Posted by: rogermitchell | August 4, 2010

A weird state of affairs

Cheryl’s comment on the previous post reflects on the weird state of affairs in which 6 corporations control almost all of the food in the world, in that they buy it and process and ship it to the stores. She points out that from a nationstate perspective it seems a security issue. As she puts it “If a couple of those corporations choose to turn off the food tap your population goes hungry. So too with water. Why would a nationstate give over control of such an essential resource to a corporation who does not care for their land or their people? Very bizarre.”

So here’s my stab at an answer. From the perspective of my research the nation state was birthed by the partnership of church and empire after their adventure with universal power turned out to be detrimental to both ecclesiastic and monarchic rule. Its purpose was to take over the agency of the eschatological peace that had previously been the prerogative of the church, in the hope of preserving the maximum possible amount of sovereignty for the church and the monarchy commensurate with multiplying it to others. Simply put, the apparently messianic advent of paper money in the form of irredeemable promissary notes secured against the nation state’s success was the means to fulfil this task. I say irredeemable, because although they were apparently totally redeemable they would certainly not have been had more than about ten percent of people wanted to exchange them for the real thing at any one time. The result was the constant need for the nation state to encourage entrepreneurs to do as much business as possible in the hope of the survival of the banks and future tax returns and bonanzas for the state. It didn’t matter too much whether the state had an actual monarch or if it is was a republic in the end. Anyway it led to the oppression of the poor and the rape of the earth in the name of civilisation/ the peace/ kingdom of God – really only empire in different clothes. So the weirdness and apparent security issue of allowing half a dozen global corporations to control the world’s resources is simply the result of letting debt disguised as real money loose in the attempt to hold on to as much power as possible. As far as I can see it the whole Western concept of representative democracy and even human rights is really only the extension of this attempt to hold on to as much power as possible for oneself. So if the collapse of the nation state and the surrender of power to a few global corporations let’s me have power that’s fine for the affluent and powerful until its too late. The worst that can happen is that we start the whole round of absolute empire all over again. Except this time the planet probably won’t survive it. I realise that put starkly and simplistically like this it may appear unduly cynical, but underneath the cosmetics I honestly think this is the story. Hence my post yesterday calling for a new cutting edge to the ecclesia.



  1. Good analysis Roger:

    I think I had better define what I mean as relational economics. My research is in urban design, human resource management, and the behaviours of cooperation/conflict and conflict resolution. I am focused on water in a dense human settlement prior to industrialization. In other words no one could flip a switch to solve technical or social problems.

    While doing that research I have resided for 10 months here in Piacenza, Italy. This is small city about 65 km south of Milan with a total population of about 100,000. About 30,000 people live in the historical centre where I rent an apartment. While the historical centre was bombed during the war and new buildings were added, the street structure and scale remained very close to what it has been since the 15th century. Think of the culture shock for me, as a North American, from a large Canadian edge city, to land in a place where medieval and roman street structure still rules.

    One of the things politically that this region did after the war was to promote what is called a social economy (this is chronicled in Robert Putnam’s book on Italy and no, I can’t remember the title right now). So as the cities rebuilt they also focused on small stores and retail. Today, in Piacenza, within a 10 minute walk of my apartment are several bakers, gelato shops, cafes, small and med scale groceries, copy shops, office supply stores, at least 2 button shops (yes, really, they have a wall full of boxes of buttons), green grocers, tabacchi that sell lotto tickets, stamps, postcards etc, and too many shoe and clothing stores to count. I have an incredible amount of choice around any one item I can purchase. In addition to this on 2 days per week a large number of street stalls set up and a huge street market specializing in clothes and household goods rolls in. Along with that 2 days a week food stalls go up. I can buy real Parmesan cheese or fresh melons as my heart desires.

    Contrast this with the reality for me in Canada. There I must walk a km through a bleak and barren landscape to the only grocery store around. It is huge and impersonal and does not use local produce. During the summer I am fortunate to have a local farmer’s market another half km on, but that family is aging and the future is unclear for them. To buy anything else really, and to use a library I must go on a 1 or 2 bus trip of a minimum of 30 minutes or generally more. I must immerse myself in large scale shopping often at a mall. There is no joy in this at all. Note that I am able to walk here to get all my needs met. Cars are a part of the problem. They isolate people and remove us from the burden of community and sharing. There is lots of research on that actually.

    So what have I learned from Piacenza? That the issue is about the small debts and gifts that human beings contract with one another as they share resources which can include time, acknowledgements and greetings, various goods and services in an informal or formal way. And those relational transactions (that’s all an economy is, a series of transactions between people to distribute resources) depend upon proximity and small scale urban structure. When I walk home for lunch from the archives where I do my research I can shop in any number of stores to satisfy daily needs. I see people. They know me. They teach me English and tell me about their families. That can only happen because the scale and the proximity of the resource transactions are at a human and humane level. The goal of international corporations, the nationstate, and other global and regional empire aspiring entities is to make economics abstract, something that is disconnected from relationships. Hence the huge scale of our western cities. It removes the burden of reciprocal relationships from them and their staffs. The stores are now ‘super stores’ that sell everything in huge warehouse settings. This is a complete abstraction of economics. The consumers (and that is all they are) are in no proximity to other people or to the environment from where all our resources originate.

    So relational economics is my term for something that is small scale, human, humane, promotes community, is promoted and enhanced by an urban structure that is scaled to human interactions. I think we will never be able to care for one another or the earth within the system we have now. The point of the current system is to defy those possibilities in order to enhance control and power (and wealth) for the few. So alternatives, whatever that means to any of us, must always be relational and small scale in character and operate on the first principle of human interaction – cooperation through the reciprocal giving and receiving of gifts and resources.

    I would really welcome more discussion on this as I think it is a key issue for human life (and other species) as we move on from this point. We need to be able to offer something concrete that actually works in terms of resource management and sharing. What does that look like? How is it implemented? I am interested in Kingdom models but not at all fixed on making sure something is perfect first. It won’t be so I don’t worry about that. It’s the root of the thing, the way and they why of how we conduct our economic transactions that interests me.

    And how do each of us live Kingdom economics, relational economics? How are we living subversively within this totalitarian system? I personally do not own a car, I insist on walking, even more than a km one way to shop. I take a bus with the rest of the poor people. I do not own a TV or read most magazines. I do not read about or immerse myself in that culture. I shop in ways to promote human community where I can. I grow some of my own food and sew my own clothes. I use a cooperative for my banking. Perfect approaches? No but they are means of subverting the system.


  2. oops, I meant to say that they are teaching me Italian. Though I am learning a whole new form of English from them as we interact. My approach was to approach everyone I met as a teacher, that puts me, transactionally in their debt. And so I repay that debt through being terribly nice and appreciative. I learn Italian. They learn some English and feel very good about themselves. It works.

  3. I believe in this. Living as Sue and I do, in a thriving village that is a few miles from what is still a small town and itself part of the environs of only a comparatively small city is a real privilege. However most people inhabit the urban culture. Sue and I did so for 33 years. Most of our family and friends still do. Somehow we have to find a way to subvert that mass culture. For me it involves connecting with it and its media, economy and violence, what Hardt and Negri in their writings identify as the control mechanisms of biopower and call ether, money and the bomb and much of which I hate. I admit to liking cars, TV and cinema despite abhoring a lot of the related biopolitical values carried by them. But like you, our lives are dedicated to subverting the system which we are in many ways part of, and in the knowledge that we are unravelling something that will ultimately unsettle and remove some of our own unjust ground and security. Bring it on.

  4. Roger:

    I think it is do-able in the city but it takes cities that promote community through proximity/density and planning. Our western cities tend to be car oriented and therefore anti-human community. I am reading a novel right now called “Shantaram”. Really, really interesting. The author is an Aussie who has lived a rather unusual life. He was in jail for armed robbery, broke out and ended up in India in the 90’s. He lived for sometime in what was then, Bombay (now Mumbai) sometimes working as a criminal with the local mafia but also spent time living in a slum and doing first aid and basic doctoring. There he describes, amongst the poor, an incredible level of community and self management away from violence. He learned what love is there, I think.
    So it is possible though from an urban design point of view, it is a challange. What the rich have always been able to purchase for themselves is space. When I was first a community organizer in Toronto, I realized that the poor tended to create community and maintain it because they did not have the money to buy services as the rich did. If the rich get sick they pay someone to care for them. If a poor person gets sick it is family, friends, and even proximal community that provides. So I guess, if we want to understand and live in community we have to be willing to be poor.

    That relates to my own house. I share ownership of a strawbale healthy house in Mississauga. From the beginning I have told my housemates that the house should be full, and I mean, really full of people. That much space, extra space, for 3 single women is a sin. I’m not sure they agree with me or believe me but I am committed to having that house full and sharing it with people who could not afford it otherwise. So far, that has made for some interesting relationships.

    P.S. brain research supports all of this issue of proximity. Our brains produce a chemical that helps us bond with others when we come into friendly and sympathetic physical contact with them. Think mothers/babies or married couples here. So physical proximity, the ability to touch and density are actually good for human bonding as long as the cheaters and the tensions they raise are managed. Its the wealthy with their space who miss out.

  5. another wee thought – when we buy services from others we relieve ourselves of the burden of the give and take of community. So we alienate those we want little to do with or do not enhance our prestige. An example of that would be places where say wealthy white people engage in a form of social debts and payoffs between themselves but pay their black domestics and avoid community with them. So there has to be none of those limits on how we, as Christians, engage in the give and take, the debt and credits of community life. And we need to find ways to not always buy services or sell them. Money is a way of avoiding the physical issues of barter but obviously it can be used to negate community. Umm, still musing on all of this. c.

  6. Just enjoyed chatting to a young friend this last week about commercial decision making. She, bless her, is passionate about justice and so is not drinking tea or coffee to make a point – fair trade is not readily available so not an option. We on the other hand continue to buy tea and coffee, and no longer take the fair trade route but we believe in using the local supermarket to buy our goods as much as possible. If we take our custom elsewhere it hurts the poor when local supermarkets disappear.

    Even surprised our neighbour the other day by expressing an interest in some scrap metal they have that would be useful to us – we are the rich ones and yet interested in what others throw out. Not sure what they make of that yet! Subversive economics is fun!

  7. Slight tangent but y’all might find this interesting:

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