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)
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."