Thursday, February 24, 2011


Interdependence, Colonialism, and Commodity Fetishism:

In his newest book, The Boddhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines, Hozan Alan Senauke of the Clear View Project cuts to the core of exploitative interdependence in the conclusion of a beautiful essay on the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh.

Karma simply means action, which calls forth result. In a world of action and result, denial is no refuge. If my eyes are open, I can see that the labors of shipbreakers, the labors of poor people around the world, are not freely offered. Not to us. Foremen, supervisors, bosses, corporations, ultimately you and I compel them. This is a kind of theft hiding behind the lies that we think of as economics or politics as usual. (108)

Setting aside some disagreement about who “ultimately . . . compels” exploited labor (I don’t think it’s helpful or accurate to say that it’s “you and I,” unless we’re part of the capitalist ruling class; but, you know, I’m feeling the point about complicity), I’m grateful for this strong, candid look at karma and interdependence. Interdependence can be, and often is, dysfunctional and oppressive.

For instance: colonialism.

The year I was born, Maria Mies published Patriarchy and Accumulation On A World Scale: Women In the International Division of Labour. In its first chapter, she stresses the importance of recognizing interdependence between the First and Third Worlds: “two sides of the same coin” of capital accumulation.

These relations are based on exploitation and oppression, as is the case with the man-woman relation. And similar to the latter, these relations are also dynamic ones in which a process of polarization takes place: one pole is getting ‘developed’ at the expense of the other pole, which in this process is getting ‘underdeveloped.’ (39)

Exploitation is always the fulcrum between imperialist powers and colonies. In our neo-imperialist times, it is a primary mechanism of interdependence in terms of global divisions of labor: the reasons why I’m sitting in Oakland typing words on a MacBook Air, and halfway across the world someone is toiling on an assembly line to produce more Apple gadgets. But often, even in cases of domestic exploitation right under our noses, it is difficult for us to remain aware of the fulcrum, and of the mechanisms. Why?

One reason, famous from Marx’s Capital, Vol. 1, is “commodity fetishism.” Frequently misinterpreted as “consumerism,” or putting too much stock in consumption and commodities, commodity fetishism actually refers to the ways that the objects that we buy and sell hide the human life and work that went into creating those objects.

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of [people's] own labor as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves . . . Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. (164-165, emphasis mine)

And so, getting back to Alan’s point about hidden theft, one of the best hiding places for exploitation under capitalism is within commodities themselves. I buy a computer. I buy a pair of shoes from Zappos. I compare prices. I might even look for tags that say “Fair Trade,” but this tells me very little about the life conditions of the people producing the commodity, and even less about the systemic forces that push and pull “fair traders” according to the imperatives of capital (a.k.a. “the global economy”). Objects, commodities, compete in the market, while human competition, class struggle, is portrayed as a separate matter altogether.

So much is hidden, then, within interdependence! And so it’s our responsibility and calling, I think, to de-mystify and de-fetishize the systems of commodity production, the division of labor, and the worldwide processes of exploitation. As Alan puts it, “If shipbreaking is work we all depend on, can we see past ourselves, and look at each other eye to eye?” (109)

In our quest to “look at each other,” we need to be real about the differences and power dynamics that separate us. We can’t sugar-coat interdependence, pretending it’s all a glorious matter of Indra’s bejeweled net. Mies even raises this point (I loved that she brought it up!) about the dangers of Orientalist, superficial, New-Age perspectives ignoring the shadow side of interdependence:

An emphasis on these colonial divisions is also necessary from another point of view. Many feminists in the United States and Europe have, together with critical scientists and ecologists, begun to criticize the dualistic and destructive paradigm of Western science and technology. Drawing their inspiration from C. G. Jung’s psychology, humanistic psychology, non-dualistic ‘Eastern’ spirituality, particularly Taoism and other oriental philosophies, they propose a new holistic paradigm, the New Age paradigm (Fergusson, 1980; Capra, 1982; Bateson, 1972). This emphasis on the fact that in our world everything is connected with everything and influences everything is definitely an approach which goes along with much of the feminist rebellion and vision of a future society. However, if this desire ‘to become whole’ again, and build bridges across all the cleavages and segmentations White Man has created is not to be frustrated again, it is necessary that the New Age feminists, the eco-feminists and others open their eyes and minds to the real colonies whose exploitation also guarantees them the luxury of indulging in ‘Eastern spirituality’ and ‘therapy.’ In other words, if the holistic paradigm is nothing but an affair of a new spiritualism or consciousness, if it does not identify and fight against the global system of capitalist accumulation and exploitation, it will end up by becoming a pioneering movement of the legitimization of the next round of the destructive production of capitalism. This round will not focus on the production and marketing of such crude material commodities as cars and refrigerators, but on non-material commodities like religion, therapies, friendship, spirituality . . . (35)

Eerie, huh?

Mies adds: "...non-material commodities like religion, therapies, friendship, spirituality, and also on violence and warfare, of course with the full use of the 'New Age' technologies."


  1. Another lesson on Marxist pedagogy. "Interdependence" by itself says as much as saying "relationship between." What relationship? The (accurate!) Marx references illustrate the limits of the purely metaphysical take on interdependence offered by Buddhist texts. Much like Chrtistianity, the doctrines do not include the 'social' as a discrete set of relationships governed by and defined by principles of its own. Owing to the place of dialectics in buddhism and Marx, the two are easier to assimilate than Marx and Christianity.
    The Buddhism I know best is from China in the centuries that correspond to the European Middle Ages, so the palaver doesn't touch the social much anyway. But in one excellent teaching story, germane to the points in this post, the inquirer asks the enlightened person, "Is the one who has attained enlightenment free of causality?" And the liberating response is "Not blind to causality." The understanding that brings freedom does not remove us from the contradictions, it makes us fully aware of them and allows us to react to and act on them creatively.

  2. thanks chuckie, great comment.

    so, I liked this post because she is trying to use some stuff around her to drive home and help readers picture relations of exploitation and expropriation; to try to help people shake the individualism that is so ingrained in mass and elite capitalist culture. (there is in Mies a lazy misreading of Marx, but its not so important because she does end up where Marx was trrying to help people go in her understanding of value production and exploitation).

    This Capital Vol 1 Chapter 23 thing, about labourer's consumption and self-reproduction, I realise, many people have overlooked, many male comentators on Marx especially (I think of friendly disagreements on the old blog with Jasper Bernes and some debates at Nate's involving some regulars there), trying to give some kind of aristotelian and mechanical/mechanistic quality to Marx' explanation of surplus value expropriation and capital accumulation. That too arises from conceptualising production as Robinsonade, and Marx says again and again you can't grasp antyhing thinking that way, you have to picture a capitalst class and a labouring class and capitalist production in full swing to get how the surplus product of all humanity basically is expropriated by the class who owns the means of production. So I think she's trying to combat the individualist, robinsonade instincts and reflexes with this other tradition of thinking that doesn't develop to explain capitalism or value production, but just is another tradition of thinking, an alterative to the ideology of liberal individualism. To get to that "not blind to causality" that also characterises, say, romanticism and its ideas of the actualised/fulfilled/liberated human being and species.

  3. I think it's a good heuristic tactic, I mean - say, well let's start with buddhist conceptions of totality....even if you are like I am not very well versed in that tradition of thought and practise, you take an angle on reality that is a much better starting place than the automatic angle of political economy. Coming from that "buddhist oneness" as the bg a lot of the instinctive political economy errors will be avoided, even if one winds up having to then undo different assumptions (because they are probably more easily noticed than the robinsonade individualist ones.) basically then one has to demystify but not wrench the reader out of the initial picture (the robinsonade really is tenacious, it really grips the brain, releasing people is like surgery.)

    tell me what you think of this (which really annoyed me):

    (I think startinbg with "picture buddhist oneness" could avoid this unfortunate detour as well)

  4. As heurtistic tactics go, I 'm perfectly willing to start from Christianity too. As I said, it's harder, but if it's what people understand. And growing up in Calvinist church full of people from the hils of North Carolina and West Virginia,I know that gospel faith and hatred for lyign, greedy business men can go hand in hand.

    I really should be in bed. I've been short of sleep all night, but can't pass up a gloss on Hegel. Chretien does just about everything wrong from my point of view.

    I've repeated my nutshell on dialectics, history and materialsim enough as simple, practical criteria for theory/model building to skip that part of the discussion.

    Instead let me tell about my disappointment. Just to better understand Marx, I thought, I did the extensive Hegel reading. The edition Suhrkamp publsihed, althouhg I skipped the writings from his days teaching at the Gymnasium. What did I get out of it? Hegel reasons deductively, 'speculative,' Marx reasons inductively. And that's really all there is to say about the idealist/materialist divide. All those thousands of pages for such a rudimentary insight.
    So in fact, you could boil the significant in Hegel down to a couple or three pages. Actually, you would only that much space if you wanted to explain the sense of the most important technical terms.
    There is something about the tone of that article too, though I'm not getting the right word for it, but sort of smug and condescending to me.
    I would much prefer to see these issues exemplified on relatively simple and familiar examples, mcuh like Marx does, disassemble a common-sense plausibility and reassemble it. Which i so nicely, and typically Buddhistically done, in the linked post with a *question* "What about the workers?" instead of with a learned exegesis. Since the point is not to teach people answers but to precipitate them into thought.
    Or as I once insisted on every opportunity for a number of years, one good question is more valuable than ten good answers.

  5. thanks; yeah

    it really annoyed me how he says 'oh you might need more than three pages to summarize Hegel's thousands of pahges..."

    and it's like;, he didn't say three pages to summarize it all, he said three pages to summarize what's worthwhile in it. generous estimate really.

    and yes the smug tone and the insinuation without assertion (evasive) of the importance of this stuff...

    it just annoyed me.