Power and the Commoditisation of the Human Soul

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“Souls can’t be sold. They can only be lost and never found again.” Ray Bradbury

 The Rules and the Rulers of the Game

A group that obtains control over the majority of available scarce resources will find itself in a position of power over the remainder of the less well resourced population. One consequence of this, particularly at the macro scale, is that this group is able to be the definer of what the rules of the game are in terms of the ways in which scarce resources can and cannot be legitimately acquired. This group will be in a position to impose these rules upon the wider population although, often, these rules will not apply to them; they will also be in a position to enforce adherence to these rules and to impose punishments upon any rule breakers. It is important to note that the set of rules that this individual or group devises and imposes may be markedly different from those that they themselves were subject to at the point at which they acquired the scarce resources now under their control.

By way of example, capitalism is a mechanism of scarce resource control and distribution backed by a set of rules in the form of national and international law. Often those responsible for the establishing and maintaining of the capitalist system did not acquire their own resources within this mechanism but instead through the inheritance of wealth. Oddly, inheritance is a form of resource distribution that is typically enshrined in legislation by the same law makers responsible for introducing and enforcing the legal framework that supports the capitalist system; this makes more sense when it is understood that where the British nobility is concerned, assets, especially land, was originally seized through acts of force1 – a form of scarce resource acquisition which, again, provides protection to those already in possession of the lion’s share of the available scarce resources through legislating against any similar actions being taken by others. Thus, the capitalist system is a system weighted in favour of those already in possession of scarce resources, as it is through the leveraging of these resources that additional resources can be obtained, often through little or no effort being expended on the part of the owner of those resources. This is achieved, for example, through the charging of interest on borrowings, or where the relative value of assets increases as a result of the increase in the scarcity of such assets. Such an increase in scarcity can be achieved either by design or as a consequence of shifts in the wider economy.

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The Necessity of Inequality

Unfettered, the tendency over time is towards an ever increasing concentration of resources in the hands of the few and ever increasing inequality in the pattern of distribution of available scarce resources; indeed, it is a requirement for the sustenance of capitalism that inequality in the distribution of scarce resources is perpetuated, relying as it does upon infinite growth within the constraints of finite resource availability. It is a fundamental economic principle, then, that value within this construct is driven by scarcity.

The Drive to Commoditise

One effect of capitalism is that with an increase in the scarcity of certain resources, there is a consequent drive towards the commoditisation of anything that will enable the further accumulation of resources. Thus, in the same way as capitalism relies upon short-cycle obsolescence to fuel consumption and therefore growth, culture itself has now become a quickly recycled and disposable commodity. Cultural tenets of human experience, imbued with a depth of significance that in some cases has been acquired over a period of centuries, have now become commodities commandeered merely to serve the capitalist cause of the here-and-now. This can be observed in the widespread use of multicultural art, music, verse, dance, costume, language and craft in countless advertising campaigns during recent decades.

As emblems of understanding and as symbols through which people have communicated for centuries, cultural tokens will naturally take on a globalised form as communication networks themselves continue to globalise. Within the realm of such a culture, all objects become valid targets in the drive to commoditise – these are objects with a short shelf life, their worth only determined through the prism of economic value. Centuries of music tradition are supplanted by constantly updated download charts; newly developed technology becomes obsolete at a staggering rate; many of today’s headline news stories enter into and then fade out of the public consciousness within a matter of days; accounts of human suffering are commoditised into a twisted form of entertainment on rolling 24-hour news channels with the sensitisation of viewers ever-diminishing in the face of that which used to shock2.

The concept of value as seen through the capitalist lens is so pervasive that the merit or otherwise of such a perspective is often not questioned, nor is the prioritisation of the pursuit of resources deemed to be of value within the prevailing hegemony; consequently there is a great loss to society of the creativity, intelligence, education and time which are, instead, invested in the endeavour of the attainment of quantities of scarce resources beyond the levels that are required to meet true need. The resources of the human soul thus become scarce resources, the residual quantities of which often proving insufficient for the sustainable investment in family relationships, friendships, personal development, community and wider society.

The Strategic Redefinition of ‘Scarce Resources’

Scarce resources can be used as a form of leverage in the drive to define what scarce resources are within a particular context. This dynamic can be observed within any group where there is a single dominant individual setting the agenda as to what is deemed to be important or desirable. Typically, control over physical resources affords control over other, less tangible, resources such as communication networks, media, education, and the truth itself. In the context of global capitalism, those responsible for preserving the status quo are typically permitted to define what certain scarce resources are and, indeed, the relative value placed upon these; this principal extends to abstract concepts such as time, to the time resource under the control of the individual, and, by extension, to the value placed upon the individual and the human soul.

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Conclusion: Self-Commoditisation

It could be argued that ultimate success in this particular capitalist endeavour has been achieved where, not only do the principle beneficiaries of the capitalist system consider other human beings as a scarce resource to be exploited, but that those individuals themselves define and measure their own worth principally in economic terms – as a resource to be exploited by, and in the service of, the capitalist cause3.

 

1 The capitalist system is ultimately established upon the historic seizing of land and property by force by certain groups of individuals. Having completed this endeavour, those groups or individuals were then able to take full control over that society through the threat of the denial of resources to its remaining disempowered members. Of primary importance at this stage was the establishment of a set of new rules (laws), set up in order to protect the newly acquired resources and, by association, the positions of power of the resource holders. Such rules are upheld by organisations established with the purpose of protecting the interests of the ruling group through the enforcement of the rules (police, army), and through the imposition of punishment upon those transgressing them (judiciary, prison service). This is the manner through which most royal family dynasties and associated nobility (the supporters of the original leader of the resource-grabbing insurrection), originally came to power. In Western societies not established out of revolution, democracy as a form of rule is typically deemed by the ruling group to be acceptable because it is established, first and foremost, to afford protection to the resources of the current resource holders and to their positions of relative privilege. Even where there has been an original act of revolution, Western-style democracy is often introduced and can be observed to take on a similar form: protecting those who, amidst the chaos of revolution, took hold of more of the available scarce resources than any other individual or group. In the longer term, due to its inextricable role in the meeting of the most basic of human needs and wants, land is the most valuable and, therefore, the ultimate of all scarce resources; those who have seized or who have otherwise acquired the most valuable land will thus occupy the most powerful positions. For example, while a large proportion of land in the UK is held under public ownership, much of the remainder is owned by a relatively small number of very wealthy private individuals. Typically, Western democracies will only permit citizens to exercise influence over the allocation and distribution of scarce resources and the laws that pertain to these, to the extent that this influence does not impinge upon the core interests of the ruling group.

2 Within the paradigm of free capitalism, human suffering is an obstacle that gets in the way of the drive towards the attainment of greater quantities of scarce resources. In this sense then, the normalisation of and numbing to human suffering serves a useful economic purpose.

3 This idea is explored by Oliver James in his 2007 book Affluenza. In the second chapter he recounts an episode of an encounter he had with someone called Holly, describing her as someone who had ‘allowed herself to become a commodity that has been bought by a pay-TV company’. James provides this and other examples to illustrate what he identifies as a growing prevalence of a kind of self-commoditising approach to work and, in a broader sense, towards life itself – something he likens to a ‘global infection’.

James, Oliver (2007), Affluenza, Vermilion, p 82

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