Just a warning, this post talks about some hard stuff about our society. So, if you are game, read on…
Well, another week (or so) has passed here in Tehuixtla. The farm is still going, although the loss of the electric fence controller has made things a bit harder, as we are now having to check on some of the animals constantly. It’s amazing how much you really have to make sure they aren’t getting into trouble. It is something a lot of people don’t have to deal with anymore in the United States. I know a couple of people, mainly La Grange residents, that have some cows, or are 4H participants, but by and large most of the people in my life do not have daily contact with animals, aside from pets or the ones we meet in the suburbs and cities, such as pigeons, songbirds, geckos, insects, and the like. A ‘pest’ is how we choose to describe animals that are not in our life through our choosing. This daily contact with smelly, hungry, obstinate farm animals has made me realize, in the smallest degree, how far separated we have become from the subsistence life, from merely trying to survive. Food is provided us (U.S. Americans) by a complex agricultural market and distribution system, most people have water, that we can actually drink, delivered straight to our houses, ready for instant consumption. This existence is one of leisure, time spent on what one finds important. Which is stunning when we realize how much time we spend on things we don’t want to be doing, on activities felt to be obligatory. Our society has become so highly accustomed to the necessities of life, food, water, shelter, being easily accessible that we no longer see them as daily chores, daily requirements in order to survive.
So, we shift that need to others, in two meanings. One, we shift our need to do things that sustain life to things that are unnecessary in the light of survival, such as making sure our lawns aren’t growing past the maximum allowed by the homeowners association, that the bills are all paid (something everyone hates), that our houses are antiseptically clean, that we TIVO that new show. These are not really surviving, just examples of things that are seen as chores, as necessary in that middle class life I come from. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pay our bills, but wouldn’t you rather be sitting in your dining room signing checks than walking a few kilometers to get two buckets of what is hopefully clean water every day? We put so much worry and energy into these things that are not actually sustaining, or improving, our lives. The second meaning is that we displace our actual survival onto other people around the country and around the world. Our food is grown all over; grains from the Midwest, fruit and vegetables from Central and South America, delicacies from Europe and Asia. There are other people bending over in fields, lifting boxes in factories, caring for livestock so we don’t have to. That is the reality of a market economy, the universal system we call capitalism. Some people even go further to displace the previously mentioned fictional needs of everyday life in America to others, in the form of lawn services, maids, etc. (I almost put in nannies there, but childcare is in no way a “fictional” need; I don’t know how you parents do it).
Capitalism is an amazing system. It works in ways that could never been foreseen, and will work in ways that we can’t imagine. That’s why there are different schools of economy. If we really could predict what was going to happen accurately, why would there be expert economists arguing about it, why would people be making fortunes off of the stock market? The thing that makes capitalism terrific (using that word in its base meaning) is that it fundamentally forces everyone to play by its rules. Capitalism cannot be fought, at least not in the current culture. I’m guessing that some people would say that is beauty of it. It touches everything. Look around you right now and how many things can you point out that you produced. A market economy separates us from the production of things we use constantly. Even in our jobs, what we “choose” to produce, capitalism plays a huge part; for example, I don’t want to work with sewage, so I don’t, but someone will, because it is a job and everyone needs one of those to survive, to have food, shelter, clean water (I do work with manure though). Those on the top of the heap take the “best” jobs and the rest get filtered out as they go “down” the pyramid of socioeconomic status. But what we often forget in our life of plenty, in our separation from survival, is that others, who don’t have much of a choice in their opportunities, are essentially forced to take that job I don’t want, to work in the agribusiness as a farmhand so we can eat, to mine coal in Pennsylvania so we can have the internet, to get paid pittance in a factory in China so we can have plastic toys at Wal-Mart and Target. People give up so much around the world, to survive and hope that their children may live a better life, so that we have our daily, “normal” life.
Of course, this isn’t all that strange in Mexico either. There are still those on the top taking what are considered the best jobs. There is still inequality intrinsic in the system, capitalism, that effectively runs the whole world. But what makes it more visible to me is that it is different here. The system is the same, but it manifests itself in other ways. I am accustomed to normal, middle class life in the U.S., so it is difficult to see, but here, when the way people get clean water is buy purchasing garifones (~20L bottles) of purified water, when transport is largely by bus instead of private car, when the majority of people work in large factories or farms instead of the service sector jobs prominent in the U.S., it is far easier to see that the system itself, what we teach as the highest good, is integrally unfair to people without the privileges of a good education, a good economy, a family that can support waffling youth who don’t know what to do with their lives (thanks Mom and Dad). But at the same time, escaping from capitalism is essentially impossible without resorting to some sort of communism (note the small c). Not everyone is willing, or able to live in a self sustaining commune, so there must be some sort of middle ground that reduces the essential oppression in capitalism, while still allowing a market economy to be able to operate, allowing people to do the work they wish, work that fulfills them (a subject I will be writing on later.)
So this leaves us with some questions, like what could this alternative economic system be? How do you fix a system? What will I do when I get back and am expected to get a knowledge-working job, the “crust” of American labor? Well, right now I’m going to stick to sheep. I am here to learn from a way of life different than ours and see what conclusions I can draw from immersing myself in it. Who knows what lessons I will learn, whether it is from tending to live stock, the way my host family functions, or the societal unrest occurring in Mexico right now. All I can do now is use the time you have given me here and pay attention.