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.