Thursday, July 08, 2010

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

I'm still reading "The Value of Nothing." Good stuff!

"The history of slavery shows not only that the set of things allowed into markets can change but also that decrees establishing what belongs in markets can be revoked. Once, slavery was allowed. Now it isn't. [It still happens, but the author deals with that elsewhere.] In other words, there is nothing natural about buying and selling things for profit, and allowing markets to determine their value. Before commodities can be bought and sold, they have to become objects that people think can be bought or sold. Most of the things that we buy and sell weren't always commodities in the way we understand them today--land, music, labor, care, people and food once had a much more ambiguous status. These things became commodities through complicated and layered processes, to be exchanged in markets with very specific attributes" (Patel 17-18).

My philosophical and religious interest here is in the word "objects." Objects are things which are external to ourselves. They are not things we respect in our communities. When people and land become objects, we've got a problem.

Patel then mentions Karl Polanyi's book The Great Transformation, in which that author talks about the shift of thinking about land and food as commodities. "It may sound odd to think about land or labor as fictitious when the heart of contemporary working life beats to the rhythm of paychecks and rent, but that's a measure of how 'great' the transformation was. It transformed social arrangements so dramatically that it is impossible to think of them in any other way. In other words, the transformation not only changed society, it also changed us, by changing the way we see the world and our place in it" (18).

So, if not turning people into commodities, what alternative do we have? Do we have to go immediately to Communism, that supremely damn-ed way of thinking? What are our options? Ooh! Patel continues:

"The great transformation demanded a great deal of social upheaval. In order to buy and sell land, the people who were previously using it had to be evicted. This happened through the sometimes violent process of enclosure, where peasants were evicted from common land and consigned to cities where they might find income through selling their labor, and provide demand by becoming consumers. In other words, the great transformation required that the social rules governing land and work be entirely rewritten--and through this transformation, entirely new things became eligible for ownership, and for pricing. This process hasn't stopped. The engineers of new financial products work at the bleeding edge of this transformation in the twenty-first century. So do the makers of the cap-and-trade policies designed to solve climate change, in which the right to pollute becomes a commodity" (18-19). *Emphasis mine, thanks to Tracy.

This book is so good! It does a lot of things succinctly so far. For myriad, varied, and creatively brutal examples of "eviction," "enclosure," and turning the world into commodities, read Zinn, Jensen, and many others.

But still I come back. What is the alternative? Today capitalists argue that this system is the only system, because systems in which people get what they need without working for them allow those people to be lazy. People won't work unless they have to. The fun movie "Office Space" is just the first example that popped into my head that speaks to this idea.

What would you do if you didn't have to work? "I'd do nothing," says the main character. Would you do nothing? Would *I* do nothing? I'd like to think not. But I could be wrong.


TLM0000 said...

Great write up. It really caught my attention when I got to this " in which the right to pollute becomes a commodity". I had never really thought about it this way.

Good thought tweaker.

John L. Clark said...

He says that, yes, but then he doesn't do nothing! He goes fishing!

It's fascinating to me how when Peter is hypnotized, the effect is that he suddenly becomes free from the slavery of the "social arrangments" around him, and just (at first) does what he thinks is good. The hypnotic spell actually breaks him out of the hypnotic spell that is our culture, pounded into our heads starting about when our parents tell us that this toy is ours, but that one is not ours.

The only thing preventing us from just going fishing, just living off the land like that, is some arbitrary law somewhere. Some government that tells us that someone (either a private entity or the government itself) owns whatever it is that we might want to use. Sure, the law designates a few areas where we can fish recreationally, but all the major fish stocks (and forest, and farmland, and every other conceivable natural resource) is "enclosed" and capitalized until there is nothing left.

This is all particularly apropos because we're seeing a resurgence of a very old lie: the myth that the rich deserve to be rich, and that the poor are lazy[1, 2, 3]. This flies in the face of history, where we see that the rich actually accumulated wealth through a systemic policy of injustice: exploitation of resources that should be available to all, and oppression of anyone who stands in their way. So, yes, if "work" is the practice of raping the earth and her humbler inhabitants, then I want none of it. I completely reject that work, and rather seek the life that is given freely, using that which nature provides, giving back where I can, and then passing back into dust so that the process can continue.

Why obey any unjust law?

God, preserve us, and hopefully some remnant of Your beautiful ecosystem, while You're at it!