June 26, 2017 / Theology
In this interview with Judith Butler, we consider her work in light of the recent events at Standing Rock and the 2016 presidential election.
September 6, 2013
Capitalism drives our postindustrial world, and the traces of its presence can be found everywhere.1 Although it was initially theorized primarily as an economic system, capitalism’s influence is no longer simply economic; its effects are felt individually, collectively, culturally, socially, politically, theologically, environmentally, and globally. To review, the capitalist system, most often referred to as a free-market economy, is a system in which trade and industry—the means of producing and distributing goods—are controlled by the market, a force that allegedly promotes effiency and human flourishing. As Daniel M. Bell Jr. has argued, its essence is an economy of human desire.2
But the capitalist economy of desire is problematic. According to Bell, “the problem with capitalism is not simply whether it works; rather, the problem is the work that it does.” Indeed, capitalism works and has done so for years, yet rather than fulfilling human desire, capitalism actually “corrupts desire and obstructs communion.”3 A capitalist economy, Bell might argue, transforms desire into materialism. As we spin our wheels to compete in the free market, we constantly long to aquire more with hardly a moment of satisfaction, which raises the question: What would happen to capitalism if desire were fulfilled?
On the surface, captialism appears to satisfy our need to want. Businesses even guarantees such customer satisfaction when their products are purchased, a promise that if our desires aren’t fulfilled, our money will be returned. Such satisfaction has been described as the “industrial economy’s most-marketed commodity.” In reality, however, capitalism fosters an artificial economy of satisfaction where none of us are satisfied and we’re all still consuming. Moreover, this “persistent want of satisfaction is directly and complexly related to the dissociation of ourselves and all our goods from our and their histories.”4 In theological terms, the belief in something that can fulfill our desire is referred to as an idol. As Peter Rollins explains, “Such things can be used to galvanize individuals to distrust, dislike, and hate a different community. The idol destroys not simply by breaking us from within (being crushed by our inability to ever grasp it) but also by breaking us apart from one another.” In Marxist thought, the idol becomes the very structure through which we see the world. That is, the idol of capitalism becomes the ideology itself, a belief system we unconciously embrace as a result of our cultural conditioning. Lois Tyson writes, “By posing as natural ways of seeing the world, repressive ideologies prevent us from understanding the material/historical conditions in which we live because they refuse to acknowledge that those conditions have any bearing on the way we see the world.”5 Seen in this light, capitalism is ontological—it has become not only a way of being but, through its dependence on consumerism, it has also become our primary way of relating to the world.
Furthermore, our understanding of neighbor has both drastically changed and been profoundly challenged in the wake of capitalism’s proclivities for ever-increasing production. Only rarely today are any of us in relationship with local neighbors whose primary role is that of producer. According to Wendell Berry, “One of the primary results—and one of the primary needs—of industrialism is the separation of people and places and products from their histories. To the extent that we participate in the industrial economy, we do not know the histories of our families or of our habitats or of our meals.” One could argue that capitalism has been maintained only as the shift of industrialism has increasingly moved from local to global. That is, it is easier to distance ourselves from knowing the circumstances associated with production when our primary participation in trade is not local. Thus we find ourselves very easily yielding to and obsessing over the consumption of what Bell has called “capitalist manna,” whereby goods miraculously appear before us without our foreknowledge of the social factors involved in their production.6
Insofar as the Western world continues to mindlessly consume, people will be treated with little to no regard. Rather than lifting human potential and fulfilling desire, we find that the market increases the gap between the rich and the poor and commodifies workers into things that are subject to the rule of the market. In Marxist thought, this concept is referred to as “commodity fetishism,” whereby products are esteemed with a mystical value that is often greater than the products themselves and greater than the men and women who produce them. The market thus conditions us to see our relations in terms of financial and social advancement. It suffices to say that such relations are dehumanizing, yet this is precisely the nature of the capitalist economic system in which we all participate.
In considering the conditions under which this system currently functions, it strikes me that we have come to severely misunderstand what it means to be in relationship as producers and consumers, particularly in regard to our global economy. In reality, capitalism is more concerned with the flourishing of the elite, a few individuals, or a certain country as a whole than the flourishing of all humanity. From the time this system emerged as a way of being and operating in the world, a power differential was involved and as it has progressed, social interdependence has declined. In the United States, for example, many of us have an inherent belief that the rest of the world needs us because of our economic and cultural power, and we take much pride in our lofty salvific role. Yet rather than flourishing under our good graces, much of the world actually experiences our nation’s economic and cultural power as an infringement upon what it means to be human. Within the global capitalist system, profit is gained not by the prosperity of a people and their place but by their exploitation.7 Today, relationships between consumers and producers are nearly inconceivable. At best, such relations are transactions within a recognized hierarchy in which we distinguish between us and them. We make people into others, and in so doing, we forget that these same people are our neighbors. We no longer see a face because our only concern is for the product we desire. What we fail to recognize is that such a way of relating is dehumanizing to both producers and consumers.
The United States has historically taken the lead as the purveyor of capitalism’s power and as its first missionaries. As a result, we have come to believe in an illusion of altruism, an “illusion that our actions are fundamentally and solely for the good of others.” This ignorance is not specific to America but, rather, is symptomatic of the disease of capitalism. Because of this illusion, we overlook or deny the consequences of our actions. We’ll even go so far as to deny having taken any part in the suffering of another inasmuch as we continue to hold tightly to the myth of our goodness. Then, as we become convinced of our innocence, we also become unwilling to surrender. As Ryan LaMothe explains, “the refusal to surrender is a defense against being moved and shaped by the other.”8 Innocence and ignorance can be two sides of the same coin. Our ignorance has further increased as we have moved toward a more global economy. As stated by Bell, “The abstraction of commodities and the veil of ignorance that conceals the conditions of production and consumption encourages more insulation and passivity.”9 The end result of our ignorance and perceived innocence is that we don’t hold ourselves responsible for what we claim to not know, nor do we claim responsibility for anything beyond our perceived good intentions. In this regard, our preference is to be ignorant: we don’t want to know the consequences of our actions.
In this system, it is difficult to imagine a collective few or a collective America, much less a collective humanity, working together for anything beyond what has become an idolatrous economy of desire. Far from its claim, capitalism actually seems to inhibit our ability to work for the common good. Rather than being for the good of all, our work together has depended primarily upon the subordination and exploitation of those who produce the essentials for our collective survival. This stark reality will remain shorn of hope unless we begin to think differently about our responsibility and the problem at hand.
What for the Western world has served as a respite—a break in the day or a beverage of leisure—for the third world has meant hard, unjust labor. A look through the history of coffee production reveals a harsh reality regarding the nature of the plant and its close relationship with injustice. Christopher London writes on the bioeconomics of coffee, explaining that coffee is best grown on steep mountainsides within certain altitudes of the equator and that, as a result, the regions of its growth are not accommodating to plantation agriculture and mechanization, which limits coffee production primarily to small farms or sharecropping beneath large landholders.10 Thus, within the very bioeconomics of coffee—its natural habitat and the way in which it must be grown—we can begin to see the stark truth that this has been and continues to be a quintessential peasant crop, produced only through hard manual labor.11 For the workers of this trade, the days are labor-intensive and filled with the relentless rhythms of planting, fertilizing, picking, carrying, drying, and sorting. Moreover, coffee is a crop that necessitates the help of entire households, and so the few families whose children are privileged enough to attend school, do so within a curriculum that coincides with the coffee harvest.12 And yet despite the long hours and backbreaking work, the 125 million laborers around the world whose livelihoods are affected by these repetitive tasks work on average for less than three dollars per day,13 some earning less than one dollar per day.14 As one may imagine, workers in this trade are hardly surviving, much less in a position to provide subsistence for an entire household.
By default, coffee peasants have become enmeshed within global capitalism, residing at the “intersection of money, land, and labor.” As Stephanie Aleman describes it, in looking at the history of coffee, “we discover a plant connected to human suffering, slavery, and colonial power.”15 In essence, coffee production, like capitalism, in the developing world can be characterized by groups of haves and have-nots. Consumers (the haves) and producers (the have-nots) engage the commodity market rather than developing relationships with one another. Within this global market, producers have no choice but to succumb to an overreliance on foreign markets and to allow the demands of consumers to take precedence over their own needs. Inevitably, such dependency results in exploitation, as smallholder farmers are left at the mercy of the much larger, international market. Furthermore, the first-world coffee industry sets the retail value of coffee according to the roast, not the cultivation and processing work of producers;16 little concern is given to the realities of the coffee prior to its import. For first-world consumers, veiled behind a capitalist-induced ignorance, as long as coffee remains a commodity that is easily accessible, we’re not led to question the social factors involved in its production.
Moreover, unlike commodities that we can’t live without, coffee is a seemingly unnecessary luxury with minimal health benefits. Should the price of coffee continually increase, most consumers would gladly find an alternative substance to feed their caffeine addiction—despite the fact that millions of people are dependent upon this crop as their only means of survival.17 Thus, because coffee as a product is the primary focus rather than the people it affects, our thoughts of ethics, sustainability, and producer wellbeing tend to be distant.
These issues not only include the dehumanization of people but also the despoilment of land and the effects of export. Indeed, what many of us fail to realize is that coffee is not a plant that can be picked year-round. Like other crops, the coffee cherry has a peak season, but because farmers can’t afford to only pick during the peak of the season, the coffee plants and the land where they are grown are rapidly being depleted. This depletion also affects the quality of the coffee that is harvested. In other instances, farmers do not profit enough to reinvest funds into proper care of the land for organic fertilizers or irrigation systems.
In seeking to address commodification and global inequalities, the fair trade movement was developed by instituting a “fair” minimum price that must be paid to producers. This new system of buying from producers in developing countries began to raise consumer awareness around the social and environmental conditions in which goods are produced and to promote ethical consumerism. Despite the good intentions of fair trade, however, it still functions on the basis of consumer sovereignty: producers are subservient to consumer demands in the same manner as conventional consumerism. First-world, fair-trade consumers who consider themselves ethical continue to be isolated and disconnected from third-world producers and the consequences of their own market decisions. Rather than narrowing the gap between consumer and producer, fair trade has “attempted to de-commodify goods through the very mechanism that leads to their commodification in the first place—the capitalist market.”18
Conversely, the concept of direct trade refers to an exchange between roasters and farmers that goes beyond the “fair” minimum as the two groups together negotiate and agree upon a premium price for the coffee. Direct trade is characteristic of the third-wave coffee movement, wherein coffee has become seen as an art with a greater emphasis on improving both the production and quality of a roast or brew. The assumption among those who support direct trade is that this method narrows the gap between farmer and roaster. Yet the emphasis in this relationship is on the quality of the product rather than the producers themselves: roasters assume that by paying a premium rather than a minimum they can entice coffee growers to produce better quality coffees.19 In this direct trade relationship, roasters therefore partner with farmers because of the quality they produce rather than who they are as people; coffee companies, in this case, still hold the power to choose those they deem worthy. Here, the lines between coffee and farmer, product and producer, begin to blur. In many ways, such trade still caters to the commodity fetishism of goods and people, and the gap remains the same.
Contrary to the self-orientation of capitalism, Christian theology, when properly understood, must be oriented outward.20 That is, whereas capitalism rejects “the notion that there is a shared good or common purpose that ought to shape how we labor and use material goods,” a Christian theology holds that there is a “common good that shapes our labor and our consumption.”21 At the very least, this belief should affect the way we live, spend, and consume; it should deepen the relations we have with others, especially producers. In a capitalistic society, theology thus offers us an opportunity to pause and consider who our actions are affecting. To put it differently, theology reminds us of the often forgotten neighbor; it makes us ask what justice looks like in a capitalistic economy where consumers may consume both product and producer?
In considering these questions, it would serve us well to understand what justice is not. Economic justice is most often understood in terms of commutative justice, namely, that one is paid what is due for the goods they have provided on the basis of a contract they have agreed upon.22 Such justice does not take into account that many people have little choice but to agree to unfair contracts because their survival and the survival of their families is at stake. And so market-driven justice cannot be deemed socially conscious or operating for the sake of common humanity. There is no sense of solidarity or altruism in this vision of justice, a vision that enables us to live comfortably and mindlessly off the hunger of others. To be frank, such justice merely maintains our role as consumer of products and producers.
Conversely, a justice rooted in theology is, as Bell explains it, “about the renewal of right relations,”23 about seeking to restore and reconcile those places where division has separated one from another and turned us away from a common humanity and a common good. Such a justice necessitates systemic change but cannot be systematized. As Miroslav Volf says, “If you want justice without injustice, you must want love”24—we must concern ourselves with relationships and do so out of a want for love, especially when such relations have become so far removed that they are seemingly nonexistent or appear impossible to establish and maintain, such as the relationship between consumers and producers. Likewise, the “renewal of right relations” denotes a resuming, a reestablishing of, or a return to something that once was. Namely, we must narrow the gap between consumers and producers, moving once again toward relationships with the people in whom we depend on for our food—and more specifically, we must consider what it could be like to practice such justice in light of the coffee industry, to narrow the gap between farmers and roasters, and even further, between farmers and coffee drinkers around the world.
The solution to the injustices of capitalism is not simply another system. Rather, if we truly believe in the gospel, if we truly concern ourselves with the concerns of Jesus, the alternative to capitalism becomes something we participate in. Jesus concerned himself with love of neighbors, both local and global. Jesus concerned himself with loving people who were dehumanized and regarded as others. And Jesus advocated for solidarity, for community over individualism, emphasizing the common good as the vocation of all humanity.
But how might we live in this way? How might we live to humanize rather than dehumanize? How might we stand in opposition to the injustices of capitalism? I propose a theology of communitas as that how which both precedes and yet becomes actualized as love brings forth justice. In his study of ritual behaviors and rites of passage among African people groups, cultural anthropologist Victor Turner adopted and expanded upon the concepts of liminality and communitas. According to Turner, liminality translates literally from its Latin root to mean “threshold,” denoting a transition, a marginality, an in-between state, or a change in social position. It is likened to a “symbolic milieu” that is representative of both “a grave and a womb.” Furthermore, liminality is inextricably linked to communitas, an experience that can only be experienced after having gone together through a liminal phase. Turner describes communitas as a “modality of social relationship” and distinguishes it from the familiar term community, which implies an “area of common living,”25 whereas communitas is a “bond of oneness beyond ordinary community, an actual communion together that does not destroy individuality but brings alive the full gifts of each participant.”26 Thus, communitas suggests a collectivism that emphasizes togetherness and solidarity while not denying one’s particularity, a collectivism that moves everyone toward a mutually achievable goal or common good.
Moreover, communitas is where social structure is not. As Turner explains, “It is rather a matter of giving recognition to an essential and generic human bond, without which there could be no society.”27 As people experience liminality together, alterity between participants, such as social class or race, is seemingly dissolved or ignored. Communitas emerges only on the grounds of recognized common humanity, and it does not attend to established hierarchies. It is a camaraderie that levels social class distinctions and recognizes our social interdependence—that we need each other to survive. A theology of communitas is a human response to capitalism and it calls us forth to participate. Communitas, and its parallel function of reconciliation, begins with hearing the silence of our own kind. It requires us to join people in their liminality. It is therefore both a withdrawal from the larger society and also a necessary step in pushing society forward.28
Despite coffee’s convoluted history and the comforting successes of the more recent third-wave coffee movement, the attempts that have been made toward justice do not go far enough, and there is still much work to be done. I suggest that a theology of communitas challenges the commodification of labor and coffee and may serve as a spearhead for coffee’s fourth wave. Contrary to the third-wave coffee movement—which was born out of the rise in specialty coffee and which emphasizes high quality beans as its first priority while bringing awareness and improvements to other areas of production within the industry as a second priority—I propose a new approach that I have consciously titled after trade.29
An after-trade theory of coffee production and sales reverses the priorities of the third-wave coffee, making genuine relationships with farmers and their families the first priority and the quality of beans the second priority. That is, an after-trade structure aims to commit to a farm and its people, to invest in them, to develop relationships of trust, and to take the necessary measures that might improve their farm and, as a result, improve the quality of beans produced. As the phrase after trade implies, the focus is simple—after trade, then what? The hope with after-trade coffee is to avoid being yet another market-driven approach to justice; to engage the market’s mystifications, including the myth that producers only have worth if they can produce what is of value to consumers; and to work under the umbrella of community, not the umbrella of the market.
Although there are a few roasters involved in direct trade who know or have been acquainted with the partnering farms in producing countries, many roasters who claim direct relations merely participate in cuppings, essentially choosing from a list of worthy farms on the basis of quality and taste as they experienced these coffee attributes at the cupping event. As one can imagine, the farmers who tend to be included on these lists already happen to be the more wealthy farmers, the ones who can afford to care for their farm and to produce such high quality beans. Thus, within the direct trade system, many smallholder farms go unnoticed because their poverty is so grave that they will never be able to afford implementing the measures that are necessary to produce high-quality beans; they will never be included on such lists.
These same small farms are often organic by necessity—they cannot afford chemicals used in nonorganic farming—yet they cannot afford being officially certified as organic either.30 To further explain, “Because small farms may not be able to afford certification, even while fulfilling all other requirements in the process, they lose out on access to fair trade/organic markets and marketing.”31 With this in mind, after-trade sellers will focus our energies on partnerships with small farms. This work may involve land development, such as planting shade trees or constructing washing stations, both of which ensure that beans are of a better quality. Or it may prove beneficial to help develop another source of income for the farm while the coffee plants are not in season; other crops may be unlikely, due to the steep mountains and at high altitudes on which coffee beans grow, but alternative incomes may be created by, for example, building chicken coops for poultry farming and egg sales.
These kinds of steps obviously form something of a needs-based approach, but unlike other attempts at social justice, this approach will seek to go beyond the basic needs of the coffee farmers and will work toward what must be accomplished to help the farmers stand on their own feet. Whether we have relationships with farmers or not, insofar as the product is of more value to us than the person who produces it, we are perpetuating the structure that is capitalism. Conversely, when we consider the implications of joining coffee farmers in their liminality—getting our hands dirty, suffering together, sticking it out for the sake of everyone’s thriving—we invite a deep sense of shared life and solidarity and we operate from a mentality of communitas. Social class and hierarchy fall away and we come to recognize the cyclical nature of dependency. In a very real sense, we learn that we need each other to survive. From this perspective, the survival and livelihood of coffee buyers, roasters, and baristas are of no greater importance than the survival and livelihood of those who cultivate the land that yields coffee plants. Consider what it could be like should the buyers, roasters, and baristas operate out of a mutual dependency upon the farmers and laborers. That is, in the spirit of communitas, there would be no legitimate reason for those who buy, roast, and prepare to make profit at the expense of the farmers from whom the beans are sourced. Thus, an after-trade approach to coffee manufacturing and sale spurs a movement toward shared struggle and shared responsibility.
To summarize, an after-trade approach seeks to operate through a theology of communitas rather than thriving on efficiency, industrialization, and other market-based philosophies that result in the dehumanization of others. An after-trade approach will return to the slow work of cultivating a crop together that yields personhood and narrows the gap between producers and consumers. Perhaps the only way to combat the “commodification of labor and goods [is] to challenge the social relations that give way to them.”32 It was for this reason that Marx argued for the development of a community who shared the means of production, where individuals may combine labor and apply it toward the common good of the community.33 The after-trade model takes on this Marxist ambition, as it seeks through a theology of communitas to confront the unethical social relations that have become established through capitalism, to join farmers in solidarity, and to work toward the common good, but to do so in such a way that enables farmers and laborers to realize their own dignity as individuals.
Admittedly, After Trade is a consequence of a society governed by capitalism, but it is a necessary consequence nonetheless. It functions as a step in the right direction on the premise that if we hope to change the system, our work must begin within the system. The broken system that is capitalism is made up of people who have been broken by it. We must reestablish relations where ties have been severely disconnected, and commit ourselves to the relationships within the structure rather than the structure itself.
1. This essay is adapted and condensed from the author’s integrative project “From Commodity to Communitas: Reconciling the Gap between Farmer and Roaster,” master’s thesis, the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, 2013.
2. Bell, The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 87.
3. Ibid., 88.
4. Berry, The Art of Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2002), 236.
5. Rollins, The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction (New York, NY: Howard Books, 2012), 40–41; Tyson, “Marxist Criticism,” in Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 56–57.
6. Berry, The Art of Commonplace, 235; Bell, The Economy of Desire, 108–9.
7. Berry, The Art of the Commonplace, 198.
8. LaMothe, “America and the Eighth Deadly Sin,” Journal of Religion & Health, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 482.
9. Bell, The Economy of Desire, 109.
10. London, “Coffee, Certification, and the Incorrigibility of Capitalism,” Social Research 19, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 1053.
12. Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed the World (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010), xi.
13. Ibid., xvi.
14. Bramucci and Mulholland, “More than Twenty-Seven Cents a Day: The Direct Trade (R)evolution,” in Coffee: Grounds for Debate, ed. Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 198–99.
15. London, “Coffee, Certification, and the Incorrigibility of Capitalism,” 1053; Aleman, “Green Coffee, Green Consumers—Green Philosophy?,” in Coffee: Grounds for Debate, ed. Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 218.
16. Bramucci and Mulholland, “More than Twenty-Seven Cents a Day,” 200.
17. Granted, with the more recent third-wave coffee movement, roasters are advancing the notion of coffee as an art over and above a caffeine fix. However, this new emphasis has also led to the popularity of the World Barista Competitions, an event where baristas compete over latte art and latte preparation speed. These competitions, with their extravagant prizes and event budgets, yet again highlight the financial disparity between coffee producers and the industry that sells and markets coffee.
18. Fridell, “Fair-Trade Coffee and Commodity Fetishism: The Limits of Market-Driven Social Justice,” Historical Materialism 15, no. 4 (December 2007): 99.
19. Neuschwander, Left Coast Roast: A Guide to the Best Coffee and Roasters from San Francisco to Seattle (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2012), 30.
20. Bell, The Economy of Desire, 165–66.
22. Ibid., 174.
23. Ibid., 175.
24. Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 223.
25. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Piscataway, NJ: AldineTransaction, 1969), 96; Ibid.
26. De Neui, “Christian Communitas in the Missio Dei: Living Faithfully in the Tension Between Cultural Osmosis and Alienation,” Ex Auditu 23 (January 1, 2007): 102.
27. Turner, The Ritual Process, 97. Italics in original.
28. De Neui, “Christian Communitas in the Missio Dei,” 102.
29. After trade is a term my husband and I have coined and will continue to develop as our vision for the change we hope to see in the coffee industry. Although we have constructed a specific plan for how this may work, our hope is that the basic after trade model would be embraced by more people within this industry and practiced worldwide and that the concept would be adapted and applied to other industries outside of coffee in which similar consumer/producer relations occur.
30. Hartmann, “Starbucks and the Third Wave,” in Coffee: Grounds for Debate, ed. Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 174.
32. Fridell, “Fair-Trade Coffee and Commodity Fetishism,” 99.