Benns’ Belief: What is the value, not the price?
Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.
Why do we buy water? Quite simply, big business has told us we should. It’s healthier, says Nestle Pure Life and Aquafina (the latter owned by Pepsi).
Why put your faith in stringent municipal testing in towns or cities when you can put your faith in the Corporation? Why risk the possibility of contaminated well water if you live in a rural area? The Corporation has your back. (Take a trip to any grocer in Lindsay and watch this in action, as people push carts full of cases of personal-sized plastic bottles.)
Why do we buy air? The corner gas station where we once filled our gas tanks could also be counted on to provide air for our tires as needed. Now, only your loonie or toonie unlocks that privilege. Air, you see, is just a commodity for sale.
This steady commodification of assets and activities — literally putting everything up for sale, including our free time — is eroding our social fabric.
As Mark Carney writes in his recent book Value(s), activities as diverse as cooking, essay-writing, gardening and child-rearing are now for hire in the gig economy. This is the latest phase in the historical progression of commodification; first agriculture through the sales of surplus production, then manufacturing, then industry and now services, with many people encouraged to do jobs “flexibly” (no matter the personal toll on the labourer).
This is when the reach of the market has extended so deeply into civic and family life that “the whole of society is becoming the factory,” as Paul Mason points out in Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future.
Sure, life might be better in some ways. But the gig economy has also undermined personal ties and social and civic values. As our connection to church life and our sense of a social contract with one another — businesses and citizens alike — frays, we are now more vulnerable to mental health crises, stress and diminishing happiness.
When we allow shareholders to take, by far, the largest slice of society’s pie, we underinvest in the very things that contribute to our well-being: front-line health care workers, our environment or guaranteed income security for all. The spread of the market literally weakens community life.
British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said, “The big question is, how do we learn to be moral again? Markets were made to serve us; we were not made to serve markets. Economics need ethics. Markets do not survive by market forces alone. They depend on respect for the people affected by our decisions. Lose that and we lose not just money and jobs but something more significant still: freedom, trust and decency, the things that have a value not a price.”
What we can do about this will be explored in a future column.