Monday, September 26, 2005

A Shame that it Has to Go

An old, old story to do with street markets – of the kind that Smith knew well, as did his contemporaries, for they were the only kind of markets that existed before the end of the 18th century outside the largest towns.

Street markets were to be found all over rural Europe, even in the smallest settlements on ‘fair’ and ‘market’ days. Remnants still exist in rural France. Where I live for part of the year – in rural Gironde – there is a ‘market’ day in one or more of twenty nearby small villages and towns within an hours driving distance, and in the nearest large town, Libourne, they have a street ‘market’ on three days per week.

Ever since the early signs of the restoration and re-emergence of the commercial economy in western Europe, a thousand years after the fall of Rome and the consequential descent into barbarism plundering a depleted agriculture (with violent unequal ‘arguments’ over hunting between ‘poachers’ and "Lords' bailiffs"), street markets were the most obvious manifestation that one age was passing and a new one beginning.

Predictably, with the emergence of markets – their noise, smells, rubbish and occasional fights, the local authorities sought to organise and administer them, with fees from traders, licenses and levies, and always in the name of ‘good order’, always as part of efforts to stamp out ‘petty crime’ and always with a tidier vision for what else they should be like other than the sprawling reality of how they always became, over-spilling into near-by streets, occasional ‘illegal’ practices, a little gaming, some excessive drinking and occasional opportunistic prostitution.

The Warsaw Business Journal, 26th September 2005, reports a threat to its city’s world-famous ‘bazaar’ from the conservative-minded Law and Justice (PiS) political authorities in an article: “Stadium threat” by John Todd. He writes:

"The stadium is known for unsanitary conditions, crime, a lack of any standards. If we want to be a modern capital city, it can't go on," says Jan Ołdakowski of Law and Justice.
Traders from around the world hawk everything from sofa sets to pirated DVDs and icons to baby ferrets at the defunct football stadium in Praga.

Warsaw's mayor Lech Kaczyński, a fellow PiS member and the party's candidate in next month's presidential election, wants the central government to shut down the illegal traders, move the legal ones to a new site and rebuild the stadium.

It's estimated that 4,500 merchants ply their trade, compared to the estimated 4,000 at Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Music, film and software groups say the stadium accounts for 25 to 30 percent of all pirated material - excluding Internet piracy - sold in the country.

A Polish woman, who gave her name as Małgorzata and who paid her way through four years of university by selling pirated DVDs, said the Armenians, Poles and Vietnamese who control the three main areas don't stray onto each other's turf.”


Street markets are good for a community. They sell fresher food than supermarket chains, often straight from the farms and orchards they were picked from that same early morning. People of all income groups attend looking for ‘bargains’.

In post-communist regimes, they are great schools in entrepreneurship and the simple – but, heavenly – practice of exercising choice. In state-stifled capitalist countries they are areas of independence, good for the economy and for social stability.

The dead hand of bureaucracy cannot stand them (though their spouses and kids also use them) because they are out of their control. They send in the inspectors, the license sellers and the officious, and drive them into order and discipline on pain of the badge of criminality for any who resist.

The lack of hygiene, the petty criminality and the disorder cannot be tolerated and, without actually lowering their country’s crime rates, or its food poisoning, or the disorder, they kill-off a symbol of a country’s vibrancy. They turn their foods into bland imitations of the real thing in packaged cabinet-sealed super markets, crime continues but elsewhere, and where an area had colour, the smells of fresh food and the laughter of happy commerce, it becomes, well, a parking lot, a monstrous development and a city space of branded businesses, the same as in any similar city anywhere else.

Adam Smith’s world of street markets vanishes from another part of the world. Sad.


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