People as Commodities

I was very much struck by a sentence in a friend’s email yesterday, ‘Some people think communities are commodities and ask questions as if that were the case.’ I think we could widen the terms of reference to include everyone: people as commodities.

How often does one read of some Government scheme which deals with statistics in such a way that the humanity is bled out of them, or read of some personal tragedy being picked over by the media as though those involved had no role other than to gratify our curiosity? Take the media comment on Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple. There was a lot of speculation about the future of the company, some neat retrospectives detailing the amazing impact he has had on consumer technology, but not one of the (admittedly few) assessments I read did more than mention his illness as a ‘problem’ for Apple. No doubt it was ‘weak and womanish’ of me to think that half a sentence wishing the chap well, or expressing some hope for whatever life he has left would have been a more decent and humane response to the human story behind the headlines. But, no. There was some intrusive speculation about the nature of his illness (what right have we to know?) but that was all.

I suspect that this commodification of people, of seeing others principally as contributors to or detractors from my wellbeing, plays an important part in the decay of virtue which it is fashionable to decry. Consider me old-fashioned if you like, but doesn’t virtue have something to do with vir, being a man, being human?


7 thoughts on “People as Commodities”

  1. I was thinking exactlythat as I listened to the item on Today this morning about Social Bonds – the idea is that people will buy these Bonds to pay for schemes – ‘social enterprises’ – which help families (or communities I guess) with multiple problems. the funders – bond holders – will only receive a returnon their investments if the scheme reduces the problem by a specified amount, determined, as i understand it, by the calculated cost to society of them before and after the help. The example given was a no doubt wonderful scheme which provides a tailored package of servicces to families according to their need. However this was examioned interms of it’s financial impact – the service is estimated to cost £19.5 thousand a year per family, preventing things like a prison sentence (£100 thousand a year) or a child being looked after (£50 thousand per year).
    Now I understand the logic of this – and that it will help families. But having such a commodificatory (if there is such a word) model must have an impact on the service provider, in terms of the pressure to produce the best results in terms of the bottom line.
    I used to be w social worker witha local authority (retired early due to stress, so may have a particular bias here). Tthere was an awful pressure on us at the ‘front line’ wanting to provide exactly the sort of services to families we knew and cared for and WANTED to help which would prevent a child being looked after, youth offending, school exclusions etc etc which came from the knowledge that resources were limited, that those above us had to be more and more conscious of the bottom line and that sometimes, often, the services we wanted to offer would be refused by those holding hte purse strings. And they were, of course, being pressured by the councillors trying to balance the budgets, by the council tax payers voting power, by the central government’s guidance and restrictionson local government finding and powers, and so on. Won’t that just be the same for these social enterprises with Bond Holders?
    I could go, but I’d better stop!!!
    Let’s pray today for all those working to help others with limited resources be they financial, physical, emotional, spiritual, even intellectual! And for those with resources to be willing to share them for the greater good!

  2. As far as Steve Jobs ‘ goes, the CBC in Canada did a pretty good job of commenting on his health problems while they analyzed the impact, or lack of, his resignation would have on Apple.

    People as commodities….hmmm…..I do think that if we could get people with power to look at people as commodities and to look at the bottom line correctly it could have a positive impact. The problem is, as Bridget pointed out, they only look at the bottom line immediately in front of them. They don’t look farther afield at how the non-profit after school program reduces prison costs 10-20 years down the line.

    The Quebec government decided to finance $5.00/day (now $7.00/day) daycare. At the time there were many complaints about what a financial “waste” this would be. The program did go through some rough times, but now the program is paying for itself because more women are working and paying taxes (–quebec-s-child-care-scheme-pays-for-itself-economist). This is a fairly easy cost/benefit relationship to document. Unfortunately the reduction in court and prison costs as a result of a better income for those families is not so easy to document.

    What I am saying in my round about way is that looking at people as commodities is not a bad thing provided your view is large enough.

  3. I can see that the ‘commodity’ viewpoint makes sense in many ways, if you are working with a untilitarian viewpoint – the greater good etc . But it feels so wrong, because it dehumanises people.

    And I agree that short termism is a major problem with it. With this philosophy it’s too easy to cut the day-care scheme or whatever when times get hard, and the choice is between the daycare or some other scheme which is currently more popular in the minds of the voters, or the media, or whatever.

    And it’s only to easy to use the financial figures to back up whatever you want it to – by including or not including the longterm savings, perhaps. Or maybe the savings will only become significant when the scheme has been running for a considerable time and it’s effect has permeated the community.

    And what about the parent who was relying on that daycare scheme to re-build their damaged self-esteem in their first job for years, or to free up time to care for a parent with alzheimers? Their individual need can get lost in the application of the greater good commodity model.

    Jesus did not have this calculating view of people – and as christians we should stand up for the dehumanised or overlooked or ‘lumped together’ , even when it does not make monetary sense.

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