Thursday, August 12, 2010

Human Commodification

Neoliberalism, a word much more in use in Europe and Canada than here, is sometimes used interchangeably with capitalism. But in fact, neoliberalism is much more sinister than straight capitalism. Wikipedia says, “Broadly speaking, neoliberalism seeks to transfer control of the economy from public to the private sector, under the belief that it will produce a more efficient government and improve the economic health of the nation.” The American Friends Service Committee’s publication on trade says, “(Neoliberalism is) a view of the world based on the belief that the optimal economic system is achieved by giving free reign to market participants, privatization, minimal restrictions on international trade, and the shrinking of government intervention in the economy.”

Basically, a layperson such as myself would define neoliberalism as the “total commodification of everything.” Neoliberalism represents for me the essence of the opposite of the commons.

The most chilling examples of this are the commodification of human life. In several previous posts Sean and I have talked about immigrants. Immigration is a complicated issue, but one thing about it can be easily understood: when people’s worth is seen as the value of their cheap labor, and when no matter how awful and dangerous border crossings are, huge numbers of people will take the risk and some will make it, it doesn’t matter that some die trying. They are a commodity – a mass production in which some of the commodities will be flawed and not able to be sold, but the value of the others will make up for that loss.

In a ruling August 2 by the federal appeals court, we see that another set of people have become commodities: veterans. A 65-year-old Vietnam veteran, James Turner, was denied Social Security disability benefits because there is still work he could perform, according to the court. Turner is a decorated veteran who suffers from PTSD. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle noted, “One of his tasks during the Vietnam War was to crawl into Viet Cong tunnels with a pistol, knife and flashlight to look for hostile forces. On one occasion he and his platoon discovered the bodies of seven U.S. soldiers who had been skinned alive. Turner told his doctor he thinks about Vietnam every day, he cannot concentrate, he has trouble reading, and he avoids crowds.” He works on a ranch, where, in exchange for lodging, he is able to live alone, repairing fences and doing other odd jobs. He applied for disability because of severe back pain caused by bullet and shrapnel wounds, again from the war.

Turner is a commodity. The court believes he can still work, in other words he can be useful, his labor still has value and he does not deserve further help from a public system. He has to argue that this is not the case, that like an old toaster or a broken chair, he cannot work, and so deserves assistance.

A commons frame says whether he can work or not is not the point. We reject the frame that looks at whether he can be productive or not as the terms under which he would deserve disability payments. Turner is a human being who suffered unbelievable physical and mental pain while serving his country, who continues to suffer from a war that has been over for 40 years, and deserves whatever help and assistance available to him.

(Information for this post was taken from SF Chronicle article, “Denial of Disability Benefits for Vietnam vet upheld” August 3, 2010)

1 comment:

Trish said...

Thanks, as always, for providing exactly the right example to make these concepts very, very real. Neoliberalism through the experience of James Turner hits home in such a profound way.