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The International Writers Magazine: Comment

Travis Claeys
It’s funny how some things can be so difficult to understand just because of our habits of logic.


Consider how the Western world has been affected by Aristotle, in terms of prescribing identity, with this quote: “It is impossible for the same thing at the same time to belong and not to belong to the same thing and in the same respect; and whatever other distinctions we might add to meet dialectical objections, let them be added. This, then is the most certain of all principles… (Aristotle, Metaphysics, translated by Richard Hope, Columbia University New York, 1952)In other words, one is not allowed to say something is good and not good at the same time. However, consider the Eastern world’s take on identity with something often called paradoxical logic, which assumes that A and non-A do not exclude each other as predicates of X. This logic is like saying, even though heads is different from tails, they are both the face of a coin.

All this may explain a certain reluctance in accepting statements like, the ultimate conclusion of capitalism’s insatiable pursuit of new markets will eventually lead us into commodifying most, and if we make it this long, eventually all the aspects of reality, and this not only has the potential to destroy us but to save us too.

Capitalism depends, as its foundation, on the principle of private ownership. Once somebody owns something, then they can exploit if for profit. And so, in this system, people relate to one another in terms of those who own and those who want, buyers and sellers.  The buyers and sellers are, of course, people, but that which can be bought and sold are also people. And I’m not speaking in terms of slavery necessarily, I’m referring to labor. Business owners buy people in exchange for their labor in producing goods. In this way, people can be categorized as commodities. In purchasing commodities, one must always, as a matter of rational necessity, be on the hunt for bargains, i.e., looking for the highest possible value of return. And so when observing humans as commodities, to fulfill specific function in the labor market, one must be cognizant of their value in relation to what you want them to do for you. But the consequence of this behavior, is that observing humans in this way has not been strictly contained to just employment.

According to the writings of Dr. Erich Fromm, in his book The Art of Loving, people also seek friends and lovers as commodities, in terms of exchanging their own physique and personality packages for that of equal or greater value. And of course, a large amount of one’s “personality package” is not a reflection of their own uniqueness but of product preferences. People also begin to see family in these narcissistic parameters. The result, says Fromm, is the gradual complete alienation of people from themselves, their fellow human beings, and nature itself. The splinters of their being are various opportunities for investment, which must bring maximum profits obtainable under the existing market conditions.

And so, in this way, empathy as precursor to brotherly love, and indeed love itself, is left behind. You cannot cherish that which you think you do not need. In terms of romantic love the need, the commodity that is required, is love. Note the distinction: it is required to be loved, not to give love. But, as capitalism teaches us: the market consists of both buyers and sellers, not just one or the other. In alienating ourselves from each other and effectively killing the true and legitimate concept of love, we cease to be human and instead automatons-man is no more, destroyed.

And yet, flip to the other side of the coin and this turning of things into commodities saves us, or at least has the capacity to preserve environmental resources, of which we will probably always depend on, in one way or another, regardless of whether or not the human race stays on planet Earth or not. Peter Saunders, from his book titled, Capitalism A Social Audit, describes the work of one William Foster Lloyd, who approached the problem of the over-exploitation of pastures by herders in England, prior to the enclosures. If you’re a fan of John Wayne then you might have seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, a story which takes place with the closing of the frontier, fencing, and the vast plains of the West turning into States as a result. Anyway, the enclosures were the British version of closing of the frontier in America. But furthermore, Saunders paraphrases Lloyd’s findings with this quote: “…when pasture land is made available to all, it will be in the interests of each herder to graze as many cattle as possible on it. This is because the benefit to the individual herder of grazing one extra animal on the free pasture massively outweighs the cost in terms of the slight decline in quality of pasture which is then available for all the animals. But this same logic applies also to every other cattle owner, with the result that the pasture is rapidly exhausted and they all end up with nothing.”

The absence of the foundational element of capitalism, of private property ownership, results in the over-exploitation of the environment. There is no responsibility for sustainability if one has no incentive, i.e. any reason to have it. However, one may point out that it is within reason for the herder to consider the consequence of his actions in terms of his future prosperity. True, but tomorrow is only a possibility, while today is actuality.  And while the herders may recognize they are effectively shooting themselves in the foot for tomorrow, the only alternative is to reduce the amount of animals grazing and shoot themselves in the foot today, plus in all likelihood the only party to benefit would go to the herder that does not follow suit. Thus the herders are locked into a practice of unsustainability. Of course, the government can force the herders to adhere to quotas. But while the institution of quotas can be the only reasonable solution, top down control from a central government is usually ineffective, if only because it can never have at their disposal all the information needed to work out all the implications of their solution, plus the likelihood of politics being effectively lobbied by special interest groups and forced to compromise the goal of actual sustainability, therefore doing nothing, if not actually exacerbating the problem. The government can allow for market solutions to be pursued by protecting property rights in regards to the environment, thus comodifying the environment.

Saunders notes in his book that when resources can be bought and sold as private property, they tend not to disappear, for the owners have a clear profit motive to become responsible for the maintaining and reproducing of them. This explains why the prolific roaming American buffalo were brought to the brink of extinction, and cows have not. It explains why crocodiles, allowed to be farmed for their skins are plentiful and rhinos, who roam free on game preserves, are on the endangered species list. One must consider the lesser of two evils: animal resources in great numbers on farms as privately owned commodities, or animals free but facing extinction. Only one solution saves them, which in turn, saves us.

Now, of course we don’t need crocs and rhinos to survive as our own species. But we do need food, and we do need to breathe. For these elements the same logic applies. In order to keep fishing boats from depleting the world’s oceans of fish, privatization must occur. In order to keep industry from polluting, privatization must occur. Consider, in this vein, an example Saunders describes in his book of the establishment of a market in tradable pollution permits.  The most polluting companies are issued credits, each one affording a certain amount of chemicals allowed to be discharged into the air. If a company stays under his credit allowance, that company can auction its credits to companies who need them for profit. Incentive for emission control has been established through the invention of a market, through commodifying; and though it was at the hands of government, it was not through coercion but the creation and protection of private properties.
And so, that which destroys us can also save us. Two sides of the same coin that is capitalism, the protection of private property, commodifying. Of course, one may point out that if through this system human beings lose the capacity to love one another, what is the point of their perseverance? Well, here I make the distinction, that even though it has been capitalism which has affected us this way, has taught us to view each other as commodities in many other capacities other than our value at sustaining the system of production and consumption, it has been ourselves that have been allowed into what Glenn Beck describes in his book, Arguing with Idiots, as soulless capitalism. He also points out that capitalism is only the vehicle, and we are the drivers. In other words, words that sound so very much like an example of poetical paradoxical publicizing, we must control that which controls us. Think that doesn’t make sense? See Webster’s definition of Democracy.
© Travis Claeys July 15th 2011

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