David McNally's polemic "Against the Market" is a Marxist attack on the notion of 'market socialism', that is, the idea that socialism as understood by Marxists is compatible with a society reproduced through market relations. Somewhat oddly perhaps for a work of this kind, the largest part of it is a history of political economy, explaining the different understandings of the market and its social function developed by such luminaries as Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and Proudhon, but also the attempts of the very early socialists (Owen, Hodgskin, William Thompson etc) to formulate an economic counter-understanding. While the critical review of the classical economists has been done many times, and is done no worse here than anywhere else, especially fascinating is the detailed consideration of the early socialists of the 1820s-1840s. Their creation of different kinds of labour voucher markets, collective and co-operative enterprises, and many more such phenomena on the basis of their own inchoate critique of political economy provides an intriguing backdrop to Marx and Engels' own work in that field. It however also demonstrates, as McNally intends, the flaws in such undertakings: one cannot as it were market one's way to socialism within a capitalist society, and no amount of talk about labour vouchers, work-time currencies and so forth can alleviate that. At the same time, those attempts are often as McNally tells them genuinely inspiring, and their failures therefore provide important lessons for anti-capitalist organizing and transition. This chapter in particular is really worth a book of its own.
The core chapter of the book however is Ch. 6, "Beyond the Market", which contains the author's actual critique of market socialist thought in contemporary times. David McNally points here not just to Marx's critique of the early market socialists and their labor vouchers, but also to those contemporary people who argue that socialism would necessarily still have the law of value in operation (Stalin, Nove), that the so-called 'calculation problem' as developed by Von Mises and Von Hayek is applicable and therefore market socialism the only option (Blackburn), the Yugoslavian form of market socialism, and so on. McNally provides an excellent systematic critique of such notions. He notes how the pervasiveness of externalities destroys the idea that 'free market' prices are socially useful informational constructs, Marx's argument that the generalization of commodity production under circumstances of competition itself is the root of capitalist exploitation and alienation rather than mere property relations or unequal exchange, and the immediate contradiction between the social value of competition and the social value of 'the full development of each as a prerequisite for the full development of all'.
He even, quite rightly, gives some concrete ideas about the form a non-capitalist form of distribution might take: pointing for example to the capitalist development of automated inventory systems (like Amazon uses) and just-in-time delivery which are superior at distributional efficiency without inherently requiring capitalism, and the essential difference between internal or 'planning prices' and the prices of production created by the capitalist market process. McNally does seem to waffle a little bit on whether there would in a socialist society not be a market for unique or luxury goods; of itself this would seem to do little harm, but here a discussion of Marx's theory of money and its implications for such 'socialist markets' (as opposed to market socialism) would have been welcome.
On the whole, David McNally is right to criticize market socialism as an unconscionable retreat by socialists from the full implications of Marx's critique of political economy, and to see it as the result of a certain intellectual despair created by the fall of the USSR and of communism in China. Because the intellectual now lacks the confidence to oppose the ideology of markets while still being 'sophisticated', and because the Western labor unions and labor organizations have long retreated into a complacent and labor aristocratic reformism, the room for a thorough Marxist critique of capitalist logic beyond the bounds of mere distributional questions has narrowed. This book is therefore a very welcome contribution.