Bring back real markets

Tom Hodgkinson
Tom Hodgkinson. Photo by Chris Floyd
Tom Hodgkinson lays out the case for the return of street markets. Wouldn't we all be better off living outside the box?

Could street markets save the world? This idea was put in my mind recently by the creation in Edinburgh of the first "alternative market" by a group of Sufi muslims. Rather than just whingeing and whining about the absurd power of the supermarkets, Adnan Ashfaq and Tariq Ghaznavi of FREE - or the Foundation for the Return of the Equitable Economy - went ahead and set up a new market in the centre of Edinburgh with low overheads for traders: stall prices started at just £25.

There is a radical philosophy behind the idea. Firstly, the alternative market - or perhaps we could call it a "'eal market' - is more than just a place to buy stuff. It is a focus for the exchange of ideas, like the Roman forum or like the medieval markets.

As well as stalls, there are musicians. There are debates and speakers. The inaugural market hosted a talk by Andrew Simms, author of Tescopoly and policy director of the New Economics Foundation. Another speaker was Fazlun Khalid of the Muslim organisation IFEES, the Islamic Foundation for Ecological and Environmental Science, which aims to raise awareness of ecological issues among Muslims. Merriment and intellectual dialogue are combined with the buying and selling.

Another point is that a greater number of such markets would encourage more people to find a way of living outside of the corporation. If there is place to sell your wares and a group of people who frequent that place, then you are more likely to make stuff at home and sell it. The smallholder can sell excess vegetables and eggs and honey. So you can actively develop a real alternative to wage slavery. This is good news for those who have been cast aside by their brutal employer in a recession cutback.

Tangible goods

A real market takes power away from the supermarkets and gives it back to ordinary people. With a real market, the exchange takes place between the buyer and the seller and there is no middleman taking a slice. And supermarkets are precisely middlemen: they don't make anything, they just take a slice for bringing together buyer and seller. That slice is taken by the fat cats.

Real markets are infinitely more enjoyable than supermarkets. At a real market, you can discuss the products with the person who has actually made them. You can sample and you can haggle.

Real markets are noisy, smelly, colourful, bustling affairs, whereas shopping in the supermarket is a lonely experience: you are one poor sucker pushing a trolley through the aisles, a zombie consumer. And what chance is there for a chat with the checkout girl or boy? Often they try and have a little chat, but...

Street sense

When you buy from the real market, you kow that you are supporting someone's indpendent business. When you buy from a supermarket, you know that you are contributing to a hideous web of exploitation, leading to multi-million pound salaries for the directors. And what chance of haggling? All you have are the various points schemes, which offer the most trifling discounts.

Do you know how much money you would have to spend with Tesco for Schools and Clubs scheme to accumulate enough vouchers to buy an Apple Macbook? £207,100. Yes, that's right. Over £200,000. Even a badminton racket will cost you £1,600. Where an individual market stall holder might offer real discounts of ten to twenty per cent, Tesco offers a discount of around 0.005%. That is mean.

The other wonderful thing about the Edinburgh experiment is that Adnan set up a stall where you could change your pounds sterling into real silver, and use that silver to buy goods. This is because the Qur'an says that trade is permitted but usury is forbidden, and therefore silver and gold - i.e. real money rather than usurious paper money - are approved. To take trade away from the supermarlets and to take money away from the banks: now that really is an exciting prospect.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of The Idler magazine, and author of How to Be Free (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99).

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