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The Vote as Commodity

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: April 7, 2004
Latest Update: April 7, 2004

E-Mail Icon jeannecurran@habermas.org
takata@uwp.edu

Index of Topics on Site The Vote as Commodity

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, April 2004.
"Fair use" encouraged.

This piece is based on two articles in the New York Times on April 7, 2004:
  • Data Churners Try to Pinpoint Voters' Politics . . . Backup
  • California Voters Reject Wal-Mart Initiative . . . Backup.

    As commodification of voting becomes a seeming reality, we see more of the poring of millions of dollars into the marketing behavior typical of commodification. Like the magic formula for turning dross into gold, those who benefit from the production of commodities seek the magic formula for selling whatever. This time Wal-Mart tried to sell it's version of the good it does by producing cheap goods at exploitative wages by sinking more than a million dollars into selling that idea to the 113,000 voters of a local southern california town.

    Some of this is bureaucratic efficiency. By doing things on a large scale, we make the individual cost of items less, and can save money. For those of us who don't have a lot of money, that's a good thing. But bureaucracy does not regulate any limits on profit. Nor does bureaucracy say how much of the cost saving should go to the worker and how much to the owner who is profiting by the worker's effort.

    These two articles show that commodity advertising has moved into all areas of our lives. If the advertiser knows what our aspirations, values, and desires are, then the advertiser can tailor his/her approach to each group of potential voters, buyers, students, etc. That can result in manipulation. Suggesting to us wants we had never conceived of; offering us credit to satisfy our present wants with less regard to future needs and wants; de-emphasis of the built-in obsolescence (computers are a great example here - how useful is a ten-year-old computer?); de-emphasis on the continually rising cost of what was once advertised as free (Internet hookups, cable, direct TV), etc.

    So do we make a law banning advertising as manipulative, dishonest, and harmful? No. No more than we make a law banning gambling, which, of course, is now also heavily advertised. Besides, advertising is a legitimate component of distribution. How will we know which products exist and where to locate them, if advertising were not permitted? How would new products become known?

    The democratic answer is that more speech is better than prohibiting speech. But we must then educate our consumers to understand advertising, and perhaps, impose some truth in advertising. There's not much of that. And that's not the fault of people not wanting it. It's the fault of a legal system not set up for such issues. Look at the prosecution of the TYCO leaders, who drained their company of money. Much ugliness grew out of the issue of "intent." Did they mean to do wrong? Whether they meant to or not they did a great deal of harm to many, many workers. Did Martha Stewart mean to "do wrong?" What's the difference between Martha Stewart's intent and the intent of the TYCO executives?

    Answerability means learning to ask these questions? First, to ask them of ourselves. Next, to ask them of our laws and our lawmakers. I'm not sure that sending these people to prison would do the harmed workers any good. But talking openly about the harm, how it's done, and how that harm can be made right for the community to which it was done (Restorative Justice is the technical name for this, kids.) could make a major difference. Instead of putting such people in jail, who do not represent potential violence to the community, why couldn't we forbid them to gain any money from investment or use of their skills for X amount of time, while they must put those skills to work for the harmed community?

    Answerability here means that we must learn to assess the situation from new perspectives, and that we must focus on "harm done," and on ways to "repair the harm." Nevermind retribution. But we, those who have been harmed, have a responsibility to learn enough, to become aware enough, and to care enough about the harm done to all of us, to be able to come up with solutions that may "undo the harm." We must also learn that doing nothing, accepting the harm makes us complicit in the harm. Answerability does not mean that we have to "do something," "produce some result." We are as confused and challenged by the misdeeds of corporate America as they are. But we must not ignore or deny the existence of harm to humans in the corporate process. If we deny the problems, we are complicit; though much less so than those who actually engage in wrongful acts.

    Remember that answerability is not an epiphany. There is no moment in which we suddenly realize that we can answer; and when we suddenly see the whole situation for what it is, and can answer for it better than Condoleeza Rice. If she can't make the wrongdoing go away, think of the relative inability of our skills to solve the problem. It's OK to not know what the answers are. It's not OK, at least not completely OK in a democratic world, to conclude that because you don't know the answers in all their complexity that it's OK to ignore the whole scene. You deny, you are a part of the problem. A part of the problem with Condoleeza Rice's testimony was her refusal to admit that anyone in the Bush administration could have been wrong. There's your clue for what not to trust. And saying "we were right," absolutely, means that you are not open to good faith entertainment of other perspectives.

    And this is where education plays such an important role. If you don't get it, then you do have a responsibility, to at least make some effort to get it. Turn to someone who seems to share your values, your minister, your boss, your parents, your children, your teacher, talk to them. They don't have the "right answers" either. But talking about is one way to lead us into governance discourse in which we seek "better answers" and "more sophisticated questions."

    Read the newspapers. Listen to news and policy analysis programs. Ask questions. Don't assume that anyone "knows the right answer." These are complex times. There are no right answers. Be suspicious of anyone who claims to know "the truth." That means at least listen in good faith when someone else comes to a different conclusion.

    How is this kind of answerability different from accountability? Answerability means simply having a response, a feeling, a sense of how you feel about an issue, based on what you know. Some such feelings you will express, but today's world has too many major issues for you to keep up even with personal feelings with all of them. Accountability means having a responsibility to answer. If you are an owner responsible for the workers in your company, you are accountable for the way you oversee the distribution of profits. If you are a worker, you are accountable not for changing that distribution of profits, over which you have no control, but for not denying the conflicts that occur over that distribution. If you don't have an opinion, and aren't sure how the conflicts should be worked out, that's OK. You don't need to know the answers. Just remember that you do have a voice, and that in order not to be complicit with any wrongdoing in that distribution, you need to recognize, at the very least, to yourself, that there are different perspectives and complex issues involved. If you salary depends on the distribution, then I would suggest that you try to learn more. But sometimes, personal crises take precedence, and that's part of life, too.

    If and when you do know enough about the issue to take a position, and to argue for a given solution for the conflict, just remember that you need to stay open to other perspectives. Yes, there will be "bad guys" and "good guys." There always are in life. But most of the world is somewhere in between. Just because there is a "bad guy" on the other side of the conflict, doesn't mean that everyone who supports the other side in some measure is a "bad guy." Punishment and retribution don't usually produce good social outcomes. Try to remain open to restorative perspectives that might produce creative solutions to undo the harm done during the process of conflict.

    I've been focusing on the grocery chain strike, Wal-Mart as related to that, and the investigative committee on the War with Iraq. I wish I had a "HOW TO Manual" on how to solve all of them. I don't. The HOW TO's above are about how to not fall into a feeling of hopelessness by recalling that as a human you have the gift of answerability. You will sometimes find the skills to use it. You will sometimes merely recognize the issues, "but also serve" by good faith openness to perspectives and to complexity. Answerability, our human ability to assess, analyze, and support one another in voicing our refusal to be complicit, is a strong weapon against greed and injustice. Answerability is the tool that makes accountability happen.