By Rai Sengupta
As our world becomes increasingly globalized, with capitalist systems dominating the global economic space, social relations are continually being mediated by man’s interactions with capitalism’s most fundamental cell – the commodity.
People’s social co-existence and their meaning have come to be explained by market exchange. Since the mid-nineteenth century, there has been a dominant process underlying the transformation of life in all societies. It is the conversion of non-tradable entities into commodities that can be exchanged for profit. This process of commodification, which extends the market into places and spheres of life previously untouched by the system, has critical implications.
Commodification of Social Relations
For one, it reduces nature and its resources to mere commodities which can be bought or sold. History is witness to the ever-changing relationship between human beings and the natural environment.
Civilizations have risen on the banks of rivers; fertile plains have facilitated the human transition to agriculture, forests have liberally supplied mankind with fuel and fodder. The skills and efficiency with which man has harnessed nature have become progressively specialized. Each epoch is characterized by a certain level of command that human beings have been able to exercise on nature. This, in turn, determines the mode of production, the way in which exchange is conducted, and the societal relations that exist between individuals in that period. The social relations associated with the riverine trade routes of ancient Mesopotamia will differ considerably from the relations between the lord and the serf in the Feudal period, where land determined the social order of the manorial systems.
The degree to which man is able to utilize natural resources shapes the human experience. As the allocators of resources are also consumers of the objects of labor, they reflect the dialectical nature of this relationship. The past century and a half records evidence of nature, previously untainted by commerce, being rapidly converted into a commodity and being assigned a certain degree of profitability.
In a sense, nature’s role changed swiftly from being just a facilitator of production to also becoming a commodity with a market value attached.
Commodification, Across Time and Space
An early instance of this process is the Enclosure Movement of 18th century England, where the village ‘commons’, the life source of the peasantry and the landless were ‘enclosed off’ – fenced and entitled to one or more owners. Arable land, previously intended for communal use, came to be appropriated by rich landowners, with the profits of public property accruing to private individuals. Land was assigned a price, and private ownership, guaranteed by the systems of law created a new hierarchy. It was one deepening the divide between those who were able to own land, and those who were deprived of access to it.
A parallel can be drawn to the Indian experience of scientific forestry during colonial rule in India. The timber requirements of rapidly industrializing Great Britain were met by ‘enclosing’ or ‘reserving’ forests in her colonies. In India, forest land was cordoned off the villagers and tribes residing in the surrounding areas. Consequentially, they were systematically cultivated with sal, teak and sandalwood. The desirable attributes of the forested areas were seen in relation to the exportability of the timber extracted, not the utility associated with the consumption of the forest products, as was the case earlier.
Here too, the commodification of the forest land created contexts of deprivation and desperation, on the part of the communities who had previously depended on the forests for their livelihood.
In ‘Capital’, Karl Marx argues that the Enclosure Movement marks the transition from feudalism to capitalism. It brought about significant changes in not only to land, but also the social relations arising from it. Land was transformed from a means of subsistence to a means of realizing profits on commodity markets. Small peasant proprietors and serfs then metamorphosed into agricultural wage-laborers, whose opportunities to exit the market declined as the common lands were enclosed. These changes are in accordance with Bertrand Russell’s explanation of Marx’s dialectical materialism – “Both the subject and the object, both the knower and the known, are in a continual process of mutual adaptation”
Water: The Ultimate Commodity
According to Garret Hardin’s work, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, multiple individuals acting both independently and rationally will continue to deplete common resources in the pursuit of self-interest. In this context, the capitalist view holds that if a resource can be valued correctly it can be protected.
To ascertain an economic value and produce a tradable commodity, commodification requires the natural object to be removed from its biophysical context thus transforming its identity and value.
Water has historically been classified a ‘common good’ or part of the global commons. Concerns surrounding the over-exploitation of water have resulted in commodification being viewed as a way to preserve it. To this extent, commodification of water can be viewed as an extension of capitalist and market tendencies into new spaces and social relations. Marx termed this phenomenon, “primitive accumulation”, which in the 21st century translates to about three-fourths of the water industry being controlled by two multi-nationals.
Privatizing the Basics
In South Africa, this ‘looting of the commons’ has led to decreased standards of health and social equality for those who could not pay for the full recovery price.
Bolivia’s Water War in 2000 stands testimony to the immense social upheaval that the privatization of this natural resource caused. In 1985, with hyperinflation at an annual rate of 25 percent, Bolivia turned to the World Bank as a last resort against deepening economic crisis. According to a statement made by the World Bank in that context, “Poor governments are often too plagued by local corruption and too ill equipped to run public water systems efficiently. … [and that the use of private corporations] opens the door to needed investment and skilled management.”
The privatization of Bolivia’s waterworks and the stripping away of the initial subsidies completed the cycle of transforming the value of water from that associated with utility to that of exchange. With it, new identities were created. Those who controlled the ‘commodity’ managed its market value and exchange. And others who were deprived of access were forced to accept the high rates associated with ‘purchasing’ this commodity.
The Inevitability of Inequity
The commodification of the natural environment presents grave dangers in terms of social imbalance.
It creates situations where the resources of many swiftly transform to become the property of a few, leaving the masses helpless, yet forced to conform to the conditions for exchange dictated by the controllers of resources. Conformity is necessary considering the resources that are now ‘commodities’ are necessary for life, and integral to human existence – land, water, air. One cannot do without them and this inelastic nature of demand leads to the acceptance of exploitation and inequality at several levels, perpetuating new cycles of commodification.
The 21st century world stands to witness the ecology of our times giving way to the economy of our times. These changes are ringing in a series of domino effects involving the creation and transmutation of social classes, and the conflict of interests. The dynamics of human interaction with the larger ecosystem are continually metamorphosing, and the roles that nature can play in the present time are being dictated by the basis of the capitalist system- commodities. As Marx said, “Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature”.
Rai Sengupta is a final year Economics student at Shri Ram College of Commerce.