The market as a commons: thoughts after a visit to Saquisili

We travelled to Saquisili the other day, a small town 80 km South of Quito, where we were promised we would have found an impressive indigenous market, with little stuff for tourists. On the way, we got lost in a small  mountain village, Bolivar, and run across the first example of what in Quechua is called Minga, the work that  communities  put together for a common purpose without being paid for.

My grandfather was doing Minga all the time in the mountains of the Italian Appenines, without calling it that way — and I am not sure whether this working together to build dams and walls, maintaining the country’s roads or harvesting wheat had a special name. The group  of men and women we encountered in Bolivar where moving stones, digging holes and mixing cement to build a community house in the main  square of the village, so as the people could store stuff without being afraid of the “ladrones”. They put us back on the right track toward Saquisili.

We finally arrived in Saquisili and parked our rented car right in front of the market.

There were actually two markets, quite similar to one another, at two ends of the town. They were held under large roofs, and as expected  they were bubbling with life. the first thing we noticed after a while walking around the stalls was that virtually all market traders  were women selling fruits and vegetables and other food — meat, sugar, cheese, bread, fat, lard, ecc.

Most men, on the other hands, where hanging around and talk and eat. Some of them wandered around and sell “junks”: picture frames, household stuff, small toys, etc, while few others where loading heavy stuff on trucks. The other thing we noticed is that nothing is wasted: the fat of the cooked meet is collected in small plastic bags to be sold separately  . . .the crumbles that fall on the wood cutter when the big barrel of sugar is cut in smaller pieces (as large as a bread loaf) are offered to passer by  . . .some are even directly taken without being offered  . . . a man with fish-heads goes around selling them from a bucket  80 cents — they are huge fish heads and they promise a great soup . . .

Few hours in this market makes you realise that the market as a place is definitively a commons, i.e. there is a commons resource, a process of commoning and a community of commoners. There is a common resource, for example the covered square where all the stalls are located. Whether it is actually owned directly by the people or by the municipal council defines the type of filtering mechanism through which use-access of the facilities is configured. This filtering is obviously a site of conflict and power.  In Baños I asked the people selling food in the municipal market there, and they have told me a painful tale to get access to the licence, permits and authorisation to be able to sell in the market building. (It is a similar process in many European towns). But once they got in as individuals, they joined the other small sellers in an association to increase their power vis-a-vis the council, as if once the use-access rights are dealt with, what is left is the battle ground of control powers.

Thus, the precondition of the common resource, is a filtering of some type, which defines use-accss.  Obviously, a lot one can say about the type of filtering mechanism, the processes of inclusion and exclusion, the networks of clients, the powers of control that are exercised in this place, the extent to which the cleaning, or infrastructure maintenance are delegated to the outside world (council or private contractors) or are part of the distribution of tasks within the commons. Then there is the second element of the commons, the commoning. Being in Saquisili, once cannot fail to observe a continuous flow of productive and relational interaction to make the market as it is: like a woman helping another woman to put the bag of potato on her shoulders; like the children buzzing around as if they where a main means of communication among stall tenders. And much of the structure of the market cannot be but the result of past commoning. For example, the fact that al the bread sellers (and makers), and all the cheese sellers (and makers), and all the food makers (and sellers), are clustered together, cannot be but  the result of some decision in the past, even if this decision is the result of some spontaneous process. Because it is obvious to the economically trained eye, that one rationale of this clustering is in the limitation of competition among the sellers, another aspect of market place as a commons. Bread makers and cheese makers for example are all selling the same product — virtually indistinguishable — and the price is the same. A wheel of cheese $1.10. A horizontally split sixth of the wheel $0.25. The price at the beginning of the line of cheese makers, is the same as the price at the end. The same for bread seller. A bag of sweet bread for $1, all along the line.

Competition still exists, as the traders where trying to get my attention making eye contact and waving their products in order to sell their bread or cheese, and not that of their competitors. When I approached one and concluded a deal, the others seemed to talk to one another as if commenting on the ability of that woman to cut a deal, to gossip about it.

The third element of commons, that of community, is thus also evident  as the commnoning in particular forms build relations, waves solidarities but also reproduce hierarchies, and gives form to conflict and to the ways in which the community deals with it.

The Saquisili market has a lot in common to many other markets in Europe I am more familiar with. The key element is obvious: there are buyers and sellers, and prices, and transactions. But because there is so much more that these basic elements, and this much more is so much unfamiliar to me that hits my eyes (the range of goods, the customs, the smell and colour of the buzz), then few hours in Saquisili markets  helps me to understand  there is an important point to make in the difference between the market as commons and the market as abstract mechanism of resource allocation as it is envisioned in the model of orthodox economics.  The  presupposition of this market as commons is not only the type of filtering mechanism that allows these traders to access the market. Also, it is the sphere of the household economy within which the vast majority of these products are produced. And since the sphere of household economy is a commons — indeed, one of the commons at the smallest scale, the market place is a commons at a higher  scale, that is one that has  articulating elements and — as all commons at higher scales –  allow communities to mesh, commoning to weave norms and rules and resources to be pooled. If, at a general approximation, we understand commons as the productive sphere of non market transaction, then the market as a commons is not an oxymoron, but an expression that serves us to point out that the types of measures of market transactions presuppose a lot of non-market life.  It is not in the market in general that we see the disappearance of the commons. It is capitalist markets, and not market in general, that reduce the commons of the markets to only one, what is common between buyers and sellers, that is to be the participant of a valuing process that reduces everything — and I mean, everything — to the common measure of money.

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