Tuesday, 11 September 2012

How the Division of Labour Creates Labour

Consider buying a packet of apple sauce mix in a supermarket. The packet is weighed and priced, giving the two items of information most central to the decision to make an ‘economic’ purchase. The packet may also contain some information on the source of the apples, perhaps the country of origin, South Africa, France or New Zealand. The packet may show the name of the store selling the sauce, but is unlikely to give much more information about the fruit.

Somewhere, a plot of land has produced an apple tree. The tree has been tended by people whose subsistence needs have been met from the environment. The apples have been harvested, sorted, crated, processed, packeted, transported and documented through a complex administrative process, passing through a series of complex social relations which lie outside the weight/price axis. As an economic commodity, the apples can be considered from different viewpoints:

To the purchaser in the money economy, the sauce is uniform in quality. From the cash economy view, the commodity has weight and price.

The product can also be viewed as part of the reward for the waged labour of the purchaser. The commodity draws the purchaser into the social relations of exchange.

To the person eating the product it assumes use value. The natural world viewpoint links the social world with the body. It is also possible to trace the apple from hand to hand, from the original growers through the processes bringing it to the hand of the eater. The integrated view establishes a direct relationship between the lives of each person in the growing, processing, transport, wholesale and retail chain.

The process can be reversed, or started at any point in the chain linking producer to consumer. Once the process of purchase and sale is taken out of its purely monetised context, new theoretical vistas emerge. Notions of service and social responsibility can enter into consideration. For example, in the UK parents are advised never to allow a child to eat an apple without first removing the peel because of its toxicity. To what extent should the grower/producer ensure that poisonous pesticides should be avoided due to their ill effects on the health of consumers? To what extent should the consumer insist that the use of toxic substances in the production and processing not only of apples but of all food, fuel, fibres and so on, does not adversely affect the health of those supplying the labour along the chain of production, and those living under the shadow of the pollution left in its wake? To what extent can the waged labourer or the consumer materially affect outcomes?

These questions cannot be grafted artificially onto mainstream economic theory. The New Home Economics initiates a whole new ball game by asking an entirely different set of totally relevant questions. A packet of apple sauce mix may provide plenty of employment all along the line, increasing the economic value of the product and hence registering as growth in the economy. But what is the real value of the product purchased, in comparison with the taking of a fresh apple (from a known local source) and popping it in the oven to bake in its skin, resulting in a totally delicious experience?

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