January 9, 2009 by Gsmith
This article is somewhat outdated. I originally wrote it New Year’s Day, in an attempt to put a complicated idea into terms my fourteen-year old daughter could understand. Whether I succeeded or not is an open question. Comments welcome.
The death of temporary Wal-Mart worker Jdimytai Damour is a month past now. Already he is forgotten. 400 working people have been massacred by hellfire missiles, shot from safety in the sky, with the help of helicopter gunships which the West has provided at no cost to a brutal occupational power in the Mediterranean. They’ll be forgotten a month from today. Thousands have been maimed and injured. Countless parents cry over their crippled, blind, dead children. Hundreds of teenage boys on the other end of the trigger forego an education, time with their families, make-out sessions in the back seat of whatever kids drive in Tel Aviv, forced to trade a lifetime of nightmares for a normal young adulthood. They’ll all be forgotten too.
Blood and gore at the other end of the globe, covered by cliche on the evening news, provided at our expense. All those helicopters? All those warplanes? If you live in Canada, Europe, Japan, the U.S., then you bought them. Nice going, suckers. Every day is Christmas morning, it seems, if you are one of our well-fed client states. You killed children and old ladies in Gaza City this morning. We killed them. Every one of us. The people pulling the triggers are surely the least guilty of us all. They don’t have the benefit of decadence, the casual gift of never knowing what happened with the dough we signed over to the revenuers. The trigger-people can’t simply send a check in the mail. They don’t have a reset button and this ain’t an x-box game. They can’t listen to an ipod. They’re too busy doing our dirty work for any escapism right now.
Who cares, right? We’re cool over here. We’ve got a Nintendo Wii and a new plasma tee-vee. The masses are satisfied. We are satiated. We are stuffed with Christmas turkey and drunk with champagne. A New Year of pillage and excess has been rung into existence. Hail Satan! The year is one!
Damour just didn’t get it. He thought that when he went into the temp agency he was doing the right thing. Maybe if I work hard I’ll be able to get ahead this year. Maybe if I bust enough ass, kiss enough ass, the grand god of capitalism, the store of stores, will see fit to enroll me as a permanent cog in the Wal-Mart machine.
Poor fella. He probably saw Wal-Mart in the same light that his granddaddy saw the Ford factory. It’s the way we’ve all been conditioned to think. We’re all just so many disposable cogs in a grand machine, but we all like to think there’s some brass ring to grab. It’s a necessary illusion. The whole house of cards would collapse immediately if the idea of the brass ring didn’t exist.
And as for Wal-Mart? The smiley-face store which promises to save you a few cents? They didn’t even call their doormat’s family. To Hell with that guy. He was a temp anyway…not even on the payroll… (ctv.ca) They left it to some cop to break the bad news.
Our masters’ greatest seasonal greeting is their dark sense of humor. It’s quite the stocking stuffer. The death of Damour came in anticipation of a holiday supposedly dedicated to history’s greatest social critic. Christ, the mythical carpenter who drove the money changers out of the room, whip in hand, opens the door for the vulgar mob to trample one of the least of these in pursuit of whatever cheap plastic trinket has been produced in limited quantities by slave labor in the third world.
Much can also be written about the incredible suffering, misery and death which is now visiting working-class Palestinians in the unfortunate little enclave called Gaza. At first glance, one thing has nothing to do with the other. What does Damour have in common with this anonymous injured little girl and her teary eyed rescuer?
Everything, when we look at the big picture.
Reification is one of those big words that attempts to describe something both obvious and obscure. It’s the reason Damour got stomped by howling parents a month ago, and it’s the reason little kids in Gaza are being buried this evening.
If you look the word up you’ll see it analogized in a number of different, often contradictory ways. The original word, as used by Uncle Karl (Marx) was Verdinglichung. It’s generally translated as thing-ification. (wikipedia)
At first glance, we imagine that thing-ification might explain the concept. We see it as the objectification of human beings. It is that, but it’s much more. Reification is both subjective and objective, in that it describes a process of stripping the humanity away from ourselves and those around us, while simultaneously projecting human qualities or attributes to things which neither have nor deserve any.
The average Israeli grows up with no connection at all to his neighbors, who live just a few kilometres over the border. He has a “relationship” with “the Land of Israel”. It’s not that he’s any better or worse than his neighbors. They imagine that they have some sort of “relationship” with the land too, though they name it “Palestine”.
How can one have a relationship with a pile of rocks? A few mounds of earth? What’s to relate to?
The screaming mob of lunatics who stomped Damour to death were in a hurry to show their “love” for their friends and family by buying something. The replacement of genuine love with consumption is encapsulated in another fancy term called repressive desublimation, and I don’t want to get sidetracked. The actual process of the buying; that’s the focus of this article. That’s reification.
In the old days, one displayed his love for his children by spending time with the actual people he had some affection for. Maybe that included purchasing something. Maybe not. Maybe that had something to do with land, and maybe not. The land and the gifts were nice, but not the focus of the interested parties.
The act of barter in the old days had an entirely different characteristic as well. If you wanted something, you’d meet a neighbor who would provide it, and trade something you had for the object of your desire. It was you and the neighbor who were the subjects of the narrative. The objects traded might have been necessary, and useful, but ultimately they were appreciated for what they were. They were just so much stuff.
Today, this sort of authentic relationship between producers almost never materializes. We work overtime, thinking that by neglecting those around us in favor of making extra money, we are showing love to our families. Our labor becomes a thing we have a relationship with, rather than an intrinsic part of ourselves. Think about that concept for a moment. Your work is not something outside of you, which you can barter away for money. Your work is a part of who you are.
In return for trading this thing called work, which is a metaphor for selling oneself to the highest bidder, we are given another thing called money, which we imagine can become part of who we are. Money, in its authentic form, is merely a symbol for work done. It has no other meaning. We are prone to stare at the digits on our bank statements (and I’ll cop to the fact that I’ve done this) and feel successful, or important, or surprised that we have “done so well for ourselves”. With money we can acquire stuff, and we can take the abstract to the concrete and look at our new car and feel the same sense of phony pride.
The real exchange that happens, the only real relationship in a reified society like ours is the relationship between this thing called money, and this thing which I can only describe as stuff. It’s a relationship between dough and junk. It’s the Mercedes wagon you just bought, or the ipod you bought your son. The digits changed on your bank statement. Somehow, you imagine it to be meaningful.
You are merely a vehicle which gets your dough into the proximity of the junk it communes with. You are not a person. You have no dignity. There is no other meaning in your life. You are merely a means to an end, just like that poor sucker who died by being crushed in the stampede.
The people bleeding to death this evening are not people either. They are animated obstacles to progress, things which are getting in the way of someone’s relationship with a mudpuddle. They are resisting, and like the starving denizens of the Warsaw ghetto, the suffocating citizens of Gaza have no right to resist in a reified society. They are merely things, inconvenient ones at that, getting in the way of a meaningless “relationship” between abstract concepts.
Junk is the homeland that you have to murder others for. Junk is the McMansion in the suburbs. Junk is what Damour was stomped to death for.
I’m not holier than thou, mind you. I have a homeland. I have a fairly decent house, in an ordinary neighborhood. I’m surrounded by decent, working class and middle class families. We all feel like we’ve “made it”. Even I feel like this when I catch myself. We like to imagine that we’ve all grasped that brass ring. In reality, we’ve walked across the backs of people to get it; in Gaza, New York City, and wherever the little girl got paid a dollar a day to make whatever piece of disposable garbage I catch myself feeling so proud of this week.
I have a lot of junk. Junk can be nice, but acquiring it isn’t the real meaning of life. The structure of the fallacy is so powerful, so persuasive, that I have to consciously remind myself not to buy into it. I can hardly look down my nose at anyone else.
Many people imagine that socialists want a transition into a drab world where everyone wears Mao jackets and eats borscht for dinner. It’s not true. What we want is for people to relate to one another honestly, rationally, with a bit of integrity.
We could spread the wealth around, so that everyone can have an ipod, and everyone can have a homeland, and a house; and nobody needs to die for anyone else to get one. Imagine a society in which every family gets to go out to a swank place to eat once in a while. Everyone can have a car, a day at the beach. It’s hardly impossible. We’ve spent enough money dropping high explosives on the heads of old women and little kids in the last eight years to do this many times over. With the seven hundred billion dollar bailout, given to the hucksters who have turned the world economy into a global casino, we the people could have simply paid every mortgage in North America, with change left over.
Socialism would accomplish this, but that’s not the essence of socialism. Not really. Spreading the wealth is only the end result.
Socialists dream a world in which we see each other for who we really are, rather than as just so many animated objects, as so many automated teller machines, so many doormats to be squashed on the way to the x-box sale. Other people are more than just a means for us to stuff ourselves with turkey and champagne. We dream of a world where people are recognized as people, and where junk is seen for exactly what it is: junk.
In eleven months there’ll be another Black Friday. I have a Christmas wish, a New Year’s Resolution.
Let’s quit blaming the non-existent baby Jesus for the stompings and the shootings. (jmantimes) Let’s forget Christmas entirely. Let’s abolish it. If we’re honest we’ll all agree that it’s meaningless at this point anyway. History has already killed it.
Black Friday is the only real holiday in this society; but that’s such a misleading label, an insult to fifty-one other Fridays of the year. We’re supposed to be getting real here.
Let’s rename it to something more authentic. Let’s call it what it is.