TGL4: Commodity Imperialism
I am re-introducing a cognitive theme in today’s essay: how the modern world is held together by a cluster of virtues and vices, all supported by commodities and technologies. We have heard of the Protestant Ethic that makes people of Western European origin hard working and productive. We have also heard of the Irrational Exuberance that leads to Stock Market Bubbles. One is a virtue and the other is a vice (which one though?). How does this modern system shape our virtues and vices and how is it shaped by them in turn? Inquiring into these gives us a hint as to how our world is constituted and how it often deviates from its own stated outcomes.
Wherever you see people acting against their own interests, you have to wonder: what means are being used to steer people away from their own well being? These means are typically in the realm of emotion and the passions than in reason.
A couple of decades ago, I decided not to eat carbohydrates to see what would happen. I stopped eating breads, rice and other starches. By week’s end I was having vivid dreams of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If you were to ask me what I like more: a ripe Banganapalli mango in mid-April or a piece of toast, I will invariably go for the former, but I don’t crave it ten months out of the year when I can’t have it. It took me a week to start craving toast and I have never managed to cut starches out of my diet.
Much of what we eat has a drug like quality, in that its absence leads to craving.
Any commodity that produces addiction is one worth fighting over. Some of those are produced only for that sake and others have addiction as a side-effect of some other goal. The British empire was many things, but it was also a drug mafia for a couple of centuries. First, there was sugar and then there was opium, both of which were produced by slaves and serfs in the colonies. Sugar and opium (and heroin and cocaine) are clearly addictive, but so are grains and meat - i.e., substances whose lack is experienced as hunger, thirst, craving etc.
And if you expand the term ‘drug’ to include other addictive commodities, then coal and oil make the cut, and you could even add cotton to the mix. Every addictive substance comes with violence, for there are huge profits to be made in controlling access and distribution.
But the most addictive substance of all is money (religion comes second) and it’s no surprise that wars are fought over it. And therefore, we must look to the producers of capital to understand how they control their addictive commodity. Cotton and capital weren’t weren’t separate commodity streams then and carbon and capital aren’t separate commodity streams today. Then as now, craving and other emotions were deployed in keeping the status quo and perpetuating harmful ways of life. Lenin:
Banks play a major role in creating monopolies; it’s very hard to move a factory from one city to another, but with banking, it becomes quite easy for the owner of one factory to buy out the owner of the second. The winner take all nature of network effects were apparent in financial capital well before the internet made that term popular in the context of digital capital. Lenin again:
Banks and other core institutions of capitalism play a small role in Gandhi’s thought (from what I have read) and an even smaller role in Tagore’s (again: from what I have read). Both have a lot to say about machines. Gandhi (from his Hind Swaraj):
In contrast, they didn’t pay much attention to how finance sat on top of the capitalist system even then, which is a bit strange since India was colonized by a joint stock corporation (the East India Company) before it was colonized by the British state. But the language of craving and addiction might being Lenin and Gandhi and Tagore closer than they have been considered so far. Again Gandhi:
Lenin, Gandhi and Tagore weren’t unique in their grasp of the imperial world around them. There were many others. If I was trying to understand their ideas in their own context, I would be doing great injustice to their peers and opponents. Just as I would if I commented on Shakespeare without recognizing the influence of his artistic networks. But we can read Shakespeare for inspiration and we don’t need to have read Ben Jonson in order to rework Macbeth or Hamlet for our own creative ends.
That’s the way we should be reading TGL.