The Truths We Live: The Market

How the American version of enterprise creates conditions that limit choices and shape a false picture of human nature

Because our economy is considered to be capitalist (factors of production owned by individuals/companies as opposed to by govt.) much of what is going well, and wrong, is attributed to capitalism. But some of the praise, the blame, while sound, may be misplaced, where at times variables related–but perhaps not inherent–to capitalism may be what deserved our attention.

This very coarse lens, which assigns everything to capitalism even things it may not have caused results in meaningless arguments of its merit, of whether we should or shouldn’t have it.  Given the tendency to assume shared word = shared meaning, but also because of the number and complexity of relationships that constitute our economic system, this is understandable. Even those trained in the logic of the prevailing theory fail to anticipate all outcomes when economics–the imaginary territory distinct from society, culture, and nature–intersects these equally blurry spheres as it squeezes them into itself.

But of particular relevance, as far as this project is concerned, is how people psychologically relate to the economy, the ideas, the associations, that shape an identification with capitalism in lieu of detailed understanding of its boundaries, its pattern of effects, its alternatives.

Karl Marx predicted that the contradictions of capitalism, its tendency to crisis and the relative impoverishment of the working class among other factors, would result in revolution.  Why, however, by the early 20th century this had not occurred in the west was explained by Antonio Gramsci through the concept of Hegemony, where the priorities of the ruling class become absorbed as “common sense” by the working class.  Trickle-down economics is an example of a concept by which the case for ruling class priorities is marketed to workers.  It promises: “the better off we are, the better off you will be”.

If this relationship is not consistent, if interests did in fact diverge fundamentally, then the “common sense” defense of negative outcomes associated with capitalism: “corporations need to make money” or the tendency of working class people since the Cold War to see capitalism as part of their identity corroborate Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.  More importantly this trend reveals a dimension of cause and effect–as far as factors that establish the conditions of our lives–that isn’t credited when things go wrong, because it cannot be questioned.

This is the beginning of how The Economy functions as a filter to our experience of reality.  Explanations of the conditions that lead to the highest good, and of why sometimes things didn’t quite work out (always government), come from an intellectual tradition whose value in society is its unique position to create knowledge about the economy, but who–unlike wage workers whose incomes have stagnated for decades–are also in the unique position to benefit financially from the remainder of the population accepting their story.

Mainstream economics interprets how society should best be organized (deregulation)and success based on an  idea of human nature that is exclusively self-interested and attempts to always maximize his/her profit at minimal cost.  And though this imaginary character that forms the basis of economic models and policy can be seen to be contradicted in traditional societies based on reciprocity, at the very least, this structure of rationality is reproduced on the level of corporate priorities and thus, human nature or no, our society is defined by it.

Because the excess value of what labor produces in our society is becoming increasingly concentrated in a very small percent of the population, while meanwhile costs of living continue to climb, it has become progressively more punishing to focus on one’s creative interests or work that benefits society, and the path of highest profit is virtually necessitated.  As, more and more, our access to basic needs such as medical care and education are mediated by for-profit models, our coercive incentive structure is directing the trends in human behavior which we then confuse as human nature.

Economic theory put into practice creates the territory it claims is inside us.

This is the essence of what this project is attempting to focus on.  The relationship between ideas, that become exclusive, “truth”, and the every day results of trying to live up to them, in which we no longer see alternatives and begin to fatalistically accept that what we are seeing is evidence of human nature.

We are operating in a political economic environment in which everything is reduced to a commodity, and in which there are no constraints on companies from causing harm in interacting with the world as an object for exploitation.  This tension between the interests of corporations, which siphon the majority of the excess value from production into perpetuating themselves–rather than distributing it among the people who did the work or were affected by it–and humanity itself is expressed in Karl Polanyi’s concept of “fictitious commodities”.  He calls Land, Labor, and Money fictitious commodities because they have other characteristics, interests, and or relationships beyond the narrow instrumentality they are afforded in market logic.

Historically, and even today, as individuals, we do not relate to the environment as an amount of money to be made, and the environment itself is composed of complex webs of relationships on which all human activities depend.  With everything for sale, no limitations on exploitation, and the increasing concentration of wealth, fewer and fewer have more and more control over the ingredients of life.  Because, unlike people, corporations can never be sustained, and they are only expected to understand the world through one dimension of its possibility (short term profits), the nature of nature, as with the nature of humanity is not being respected.

We have adapted, both in our routines, and our ideologies.  In the first case, because we are forced to; but in the second because with excess money comes the power to: buy sympathetic research, bribe politicians or influence candidacies, generate think tanks designed to reinforce a particular agenda as truth, hire private armies, market to people’s insecurities, dominate the media, and win any legal entanglement through attrition.

As the vast majority of surplus value from labor goes, not to meeting the needs of people, but to giving a corporation more tools to protect it’s narrow interests, society overall has to work much more, and more resources are expended.  The increasing scarcity from overproduction breeds natural conflict and the loss of nature’s abundance pushes more of the earth’s population into a mode where selfishness becomes the condition of survival.

Because these economic relations have been normalized, maladjustment to this process, even on a wide scale, is interpreted as a problem, with the individual.  We are mass-medicated to suppress symptoms of the distress that is often related to the circumstances of our lives.  The revolt of our human sensibilities is turned back on us and mind-altering drugs are pushed to produce conformity to what is supposedly natural.

It is impossible to describe human nature without controlling for every variable of circumstance, without controlling for(eliminating as a possible cause) the “chicken or the egg” of belief.  As with assumptions of who we are, how we know, what is right, the relationship between the idea of infinite profit as the goal of civilization and what looks like human nature is not accounted for, because into the very structure of our lives, it is assumed.

If exclusive pursuit of selfishness as human nature is the justification for businesses ignoring negative impacts to stakeholders who do not share in benefits, from the amoral standpoint of business, what incentive do experts have to tell people the truth about who really benefits?

Government–which has historically been responsible for protecting people from fluctuations of the market and the profit-centric operations of industry–is villainized by free market economists as being responsible for the adverse outcomes in the performance of the economy–as if corporate profits are the only way in which we can interpret our well-being.  This is expressed in calls to shrink government, to get the government out of the economy.

Evidence of how disingenuous these protestations are is visible in international trade agreements and government interventions to create favorable investment climates.  The free market has never been free, creating the optimal conditions has always involved substantial government involvement, often to the detriment of the economies, environments, democracies of other regions.

The North American Free Trade agreement subjected corn growing regions in southern Mexico to import of subsidized American corn, destroying their industry and playing a major role in peoples’ migrations to the United States to be able to survive.  At the time of this writing, negotiations for another major trade agreement are being conducted in secret, to create “free trade zones” for corporate opportunity that would override local democratically derived laws, and allow companies to sue EU governments if such laws for consumer, worker and environmental protection can be argued to have limited their sacred profits.

How is it that we have been confused into thinking that government, which is made of people to promote the public well-being (schools, roads, fire department, police) and enforces, often on the basis of referendums, is less trustworthy than organizations actively lobbying to undermine protections for people and the environment, organizations we do not elect, who are making more money than ever but paying less of that back into society?

With the concentration of power and the conditions of scarcity and inequality the free market era has intensified, corporations can siphon off the brightest people and pay them to mislead others about the consequences of their practices, to tell us the environment is superfluous, that infinite economic growth on a finite planet is possible, and that we should put all of our basic needs in the hands of interests that relate to us as a source of revenue.

There is a lot of information available about anti-democratic, anti-well-being, destructive, entropic consequences of unregulated corporate activity as the dominant focus of human activity.  The purpose here has been to point out the curious condition by which people who are losing to this process become staunch and complacent defenders of it.  It is because of this reflex to deflect any critique of corporate practices that alternatives–that disprove both mainstream economistic claims of human nature, as well as disproving claims that the surplus value of all our labor is best concentrated in insatiable non-human entities–are under-explored and under-known.

The gains to standards of living that have been made in the past thirty years are uneven, and have come at a cost of putting many people in more jeopardy through outsourcing, mechanization, destruction of clean air, clean water, arable soil, and rising sea levels–which will result in hundreds of millions of environmental refugees as the amount of livable surface area we have is drastically reduced.

Business logic does not account for long-term costs.  Because it is the basis for our entire civilization, every successive generation being instructed and coerced to put its head down and generate profits is working on a model of progress argued by people who expected to be dead 10 years, 30 years, 60 years before subsequent generations would be born into the ramifications of those ideas.

In the United States we are highly constrained in our capacity to democratically adapt from this context, first and foremost because it has come to seem natural.

If the economy crashed tomorrow, we would still have the same number of people with the same number of skills.  There would be enough food in the fields, enough gas in the wells, enough water and wind and human capacity to move things and feed people.  All that would be gone would be the expectation of a particular reward pathway.  There would be lootings and suicides and the idea of America that is used to drive us to war, to think of GDP as our well-being is too thin to withstand how profoundly we’ve been divided by the left and right fork of the same corporate media tree. The reciprocity and sense of community that organized people in earlier times and places and here and there still, is largely lost as we’ve all been told to go our own way.

The quality of our adaptation to the coming challenges will depend entirely on how our ideas lead us to relate to each other.  We’ve all been given different information and our pattern of identification, the idea that we are this and not that, that this is my thought and that is yours, keeps us locked in place.

All the modern comforts we enjoy, blanket attributed to capitalism, are the result of human actions, people acting on a variety of beliefs with a variety of reasons.  Our economic system only determines who was financially rewarded and how much.  If you build chairs, do you require the belief that 99% of the value of your labor will go into the company to motivate you to create what you create?  People created what is here because they had to or they wanted to, not because overpaying CEOs and underpaying producers is a requirement of prosperity.

We have been organized around the narrow priority of what makes the company the most money as if this is the only way humans can live.  We are equally capable of organizing around systems focused on collective well-being, of testing and shuffling until we find them.  First we have to be able to let go of what for now is an unquestioned truth.  We have to be able to accept the disparity between what we are doing and what we could be doing.  We have to visualize a new direction before we can walk in it.  To do that we have to pull back the veil of The Market which has been conceptualized as the system to which people and the environment must adapt rather than vice versa.

When the preeminence of profit falls from a law to merely another truth, another possibility, it may become a credible enterprise for the brightest among us to not merely strategize their way into the current system, but be afforded time and resources in conceiving alternatives.

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