Apr 6, 2017

I Don't Want to Benefit From The Indignity of Others

By Chris Agnos / chrisagnos.com
I Don't Want to Benefit From The Indignity of Others

The following is an excerpt called A Slave World taken from a passage from Sacred Economics.

I am writing at this moment in a large airport. Thousands of people work at jobs associated with this airport, and few of the jobs actually befit a human being.

I traveled to the airport in a hotel shuttle. On the way I told the driver, a Peruvian immigrant, about the talk I had given this weekend and about my vision of a more beautiful world, and at one point, by way of illustration, I said, “Here you are driving back and forth to the airport all day — surely you must have moments when you think, ‘I was not put here on earth to do this.’”

“Yeah, that’s for sure,” he said.

I can’t help but think the same as I watch the cashier at the airport kiosk, typing in purchase items and handing out change and saying, “Thank you sir, have a nice day,” and the man going from trash can to trash can, emptying them into his cart and changing the plastic bag, silent and sullen, wooden-faced. What kind of world have we created, that a human being spends all day doing such tasks? What have we become, that we are not outraged by it?

The men and women at the ticket counters and gate counters have slightly more stimulating work, work that might take a few days or weeks to master, rather than a few hours, but still, their work falls far short of engaging the ability and creativity of a human being (although it might be satisfying for other reasons, like service to others, making people happy, meeting people, etc.). The same goes for the flight attendants. Only the pilots, air traffic controllers, and mechanics do work that might reasonably occupy the learning capacities of the human mind for more than a few months.

Strange it is to me, that the very worst, most brutal of all these jobs also receive the lowest pay. I understand the economics of it, but something in me rebels against that logic and wants the baggage handlers, drivers, and cashiers to be paid more, not less, than the pilots.

Without these menial workers, this airport and this society would not run in its current form. My travel depends on their labor, labor for which they are paid barely enough to survive.

And why do they consent to such work? Certainly not because of any aspiration to spend their lives doing it. If you can ask one of them why they do it, they will tell you, if they are not too insulted to speak, “I have to do it. I have to make a living, and this is the best work I could find.”

So my trip today is only happening because people are doing jobs they don’t want to do, for the sake of their survival. That’s what “making a living” means. A threat to survival is, essentially, a gun to the head. If I force you to labor for me under threat of death, then you are my slave. To the extent we live in a world that runs on the labor of many people doing jobs that are beneath human dignity, not just in airports of course, but in factories, sweatshops, plantations, and nearly everywhere else, we live in a slave world. Anything we obtain from the labor of slaves comes at an insupportable spiritual cost: a painful void or disintegrity deep within that makes us ashamed to look people in the eye.

Can we bear to shrug this away and resign ourselves to living in a slave world? I want to be able to look every man and woman in the eye, knowing that I do not benefit from their indignity.


How Did That Passage Make You Feel?

I read this passage entitled “Slave World” from Charles Eisenstein’s book “Sacred Economics” a few days ago. By the time I read the final paragraph, I was in tears.  When I read the last line, I was crying my eyes out.  Tears of shame and guilt flowed down my face as though it were raining.  Why must it be that so many people must abandon, or even worse, never get a chance to discover their innate dreams due to the need to work for life-sustaining resources?

Reading this passage caused me to reflect.  I recalled the day my “sustainability journey” began in 2007.  I was working at Accenture Consulting flying back and forth across the country each week.  On my way out the door one week, my brother handed me a book entitled “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” by John Perkins.

Having exhausted the movie options on my regular flight, I decided to give the book a chance.  It will turn out to be the first book I had read since I graduated from college five years ago.  I read it cover to cover and exited the plane a different person than the one that boarded six hours earlier.  John Perkins lived a life “developing” the “developing world”, a practice I felt at the time was noble work.  After all, economic growth was the engine that promoted prosperity, happiness, and well-being.

My beliefs couldn’t have been farther from the truth.  John Perkins used to work for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank creating “development aid” packages at interest rates (up to 20% annually) that they knew would be impossible to pay back.  Many countries would never see the money as it would flow directly to the transnational corporations who would use ex-patriots for the construction work.  Inevitably, the interest could not be repaid forcing these countries to renegotiate their debts in a way that lowered protective trade barriers, flooded local markets with cheap imports that destroyed local economies, and created a group of desperate people willing to work for subsistence wages in factories to survive.

What other choice did they have? Their businesses can’t compete with the cheap goods from multi-national corporations operating with large government subsidies.  The people have one offer and it is of the “take it or leave it” variety.  And when that job is the only means to meet the basic needs of their family, people have no choice but to take it.

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Capitalism Creates Wage Slaves

It is, in effect, the same as slavery and, in some cases, even worse.  Under a slave system, slave “masters” were responsible for the well-being of their slaves and had to provide food, shelter, and health care.  Under the “free market” system, if a worker became sick or maimed, they could be easily replaced.  The employer is under no obligation to make sure their workers can afford basic necessities. There is little help for anyone unable to work.  This is hardly a choice

And why is it that this system exists?  It is due to market competition to provide the lowest possible prices.  Consumers do not have a choice.  They cannot choose to pay more and have those extra dollars flow to people whose lives could be dramatically improved by relatively small amounts of money.

Nor should they have to.  Last week, Apple, Inc. became the wealthiest corporation in the world when its market capitalization passed Exxon Mobil.  It has $98 billion in cash reserves.  Yet the company uses sub-contractors like Foxconn that enforce “long hours and paltry wages” driving many workers to suicide.  What is the purpose of hoarding all that money?  Just to give an even greater return to the owners of money, also known as investors?

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Can We Do Better As A Global Society?

Is this how we want our world to function?  Can’t we do better?  How does it make you feel to use a product embedded with the tears and blood of so many people?

I don’t mean to pick on Apple here.  This practice is widely adopted as part of the globalized business model.  Corporations that do not follow similar practices will lose market share to those that do.  Consumers around the world are benefiting from the indignity of others, and I, for one, wish to see this practice changed, even if the result is a higher prices and less consumption all around.  For at the end of the day, I want to be able to look every man and woman in the eye, knowing that I do not benefit from their indignity.

No one deserves to live in a world built upon the degradation of human beings, forests, waters, and the rest of our living planet. Speaking to our brethren on Wall Street: No one deserves to spend their lives playing with numbers while the world burns.

~Charles Eisenstein

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This article, I Don’t Want To Benefit From The Indignity Of Others is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Chris Agnos and ChrisAgnos.com. (Just copy and paste this text with links at the bottom of your page.)

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