Tag Archives: meaning

The Problem with Making Commodities of Everything

A few years ago, a former colleague shared his idea of developing fitness or “getting in shape” with me. First, he asserted that it required regular visits to the gym. Interesting enough. Then out loud, he wondered how before the proliferation of these gyms people maintained healthy weight or acquired strength.

Before you dismiss his naivete, consider the similar and mainstream argument for schooling: the only way kids learn what’s really worth knowing is through school, be it privately secured or publicly provisioned. How else will our children to learn anything?, the thinking goes.

And what about food? Well, the same logic applies. That is, in order for us to eat and nourish ourselves, we must enjoy access to places that provide food, be they farmers’ markets or supermarkets. Indeed, how else are we to eat anything if we can’t get out foodstuffs from a store or market? 

What do gyms, schools, and grocery stores share in common? They commodify what people can and should provide for themselves. They package up products and sell them to the discerning consumer. Gyms sell exercise and physical activity; schools—yes, even public, through the ranking of schools’ “performance”—sell “learning” and “education”; and grocery stores and farmers’ markets sell food. They offer commodities of things and experiences that people are designed to self-provide.

Gyms effectively tell us that movement is not a natural condition of living, but rather an activity that must be scheduled and performed in a sterile environment, an environment one pays for the privilege of using. Yet, the most one can hope to achieve  in a gym is some sort of mindless exercise routine.

Perhaps more insidiously, on sale in schools is the future itself. The relatively affluent among us will pay Harvard-sized tuition for preschools with great PR—or move to affluent neighborhoods to ensure our kids enroll in elite public schools—all in the hopes of preparing the little ones for some unforeseen job market, one strikingly similar to the cubicle-sprawl favored by Silicon Valley’s technorati. The middle and lower classes are relegated to the minor leagues where they hold out for coveted spots in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) lottery. Real world problem-solving, empathy, and good character be damned.

Centralized food systems, as they inch toward their 150th birthday, have successfully redefined food as a commodity. It’s hard to image food as anything besides something to be picking out and picked up at a corner grocery store, a Walmart “Superstore”, or a farmers’ market.

Yet, where’s the dignity in paying to exercise, defining “learning” as “educational attainment” or paying for food someone else grew somewhere else, packaged, transported and presented to you?

What happens when we think of physical activity as something incidental to living? As a function of walking to where one needs or wants to go? As a byproduct of sowing and harvesting and tilling soil in a garden? As fixing a leaky shed roof or chopping and hauling firewood?

What if we re-imagine “education” as the exchange of know-how that occurs between self-determined people? Grandmother teaching grandson how to knead and bake bread. Uncle showing niece how to build a birdhouse. Neighbor helping neighbor establish a vegetable garden. Teacher guiding students through communal libraries as they do in Kerala, India. The prepackaged and standardized “lessons” or curricula that schools purvey should be labeled accurately, as “training” or “workplace preparation.” The notion of a five year-old sitting for hours on end is little more than training for existence behind a desk or draft table.

And how about dignifying people by offering them the chance to grow and prepare their own food? Champions of luring Food Lions and ShurSaves to poor areas, though well-intentioned, sustain people’s dependency on the commodity of food stuffs. And in so doing, subject losers in the capitalist game to a “modernized poverty”, to borrow Illich’s term.

A dignified way of feeding people doesn’t involve spoon feeding. It requires creating the legal and social conditions in which people feed themselves; you know, as we’re designed to do. And these conditions are most dignified when devoid of marketplace commodities. They allow people to appropriate pieces of our given world to grow crops and live life.

Historian, Steven Stoll recently wrote in Orion,

“nothing could be more ordinary or more radical than the desire for autonomy from the tyranny of wages, a dream that persists in billions of humans striving in slums and factories ready for their moment to reclaim the commons.”

Indeed. It’s high time to allow humans to reclaim the commons, and live as humans can and should, self-determined and dignified.

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