as ‘free exchange’? Surely the only people who could make free exchange would be those with a free history, if such a thing existed.
Economics – or the cultish form of it that dominates politics and academia – is full of facile notions like free exchange that take no account of power or history or, for that matter, reality. Economists are idiots. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly that they have always had easy access to cake.