Thursday, March 31, 2011

Knowing when Guinness is good for you

Because I would like to think of today as our day of departure, I'm about to do something that I don't normally allow myself while writing: I'm going to prepare myself a pint of Guinness. Here it goes.

Truly a thing of beauty. I regard it with all my senses, because this is an important moment for me; and I hope for you, too. I appreciate that most of you don't start drinking at noon. But remember to do this for yourself when you get done with work. For now, you will have to experience the effects as they play themselves out in my writing.

The Guinness I am drinking can be looked at in a variety of ways. Let us begin where Marx begins, with his concept of the commodity; or, commercial product.

Now to me, Guinness is just a kick-ass commodity. There is no getting around the fact that it fulfills a particular use-value: it's a good beer. Humanity has for a very long time produced beer, and my every aspiration for humanity in the future is that it will never stop doing so. In this respect, I allow myself to thoroughly enjoy a commodity like Guinness, when the occasion arises.

The capitalist way of producing a commodity like Guinness brings with it certain implications, however. The most general implication is that people with no independent way of living sought out employment with Guinness Inc. (or whoever) because they had no choice but to work for somebody else. This in itself doesn't let us draw any hard conclusions about how Guinness workers regard their relationship with their employer. It could be that, overall, they are cool with it. But it is significant in itself. And the reason it is significant is that the most general implication of capitalism is that people are told they shouldn't have any independent way to survive, and have to rely on somebody else in order to do so. When you actually think about it -- dude, that's crazy!

So here we have a situation where the very process of making something awesome, like Guinness, is premised on one relatively small part of society (employers) telling the overwhelming majority of people (workers) that they exist to work for them. Here I want to share with you what the German syndicalist (labor anarchist) Rudolf Rocker had to say about that happy crappy:

The portentous development of our present economic system, leading to a mighty accumulation of social wealth in the hands of privileged minorities and to a continuous impoverishment of the great masses of the people, prepared the way for the present political and social reaction. and befriended it in every way. It sacrificed the general interest of human society to the private interest of individuals, and thus systematically undermined the relationship between man and man. People forgot that industry is not an end in itself, but should only be a means to ensure to man his material subsistence and to make accessible to him the blessings of a higher intellectual culture. Where industry is everything and man is nothing begins the realm of a ruthless economic despotism whose workings are no less disastrous than those of any political despotism. The two mutually augment one another, and they are fed from the same source. 

What Rocker is talking about here is no different than when you turn on the news and all you hear amounts to a running obsession with the health of the economy, oddly detached from anything that you care about in your day-to-day life. Obviously, we get the sense that we don't benefit when the economy is bad; but how much do our prospects improve when the economy is doing great? Basically, you just feel lucky if you have a job, because that's what everyone keeps telling you.

So you see, as much as I unreservedly enjoy this Guinness, there's a much bigger story going on around it, of which it forms one part. In fact, there is potentially quite a lot at stake, in human and environmental terms, anytime people are conditioned to unquestioningly accept the things that they are told by others; or, what's worse, to embrace this as a way of life.

I want you to think about this -- but not if it means ruining your drink, or anybody else's drink. Above all else, I want you to enjoy that. The thinking will come when the time is right. Cheers.


Ethan said...

This is a wonderful beginning. Enjoy your beer.

BDR said...

Guinness? Gah, Man, someday I'll buy you a real beer.

Are you familiar with Travels of a T-Shirt? I think it might speak to some of the issues you're raising here.

JRB said...


I'm familiar with capitalism, my good man, capitalism. Also, I'm not sure your link is right.

And, yes, I am also familiar with "real beer," but writing "Knowing when Insanity is good for you" ... well, maybe I should have written about that, if I had some.

BDR said...

Gah! Sorry.

If you'd said Coors Light, I'd have had to reevaluate everything.

fwoan said...

This has just made me want a Guinness - which until pretty recently I have always hated.

Baryonic said...

"And the reason it is significant is that the most general implication of capitalism is that people are told they shouldn't have any independent way to survive, and have to rely on somebody else in order to do so."

I think that this dependence actually arises from something more basic--the use of money. In a barter economy, you cannot be unemployed since you can create or trade virtually anything for value. In a monetary economy, you must acquire money. You can still barter, but you are obligated to pay taxes in money and so most people work for this money and use it as a medium of exchange. Unemployment arises when there is not enough money in circulation (or it is not circulated widely enough).

The question becomes who you are dependent on. Do you need to find employment in a hierarchical organization that defines your daily labor/activities in exchange for money, or do you get money directly from a social organization (for example, government) that supports your basic needs and then allows you to choose where to acquire more if you so wish?

Capitalism chooses the former. It is not the cause of dependence, but it is a type of dependence that relies on the existence of money.

Katie said...

The personal is political and also transcendent of politics, of power, at times. I can't wait to hear your reflections, humor, insights in this new angle for your writing.

Hatie said...

Well said and bottoms up!
However, the real problem today is that there are billions of people that capitalism has no use for and who, from the standpoint of capital, would be better off dead. Silly us, believing ourselves to be important and thinking we have the right to survive!

sarda said...

Capitalists thrive through discontentment, in order that their product or the commodity will sell, people must feel first that there is something missing in their life and by way of commercials and advertising of the commodity this kind of discontentment is transformed into want or need. Advertising and commercials becomes a condition and conditioned the mind to want something even though the product is something one can live without.

Of course, one can always say, "advertisement and commercials don't have any effect on me", maybe so, but try to look at others.

The Commodity is really is a very interesting subject to talk about not because of its transformation into capital, but to me, more of what has given it a "value", and that is "labor", and what is labor? It is the power that has the ability to create use-value that satisfies human needs, and in the words of Adam Smith, "the ultimate measure of value".