Conviviality as a first step away from oppression

One thing that frustrated me about the Passover essay I wrote the other day was the negativity of setting an impossible challenge. I certainly don’t regret writing it—the impossibility is important to point out, and it’s particularly important not to let Passover become a smug celebration—but it feels incomplete as it stands. As Andrew put it, what I’ve written so far is about “saying No to No”, and it doesn’t really get us anywhere until we figure out what some positive alternative that lets us also “say Yes to Yes”. A couple of friends also pointed out that this is one of the Occupy movement’s PR shortcomings: a sense that all they offer is a critique, without any positive alternatives. I don’t claim to have a complete vision of the Promised Land, but I can offer some steps out of the narrow place we find ourselves in.

First, let’s define the problem. In an email, Brian summed it up beautifully as living “under the empire of commodity”, which leads inevitably to even treating people as commodities. But what precisely about commoditisation gets us into trouble? I see three tightly coupled issues: a constant drive for cheapness, distance from producer to consumer, and deindividuation of everyone involved. The drive for cheapness provides the motive for exploiting producers, and the other two serve to make the oppression invisible enough that we happily participate and actively need to be reminded it’s happening. The line in the previous piece about not personally going out and flogging the farmhands was a grim joke, because very few of us would accept that being done under our noses, and yet it happens on all of our accounts, where we can’t see it.

I’ll start with a clearly unworkable solution: becoming fully self-sufficient and opting out of the economy altogether. I understand the attraction. Once you started seeing that participating in the existing economy unavoidably does harm it’s tempting to think that the only adequate solution is to cut it off altogether. It doesn’t really matter what kind of harm we’re worrying about; I’ve heard of people doing this to tread more lightly on the Earth, for example. There are at least three solid reasons why I won’t be taking this path and don’t advise you to:

  1. It’s bloody hard work. Under the best of circumstances, it’s a real challenge for one person or a small group of people to be fully self-sufficient, and becoming an island vastly magnifies the risks posed by one bad growing season, a flood, a drought or an illness. I do have a bias here: at least once in my life I have had an illness that would have killed me in the absence of access to the modern medical system. But think about it: you probably know many people of whom that’s true.
  2. It doesn’t scale. I’m not convinced that there’s enough fertile land on the planet to support 6.8 billion of us without the efficiencies we get from being able to specialise both labour and land use.
  3. If we atomised like that, we would lose most of that which makes life worthwhile. We are social animals, and no path which ignores that is viable.

OK, so we can’t do it all ourselves. Perhaps we should look at the opposite extreme: what’s the minimal fix we could make? What if we simply avoided buying anything that wasn’t certified as oppression-free by someone we trusted? There’s an explosion of product certifications out there, some of which are even worthy of your trust. Most of them are still a bit “saying No to No”, in the sense that they certify the absence of some well-defined harm from buying this particular product (think dolphin-safe tuna, for instance), but there are some that go further. My favourite of the moment is the B Corporation, a standard that takes a rigourous and holistic look at the impact a business has on the world and how it ensures that the impact will stay positive in the long run. The organisation promoting the B Corp has recently published a list of the best, which is an excellent way to “say Yes to Yes”.

There are some serious limitations to this, though, even if we make the currently unrealistic assumption that we can find a product of every type that’s been certified in the way we want. I picked up B Corporations as my example because I know enough about it to vouch for it, because I personally know some of the people advocating for it locally. There’s no other certification that I can say that about, so for any other I have to rely on a much longer chain of trust. Trust is transitive to some extent, to be sure, but the longer chain between the end user and the certifier, the more this system starts to look just like the alienating, dehumanising economy we’re trying to get away from. We can do better.

I put “conviviality” in the title for a reason. The path to better runs directly through human sociality. Every time we buy a product or a service, each of us can choose between buying a commodity in an arms-length, alienating way, or trading with an individual in a way that builds a relationship. I’m not suggesting that we limit ourselves to buying directly from producers we know—even if that were possible it would mean throwing out many of the benefits of trade and massively lock in social inequality—simply that we treat every trade as a mutually beneficial transaction between human beings. That all sounds a bit abstract, so I’ll finish up with two examples.

The obvious one is that of the eggs I mentioned in that Passover essay. I haven’t done much planning for Seder yet, but I know it will include eggs, and I know where I’ll be buying them from because I’m so happy with the supplier that I always go back. I go to the same stall at Pike Place Market, where I recognise and am recognised by one of the small cheerful crew who runs it. I haven’t gone out and inspected the chicken farms myself, nor do I know the farmers directly, but I trust these intermediaries to only buy from farms that treat their flocks decently, manage the land reasonably, and don’t compromise the safety of my food. Crucially, the chain of trust is short, so I’m happy to make it transitive: I trust the friend of my friend in a way that I don’t the friend-of-an-acquaintance-of-a-cousin-of-a-neighbour-of-a-friend. And I know that most of the money I spend there is going to either the farmer who produced them, the trader who put them in my hand, or the marketplace that is an asset to my city, spreading wealth in my community instead of all trickling up to the distant top of a huge corporate pyramid. I get to feed my guests delicious eggs, happy in the knowledge that getting them has done some good in my world.

Now you may protest that since these eggs cost a little more than the battery hen eggs in a polystyrene package at the faceless supermarket, not everyone has the luxury of this choice, but convivial trade need not be expensive. The other example I have is of an arrangement I just started today: I am now a “Community Host” at Hub Seattle. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement because I am already a part of this community. Specifically, I’ve agreed to sit at the front desk for one 9-hour day a week, field questions and phone calls and welcome new members, in exchange for a free unlimited-hours membership. Financially it’s small beer—$300/month in kind, in exchange for a day a week in which I can still get plenty of other work done in the long periods when I’m just there in case I’m needed—but I’m getting much more out of this post than the pay, because it’s all about engaging more with a community I’m already attached to. As for the Hub, they would have had to pay more than $1500/month to hire a full-time host if they couldn’t find a few people whose existing stake in that community made the job worth their while, and a host who wasn’t already an enthusiastic supporter wouldn’t be as good at the job. Both sides are getting a much better deal because we made an arrangement as people who know each other.

These are by no means the only ways, but please take them as examples of how we can have trade that connects us to each other more, instead of alienating people from each other and abusing them. If you have others, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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