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

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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.

Written by Joe

March 9, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Sitting as Social Activity

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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.

Written by Joe

November 15, 2009 at 5:17 pm

The Good Word

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One Jormungandi asks the other if he is going to Acorn War.

Spidermonkey: What’s the good word?

Snow Leopard: The good word is no!

Spidermonkey: That’s what I was thinking.

Written by Joe

September 10, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Buddhism and Abstraction

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Extending a thought I started in a comment at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt I add:

G.W.F. Hegel’s “Who Thinks Abstractly?” and his critique of common-sense abstraction (Nietzsche’s “herd mentality”) are kind of at the heart of it, and I think the originality of Buddha’s everywhere in terms of both compassion and wisdom.’

‘Common-sense’ abstraction as opposed to the more conventional attribution of abstraction to academic and otherwise educated people. Hegel’s response to the question ‘who thinks abstractly?’ is ‘the uneducated, not the educated.’

We have to remember that with the exception of Hui Neng and some other figures in the Pali canon, most of the prominent figures of Zen and Buddhism in general were either directly from or just outside the aristocracy of their time and place, the Siddharta Gotama especially. However, I think we are led astray if we chase after some hitherto repressed ‘householder/everyday buddhism’ as something very different from what does appear in the written and orally transmitted teachings/stories. There is no authentically ‘everyday’ form of Buddhism, and it would be absurd not to view the already given teachings as speaking to and from everyday life. Kings and Queens and Masters and Buddhas are just ordinary people.

We should recognize a form of this ‘talk in plain speak’ attitude in the appeals many conservatives and hicks make to the common-sense appeal of creationism and intelligent design (or the common-sense appeal many liberals feel comfortable making to ‘the market’). Mind you, those two bits in particular are beside the point. The point is in the way that ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ rhetoric appears even when we seem to be talking about universality and equality and the close ties it has with other forms of reductive thinking.

Written by Joe

August 23, 2009 at 9:35 am

A Holy Man Comes To The Deli

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From an exchange I had with Hannah:

Me: I had an encounter with who I could only call a holy man in the deli the other day, though it was something of a mixture of two separate occasions with the same guy.

[The first time], he ordered a half-sandwich from our list of prepared recipies. However, per some stupid rule, we’re not allowed to sellf half-sandwiches from that list. You have to do the ‘make it yourself’ option to get a half-sandwhich. He wanted it with our soup-and-sandwich special, which is a half-sandwhich with a cup of soup. I started to go into my script of why I can’t do it and why I think it’s still a dumb rule, but I stopped myself and just said, ‘you know what, I’ll just make it for you.’ He then wouldn’t stop applauding me, and said I was a model worker, someone who he’d hire in a heart-beat if he had the money to run his own sort of business (sandwich related or otherwise).

Hannah: lol

i’d applaud you too

Me: A couple weeks later, he came back again, and was chatting up me and my partner. The prior incident kind of came up again, and quickly turned into a conversation about how the management don’t manage properly (i.e. they do it top-down). I can’t remember exactly how he put it, which unfortunately was what I thought was so significant about it, but he said something to the effect of ‘you know how I know when God is talking to me? He doesn’t talk down, but talks up.’ That struck me as absolutely brilliant, and reminded me of something Peter O’Toole said (‘When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself’). It’s also the basic philosophy I have toward social organization, especially in terms of ‘the work-place.’

This is why I think 1 Kings 3:16-28, the story about Solomon solving a dispute between two women arguing over a baby, is so important.

God’s will does not descend down through Solomon to the women in dispute, but arises from the true mother herself* – i.e. the one who would give up her baby, as well as her utterly vital status in the community as a mother (she was otherwise a prostitute, an under-classling), her life essentially, rather than have it cut in half per Solomon’s judgement).

There is a lesson about collective (political) action in this story, which the holy man brought together for me by connecting it to the way the deli was ran. The key is to view all these characters as actors in a network, and not mere individuals (you are starting to get through to me Levi). My experience in the deli has re-enforced by faith in communism, of collective self-management. The injection of the privative relation, the one which the false mother maintains both towards the child and Solomon’s judgement, that disrupts the flow of this process, is experienced coming from above.

It is not hard to make the leap from this to saying that Capitalism is self-managing, but this self-management is a kind done in bad faith, again as represented by the false mother, who exercises her selfishness by way of Solomon’s (external) judgement. What I am talking about is the self-management of the “You have heard it said … but” sort. Jesus is, after all, speaking within the Jewish tradition, while simultaneous breaking (from) it.

You have heard it said that you may only order half-sandwiches from the make-your-own menu, but…

*I do not know why Adam Kotsko doesn’t get this reading. What he calls “the common-sense reading” I associate with the abstract “common-sense” of “the uneducated” in Hegel’s “Who Thinks Abstractly?”

Written by Joe

June 20, 2009 at 9:43 am

(Obviously) Not a Mom I’d Like To Fuck

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From Postcards from yo Mamma, a blog that shows off examples of “a sort of essential mom-ness that wasn’t just idiosyncratic to our own mothers—we had inadvertently stumbled on something that was universal.” That is to say, funny and otherwise interesting stuff that people’s mothers have communicated to them through internet-text.

Mom: Your dad and I were watching the SNL thing and were confused, what is a MILF?
Me: Seriously? You don’t know?
Mom: No. We were so confused at that part.
Me: It means Mother I’d Like To “F”
Mom: Gross. What?! Who would do that to a mother?!
Me: I don’t know, obviously you aren’t a MILF.
Mom: Obviously. I’m just a MILM. A Mother I’d Like to have as a Mother.

I post this wondering why there is such a dead-zone in the psychoanalytic literature when it comes to the internet and (instant) text-messaging specifically. For a discipline so obsessed with speech, language and writing , who offer so many analytic tools beyond the clinical setting in the everyday world of language and symbol, how does the instant-message pass beneath the radar?

Written by Joe

May 9, 2009 at 10:05 pm

Say It Like You Mean it

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I caught myself this morning, when discussing women’s oppression in the sex-industry with a friend who I already expected was unconvinced, wanting to slip in little phrases that sort of de-neutralize the conversation, that make it safe. The phrase that I think fell the most under my back-space was “for me,” as if to say that this wasn’t really something anyone else should risk but me. Oddly enough, I think that phrase actually shows as much if not more solidarity in their not having to take it seriously as much as I make it safe for them. In effect, I make it safe for me to say, because I don’t really mean it, because it’s “just me” saying it.

I don’t know how many educators employ this kind of reasoning when guiding their students’ writing styles, but I’d like to know. I have had one professor who was a real hard-ass about that kind of stuff, and he would give his explanations somewhat along the same lines of confusing what you mean or if you mean anything at all. It only just recently struck me as having some more important implications for the way we approach matters of philosophy and politics.

In a way this ties back into the blog post I am meaning to write re-visiting Zizek, Lenin, and the Political Act (in response, somewhat, to Foucault is Dead’s conversation at Thinking Girl I mention in the previous entry). This is precisely the subtle, unnnoticable daily act, a Foucauldian micro-practice if you will, that engenders the kind of social conditions that I think Zizek is very paranoid about– and for good reason. For example, Zizek has made the off-hand critique of post-structuralist theorists, like Judith Butler, who make avid use of quotation marks.

So, try this at home, or on the bus, or anywhere you engage people in issues that make you lurch a little inside: when in a disucssion, omit from your rhetoric–“for me,” “as I see it,” etc– anything that diffuses what you’re saying. In other words, say it like you mean it!

Written by Joe

July 26, 2007 at 1:11 pm