Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Globalization and Food-like Substances

          In discussing commodity fetishism in Marx (see last post), exchange value dominates use and makes decent uses often disappear.  Nonetheless, the uses of commodities one purchases through many phases of capitalism usually have something to do with the physical properties of commodities; one buys a bad chair or a poorly functioning car but one can still sit in the one and drive the other. 

       But in the new triumph of the globalizing capitalist free market, a whole different scale of alienation – one might say a misguided scientific perversion - has begun to affect the uses of commodities.  10 years ago, before I went to Mallorca and Madrid on sabbatical, I taught a student from Mallorca.  As Cristina said to me one day about an apple, she purchased in Denver.  “It looks like an apple.  If I leave home for a month and come back, it doesn’t rot.  The only thing is: it doesn’t taste like an apple.”

     As Michael Pollen suggests in In Defense of Food, one can distinguish between foods one’s great grandmother would recognize (and any traditional cuisine will do) spread around the outside of the supermarket and the rows and rows of food-like substances, filled with flavored chemicals (there is now a several billion dollar a year flavoring industry located in New Jersey in which flavorists have the tastes in testtubes).  These “foods” have little to no nutritional value, and supersized at McDonald’s, have led to an epidemic of teenage obesity and diabetes (you seem to be sitting in an uncomfortable chair, but find yourself having fallen to the floor)  Many allergies come simply from chemicalized food.    No one yet is testing for longterm effects – there is no money to be made in such matters, especially given “deregulation,”  but plainly, the effect on the health of ordinary Americans has been a disaster.  That Michelle Obama has started an organic garden at the White House is a really significant, though symbolic shift. 

       Globalization has brought big round red coca cola signs here and there.  When I was a teenager living in Pakistan, I visited Teheran with my father and mother.  Such a sign overshadowed the most famous medieval mosque in Teheran.  Even then American-style globalization helped support the Shah – the CIA had overthrown the democratically elected Mossadegh in 1954 – and prepared the way for the Islamic Revolution.  Recently, my older daughter has told me of hiking through Guatemala and seeing Coca Cola advertisements on the back of abandoned shacks.  Coca Cola and McDonald’s are everywhere.  Not so amusingly, the effects of foodlike substances are spreading everywhere too. That people should have food that sustains them – in the name of sustainability – is here turned into its opposite by the advanced development of – once again even the misuse of science  in -  capitalism, The nourishingness and taste of food are wonders of human experience.  Here fetishization of commodities leads to ethical disaster.

      Interestingly, the same kind of erosion is occurring with regard to American medical care. In the old days, everyone took out insurance and the money paid in by the healthy provided medical care for those in need.  That was plausibly called insurance.  Now  medical “insurance” companies employ some 6,000 people to deny coverage to the sick on the basis of finding or alleging “preexisting conditions.”  One can read a restaurant bill, itemized, but one can’t figure out a health care bill or the costs alleged without specialized knowledge. The old take many medicines whose interactions no one has ever studied.  They suffer in novel ways from the chemicals alleged to treat some of their previous symptoms. Some 99,000 people per year die in hospitals of diseases other than those they came in with…

        Under President Clinton, boards consisting of one third doctors, one third patients or consumers and one-third representatives of the medical “insurance” or drug companies decide what drugs can be approved.  The drug companies have but to corrupt 17% of the doctors by providing trips to conferences, samples and the like, or the consumers to get anything approved (one might compare the impact of banks in Congress – consider Senator Richard Durbin’s remark on the voting down of the bill that enables a judge in a foreclosure case to alter the terms: “the banks own this place”).  Merck’s Vioxx was approved as pain-killer.  But no one examines side-effects; it also killed a number of patients.  It had to be withdrawn.  Here too  capitalism and globalization seem to be involved in an advanced, never before seen, pseudoscientific (but with real roots in limited scientific practices) form of decadence.

   Capitalism has always torn down “all Chinese walls.”  Initially, English businessmen brought opium to China, hardly a commendable activity.  Nonetheless, what is really significant about the current age aside from the internet which has many democratizing possibilities is a further hollowing out of commodities, a new stage of fetishism.  Food has become as virtual (as anti-food) as 24/7 life of some shadowy individuals has become anti-social. There is of course a strong citizen countermovement, to eat foods (organic foods, particularly) or to take control of one’s own health care to some extent through homeopathy and acupuncture.  Still, one might go on and on with related though not scientific examples (the privatization of the army, policing and fire protection come to mind).  

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