What if our value lies, not in what we produce, nor in what we consume, but in what we are? I know, that’s crazy talk, but bear with me a moment.
I have high regard for Consumers Union and its magazine, Consumer Reports, which got us to look at product quality and safety. Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” made the US auto industry look at safety for the first time. As a result, Consumers Union asked him to join their board, and they focused increasingly on safety after that. [Side note: Consumers Union spent time on HUAC’s list of subversive organizations.] In 1972, the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) was established as a federal agency for consumer protection.
So what’s the problem? Consumer Reports will test anything. You can find relative ratings of fast-food chains. They are national in scope, so they won’t tell you that the restaurant down the street is a better bet than either McDonalds or Burger King. But ultimately, my identity with them is as a consumer – I am what I buy. While they will tell me which riding lawnmower, weed whacker, and trimmer/edger I should buy, they won’t talk about whether I need a monoculture lawn kept perfect by a bunch of products that I buy. Consumption becomes its own reward and we are rewarded for buying more stuff. Do I need to replace my perfectly functional 32 inch TV with a 65 inch model? Is it better to buy the latest “green” appliance, or to keep the one that still works? Is it a net energy savings to manufacture and ship a new one, recycle or landfill the old one, rather than keep using what works but may use more energy? Don’t ask. Buy more.
As our society becomes increasingly automated, we become valued less for what we make and more for what we buy. Are we needed for labor, or just to buy stuff?
So is it better to value us for our work? The Law of Value is a Marxian concept that essentially says that the intrinsic value of any product is the labor that goes into producing it. It’s way more complicated than that, but this is not a treatise on the Law of Value nor the Labor Theory of Value. In capitalist terms, we value productivity and we define that as production per unit of labor. The less labor we put into something, the more productive we are. In that model, labor is an expense, a necessary evil. The less we spend on workers, the better. Invest capital in machines rather than spend it on labor – one is considered an investment, the other an expense. Both models measure our value by what we produce – in one case, our work is the basis of assigning value to a product; in the other, our work is the impediment to profit.
In both of these paradigms, we are commodities. Our value lies either in selling ourselves or in buying stuff.
Helen Yaffe ( a professor at The London School of Economics), in her book “Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution”, examines Che’s attempt to de-commodify us. As head of MININD (The Ministry of Industries) in Cuba, he examined the inherent problems in the commodification of human beings. One of his main aims as a revolutionary was education and the development of the “new man (person)” through education. He saw that payment of wages in relation to production was counterproductive to building the new society. He posited a “social wage”, in which everyone would receive a living wage and we would build a society which met basic human needs. He advanced a theory of work as social obligation, with the idea that we should work in order to better ourselves and society; that social betterment was the reward, not getting rich(er than the next person). He also saw that this required a transitional phase, which Yaffe details in her book.
Clearly, this is not what we value as a culture for the most part; thus the importance of education in order to encourage people to think differently. A few things got in the way of implementation. After the 1959 revolution, most of the managerial and technical class left the country. To a great extent, they had been employed by US corporations which controlled the Cuban economy. The economy was based heavily in sugar, which was primarily exported to the US. Most other products came from the US. The US embargo took away most consumer goods, most of the (limited) manufacturing capability, and most of the educated population. (Cuba was an illiterate society in the 1950s.) Ultimately, the US embargo was expanded such that not only could goods not flow to and from the US, but any company doing business with Cuba was forbidden from doing business with the US.
Many in the US have a romanticized view of Che, the peripatetic revolutionary. From the film “The Motorcycle Diaries” we learned of his early training as a physician and the travels around South America which radicalized him. We know of his heroics as a soldier in the Cuban revolution, his travel to the Congo, and his assassination in Bolivia, unable to defend himself after his rifle took a bullet to the barrel. What we don’t often hear about is his role as the chief economist in Cuba, working to transform an economy dedicated to the extraction of profit to benefit foreign nationals and a dictatorship, into an economy to benefit the people of Cuba; and doing this with a largely illiterate society. Yaffe paints a fascinating picture of learning on the fly; the change from winning a revolution to building a revolution.
Are we capable of change? Is a society based on meeting mutual needs a pipe dream of crazy ex-hippies (and Argentine revolutionaries)? Possibly the nearest we have come to this is the Mondragón region of Spain (and maybe the Emilia Romagna region of Italy). In Mondragón, the majority of people are members of worker-owned co-ops, which provide the bulk of their goods and services. Housing, schools, and social clubs are co-operatively owned. For the bicyclists among you, Orbea is a Mondragón co-op, owned by the people who work there. While wages are still tied to work, the highest paid are limited to 6x the wage of the lowest paid. In the US, the measure generally used is the ratio of CEO pay to median wage. (By definition half of workers make less than the median.) That ratio is 670:1 for the average of the 300 largest US corporations. Of those, 49 showed ratios greater than 1000:1. (The Guardian 06/07/2022) I haven’t been able to find the relevant comparison of CEO to minimum in the US.
In the Emilia Romagna region of Northern Italy, 75% of residents are co-op members. Co-ops provide ⅓ of the GDP for the region. Social services are provided by co-ops under contract to the government.
Co-ops, by definition, are voluntary associations of people organized to meet their mutual needs. What if an entire country (world?) were organized in that way? What if meeting our mutual needs became more important than corporate profits? The only times that has been attempted on a national scale, it has been quashed by the forces of capital. This makes it easy for us to say “it doesn’t work”. While it feels better to say “it doesn’t work; people aren’t like that”, it’s much more accurate to say “the powers that be have never allowed it a chance to work.” While Mondragón and Emilia Romagna are highly successful (Mondragón has been growing since the 1940s), they are not a threat. They are interesting experiments. If we were all to refuse to see ourselves as commodities, that would be a threat.