Everything is For Sale; Everything is a Cash-Crop; Sustainable Agriculture and The Commons

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.


Sitting as Social Activity

Thesis 8 from Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”

All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice. (Marx’s emphasis)

Do that whenever you are sitting on a bike or bus, at a restaurant or movie theater—on a zafu or even with your breath.

From Tyrannical Governments to Tyrannical Civilization

This appeared in the Guardian about a week ago. Hat-tip to Larval Subjects and kpunk.

And most difficult of all is that persistent bugbear of the left: who is the subject for change? In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the term proletariat was used precisely to indicate a class with nothing to lose, who are capable of taking the high risks required in any radical political transformation. Is there any such group today? Vast sections of the working class have been fully pulled into dependency on the liberal state. Immigrants are often atomised and lacking solidarity.

I think what we lack is theoretical work that explains plausible scenarios in which autonomous worker co-operatives could be politicised and achieve universal scope.

Coombs is talking about how the proletariat become dictators of capitalist society. Where is the universality is the right question to ask. Listening to Oregon Public Broadcasting today, which is running its fundraiser, reminded me that competitiveness is a false form of association that fails to be universal. That point of failure is where we might find a universal aspiration, to a form of cooperation that does not do away with the desire to create, innovate, improve and discover.

I, too, want to know is what is to prevent these occupied territories from competing with each other, what universal civilization is to unite these collectives that does not pit them against each other? When we speak of Capitalism, we evoke the absurd notion of a universal social substance supported by competition. So long as our communes are ran like companies, we will fail to flourish, whatever that really means. Then again, maybe that’s the trick: ethical competition, “Homer’s contest.” A universal aspiration lived as eternal contestation, but not a moral compensation for our being free.

Notes on Therapeutic Buddhism

This was apparently too long for blogger’s comments, so I’m posting it here. It’s another comment from that Progressive Buddhism post on mindfulness-based therapy and Buddhism.



I’m glad you bring up ENDS and RESULTS, because we have to make a distinction. If Buddhist practice aims at the liberation of all beings, then therapy is at best a result experienced along the way as a side-effect, and hardly a necessary one. Slavoj Zizek introduces a wonderful distinction between therapeutic and critical religion in the introduction to his “The Puppet and the Dward,” one which I think he unfairly develops on the side of Christianity. He does well to highlight the passive tendencies of therapeutic Buddhism, but he misses the psychoanalytic import of his own terms and the subsequent abuse he makes on them. To put it bluntly, what we have here is a distinction between the pleasure principle and the death drive, and it is a misnomer to oppose the “life-drives” (Eros) to the death-drive (Thanatos). To this end, Lacan argues that all drives have a little death-drive in them. Buddhism is not an inherently therapeutic religion, nor is Christianity the sole bastion of critical religion. A survey of American forms of Christianity shows that the therapeutic mode dominates, arguably with less pernicious results than that ethico-spiritual disposition that in triumphal bad faith throws its hands up in the air for the sake of “pragmatism” and getting “beyond politics.”

I also want to dispel the mind-closing connotations of “critical” as judgmental. The best way to think of this distinction between therapeutic and critical religion is along the lines that Emerson, in his essay “Intellect,” distinguishes between “repose” (i.e. comfort and resignation) and “truth.”

“God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.”

Another useful touching-point is Patrick Kearney’s essay, “Still Crazy After All These Years: Why Meditation isn’t Psychotherapy,” which is is both perspicacious and near-sighted. As the title suggests, he wishes to dispel the connection between what Kyle Lovett calls “traditional psychotherapy” and Buddhist practice (particularly meditation). The problem is when we conflate the history of psychotherapy, particularly psychoanalysis, with this image of “traditional psychotherapy,” with its parent-blaming, ego-worshiping escapism.

That is why earlier I brought up Lacan’s departure from the therapeutic mind-set of his contemporaries, who unfortunately did better than him to saturate the popular perception of psychoanalysis. Strictly speaking, for Lacan, psychoanalysis is not a program of therapy. Psychoanalysis does not proceed by labeling from some distance these or that problems, which are dealt with in the voyeuristic privacy of one’s own ego. Rather, psychoanalysis is an experiment in our painful habits themselves, though in the relative safety of the clinical situation, which in many ways we can expand to the student-teacher relation.

Is this not what happens when, for us Zen adepts, we are sitting? We do not escape from our busy minds or the world changing around us; our quietude is a noisy one, because karma is ALWAYS coming up for us. What we find and what the masters report to us is not a stillness of mind (as if they were somehow opposed in the sense of some reality behind illusion), but the revelation of that stillness in mind – that de-centered I of the storm. The transformations this brings to the practitioner are too great to be sub-ordinated to the therapeutic impulse.

The Ones Who Stayed and the Ones Who Went

Omelas, as it exists with the suffering child, is utopia from the perspective of the false mother of 1 Kings 3:16-28.

The one who walk away from Omelas pretend to give up on Utopia as an index of the importance of that for the sake of which they left (hint hint: their own True Selves (an update to Hegel’s ‘Beautiful Soul’). They do not really give up on utopia though. Their counter- or anti-belief is their very bad faith in that society. Those who would really give up on Omelas, on Utopia, are those who stay to free the child or otherwise ameliorate the situation. They are, to paraphrase Zizek, the atheists who can truly believe. That is to say, call the bluff of the only law in this society: that it all goes away when that child is freed. (Begin to think here of ‘the child-like empress’ of The Neverending Story as a prisoner of fantasia.) The Law says exactly what will happen, so why not take it at its word? You want to let go of Utopia, but are still stuck on the idea? Then stay and engage it — watch it go away; watch it go no where.

The ones who walk away from Omelas have a bad faith in the Law, like the false mother had a bad faith in the Law qua Solomon’s judgement. Perhaps Joshu, walking out on Nansen with his sandals on his head, is one of ones who walk away from Omelas? The monks were scared shitless of Nansen, not because he was going to cut into the cat, but into their True Selves. Joshu would have turned Nansen’s sword on him and saved the cat, but he couldn’t because Nansen already killed it, sanctifying it in the process. Nansen’s mistake — that he kills the cat as a means for destroying the monks’ clinging (to their own True Selves) — is the false mother’s mistake too. Is Joshu critiquing Nansen’s bad faith, or merely repeating it? The suggestion that Joshu would take Nansen’s sword and enforce the same edict suggests that Joshu is repeating Nansen. Is this a case where an action is only fully realized when it fails and is repeated, where truth is attained through a misrecognition?

Did he really threaten their True Selves? If we take Omelas as a kind of True Self or Beautiful Soul, and the suffering of the child as a fundamental condition of the Beautiful Soul, letting the child in its suffering remain means letting the Beautiful Soul remain. In other words, without the child in its state of suffering, the Beautiful Souls become guilty – they lose their innocence.

This happens to the little girl in William Blake’s The Book of Thel. She is aware of the decay and transience inherent to her paradise, which in a Buddhist view is to say she is aware of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness in paradise. She makes to leave the paradise, but is confronted the sound of what I believe is her own voice and the Worm’s voice, and they are not-two. She is one of those children who flees back into Omelas in tears at the site of the suffering child, though ultimately to confirm their dwelling in Omelas and the suffering of the child. Is this what Nietzsche meant by affirming life?

Those who leave Omelas, or think they do, are to it as the little girl is to the Worm. She essentializes it as a weakling and inferior. Those who leave Omelas are reactionaries not revolutionaries. They are more libertarian than anarchist. The anarchist (i.e. the mature socialist revolutionary) throws away or at least lets go of it utopia for the sake of the child, against the usual drooz of how socialists want to sub-ordinate the individual to the collective. One for All and All for One.

The ones who walk away from Omelas give up on Omelas as the false mother gives up on the child, treating him like a piece of property that can be divided to resolve the conflict. It is still a place on a war-map, the place they left in rebellion, ever solidifying their resolve with every step they take going away from IT. Like Badiou said, we need a peace that is beyond the war and not merely it’s lazy hand. We need Omelasians more than Omelas.

What’s the Big Difference?

If zazen is when you’re on the cushion, and Zen is when you’re not, then the only substantial difference is whether you’re on the cushion or not. If zazen is what we call it when we’re on the cushion, then it doesn’t matter what we call it when we’re off. The key to zazen is if done with Right Intention, the difference between standing and sitting, i.e. between being on the cushion and not, will become clear and empty. To that end, advocating zazen with Right Intention is at minimum and all it means to spread the Dharma.

The key to zazen is if pursued with Right Intention, the difference between standing/walking and sitting, i.e. between being on the cushion and not, will appear clear and empty. Thus Dogen says in the Genjokoan that when Dharma fills this whole body and mind we realize that something’s missing. Not only does this mean realizing our psycho-physical self is empty, but that emptiness is form, and that when we have psycho-physical form it’s only finite, which means temporal and ontologically determined. To that end, we realize that standing is standing and sitting is sitting all because of this, which we already know is nothing special.