Am I a commodity? Are you? Who is, and who isn’t?

In the past week, Iowa Congressman, Steve King, argued against protections
on the wages of laborers employed under Federally-funded projects–emphasizing
that labor, people performing work, are commodities, just like rice, beans, or

“For the federal government to tell me that I can’t say to my own son, I’d like to climb
in the seat of your excavator and sit there for $10 an hour, federal government says I can’t, he’s gotta pay me some $28 rate or whatever that is. But the government has no business interfering and no business driving up these costs.  And we must go through this period of austerity. That requires that we not impose federal union scale on federal construction projects. […] And I think the free market should set the wages. Labor is a commodity just like corn or beans or oil or gold, and the value of it needs to be determined by the competition, supply and demand in the workplace [bold typeface added for emphasis here].” [from ]

So, should I see this as an outrageous speech by a right-wing Republican, or simply an honest, and very revealing, argument on behalf of a long-standing American tradition.  That tradition includes, in its most vile form, slavery, and in a seemingly matter of fact way, the view that corporations are entitled to make large profits at  the expense of less fortunate citizens who should feel lucky just to have a job, and therefore would be wise to accept most any wage that an employer is willing to pay.

Moreover, and unfortunately, this view, that people are primarily commodities, is played out in many other ways in our society.  Let’s consider the world of sports—all the way from youth summer sports camps to college athletics and beyond.  For example, let’s look at Sports lllustrated’s recent article (June 6, 2011, pp. 40-48), which strongly suggests dishonesty and rule-breaking by the head football coach at Ohio State.   To me, the hypocrisy suggested by the evidence gathered for this article is another sad example of how treating people as commodities is insidiously on the rise, throughout our society.

The Sports Illustrated expose is told as a story about a coach with a reputation as a devout, religious person who helps young men from difficult and impoverished backgrounds, but who also now seems to be revealed as a dishonesty man who, at best, looks the other way when there is rule-breaking. Having read the article, I ask myself, is he motivated to help
his players primarily because of a commitment to youth, with an appreciation of the humanity in each young person’s unique combination of needs, talents, flaws, hopes and dreams?   Or is it because he sees his young athletes primarily as valuable “commodities” with the athletic skills that will bring wins to the football team, money to the university and money and fame to him as a successful coach of national championship football teams?  What does it  suggest , if reports (according to Sports Illustrated, June 6, 2011, p. 45) are true, that he has routinely cheated  in selecting as “raffle” winners from the Ohio State summer youth football camps only those few youngsters who show real potential to be promising recruits for the Ohio  State team?  One of his colleagues was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach.  Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets.”

He is certainly not the only one to think of people as commodities, despite the appearance of being a devout, caring God-worshipping citizen.  Nor is Steve King the only elected official to believe that people are commodities, even though he is crass enough to articulate it honestly.  Rather, their actions simply reveal a disturbing and insidious tendency to boil humanity, decision-making and life values down to cost-benefit  (and profit and loss) equations in which people are seen as commodities that have “exchange value” in terms of dollars and cents, or whatever monetary system one is using.  People, and the things that make life truly worth living, must be equated to money.  That is the why that in the current debate in Congress to reduce the national debt, many elected officials are scrambling to balance the budget on the backs of those who are less fortunate–the poor, children in need of education, those unable to pay for necessary and expensive health care, unemployed and their families, those trying to recover from natural disasters like the tornado in Joplin, Missouri, and even moderately fortunate middle class families struggling to make ends meet. These segments of the population are seen by many as “expendable”–as commodities with no current value.  Decisions and values are far from the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have others do unto

Such stories remind me of the importanc of  looking for and speaking out against the many ways, be they small and subtle or large and obvious, in which individuals and groups are dehumanized by words, actions and decisions that treat anyone as a commodity.  And,
to learn more, we might also ask ourselves under what circumstances are decisions made that are not corrupted by this dehumanizing view of the worth of people?  How might we educate and call on well-intended, ethical, and empathetic people to become more conscious of such vicious, dehumanizing words, thoughts and actions?

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About John Bilorusky

John Bilorusky is President of WISR and Member of WISR's core faculty. John was one of WISR's four founders in 1975, and WISR has been, and will continue to be, the hub of his professional and community involvements. John received his BA from the University of Colorado (cum laude in Physics and cum laude in General Studies) in 1967. He received his MA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968 and his PhD in Higher Education from UC Berkeley in 1972. He has also held major faculty appointments in the College of Community Services at the University of Cincinnati (1971-73), in the Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Studies at UC Berkeley (1970-71) and at University Without Walls-Berkeley (1973-74). He has actively written and published in the field of adult learning and social change. He lives with his wife, Janet, and 18-year-old twins, Kyle and Nicole. Janet is a nurse at the Regional Center of the East Bay, serving and supporting people with developmental disabilities. Kyle and Nicole are currently enrolled at Berkeley City College. He has an adult son, Clark, who has a Master's in Asian American Studies from San Francisco State, and who lives with his wife, Donna, and their two children, Ilaw and Tala, in Vallejo, CA. Clark provides Tech Support in the Union City School District.
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One Response to Am I a commodity? Are you? Who is, and who isn’t?

  1. Profile photo of alexmartinez alexmartinez says:

    This blog reminds of Karl Marx’s views towards capitalism and the exploitation of human labor. Here is something I found that explains this more fully:

    Under capitalism, according to Marx, labour-power becomes a commodity – it is sold and bought on the market. A worker tries to sell his or her labour-power to an employer, in exchange for a wage or salary. If successful (the only alternative being unemployment), this exchange involves submitting to the authority of the capitalist for a specific period of time.

    According to Marx, under capitalism, the laborer simply becomes a tool for the employer to increase profits, thus de-humanizing the worker into a mere commodity, such as a horse or burro who is used to carry heavy objects or plow fields.

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