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Interdependence, Colonialism, and Commodity Fetishism

February 18, 2011

In Buddhist parlance, we often encounter the word “interdependence.”  It comes up in many contexts.  One way I often hear it invoked (in dhammic as well as New-Agey spaces) is as a kind of feel-good spiritual brainteaser.  Isn’t it amazing and beautiful how we are all connected?

Here’s a good example, from my own life.  I was attending a conference about spirituality and technology: the Wisdom 2.0 Summit.  One of the keynote speakers, Tony Hseih, CEO of the online retailer Zappos, gave a talk about the culture of happiness at his company, and how attention to the human connections between merchant and consumer fosters better, more lucrative business.  The title of his book sums it up nicely: Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion, and Purpose.

When it came time for Q&A, I raised my hand and got the mic (standing up, semi-terrified, before this large crowd of very successful techno-seekers). I thanked Tony for his work, and then asked what he thought — and what all of us present thought — about the happiness of the people who produce the technology we use.  The people working in the factories that make our phones, our laptops, our desktops.  The people mining the minerals for all of these.  What about their happiness?

It’s all well and good to look at interdependence as a network for human kindness and beneficence.  But the fact is, it is just as much (if not more) a network for exploitation: of humans, animals, and the earth.

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 connect 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?  In the Q&A for a book talk on The Bodhisattva’s Embrace, Alan himself mentioned the dangers of allowing Buddhism to be commodified and sold.  I would add, too, that the production of race and sexuality is also part and parcel of this burgeoning colonialist industry.  Somehow, while living at the Fools, I got signed up for like a Buddhist clothing and jewelry catalogue, delivered to our door.  What amazed me most about the blatant Orientalism of the magazine was the fact that 80% of the models were these pretty Asian-and-white-mixed-looking women.  The hapa aesthetic: foreign enough to be exciting; familiar enough to be accessible — to you, the consumer.

I could go off on a whole ‘nother tangent about the commodity fetishism of marketed beauty and modeling, but that’s for a different day.  Meantime, may we embrace the truths of interdependence, and keep up the struggle to end imperialism.  :)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. nathan permalink
    February 19, 2011 8:35 am

    What did Tony Hseh say to you? My mother handed me his book last fall, and when I finished it, I had the same questions/issues you brought up. The “in-house culture” of Zappos sounded pretty cool, but the insights hadn’t moved out into the world in my opinion, so it still came off kind of “feel good” – which is classic corporate America.

  2. February 21, 2011 9:13 am

    It was interesting, nathan: first of all, Hseih was being interviewed by Chris Sacca from Twitter, and Sacca actually changed my question from being about technology production to being about the production of shoes (using a classic Nike-children’s-sweatshop line). Then, Hseih basically said, well, Zappos is only one company, and we don’t really have the power to make shoe manufacturers change their ways. It was a pretty unsurprising response, I think, but what was more interesting to me was that he actually looked kind of shaken, taken aback. So maybe it’s a question he continued to think about beyond the event? I don’t know. Others in attendance would agree, I think, that his was essentially a non-response.

    On a totally different note, and I think you’d appreciate this as much as anyone, I want to say that I do understand (and am continually striving to comprehend) interdependence in a dhammic sense to be an extremely profound and terrifying truth that in some ways transcends political interdependence. This is the interdependence that basically lets us know that we have no discrete and coherent identity — no self. Which includes having no identity that is separate from other people. I don’t want to just ignore this powerful dimension of the teaching. But like you, I think, I’m just trying to push back against/with some of the “spiritual materialism” that I encounter, and to articulate my understanding of the worldly dhamma.

    So anyway, that might be just an invitation to also expand a conversation like this to include reflections on practice and insights into interdependence and no-self. It’s here, it’s here, too.

    I so appreciate having communities — online and off — that explore the spiritual and political dimensions of suffering, both. Many thanks to you especially, nathan, for welcoming me into that kind of online space!

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