Consumption versus Production
In the “see-saw” model of economic behavior, or the pantheon of economic dichotomies, if you will, consumption and production are the primary concepts into which all the other components (demand and supply, buyers and sellers, debt and equity, and leisure and work) seem to be resolved. On this point, even Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the feminist critic of “political economy,” which she refers to as “the elaborate structure . . . with which men have sought to explain and justify their strange behavior,” would probably agree with Professor Thurow. Though Gilman concludes that this structure “is much like the other elaborate structures evolved from the detached floating theories of speculative religions,” she not only accords the same importance to production and consumption, but does so from a much more optimistic perspective. Instead of Thurow’s dour dictum that “economic theory has always treated work (the giving up of leisure time) as an unpleasant disutility that one must be bribed to accept,” which leads him to conclude that “all enjoyment (utility) is assumed to spring from consumption rather than production,” Gilman is almost rapturous in her assessment that “in the industrial evolution of the human race, that marvelous and subtle drawing out and interlocking of special functions which constitute the organic life of society, we find that production and consumption go hand in hand; and production comes first.”
While the assertion that “production comes first” may be nothing more than a statement of fact and indicate her awareness of the proper sequence of events, the tenor of Gilman’s perception is very different from the antagonism of Thurow’s assumption. Which probably also accounts for the adjective “political” a specification she seems to find necessary to explain behavior which to her seems “strange.” That is, if the behavior of men seems strange, perhaps it is because it is directed more by the desire for power and the inclination towards the use of force, rather than the practical purpose or what is to be accomplished by the behavior–the physical sustenance of the individual. Which is not only strange, but substantially different. In the political economy, there is no longer a question of man being or not being able to survive on bread alone; rather, it is almost certain that, unless his behavior is consistent with social expectations, man will get no bread.
And that’s not all that’s strange or different from what someone like Gilman might expect. Although “consumption” and “production” describe two of the fundamental components of the natural process of material transformation, designating “consumption” as the sole source of “enjoyment” is, to say the least, peculiar–especially when one considers that consumption used to refer to a debilitating, wasting disease whose effect was to make its sufferers, primarily women, non-productive. One has to, at least, wonder if in adapting the terminology of disease to the source of material satisfaction, economists were merely insensitive to the negative connotations of the term and chose it as a matter of convenience, or if it is an expression, albeit unconscious, their attitude towards women. Certainly, the perception of women as consumptive of what men produce, both as sexual and physical beings, is consistent with the complete disregard in economic theory for the natural productivity of women giving birth. Otherwise, if women aren’t perceived as inherently non-productive, even when they aren’t sick or ill-disposed towards male needs, the exclusion of reproduction as an economic function is almost impossible to comprehend.
From the perspective of a woman, who does not perceive herself as having consumed prior to giving birth, production not only comes first, as Gilman asserts, but, given the discomfort associated with producing a child, if production is ever to be categorized as a disutility, then the first and foremost example ought to be giving birth. Indeed, all other forms of production, in which the potential for self-expression, creativity, and physical expertise in the transformation of matter is much more certain of being realized, are bound to be more enjoyable. Though, of course, since they are precluded from reproducing, men cannot be expected to recognize the disutility it entails. But that only explains, it does not justify the assumption that reproduction is different from production and beneficial to women, while production, which is what men do, is not.
Neither does the fact that the perception of women as essentially non-productive is pervasive and persistent. That an anthropologists, such as Paul Bohannan, can conclude from his observations of African society that while “a woman’s day is taken
up with farming, grinding the meal, cooking the porridge and the sauce. . . . men’s work is more strenuous, more varied, and. . .like farmer’s work everywhere–seasonal” because “they carry out the political and judicial affairs of the country, which in most African societies takes a lot of time on the part of many of the men,” merely demonstrates that an objective perspective on the economic performance of women is hard to come by. Besides, the observation “most African women find time to attend markets, visit relatives and even sometimes rest,” fits so nicely with the traditional perception of women going on shopping sprees, while men do the hard work, albeit part-time, and spend much time discussing important things. When women merely “attend markets,” the fact that it is characteristic of most African economies for both buying and selling to be carried out by women, conveniently disappears from view.
But, while the feminist perspective might suggest that the failure to recognize women as being economically active and productive, rather than passive consumers, is the result of sexual bias, I prefer the explanation that economics is more concerned with the allocation and distribution of power expressed in production and consumption, than the free exchange of goods. Because then, if buying and selling by women in African markets is perceived as being discounted, not because they are women, but because their behavior is unregulated and seemingly unconstrained, the categorization of their societies as economically underdeveloped, in spite of the fact that their trade and exchange has flourished for centuries, is obviously nothing more than an expression of the fact that they have not yet been captured and made part of the coercive system economic science generally defines. That is, they are underdeveloped because they have so far escaped the regulating influence of Western men. If the indigenous markets were “attended” by African men, who demonstrated the same resistance to being constrained by the demands of the “developed” world as the women, they would be considered underdeveloped just the same. Because, in this instance, “developed” economy means a society whose products some other community wants to acquire by purchase, rather than conquest. Which is, undeniably, progress.
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From a functional perspective, when economic behavior is considered as the sum total of the processes by which humans sustain existence, the economy is actually a continuum of sequential behaviors, moving from the collection or accumulation of resources to their transformation via production, to their being sold and bought and, finally, used, or consumed (which is not the same thing, since what is consumed may or may not turn out to be useful or beneficial). Lately, however, the central links in the process, the buying and selling, have all but disappeared from conscious awareness. Even as the market, where the transactions between buyers and sellers used to take place, is being elevated in the popular imagination as the embodiment of free enterprise, it is being transformed into an abstract entity–an intellectual arena where supply and demand meet and submit to the “power of the market” to be canceled out. Meanwhile producers and consumers sulk somewhere on the periphery, where they are no longer defined by their behavior and their personal relationship to each other in a mutual exchange or transaction, but by their purported relationship to the objects being exchanged.
There are still a few exceptions. Some buyers and sellers do meet face to face. However, though it seems ironic, in our “free market” economy such transactions are increasingly being conducted extra-legally, in front yards (albeit increasingly regulated by temporary permits and “special exceptions” to zoning regulations), or, illegally, in the streets, the preferred venue for the exchange of illegal goods (drugs, stolen merchandise, etc.) and services (primarily sexual) for cash or legal tender. Which is what makes such behavior doubly reprehensible. Not only is trade, in order to be good, supposed to be legally authorized and sanctioned, but exchanging “forbidden fruit” for the symbolic representation of the “good faith and credit of the United States” is tantamount to blasphemy.
The nominal buyers and sellers who meet to trade abstractions in the commodities and “securities” markets are in a somewhat different category. Their trade is regulated and legal and, therefore, presumably beneficial, even though what they actually exchange are numbers and pieces of paper, without having to guarantee that what they represent is either useful or safe. That, after all, is the beauty of leaving the economy to be regulated by the market. As long as the buyers and sellers, as well as what they are trading, are properly certified and regulated, whether the product is useful or harmful is nobody’s business.
Or, rather, the buyer/consumer is ultimately responsible. If he doesn’t know better than to protect his interests, then the market will teach him. Which is perhaps most obvious in that one remaining representative of the traditional market, where buyers and sellers inspect each other and what is being offered and arrive at a mutually acceptable price, the auction. For, even as he maintains the pretense of impartial referee and time-keeper in the transaction between seller and buyer, the auctioneer has become an agent for the seller, intent on extracting a fixed minimum price. As a result, the auction has been transformed into a competition among prospective buyers, whose enthusiasm to out-bid each other is expected to benefit both the auctioneer and the seller. If it doesn’t, then the item is withdrawn, or the seller “buys” it, to be brought back at another time and place, when the interest in the competition is expected to be higher, even if the auction-goers are the same. Having “lost” is supposed to make them eager to pay more later.
As it has evolved, the auction is a perversion of reciprocal exchange, rather than a more systematic expression of the buying and selling experience. That it nevertheless persists, is probably because any opportunity for social interaction is better than none. Also, the auction maintains the illusion that the buyer is influential in determining value and setting a price. Which is, at least, psychologically more satisfying than the desperate and anonymous condition to which the buyer/consumer is reduced in confrontations with the supermarket, discount store, and shopping mall. There social interaction is almost non-existent (preferably limited to handing over cash, check or a piece of plastic) and prices aren’t even mentioned, much less negotiated. Only “consumer resistance” has kept prices from disappearing entirely, or being replaced, as they have been in print and electronic advertisements, by “savings.” Instead of the traditional spiel, “buy now–pay later,” which implied not only an awareness of the buyer but a recognition of the proper sequence of events, the message to consumers is to “buy and save.” As if buying and saving were equivalents!
Indeed, savings seem to have all but displaced selling things, even as the salesman has just about disappeared. People no longer sell things; things are FOR SALE. Which, I suppose, could be taken as an indication of rampant materialism. SALES, on the other hand, have become special events, like religious revivals, where people are “helped” by the purveyors of merchandise to save money and, by implication, themselves, in making a commitment to an acquisition. “Get a new car and save 500 dollars,” like the exhortation to “Get religion and be saved,” is hard to resist, and just as unrealistic. Unless, of course, those five hundred dollars are what the dealer expects to save by moving his stock a little sooner. But, there’s
really no need to specify who benefits and who’s paying because, in the “free market” economy, there is no crass buying and selling or trading. Rather, consumers make choices and enjoy savings.
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Before I bought my truck, I hadn’t been in the market for a car since 1975. So, I wasn’t at all prepared for the changes–for the condescension and evasion–I encountered. Where the salesmen had previously been somewhat desultory, probably because, as a woman, I couldn’t be expected to know what I wanted and was presumably just out shopping or, not having any money or credit, looking, the new breed were most anxious to be “helpful,” but they wouldn’t answer the question “How much do your trucks cost?”
Instead, they wanted me to tell them what I wanted and how much I expected to pay. Eventually, when even with a list of specific criteria, as to performance, efficiency, comfort and durability, I was unable to get a quote, I took my husband along. But that didn’t make any difference either. Everyone was eager to help us make a choice and provide us with a convenient payment plan; none, it turned out, were even prepared to receive payment on the spot. When we finally found a dealer who was willing to state a price and negotiate for cash, the bookÂ©keeper had to be consulted on how to make out a receipt. Whether it is because payment on the spot has become characteristic of the “underground” economy and illegal activity, or because the profit margin is higher when payment is delayed, the “free market” generally seems to prefer credit to cash.
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“Free market” is actually a euphemistic contradiction. Since the trade and exchange of one thing for another cannot be accomplished without giving and taking back, cost is implicit in the activities of the market. There is no free lunch, nor can the market itself be free. As a social system, it has to follow some rules and regulations. That does not preclude, however, the freedom of participation–to engage in trade and exchange of one’s own volition, or not. Nor does it guarantee it. While the lack of a market obviously inhibits trading, participation is not necessarily voluntary. Not if, like the customers of the company store or the share-croppers on southern plantations, the population has no other options. Indeed, trade and exchange may well be repressive, a form of social constraint, if it is based on the systematic restriction of resources for commercial production while the population is precluded from producing the goods and services it requires to sustain itself. Regardless of whether such restriction is intended to promote specialized agricultural production, such as growing cotton, or mineral extraction, to set up industrial production facilities, or even to “protect” sensitive environments and preserve them for recreation, the allocation of land for private or communal (corporate) use, tends to interfere with the individual’s ability to sustain himself and, thus, to be free.
That is the negative aspect of private property–as a right that is given, if the conditions under which it was granted are not satisfied, it can also be taken away. In any case, the advent of corporate enterprise and the attendant restriction and concentration of resources have transformed the free market into a myth; not in the sense of capital, which, in spite of being a figment of the imagination, is, nevertheless, an accurate and real representation of an intellectual perception, but as something that has become false by virtue of the fact that it no longer is what it is represented to be. The market is no longer a place where producer and consumer, as seller and buyer meet, nor is the exchange of their surplus an optional or free enterprise. Rather, the advent of corporate endeavors (capitalist as well as socialist) and the segmentation of economic behavior have transformed participation in the market into a mandatory endeavor, on which survival depends, and the market itself into an arena whose primary function seems to be to insulates producers and the purveyors of their goods and services from accountability.
While there is no question that the market, and especially one that uses money to mediate more complex transactions than can be achieved by the barter system, increases the quantity, variety, and, ideally, the quality of goods and services, the buyer/consumer is always at a disadvantage. If the producer/seller is honest in his representation of the usefulness or value of his product, then buyer/consumer, since he cannot assess true value of the product until after he has used it, is really only free to make a mistake, or stay out of the market. Because, in trusting the representation of the fellow who made it, the prospective user is, by definition, dependent. On the other hand, if the producer is dishonest, then the buyer, in effect, has no choice and no freedom.
Which, sad to say, is increasingly the case. The offerings in the “free market” are not to be trusted, as, I suspect, anyone trying to rear children to be honest and upright can’t help but be painfully aware. While their window on the world, television, implies that “the best things in life are free” for the taking (“You asked for it, you got it, Toyota”), more often than not their first trip through the supermarket check-out, where the candy within easy reach is definitely not free, serves as an introduction to a level of parental aggravation (because they “reached out and touched it”) they couldn’t have believed. But, at least, it prepares them for the difference between all the pretty pictures and what’s inside the boxes for which they yearn, and they aren’t quite as disappointed, even though they don’t yet understand what their parents mean by “reality” and not believing “everything you see and hear.”
It wasn’t a lesson I ever enjoyed teaching–that being a consumer meant not ever being quite sure that what one got was what one had been led to expect. But, once I started paying attention, I discovered that isn’t the only problem with the electronic image of economic issues. The concept of cost and payment, for example, hasn’t only be deleted from advertisements, especially those directed at children, but it almost never figures in either the real or fictional representations of our society. Except on game shows and the “home shopping” programs, money hardly makes an appearance on television. If children were to rely on television to tell them how the world works, they wouldn’t even know what money is for. Nobody is paid or pays for things on TV. Or, more precisely, nobody that we would want children to emulate. It’s the “bad guys” who carry cash around in fancy cases and fancy cars and hand it out as bribes to accomplish their nefarious schemes.
Which, if nothing else, would seem to contradict the socially preferred perception that “crime doesn’t pay.” On television, it’s the only thing that does.
Clearly, the visual image of the most immediate form of capital–money–is negative. And while I might not agree with the business community entirely, their observation that commerce and enterprise are not generally presented from an attractive or flattering perspective is well founded. Most of the components of economic behavior receive no serious consideration in the entertainment media. Which may just be because the creators of fiction, not having much sense for business and probably resenting the need to account for what they spend, prefer to perceive money as an object of desire, not a practical matter. Or, perhaps, since the purpose of entertainment is to be consumed by a passive audience, with whose interests it is the artist/creator/producer’s aim to identify, as well as to reinforce, it may well be that productive enterprise is not an appropriate subject for fiction or wishful thinking. In any case, unlike socialist culture, which strives to promote itself through “artistic” renditions of its accomplishments and goals, activity in the market does not seem to make the creative juices flow. Which, given the recent demise of socialist systems, in spite of their ideological and cultural supports, might actually be a positive situation.
What is definitely a negative, however, is the fact that the participants in the market cannot be relied on and, as a result, children have to be taught that the claims of producers, especially for “new and improved” products, are not to be believed. And, while this lesson is obviously intended to be protective, teaching the young to be skeptics is a double negative. It not only undermines their ability to perceive as valid the knowledge they derive from their own correlation of expectation and experience, even as it calls into the question the accuracy of the information others provide, it conflicts with what their own experience properly leads them to expect–that, with practice, they will become more expert and better at whatever they undertake. In other words, not only are they not to trust what they perceive with their own senses, nor what others tell them, but because people are deceptive, the very concept of progress–the process of becoming more expert, maximizing function while expending less energy in a shorter period of time–is subverted. If nothing can be determined with any degree of accuracy, or if “new and improved” merely designates a purely subjective and superficial change, such as a different color or texture in the paint on a car, rather than a functional difference, then there is no basis from which to assess progress of any kind, much less economic progress. Which, of course, suggests that ethical behavior is more than a desideratum–something that it would be nice to have–in the economy; without it, without honest and accurate representations of what things are and what they are good for by those who make them, economic behavior is bound to falter, if not collapse.
In this regard, the advertisements by the Japanese automobile producer, Toyota, is perhaps particularly instructive. The slogan with which they originally bombarded the United States market, “You asked for it; you got it. Toyota,” made no promises what-so-ever about their product. In fact, it said nothing about buying and selling anything, either. But, while some American competitors might have ironically considered this strategy as entirely appropriate because, according to the popular perception, Toyotas weren’t worth much, so there was nothing to brag about, Toyota sold a lot of cars. Obviously, the strategy worked well. At least, not making any promises, other than that the customer’s expectations were satisfied, worked better than one might have thought, given the similarity of the slogan to the traditional intimidating refrain of the playÂ©ground bully with which most Americans grew up, “you asked for it; now you’re gonna get it.” Perhaps, in addition to the characteristic American delight at the failure of “foreigners” to “get” the special meaning or social implications of many common expressions, the notion of the Japanese adopting and turning the terminology of the bully upside-down was a source of amusement and, quite inadvertently, generated feelings of confidence and trust. Which, in turn, translated into increased sales.
I do know it made a strong impression on my children. Whether it was because the jingle resonated with the Biblical injunction, “ask, and it shall be given to you,” or the name, TOYota, seemed particularly relevant to their interests, it never failed to get their attention. In fact, while I was otherwise quite successful in teaching them to ignore commercials by refusing to buy anything that was advertised, the Toyota jingle became the occasion for a sing-along, culminating in a rousing shout of “Toilet odor” instead of Toyota. Obviously, the pun amused them, but there was more to it. This wasn’t just typical juvenile “bathroom” humor, or a send-up of odor-directed products (deodorants, air-fresheners, perfumes, and powders). In responding to the implied question–the audience asking itself, “what was it we asked for and got?”–they were also demonstrating some ambivalence. Having been attracted by the jingle and wanting to believe the message, they found that, having already become skeptics, they couldn’t.
The most recent refrain, “I love what you do for me, Toyota,” is hardly susceptible to such humorous rephrasing. Otherwise, it is much like the original in making no promise about the characteristics of the product. Nor is it deceptive. Indeed, if
the “I” in the jingle refers to the sender of the message, since there can be no doubt that Toyota loves what its customers do for it–buy lots of cars and return a huge profit–it is obviously and totally honest. At the same time, given that their market share is continually increasing, which would be unlikely if the buyers weren’t getting what they expected, it would seem to be an accurate representation of their customers’ perspective. And the double entendre, alluding ever so slightly in this instance to the sensual gratification extolled by the popular ditty, “Oh, what you do to me,” is merely clever, rather than being blatantly suggestive or sexually alluring.
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The Toyota example is doubly instructive. In addition to avoiding the inherent deception (especially now that the lifting of social strictures has made the automobile a less popular venue for sexual encounters) of the typical appeal to sexual interest and conquest by American producers, Toyota has found it easy to deliver more than it promised, even before it achieved the expertise and quality towards which it was aiming, because its advertisements made no mention of the product’s virtues. Thus, it was able to build an honest reputation for quality in the market, before the importance of quality was even discovered by the traditional giants of production. Moreover, the Toyota success proves that demand can be steadily increased without having to resort to fraudulent claims, to build in obsolescence, or to destroy the competition.
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Like consumption, supply and demand are awash in a sea of ambivalence. While it seems both logical and straightforward to assume that the sequence of events proceeds from the production of a supply, which is then “found good,” i.e. in demand, to its consumption, in the economic model this sequence is twisted. That is, economics assumes that demand comes first and supply follows. Which, I suppose, makes sense when the process is carried out entirely by one individual who decides that he wants something, then makes or collects it, and finally eats it. However, when those who produce and those who consume are different people, then the sequence is bound by the fact that we cannot want what hasn’t yet been created. Unless, of course, the demand is unspecific. If one individual just wants another to do something, anything, to satisfy some nebulous desire, then the demand may indeed be perceived to precede production. But, such a demand is an exercise or expression of power–not necessarily related to the production process. The production might well have gone forward without the “command,” or it might not. At any rate, even a specific demand, such as “make me a shoe,” is unlikely to have much practical effect on the production process, if the target of the demand doesn’t know how.
Though that is surely not what the formulators of the model had in mind, when demand is perceived as an expression of the intent to manipulate the behavior of others, then the assumption that demand is insatiable is probably accurate. The desire to control the behavior of others is unlikely ever to be entirely satisfied, if only because, even when those who are commanded are entirely committed to doing what they are told, it is not possible to anticipate and order their every behavior. Nor is it possible to guarantee their capability to carry the demanded behaviors out.
In any case, in the economic model it is assumed that the demand for things, not power, can never be satisfied. As such, the assumption is an expression of wishful thinking, not an assertion of fact. Rather than calling attention to the practical limits of the difference between expectation and experience, economic theory
perceives insatiable demand as a positive force, the engine which keeps the economy going. The belief that the demand for things is insatiable, first of all, protects those who want to produce or make things from the very real and depressing prospect that no-one will want what they are willing and able to supply. Then, it protects society from the eventuality that, should creativity be generally depressed, productivity will evaporate and there won’t be any supply for trade and exchange.
If the insatiable demand for things weren’t a myth; if, in fact, demand were a constant, it obviously wouldn’t be necessary to try to create it with advertising. Nevertheless, in spite of the contradictory persistence and even continual increase of advertising to create demand, the belief that humans are driven by incessant demands continues to be maintained. Why? Probably because, in addition to being a useful fiction which encourages production and innovation, the myth of demand, is, again like consumption, consistent with the perception of human nature as negative and antagonistic to the social interest. Nor is this perception without foundation. In fact, one need look no further for evidence of this antagonism than the infant’s insistent demand that the communal resources be shared. Though interpreting the infant’s expressions of distress as demands involves an improper reversal of cause and effect, that is a logical flaw which it is convenient to ignore. For, in defining the individual as demanding, society is not only expressing its perception of individual human nature, but establishing the basis or justification for demanding individual obedience to social precepts. That is, because the individual is demanding, society feels entitled to make demands of him–to insist that he “sing for his dinner,” if he expects to be fed. If, on the other hand, the individual were assumed to be naturally altruistic, there would be no justification for telling him what to do.
However, although the myth of demand serves to justify making individuals subservient to the social will, the consequences for the individual are not entirely negative. In addition to the obvious, albeit dubious, benefit of being sustained in exchange for being obedient, doing what someone else demands can be beneficial in and of itself. Even as the creative impulse may be denied by demands from outside, demand may protect it from being stifled when the impulse to make things is frustrated by experience. If nothing else, the conviction that one is doing what someone else wants makes it possible, when what has been created is rejected as useless or a failure, to try something new. When failure can be blamed on some other (or located “in the stars”), it isn’t nearly so depressing. The myth of demand not only satisfies the social inclination to dominate; it provides psychological reassurance to the productive individual by relieving him of responsibility for failure. On the other hand, if the consumer is dissatisfied, then, since the producer is merely responding to consumer demand, it is obviously the demand which was flawed. Or the consumer didn’t know his own mind.
The myth of demand seems to promote both individual self-interest and the social imperative. In reality, however psychologically satisfying it might be, by relieving both the individual and society of responsibility it threatens to destroy both. On a practical level, whatever the rationale, withholding from children what they need to be sustained interferes with the development of their ability to think and, therefore, to realize their potential as individual and social beings. It makes no difference whether environmental disasters, generalized human aggression, or the rationalization that deprivation is a necessary and salutary method for curbing demanding human nature keep them on the verge of starvation, the physical and intellectual consequences for the children are the same.
Indeed, sameness is probably the general consequence for the species. For, to the extent that parental and social forces are able to insure, that the off-spring will be much like their progenitors, by resisting unreasonable demands and weeding out the “misfits,” the evolution of any significant differences, for better or worse, is likely to be deterred. Rather than selecting out the unfit, or less fit, as the theory of natural selection suggests, juvenile deprivation is more likely to promote the survival of the mediocre–those who are most like their parents–both physically and intellectually. Which may, of course, be what we want. At least, it would seem to explain why the evolution of human intellect seems to have stopped.
Of course, from the perspective of economic theory, children have no demand. Like the populations of the “undeveloped” world whose currency is not recognized in the world economy, children do not exist, except as the recipients of subsidies and gifts. And, since they have no demand, their deprivation tends to go unrecognized, as does any awareness that the genesis of the concept of demand is to be found in the relationship between the adult and the child. Because before they can talk and communicate specific sensations, children cry and then frequently stop when they are fed, their caregivers, imputing the motivation of the infant, based on their own experience and observation, interpret the cry of the infant as a demand for food. Then, in extrapolating from that conclusion that all crying is motivated by demand, it seems obvious, when crying continues in spite of the infant’s basic needs having been met, at least as far as the caregiver can tell, that the continuing “demands” are unreasonable and deserve to be (nay, must be in the interest of reason) denied. And so the negative attitude towards demands is born out of the frustration of the adult with the child, even as their validity is denied before they are actually formed. For, the initial assumption, that the infant is demanding, is at least unverified and probably wrong. Since the newborn infant has never experienced being fed, its cry cannot logically be defined as a demand. Indeed, while the initial crying may be interpreted as a signal of distress by those who hear it, it may be entirely unmotivated–the result of the sudden passage of air over the vocal chords, or an automatic reaction to an undifferentiated perception of distress, consequent to having been injected into a hard, dry, cold, loud, and confusing environment. What adults perceive as demand in the infant, may well be rejection.
If we were to assume that human behavior is initially reactive and that, if there is any desire, it is to reject or to be rid of discomfort, rather than to be demanding, then we would, of course, have a very different perception of human nature. Not only would we question the definition of man as a “fallen” creature, whose selfish inclinations are at variance with the interests of society; we might conclude, on the contrary, that conflict arises from the perception that the individual has no value unless and until he submits to the dictates of other human beings. Which would certainly bring a new perspective to the universal social concern with regulating reproduction, as well as the historical, albeit hidden, prevalence of infanticide.
On the other hand, if humans were not perceived as demanding and in need of discipline, then the role of society might have to be redefined in terms of obligations and responsibilities. Rather than telling the individual what to do, the function of society might be perceived as providing instruction–as enabling the individual to survive better than he can on his own. Rather than exercising the power of life and death, the authority of society might be derived from the accumulation of experience and expertise. So that, having reached an evolutionary dead-end in the physical sense, the human species, rather than being doomed to become extinct, is able to adapt to changes in the environment by utilizing the accumulated wisdom of the social intellect. In addition, it might lead to the recognition that other humans, not the natural environment, are the primary determinant where individual survival is concerned.
This is not, however, a consideration that most humans are inclined to entertain. The notion that individual existence is not inherently valuable to other members of the species is not comforting. Neither is the recognition that one’s existence has been maintained by default, because there was not sufficient parental interest to bring it to a halt, nor that it has to be purchased at the cost of unquestioning submission to parental self-interest. What most individuals would like to believe is that their existence is wanted or valued by others as much as it is by themselves. Regardless of the fact that it really isn’t possible for the parent to know, much less value, the child until after it has arrived and parental expectations have been satisfied, not being wanted is hard to accept.
Finally, the ability to recognize that individual survival does not depend on being able to compromise and suppress self-interest is hampered by the fact that the individual has no independent awareness of the nature of his initial experience of the social environment. Because the first two years are lost to conscious memory, the individual has no way of knowing whether he was rejecting or demanding. Moreover, if the caregivers are supportive, then by the time the individual becomes self-conscious, more often than not, they are responding to his ability to express his needs, which they do not even perceive as demanding.
Whether the individual is perceived as demanding or merely rejecting disutilities is actually unimportant, unless demands are routinely rejected and result in the persistent deprivation of the individual’s needs. The behavior of supportive caregivers isn’t directed by some general assumption or prejudice, but by whether or not the function achieves the desired result. If one response to a signal of distress doesn’t have the expected effect (the crying doesn’t stop), then they try something else. If, for example, a crying infant rejects the breast, rather than concluding that the infant is impossible to please, supportive caregivers either exchange wet diapers for dry, place the infant in an upright position and pat it to facilitate the escape of a bubble of trapped air, or, it that’s appropriate, give it a breast which has not yet run dry. In any case, the behavior of supportive caregivers is not only more likely to satisfy, but, by exploring alternatives and providing substitutes, lay the foundation for inculcating the principle of exchange. Minimal caregivers, on the other hand, who perceive themselves as confronting “unreasonable” demands (ones which they don’t understand), while not necessarily antagonistic or punitive, may well respond by withdrawing, rather than providing substitutes. From which the infant, no doubt, learns to focus on rejecting hunger and the other physical discomforts to which its caregivers seem inclined to respond and its experience of existence is, to a large extent, a struggle to survive.
On the other hand, by proffering a wide range of substitutes and providing unanticipated satisfactions, supportive caregivers promote rejection and create the expectation of getting something better. As a result, the infant’s awareness of alternatives expands. Moreover, as it begins to identify what it doesn’t want, making rejection more specific and precise, and virtually impossible to ignore, the infant becomes more aware of its own identity, as well. Perhaps, if it were recognized that the infant has been rejecting things all along, then the reputed contrariness of the two-year old wouldn’t occasion so much consternation, but would instead be recognized as a normal and necessary component of his physical and intellectual maturation. Rather than assuming that physical and mental development are a parallel process in which behavior is merely an expression of intent and the failure to act is an indication that either intent or intellect are lacking, or vice versa, perhaps we should consider the process to be more like walking. If so, then the process of human development would be seen to go forward in tandem, with physical and intellectual maturation proceeding in alternating, mutually reinforcing spurts.
This would, of course, involve a significant change in how we interpret human behavior. For example, rather than perceiving the grasping behavior of infants as an expression of the intent to hold on to things, which is consistent with the assumption that the infant is motivated by demand, the evolution of clinging and grasping behavior towards the tentative manipulation and exploration of the physical environment would seem to reflect the movement from rejecting unpleasant (and unfamiliar) sensations towards becoming more accepting of new experiences and substitutes. Which is, of course, a prerequisite and fundamental characteristic of the process of creative transformation which results in productive enterprise.
But, supportive caregivers do more than introduce the concept of alternatives and substitutions. By removing or withholding potentially injurious objects from the infant’s grasp and/or replacing them with something else, they insure that its exploration of the environment is generally positive. As a result, since it is less likely to grasp things that bite, burn and sting, the infant develops confidence in its manipulative skills, even as the concept of substitution is physically reinforced. On the other hand, caregivers presuming that the infant is inherently demanding and greedy and that exploratory behavior, such as clutching a hank of hair, needs to be “punished” by forcibly removing the little fingers and “administering” a cautionary whack, are likely to inhibit both their physical and mental development. While substitution, the process of making an exchange, leads to discrimination and self-identification–an awareness of the other, based on a comparison with the self–if the consequences of the exchange are primarily negative, then the environment with which the infant interacts is almost sure to be perceived as antagonistic. To which the healthy and reasonable response is to withdraw and resist such exchange–to become, just as the punitive model leads us to expect, demanding.
If individuals are perceived as naturally antagonistic to society and as having no intrinsic value, then it should not be surprising that a significant segment of the population is made up of inhibited, non-performing, resentful and demanding individuals for whom the concept of a fair exchange–one in which each of the participants is better off–doesn’t even figure. Nor are they limited, like their predatory cousins, to sustaining themselves by simply taking what they need. Rather, perhaps because the principle of exchange has become hard-wired, it can’t be ignored and is almost certain to be expressed, in an antagonistic environment, as resentment and vengeful taking. Because, instead of perceiving exchange as a mutually beneficial process, in which individuals with different interests and a shared desire to make a trade, exchange something for which they have little use for something from which their experience, confidence, and/or curiosity leads them to expect greater value, antagonists approach any exchange expecting to lose. So, of course, they are inclined to insure that if they are going to lose, everyone else will too.
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Not so long ago, in the State of Florida, a toddler drowned; not in the ocean, as one might expect in a state surrounded by water, but as a result of being dunked by his father, head-first in a toilet bowl. His parents insisted, up until a jury found them guilty of murder, that all they wanted was to “discipline” him for failing to control his bowels as he was told. The social workers, too, were indicted for negligence in the performance of their duties because in returning this child to his abusive natural parents, from whom he had been taken soon after birth, they had failed to take proper notice of the fact that these parents, who obviously “wanted” the child and were entitled to have him by state law, hadn’t been doing what they were told. So the child died. In part, because the parents and the state had a shared commitment to obedience and the importance of intent, which blinded them to the fact that the parents were no more prepared to take care of a child, than the child was to use the pot. But, the real reason the child died, I would suggest, was because, having been nurtured in a supportive foster home, this child wasn’t yet habituated to the abusive behavior which his siblings, not having been so “spoiled,” had managed to survive. Perhaps, if his entire life had been spent on the edge of starvation, he, too, would have learned to conserve his energies and submit even his bodily functions to the whims of his keepers.
But the fate of this child has, I think, broader implications. For, while the parents were found to be guilty of murder, in spite of their unrefuted assertions that they never meant any harm, i.e. had no intent, they weren’t convicted because the child died. The parents were found guilty because the failure to do so would have been an admission of social culpability. For, in sanctioning the threat of physical violence or punishment, of which death is always a potential consequence, society implicitly sanctions death to maintain discipline and obedience, even when the support for capital punishment is not overt. Not to have found the parents guilty would have meant that the community would have had to accept a share of the responsibility for the death of the child. In addition, it would have had to recognize the death in this instance as a happenstance–the result of a threat that just happened to be carried out. And that just isn’t acceptable. After all the power over life and death, which society has abrogated unto itself, is considerably diminished if the ultimate punishment is administered as a matter of happenstance. Which is also consistent with the reversal of the conviction of the social workers. While they may have failed to protect the child, that wasn’t their job. The responsibility of the social workers was to issue directives to the parents and they did. Which is why the parents had to be punished–not because they killed the child, but because they failed to do what they were told. Though they claimed to have tried, they could not refute that they failed to perform their primary parental function, controlling the behavior of their child, since a dead child obviously cannot be controlled.
Unfortunately, except for the publicity and detailed documentation of its demise, the fate of that child is not at all unique. Indeed, dead and dying children are becoming almost routine. The reason, I would suggest, is directly related to the fact that the organization of our society has become focused on power and domination. Rather than promoting the well-being and survival of its members by acting as an economic unit to facilitate the preservation and distribution of resources, the primary unit of social organization–whether it be a single parent or a nuclear family makes little difference–has been assigned a “moral” mission. Rather than the practical function of securing the physical and intellectual assets necessary for their survival, the social interest in children is increasingly limited to controlling their behavior and trying to improve it.
Which, by the way, is intimately related to and abetted by that marvelous instrument of detention and immobilization, discovered by prison wardens some time ago, the ubiquitous television. Since it is in the nature of control, that that which is, by nature, in motion, be brought to a halt, and that which is immobile, be moved, if humans are to be controlled, then the first task is to make them sit still. And, since there is bound to be resistance to this conflict with the “laws” of physical nature where things tend to remain as they are–still or moving–until some force comes along to effect a change, the measures employed towards that end can’t be inventive enough. Moreover, given our physical and mental characteristics, the desire to exercise control over other human beings and controvert, so to speak, the laws of nature, is entirely logical. On the one hand, human memory leads us to prefer that things stay where they are so that as we move from place to place–mobility being one of our characteristic features–we can easily locate and find again what we remember and not be surprised, for example, by a hole in the ground that wasn’t there yesterday. On the other hand, because our senses–touch, smell, taste, and even sight–are calibrated to perceive change and, in fact, any constant sensation, even the smell of rotten eggs, becomes imperceptible as it persists, we actually prefer things to move and change, but not too fast or too far. In other words, change should be regular and predictable.
The ideal, of course, is for humans to move and for everything else to stay fixed. So, for example, teachers tend to prefer the traditional classroom, where the desks are lined up in rows and the students sit still and work, while the teacher either holds forth from the front of the room or perambulates the aisles. Students, on the other hand, prefer something quite different. Since humans aren’t really meant to be immobile, most students consider the traditional class-room to be both physically constricting and intellectually boring. Though their obvious lack of enthusiasm for the education and training provided in this environment is often blamed on a short attention span, supposedly fostered by the media, especially TV, it seems to me that perhaps that is a mistake. After all, the education system’s “failures” are not sitting in front of the “box,” where they were supposedly raised, but are, in fact, roaming the street and riding around in cars. So, perhaps it is the physically restricting structure of the system of education, more than the subject matter, which elicits such negative reactions and almost wholesale rejection. Perhaps the problem is that while television is adequate to simulate the ever-changing environment which the child is prepared to take in, long before it is physically able to get around by itself but with which in traditional cultures it was able to interact while being carried on the parental hip or back, it isn’t even a poor substitute once the ability and the desire to roam and explore–the farther and faster the better–characteristic of the physically mature individual, has to be satisfied.
Which no doubt explains the almost universal appeal of the car. For, the automobile enables the individual to move from place to place, even as he conserves his own energy, making it possible for him to roam not only farther and faster, but, thanks to artificial illumination, for longer periods of time. On the other hand, automobiles are not unlike those rows of confining classroom desks and their subsequent incarnation, the industrial assembly line. Like the desk and the assembly line, the car keeps the driver confined or restricted to a specifically designated space. Though it’s ostensible purpose is to move, because that movement is restricted to but two directions, primarily forward, and along very specifically defined and designated tracks–lanes, streets, or highways are all the same–the car makes the whereabouts of the individual much more easy to track. So, while the driver of an automobile may perceive himself to be following his natural inclination to roam, and the car may well extend his range, his freedom to go where he wants is actually less. Which is probably why fictionalized car chases between criminals and the forces of law and order almost inevitably leave the normal boundaries of the highway and street and victorious authority tends to be symbolized by the rogue vehicle’s explosive crash into ocean, field, or mountain ravine.
Of course, as a symbol of economic activity such a representation of the automobile would be unthinkable. The economic ideal is neither a vehicle of escape nor a reliable, responsive, and rapid mode of private transportation. Rather, from
an economic perspective, the ideal car is a physically attractive, streamlined machine which ensnares consumers in its clutches, having little or no consideration for whether or not it actually functions as it is supposed to. Which no doubt explains why so many of them didn’t do anything but “look good,” until the Japanese came along and demonstrated that what’s important is not that form follows function, but that functional mechanisms actually do so.
In any case, if we assume that human behavior, like the physical environment of which man is, of course, a part, is governed by some fundamental principles, of which autonomous mobility is one, then restricting individual mobility is bound to have negative results. Evidence for which is to be found in the fate of the child who failed to submit his bodily functions to his parents’ control, the youths who abandon the classroom for the street, and the workers whose productivity is decreased by breakdowns and injuries on the assembly line. They are all victims of the social commitment to demand and control. It inhibits their mobility and, in so doing, jeopardizes their ability to survive. The only difference is in the timing. While the consequences for the child were immediate and direct, the young adults, escaping supervision for a predatory existence in the streets, tend to survive a little longer–until they do themselves in with drugs, guns, or cars. Then death is quick, unless they’re “lucky” and end up behind bars (back in front of the TV, where they started out). For the industrial workers on the assembly line it just takes a little longer, but eventually they too are done in by drink, drugs, or disabling injuries, or all three.
When it comes to human beings, our own or other people’s children, being wanted, or in “demand,” is a dubious condition. More often than not, what is wanted is subservience–that the individual child, slave, servant or spouse, will serve some useful purpose–and, since most individuals have an interest in being independent, being wanted frequently conflicts with individual self-interest. So, it might well be better not to be wanted. Aside from the fact that male humans have no physical awareness of their participation in reproducing other humans and even production is a largely serendipitous and accidental process, the significance of demand in regards to consumption is highly problematic. Not only is the demand for things highly over-rated as a motivating component of economic behavior, but, while the product of the creative process may well be appreciative of existence, neither the “demand” to consume, nor consumption can be considered useful to the object of that consumption. Though the objection that things cannot conceptualize is valid, usefulness is obviously a subjective concept. (That it is useful to drink a glass of water is a determination by one who drinks, not by the water that is drunk). Even the notion that consumption, satisfying the demand of the subject, is inherently useful is flawed, if not false. Whether or not experience actually satisfies expectation is often unrelated to the satisfaction of want. As often as not, what is consumed turns out not to be wanted, after all.
In fact, what isn’t wanted often turns out to be much more significant than what is. First of all, it is what isn’t wanted that is made available for trade and exchange. Either the individual who has it already has more than enough, or, having tried it, has decided that he doesn’t like it and wants to trade it for something that he might. Which, of course, reinforces the notion that not being wanted is not necessarily a negative and holds out the hope that, if, for example, parents don’t want their children, there’s always a chance that someone else will. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Probably because trade and exchange aren’t the only alternatives. There’s also the option of neglecting, ignoring, or leaving behind what isn’t wanted and letting it go to waste. And, although the latter seems to be preferred, when it comes to things, and accounts for the mountains of pre- and post-production trash, there’s yet a third, when unwanted people are the issue. For some reason, rather than leaving them alone, human nature seems inclined to destroy them. Maybe it’s because unless the unwanted are eliminated entirely, there’s always the possibility that having rejected them will turn out to have been a mistake. On the other hand, extermination isn’t just directed at unwanted humans. The wanton destruction of other forms of life, with no expectation of either benefit, or, for that matter, harm, isn’t at all uncommon. It’s almost as if, having become aware of death, the human species is impelled to inflict it.
* * *
In any case, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was wrong. In the natural sequence of events, consumption actually comes first. Even if they do so spontaneously, things (atoms and molecules) must come together before they can be active and reactive and produce something new. If that isn’t readily apparent to the females of the species, it is probably because their own fertilization is unconscious and their own reproductive production seems to be the beginning of the process. Males, on the other hand, being denied the experience of apparently autonomous production, are inclined to continue to identify satisfaction with the process which fostered their conscious awareness–consumption. Taking things in seems easy, though, as a matter of fact, even the consumption of food from bottle or breast has to be actively introduced; giving them up is not. But the sequence is fixed. Humans ingest food before they excrete, and take things apart before they can be put back together or rearranged into something else. Which does not, however, mean that the behavior is intentional. Humans don’t take things apart in order to destroy them, or put them together in order to create. At least, not at first. Taking things apart is largely the result of the instinct to manipulation and is reinforced by tactile and visual differentiation. Putting them back together, an elaboration, perhaps, of the instinct to accumulate, depends on an awareness of sequence and the ability to do things in reverse. And that, I suspect, requires some instruction, if only to overcome the inevitable frustration of not being able to simply reverse behavior, much less rely on repetition, to recreate what has been destroyed or consumed. If there is no-one to demonstrate, for example, that a tower of blocks, which can be knocked down from any direction, can only be built from the bottom up, then the prospects for productive enterprise are slim. Similarly, if the lesson of Humpty Dumpty, that some things can never be put together again by men, isn’t taught and all of the creatures which support human life are destroyed, then the question of which comes first, production or consumption, is moot.
From an individual perspective, the sequence of production and consumption is fixed. An individual cannot consume what he has not first collected–the antecedent to immediate consumption or the process of differentiation into utility and waste (production), and he cannot produce until a critical mass of energy has been consumed and stored. Which means that the individual is confronted with a dilemma which, as an individual, he cannot resolve. But, being a social creatures means that he doesn’t have to. While the sequence of production and consumption is fixed, when they are carried out by multiple individuals, they can occur simultaneously or be reversed. Which, of course, is the primary advantage of social organisms–the individual members of the species are liberated from the sequential constraint and survive in spite of the fact that sustenance is not available in the immediate environment.
Whether or not this beneficial system, which enables the individual representatives of the species to “enjoy” an increased longevity, justifies the imposition of social restrictions is another matter. While the perception that social expectations conflict with the “natural” inclinations of the individual may be, in part, a consequence of the fact that the individual has no conscious memory of having been initially sustained by society and, therefore, fails to recognize an obligation to repay it, the imposition of social authority in compensation accomplishes little but to aggravate resentment. Especially if his existence is precarious, the individual is likely to reject the notion that he should be grateful–that because, like Abraham in the Bible, the parent could have killed the child, but didn’t, the child must be submissive to the social “author” of his existence. Nevertheless, that is what society seems to expect when, rather than recognizing the “sin” of the father, it not only defines allowing the child to survive as “virtuous,” but as the basis for the obligation of obedience and subservience on the part of the child.
By locating the source of social authority beyond human behavior, or rather, in the failure to act as man might be “naturally” inclined (like the males of other social predators, which often represent a threat to the survival of their own young), authority seems to be justified without having to admit to the negative reality from which it is seemingly derived–that humans are similarly inclined, without provocation, to kill their own kind. But, it really isn’t necessary. There is an alternative.
Authority does not have to be based on a choice, acknowledged or not, of “do or die.” Nor does it have to be imposed. Authority can just as easily be a matter of spontaneous recognition by the individual of the beneficial effects of the nutrition, nurture, education and experience he derives from his elders. In that case, the justification of social authority is derived from the perception of benefit, rather than from being allowed to survive, and, as a result, is more likely to generate respect and reciprocating behavior, than can be achieved with intimidation.
Although I am reluctant to enter the arena of sexist distinction and differentiation, the consistent denial of maternal authority and maternal productivity, to which they are properly entitled by virtue of their physical and intellectual investment in reproducing and rearing children, does seem to be related to a failure of male perception. However, the failure to recognize reproduction as an economically significant form of production is not necessarily intentional or antagonistic towards women. Indeed, given the hypothesis that the male is naturally inclined towards union, the categorization of women as consumers, consuming, and the consummation of male desire may just be a projection of what the male perceives as the source of ultimate satisfaction.
Perhaps the root of the problem is in the golden rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” While the obverse, not to do unto others what one wouldn’t want done to oneself, is a socially useful injunction, the rule, as it stands, is not only presumptuous, but a prescription for social stagnation or disintegration. It is presumptuous because it assumes that everyone’s likes and dislikes are the same. If they were, then, of course, there would be no variety in human society. Moreover, if what all of the individuals in the population wanted was to be left alone, following that prescription, there would be no society. If, on the other hand, one segment of the population wants to be left alone, to be apart, or, at most, only a part that is still separate and distinct, while another wants to be incorporated, conjoined, and united, then, although these wants may conflict, compromise can make society thrive.
Of course, the conditions which support that compromise are important. If women, whose sexual function is necessarily directed towards separation (the period of gestation being inherently dangerous, especially if it goes on too long) and are, therefore, inclined towards independence, perceive that having a single mate and procreating is the only option for escaping the aggressive and subjugating attention of multiple suitors, then they may well resent it. And, being resentful, they are likely to welcome other options. Even being divorced or widowed may be attractive, especially if, as a result of that status, women are no longer precluded from sustaining themselves and the children who, by the way, often provide a useful buffer from the attentions of unwanted males. Now that there has been some progress in making the protection of women from the aggression of unwanted males a social, rather than a paternal, fraternal, or spousal responsibility, it has become obvious that, unless they were precluded from being productive by force, women have always managed to sustain themselves and their households–not just the wives of soldiers and sailors, explorers and traders, but women in general, as the census and property records of the last century reveal. In fact, their reliance on a male head of household, as often as not, was nominal, if not a myth, given the traditional proclivity of males to depart for the more satisfying experience of interacting with their peers.
What is new is that women, having been liberated by science from the burden of reproduction (and a burden it is) and by society from being confined, for their “protection,” to the house, are also choosing to abandon the household in order to be productive somewhere else. The result, at least in the United States, is that while statistical households are multiplying at a more rapid rate than the population, actual households are falling apart. Not only are increasing numbers of the population homeless, but those that aren’t, are inhabiting shelters, not houses; and then only for as long as it takes them sleep, wash, and put on clean clothes. Not only production, but education, recreation, procreation, and even eating take place somewhere else. That is, with one exception, the rearing of the next generation, the functions of the household have been industrialized and there’s no-one left to carry that one out.