Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Poverty and abundance

Large-scale commodity production gives us a sense of material abundance. So much stuff! We call ourselves "developed" because we have advanced so much further than the "developing" or "underdeveloped" world in terms of the things we can buy. In other parts of the world, and at other times in history, consumer options have been much more limited. Nevertheless, individuals in any society are vulnerable anytime things like food, shelter and medicine are treated as commodities, not rights.

Poverty in an advanced consumer society can look a lot different than poverty in an early- or semi-capitalist one. For one thing, as we have already observed, people have a lot more stuff. If we are only accustomed to thinking about poverty as it appeared in the United States during the Great Depression, or as it appears in El Salvador right now, then we are ill-prepared to recognize poverty as it exists in our own communities today. We might even lead ourselves to believe that poverty is less of a problem now than it was in the past because Taco Bell sells chicken wraps for $1, the average American has so much stuff, etc.

Interestingly, the same rationale has entered into today's debates regarding the role of unions in the US economy. Anytime there is a strike in Philly, you are guaranteed a deluge of angry letters to the editor claiming that "unions had their place" in ancient history, but today they are obviated by the niceties of advanced consumerism: an abundance of cheap commodities. Invariably you get these comparisons between how hard-working (white) folk had nothing during the Great Depression, while today you've got "these people" with two cars and cable TV and PlayStation 2 masquerading as though they have "real problems" because they're lazy and want a handout.

There's nothing incompatible about producing lots of stuff for production's sake, pushing it on everyone, and still leaving people vulnerable to basic needs -- like health care or nutritious food -- that don't lend themselves to a low-cost, for-profit production model. Subsequently, these demands are met by much more expensive commodities. It should also be said that the retail price of consumer goods often conceals other costs that are simply transferred by the manufacturer to other parts of society. It's "cheaper" to produce food through an industrial system, so the rest of us pay with our health -- that sort of thing!

It's very difficult to live in a society like the United States and not accumulate a lot of stuff, because capitalism is production for production's sake. Money is made through the process of production, by paying employees a fixed rate while generating a surplus value. Subsequently, you're going to produce 'till you can't produce no more!

But surplus value can only be captured through exchange. That means if you wedge some debeaked, declawed, dechickened chicken parts fresh from the factory floor between two slices of bread, you've got to sell it for at least $1 to rake in the profits! And this goes for every other kind commodity -- you've got to sell this thing a value greater than what you invested in it. So you do whatever you can to get people to buy more, and you get the government to do whatever it can to get people to buy more -- and before you know it everybody has a lot of stuff.

In any a society that produces an abundance of stuff as a rule, you can't look at someone and judge their situation based on the fact that they own a flat screen TV and people somewhere else don't have running water. Americans have flat screen TVs because there was practically a cultural mandate that everyone throw out their perfectly good CRTs and buy a whole new setup based on new technologies pimped by the home entertainment industry. Of course, no one forced me to by a flat screen, or HD, but that's because I don't really watch TV. If you watch TV, you simply aren't getting "the best value" without all this stuff.

And that goes across the board. You can tell people you're a monk and they will still get you something molded out of plastic for birthdays and holidays because it's perceived as a good value. Sometimes these are useful items. But it's very difficult to avoid this "materialistic" side of American culture even if you want to, thanks to its economic roots.

The fact that people own lots of things in a society that produces lots of things is not surprising. But the fact that a person can own all this stuff and still lack the necessaries of life should be.


Anonymous said...


Every time I go to the grocery store, I seem to have an internal discussion with myself that runs along a somewhat similar line of thought. My thinking tends to include the weird angle of "convenience" and its impact on packaging of the goods sold.

For example, instead of a system whereby a majority of parents prepare school lunches for kids by making the food and packaging it in reusable containers, instead we have goods sold in single-portion sized disposable containers.

Hooray for convenience. Clearly it trumps resource waste!

Randal Graves said...

That's why I make my kids' lunches the night before. Hell, I'm not making them an intricate, four-star meal, so the whole "convenience" thing is an easy excuse. Take ten minutes away from the local sports team sucking ass/reality show/boob tube miscellany, folks.

Yeah, I'm paying more than a buck for that bread - I suck at baking - but 'tis healthier than the processed vomit sold in the schools.

Anonymous said...

it's so wonderful to have you back! you make a crucial point today, which is that "cheap" goods usually bear an enormous cost which isn't represented on the price tag.

the question is, how do we make our fellow consumers aware of these invisible costs, and in a way as immediately graspable as a "1.99" sticker?

Beth E. said...

In a similar vein, it's always been very striking to me how goddamned EXPENSIVE it actually is to be poor in this country (usa). If you don't have the $$ to sit in a nice pile in your bank account, you get hit with all sorts of fees, not to mention the payday check cashing nonsense, or the rent-to-own of basic home furnishings where you wind up paying three times the retail cost of whatever. Predatory capitalism takes massive advantage of people living on the edge all the time.

Peter Ward said...

Debt is illustrative in that it is cheap for things like car loans and mortgages but extreme for any kind of loan that might go to essentials--credit card debt to buy food, say.

Besides that there's the scam of college loans and of course the biggest form of corporate direct taxation of the poor: medical debt.