Saturday, March 26, 2005

An amoral space: the strange ethics of capitalism

Brandon at Bad Christian linked to The Matthew's House Project. Apparently the director of the site, Zach Kincaid, was just fired from Oklahoma Baptist University for writing a letter to the editor criticizing the building of a massively expensive church.

I haven't gone through the site too thoroughly, but so far it looks a really smart online magazine/journal that investigates culture and religion, often using tools of cultural criticism. The first piece I checked out is an interview with Vincent Miller, a theology prof at Georgetown. Miller's concern in the interview is commodification. Commodification is the process whereby things are converted into products. For Marx, the author of the concept, labor is commodified in capitalism. Whereas we used to labor when we needed to make something for ourselves, now our labor is converted into a product which can be bought and sold on the market.

Since capitalism thrives on the market, everything that can be commodified will be commodified. We can see this quite plainly in the growth of securitization. Everything financial in nature - contracts, future earnings, debt - can be transformed into securities, which are then bought and sold on financial markets.

We see an analog to this in advertising. At the simplest level, the car commercial I'm watching is trying to sell me a car. However, it's clearly trying to associate the car with a set of less tangible things: for example, I can tell that, if I drive this car, I'll be able to buy the freedom of the open road, or the transgressive pleasure of flaunting speed limits. This is the commodification of social relations. I'm buying the car, but what I'm really buying is enjoyment, family togetherness, etc.

The commodity, also, is distinctly a thing of the industrial age. The commodity doesn't have a history - it comes to us ex nihilo, new and shiny. As Miller puts it:
A commodity is not necessarily a thing but a thing seen a certain way, and how the thing is seen is in abstraction from its origins, from its conditions of production, from the land and the space where the products grow, and from the laborers that then produce it and bring it to market. All those things don't appear, so when you walk into the produce section and see a banana there, all you see is whether it's an attractive banana or not and how much it costs. You don't see anything about the labor struggles in Latin America, how Equador coming online has undercut the labor gains of the last 30 years in Central America.

In other words, part of the existence of the commodity qua commodity is that we don't look for the man behind the curtain. Stronger still, it may even be unethical to look behind the curtain. If we are to believe some Christian bloggers, it is morally wrong to base our consumption habits on the means of production. This is truly weird; presumably, I can base my decision to not buy something on self-interest ("I don't like Taco Bell"); I can even base my decision to abstain on enlightened self-interest ("I like Taco Bell, but it's bad for me"); but it is unethical to base my abstention on ethics ("Taco Bell treats its workers unethically").

The curious upshot is that capitalism wants to create a purely amoral space, a space purely for self-interest; the logic of the market, then, entails that it is immoral to violate the amorality of the space of the market. We can be consumers, and nothing more.