Care as a commodity?

Published in Illawarra Citizen Advocacy News Letter, Issue 34, September 1998, pp. 5-6. Reprinted in Citizen Advocacy Forum, Vol. 10, No. 1, June 2000, p. 9.

Brian Martin

At the heart of citizen advocacy are freely given relationships to support people with intellectual disability who are in greatest need. This is a very human thing to do, since empathy and support of others are important human capacities. Yet it is a direct challenge to current trends in world economics.

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived in small self-sufficient groups in which mutual support was necessary for survival. On the other hand, the need for the group to survive also meant that sometimes the elderly, the injured and people with disabilities were left to die.

The development of agriculture some thousands of years ago made it possible for larger groups of humans to live together with some degree of security. Since larger amounts of food could be produced by fewer people, there was spare capacity for building, crafts, arts - but also warfare.

The industrial revolution just a few hundred years ago accelerated this process. Through the use of technology, it became possible to produce many more goods, with the potential to satisfy ever more human needs, but also more destructive potential.

Today, the world economic system has immense productive potential, more than enough to provide food, clothing, shelter, water and basic health care for everyone. Yet the incredibly productive capacity of economies also has a dark side, leading to increased poverty and suffering for many people.

Market economies operate through buying and selling. The more things that can be bought and sold, the more opportunities there are for profit. There has been a continual pressure to turn things into commodities, namely things that are bought and sold. Previously most people grew their own food, but now most city dwellers buy it. Previously people cut each other’s hair, but now most people pay a hairdresser to do it. Many people used to be self-employed; now most are employees, selling their capacity to work.

The process of turning things into commodities is called commodification. It is an ongoing process. Genetic information is now patented, turning it into "intellectual property" that can be bought and sold. Markets in human bodily organs are being considered.

Paid service work is one aspect of commodification. Where once people were supported by extended family and friends, this is now increasingly taken over by paid workers, including counsellors, nurses, teachers, community workers and many others.

One of the down sides of markets is increasing inequality. Over previous decades, the gap between rich and poor countries has become much greater. So has the gap between executives and the lowest workers, not to mention the unemployed.

The gap between potential and reality seems to be increasing. Although the economic system has the capacity to provide for everyone’s basic human needs, it is increasing inequality and undermining relationships, such as families and local communities, that are not based on buying and selling.

Citizen advocacy is a challenge to these trends. It is based on building relationships between people that are freely given, not based on money. It is challenge to the idea that money, including paid service work, is the best solution to social problems. The relationships at the core of citizen advocacy show that the human capacity for mutual support can shine through in spite of social and economic pressures that promote self-interest at the expense of others.

You may or may not agree with these comments. That’s okay. As the new chair of the board of Illawarra Citizen Advocacy, I was asked to write a few words. As a relative newcomer who is still learning, I don’t feel qualified to say much. It’s a privilege to be involved with such an effective programme with so many dedicated and caring people. I hope to meet more of you in coming months.

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