Archive for the ‘Commodities’ Category
In “Language and Politics,” Noam Chomsky makes what I think is an oft’ repeated remark summarizing capitalism:
I mean, don’t really have capitalism, we have some variant of it. But if you think about the ideal form, which we approximate to some extent, I mean, capitalism is a system where everything is for sale, and the more money you have, the more you can get.
My emphasis. When Chomsky says that everything is for sale, he’s referring to how the market mediates our access to pretty much everything. It’s the mode of distribution, whereby things like chairs, lettuce and even human labor are distributed from producer to consumer by way of a transaction or exchange we call a sale – though that isn’t an entirely accurate way of describing it, but I’ll get to that.
There’s another side how everything comes to be for sale, because all the stuff that’s for sale had to be produced. So, the flip-side is that in a world where everything is for sale, everything is produced to be sold. We could say, in a way, that everything becomes a cash-crop. When I said that a producer selling something to a consumer (directly or indirectly through middle-men) is not really well described by the notion of distribution, that’s because producers for the most part don’t make things that are directly consumed by them or anyone else. Most of the time, chairs are made and lettuce is grown to be exchanged or sold first and consumed or used only afterward. This ought to weight heavy on the minds of those who advocate sustainable agriculture and small-time farming.
Many people think of farming as a business like any other, which only goes to show how “everything is for sale.” Farmers are seen as businessmen producing a product for exchange first and consumption second. It’s often the case that they keep some of their own product for their own and their family’s consumption, or maybe they feed it to their livestock, but the dominant character of that production is that it is for exchange. Most small-time farmers, to say nothing of the corporate ones, who farm for a living are producing most of their food not for other people to eat but to buy. Often enough the first party to whom it’s “distributed” is a middle-man called a distributor or maybe a grocery-store. It’s highly unlikely that they’re going to eat any of it themselves; their purpose in buying it is to re-sell it at a profit (Money > Commodity > More Money Than Before). They pay their workers wages or salaries to go buy food for themselves (though they may offer them a “deal” to give the company back some of the wages they just paid them).
Sometimes product is sold at at a Farmers’ Market. There, the relationship between producer and consumer is about as direct as you can get. The food is grown/processed by the farmer and sold directly to the person(s) who will likely eat it themselves (or with their family). However, these farmer-market stands aren’t enough to sustain the farmers on their own on such direct terms. If they don’t have a “real job,” or subsidies, they are usually supplemented by selling in other venues (grocery-stores or restaurants or to organizations that process the food entirely different products), if only because the farmer (and even their family) cannot directly and by themselves sell enough product (while also being a farmer) to make the money they need for all the things they can only pay for with money (taxes, materials/tools, and most labor). They may employ labor and have an ongoing vegetable-stand, but then they probably have to pay for the labor (either to work the stand while they farm or to farm while they work the stand, or more likely some combination of both). The workers may get a cut of the product as partial compensation, but they usually need money, which means more has to be produced in order to sell it in order to get the money to pay for such things.
Farmers who directly sell are in a relatively unique position compared to grocery-stores to deal with unsold product. They can eat it rather than throw it away. Assuming it’s still good but not “sell-able,” they can eat it and that directly sustains them. This is not so in stores and restaurants who often forbid employees from eating food destined for or already in the trash. One rationale has to do with hygiene, but I know from personal experience that this legitimately applies to about a quarter to a third of all food considered “unsellable.” Often enough it looks unattractive from being exposed to the air if it’s a fresh-made food, or is so close to expiring that the management wants to restock but must clear the space to put fresher product there, or they just want to make sure it gets pulled off the shelf lest it sits there until it’s “sell by” date. This food is destined for the trash and it is a terminable offense to eat it in Kroger stores (Fred Meyer in the Pacific Northwest). I knew people who got fired for what is called “grazing,” which is a term they use to also refer to how, say, someone plucks a grape or two off a bunch in sitting in the open air in the produce section. This is stealing to them because the product in or going to the garbage, they figure, is their property as much as the product on the shelves, and it is their right to destroy it. The more ridiculous though clearly motivating rationale (I have heard managers say this with a straight face) for this policy is that if workers can have a cut of what heads for the garbage, they will have an incentive to throw things away (as if they weren’t already ordering the workers, through direct commands and policies, to throw away hundreds of pounds of perfectly edible food every day as it is) that they can then eat on the company’s dime. I am getting off on a tangent though, since the points I wanted to make are about production. I’ll say, though, that this management of waste or would-be waste is a direct expression of how everything is for sale (even the garbage isn’t free or common property).
Since my tangent somewhat took the steam out of where I was going with production, I’ll get to the quick and dirty point I made in a comment on Mark Bittman’s NYTimes oped about sustainable agriculture. Namely, to have a serious conversation about sustainable agriculture we need to talk about agriculture as a common resource. That is, as part of the commons. Historically it’s been a chief activity to take place on common-land and is as far as human endeavors go one of the most common (i.e. universally useful and to some extent necessary). It’s the key to sustainable agriculture, because if agriculture remains essentially privatized, the efforts to create sustainable agriculture will continue to benefit those who can “afford” it while under-writing the political, social and environmental costs of unsustainable though immediately lucrative agriculture. I daresay that privatized agriculture is itself unsustainable.
This is a transcribed conversation over instant-messenger with a friend of mine, Josh.
Me: So a polyamorous person I know put their position to me this way: do you have more friends than just your best-friend; does your best friend fulfill all your friend-needs? Well, then why would you expect the same with one lover?
Josh: I suppose there is something to be said for that, but I think for many people, the answer to the question is that one lover does fulfill their sex needs.
Me: I think it’s more than it seems. While I can see one person satisfying another’s genital erotic needs, the basic lesson Freud gives us about civilization and libido is that the former is built through domesticating (i.e. harnessing) the latter. That is to say, for those people some other aspect of their life is eroticized in a sufficient way to what they need – be that people, socially-necessary work or art (including religious devotion). What we can at least say today is that the way the developed world paradoxically eroticizes the whole world actually de-eroticizes it. This is why Zizek rants about safe-sex as “sex without sex” in the way he calls the media’s white-washing of war (or green-washing of [ecologically exploitive] capitalism) “war without war.” Zizek also likes to say that given permissive norms now, a “traditional” marriage is truly subversive, not because it plays the same game of out-transgressing the previous way of doing things, but because it creates a short-circuit in the way we view human relations as perpetual pissing contests and domination.
Compare the crazy sex manuals of India, China and Japan and their traditions of intense contemplation and discipline (Zen especially).
Part of what I was trying to say is that the way that Marx described [in "The Communist Manifesto] how under Capitalism “All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” How this can be thought in terms of this dissolution of normative monogamy. This sounds like the end of the world, or at least a very bad thing, but what it could mean is the emergence of a form of love whose content is monogamous (we only relate to one person at a time), but whose form is universal.
You can think of Christ’s event (arguably the Judeo-Christian event) as a form of this simultaneously dissolving and universalizing love, because only through Him, this individual human, is God accessible. The content is the same, but the form is radically different. Polyamory cannot be forced of course, but it does not arise spontaneously and without a material base. Like Marx also said, men make history, but not under the conditions they choose. What polyamory might mean is a form of love beyond the alienating failure of our first love (i.e. ourself).
Josh: I think you just proved why you would be a good academic and why I would not.
Me: Why’s that?
Josh: Because you just used Marx, Freud, and Jesus to make a case for polyamory. That, to be blunt, is some academic shit!
Me: Bullshit or no? I don’t think Freud and company are inaccessible as much as they are not popular. I think a lot of resentment at what gets called condescension operates according to this mechanism, where an unpopular view is taken as a threat (what a great way to think about xenophobia too) rather than something to be engaged for what it is. I think Zizek’s life for the last 25 years has been a stunning example of why these remain relevant figures and theories.
Thanks for what I’ll take as a compliment though.
Josh: It is a compliment. I wasn’t trying to infer that you were using irrelevant or obscure references. I was just saying that you take an academic approach to argumentation. Using preexisting writings to do cross analyses and draw conclusions that support your point of view.
Josh: I tend just to think about what makes sense and then say it.
Me: Hrmm, that’s what I thought I was doing.
Josh: That’s why you are naturally an academic. It’s a good thing.
Me: haha okay
I think it would be a mistake to say I made a case for polyamory, as in making a case for why we should go left rather than right. What interests me with polyamory – which I have been thinking of for a while but most intensely lately – is the way it can be used to think of economic and other concrete relations and transformations. So, it would be a mistake to say that people were only monogamous in the 19th century, but that the structure of social and economic relations (i.e. relations established by positive law) were such that polyamory could not flourish or work right. Today, we are encountering places in society (literally geographic spaces if we think of how the most liberal places are our urban centers) that do not support “traditional” monogamy as well as polyamory and the like. I affirm polyamory, but ultimately I believe there are forms of monogamy (“traditional” even) that engage the same selfless love (i.e. love beyond narcissism). I can’t make a case for polyamory through Christ without visiting both the fact that he endorsed conventional marital relations and said the only way to him was through “hating” (i.e. letting go of) all your family (i.e. your identity as a sibling/parent/spouse*).
Josh: I suppose I’m not trying to make the case for monogamy, but it seems that polyamory is more of a selfish act, and that once you go down that path you will only be seeking the next experience in a quest for something that you will never find.
Sorry for the long time between responses. I’ve been brewing.
Me: If you want to think of it economically: strict monogamy functions best where you do not have a strong support (i.e. support of material needs) structure in the form of a state or otherwise public institution (arguably corporations attempt to be such public bodies, but deeply perverted kind**). When public society starts to dissolve the old needs for hierarchy and control to provide us with what we need, strict monogamy loses its ability to stabilize our sense of belonging amidst those conditions that make our life possible. So, polyamory arises as an ethical way to manage our affectively-charged relations[---a response to our mode of material reproduction].
In the same way that as the business grows bigger, you can no longer have one guy run the show. It takes a bottom-up approach to really get things done. Polyamory is potentially love from the bottom up.
I should qualify that what is usually thought of as the private sector, is still in large part socialized. What remains private about it are literally paper thin legal definitions.
So, it’s not just a kind of a socialist state in which traditional, strict monogamy loses its efficiency.
Josh: I would argue that it is actually the opposite. Polyamory creates a marketplace for love in which one chooses the best products/lovers. When you are constantly shopping for better and better experiences you become alienate from the act of making love for the sake of the perfect orgasm.
Me: Brilliant. I absolutely agree.
This is why Zizek can get away with arguing for traditional, strict monogamy as subversive in light of permissive norms.
Do you think it would fly with the right wingers if we proved to them that capitalism is responsible for the destruction of the family?
Me: That is not a critique of polyamory as such though, anymore than what I was saying in the first place was a critique of monogamy as such, but view into concrete-social and economic relations through the ideological lens of how we relate to (and regulate) our sexual partners.
Some, yes. I mean, you have to remember that the fascists were, at least in Germany, national socialists
Questions of love are always, in the end, about identity – and vice versa.
Josh: True. I bet the Taliban would be pretty supportive of that critique
Me: They would, but for the wrong reasons.
Josh: I’m listening to a recording of an a capella group with Ray Charles. It’s fucking awesome.
Me: Namely the “I was only following orders” sort of enjoyment those fucks get out of abusing the symbolic order for their imaginary ends.
* Precisely, I think, in the way the mother of 1 Kings 3:16-28 gave up her identity as a mother in order to love/save her son from Solomon’s sword.
** Literally in the sense that Lacan doubly alludes to when he pronounces “perversion” “pere-version,” or “version of the Father,” where Father here could be a kind of Heavenly Father or symbolic guarantor of things
In her essay published in The South Atlantic Quarterly, “Why Time Is Out of Joint: Marx’s Political Economy without the Subject,” Teresa Brennan argues that Marx did not apply his analysis of Capital and the labour that constitutes it closely enough. In particular, Marx only sees human labour-power as capable of producing surplus value. She invokes Marx’s own contrast of variable capital and constant capital. Only living labour-power falls into the former category by Marx’s original analysis, while natural resources and technology fall into the latter category: “We can even say that variable capital is the source of surplus-value while constant capital is not” (on page 268, for those of you fortunate enough to have access to the article). Human labour-power is the only source of energy in Marx’s view, while everything else is merely a conduit for it.
Brennan does not agree with this, and argues that “all natural sources of energy [i.e. substances that can be converted into energy] entering production should be treated as variable capital and sources of surplus-value” (268). She gets this by extending Marx’s explanation of labour power as energy transfered to a person by means of nourishment. It relies on a basic law of thermodynamics called the law of conservation of energy. Energy is coming from not just humans, but the non-living means of production themselves, in the form of various kinds of fuel– be it bread or oil.
Later she argues that by extending the ability to materialize energy, in the sense that Marx formerly only saw human labour-power as capable of, to agricultural production Capitalism comes up against an old barrier. There is no special name for that barrier, but it is scaled by the development of technology. What formerly required lots of human labour-power to accomplish could now be done with less energy and maintenance costs, as a piece of machinery only costs what is needed to do its specific task. In other words, to use the contrast between living and dead labour Brennan also employs on the same page, Capitalism maximizes its short-term profits by converting living energy (natural resources) into dead(er) commodities, which last longer for the sake of finding a buyer. This bodes well for short-term profits, but leaves less energy to be sown back into the system necessary for sustaining the living energy of humans, plants and animals– and ultimately Capital. Herein lies the “out of joint”-ness of time, because the reproduction of living energy is thrown out of whack as the pace of producing itself outstrips that reproduction.
Brennan admits that with agricultural production this was a more difficult barrier to scale, as plant and animal life is wont to stick to its inherited patterns and natures–unless one considers selective breeding, and invasion of life by genetic technologies. A more common, though I think quintessential, example of this murderous process is diary products, though particularly milk, in the United States. Arguably, that could be extended to food in general too.
Milk, before it is pasteurized, is in a certain sense alive; or at least it is biologically rich. It has enzymes and bacteria that are essential to the nutritive function it serves for those who drink it. In this way milk is potentially dangerous, though not unacceptably so, evidenced by the millenia of world-wide dairy consumption that obviously hasn’t wiped us out yet. Despite that we have pasteurization, effectively a process of killing the milk by boiling it.
Ordinarily, milk will last a day or two before it starts to go bad. This is not so good for the business man who may not have the regular business to consume the milk quick enough. So, on top of serving an ostensible technomedical imperative, pasteurizing milk makes it more portable—it will last longer. The process has become so effective at killing the milk that through a process of ultra-pasteurization, which involves intensely pressure-boiling the milk at temperatures exceeding the normal boiling point, refrigeration is on the verge of being practically unnecessary.
This is a serious boon to the milk-industry, because it allows them to centralize and maximize their production while not running the same (economic) risk of the milk spoiling because of the added time to distribute it. What is lost, however, is what is most essential to the milk: its nutritive value. It is no surprise that the sale of raw milk in the United States has been made illegal: more than constituting a public health-threat, raw-milk in all of its perfectly healthy character as a living source of human energy points directly to the violent economic interest involved. By violent, I mean the at once physical killing of the milk and the direct link this process has to the abstraction of its use-value as it becomes more exchangeable, or rather, by becoming more portable. This has a way of constituting a form of social violence against humans too, in that what is being killed for reasons that go beyond the medical is a staple part of our diet—and you know what they say, “you are what you eat.”
In the first half of the 20th Century, particularly after the Russian revolution, dissent in the United States was a relatively formal affair for those who wanted to silence it. Simply put, the silencing of dissent was, when it was a concern at all, really mostly a State concern. In particular, the rise of the Cold War involved a massively government coordinated campaign to gut American labour of its (usually very effective) Communist union leadership.
By the mid-1950s organized labour and anything remotely constituting popular dissent was in shambles. In the 1960s something really interesting happened though, unfortunately in either of their favour. All kinds of “revolutions” developed and the public discourse of seditious and controversial matters became arguably acceptable – not to mention all the drugs. The ’60s quickly became a caricature of itself though, even with the world riots of 1968. Without denying earnest and critically considered revolutionaries, the social movements ’60s became co-opted into Capitalist production. This was opposite of what happened to the proto-hipster (hip-cat, if you will) culture of the 1940s, which was effectively forced underground, giving us The Beat Generation.
What is interesting about this transformation is how it so strikingly smacks of Marx’s mystification of commodities. In this case, dissent itself, or at least the so-called revolutionary attitude, is commodified, turned into a veritable fashion (hence our pathetic and politically charged notion of a “fashion statement”). While Adorno prefigured this transformation in his essays on the Culture Industry, the unique commodifcation (and consequent mystification) of dissent seems to escape his analysis of otherwise innocuous cultural phenomena. I mean, political dissent is supposed to be important, at least in a way different from how Benny Goodman was perceived as important in the day to day lives of middle-class “somebodies.” Anymore dissent, by virtue of its popular form, is structured like any other aspect of our free-time. Today, in Portland, many people have taken notice that our protests regularly end just in time to go home, make dinner and go to bed, because you have to go to work the next morning – or worse yet so you don’t miss your favorite television program.
So it comes down to this question, which Marx asks of commodities: whence came the enigmatic character of American dissent and so-called revolution? How did dissent obtain its commodity-form, such that we are quite aware of its pre-determined, repetitive character, yet we act as if it were (as if we were) truly radical?