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Thanks for Giving What?

Commerce or Community

by ELLIOT SPERBER
Because the history of the United States is comprised of contradictions (proclamations of liberty, for instance, are coupled with the practice of slavery), it should come as little surprise to find that the holiday of Thanksgiving – so steeped in hyper-consumerism – itself derives from the rejection of a compelled commercialism. This history is especially relevant today, as we consider how to reconcile another crucial contradiction – the conflict between commerce (the mercenary) and community (the common – that which is shared).

Before the Reformation transformed much of Europe, public and private life were in many respects determined by the calendar of the Church – a calendar comprised of, among other things, dozens of compulsory holidays and feast days. Not only were people compelled to attend church services on these days, purchasing those items employed in these holidays’ respective rituals was also compulsory. Candles and knickknacks, and other religious bric-a-brac (the cost of which, in the aggregate, was not insubstantial) had to be purchased, irrespective of whether one wanted these items or not.

Rejecting this compulsory consumption for a life of dogmatic austerity, the Puritans of the time eliminated not only feast days and rituals, but all holidays from their religious practices. Instead of Easter, Christmas, and the rest, simple days of thanks (celebrating propitious events) and days of fasting (honoring the more solemn occasions) were observed. And when they set sail to colonize Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Pilgrims brought this approach to holidays along.

It is worth remarking that the year 1621, the year of the Pilgrims’ legendary first Thanksgiving dinner, was also the year that the extremely powerful commercial enterprise, the Dutch West India Company (which would begin to colonize, among other places, what now includes the New York Metropolitan region) received its corporate charter. Initially only interested in the region to the extent that it was presumed to provide access to the fabled Northwest Passage, and thereby to the spices and silks of Asia, as the value of the plentiful fish and furs of the New World became apparent, the Company sought to secure it in its own right. When one considers the legendary reputation for natural wealth the region enjoyed, one wonders what took them so long.

Since at least 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor, chroniclers of the region consistently recorded that, in addition to the abundance of fish, and the other riches, one could even smell the sweetness of flowers at significant distances from the shore. Although many would attribute this presence – among other things – to some sort of natural chance, or happenstance, the random richness of the land perhaps, recent studies reveal that what was formerly conceived of as merely natural plenty was, in fact, the result of the respectful economic and cultural practices of the indigenous people, the Lenape.

Although they were distinct from the Lenape, a similar eastern woodland culture – the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts – reputedly shared the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving feast. And as the centuries passed, and as the indigenous people of the Americas were systematically annihilated or “removed” to reservations, it is interesting to see the degree to which – in spite of their initial antipathy – the Pilgrims’ religious fundamentalism would blend with the commercial aggressiveness of their neighbors into the fundamentalist commercialism, or commercial fundamentalism, that has become hegemonic today. Along with its “Indian removal” policies, and its slavery-based economy, its general exploitativeness, and its array of technical wonders, as this commercial culture developed it managed to transform (or, rather, to deform) the formerly bucolic land of the Lenape, and others, into the toxic sprawl of traffic, industry, and garbage presently polluting the planet. Unlike the mariners of Hudson’s time, those who arrive in New York City these days hardly smell the scent of flowers. Those not already inured to it are often overwhelmed by the blend of car exhaust, and other toxic fumes, blanketing the region.

In light of these consequences of commerce, it is a further irony that the pre-Reformation period’s compulsory consumption (not to mention production) has become, in many respects, the rule today. Instead of candles, and other votive objects, though, the Thanksgiving ritual practiced across the country consists of purchasing thanksgiving-related paraphernalia. Not only does this entail a significant expenditure of money, time, and effort, as Thanksgiving segues into Christmas these are followed by ever greater levels of consumption. Unlike the consumption dictated by the priests of the pre-Reformation world, however, in the post-Reformation world of thePanopticon (manifesting, most notoriously these days, in the NSA’s pervasive surveillance), the agent delivering commands is not only external, like the priest – it is internal as well, often occupying the position of one’s own super-ego.

Following the Reformation-era shift that led from priests serving as intermediaries to the divine, under the constant possibility of surveillance by the all-seeing, people increasingly began to police themselves. Unlike the laws that parceled the world into plots of property (owned by a small number of owners), depriving people of the common land and resources necessary to sustain communities (and consequently compelling people to sell themselves to commerce to survive), no specific law compels people to engage in such rituals as buying and eating turkey. Nevertheless, people are taught, conditioned, and pressured in varying ways, to conform to these standards of behavior. And it is perhaps nothing more than a coincidence (albeit a particularly odd one) that the Greek Goddess of compulsion, Bia, was closely associated with the Greek Goddess Ananke – for Ananke, let’s not forget, also happened to be the mother (the origin) of the Fates. And the tripartite structure of the Fates not only corresponds extremely closely to that of the Trinity, but the spinner, the measurer, and the cutter of the Fates corresponds identically to the US Constitution’s tripartite separation of powers structure, the law of the Order determining us all.

Beyond all of this, however, perhaps the largest irony brought to mind by Thanksgiving (and its shadow, Black Friday) is the fact that all of this buying and selling and consuming – that is, commerce – is inimical to the ideal of community Thanksgiving ostensibly celebrates. For commerce and community are diametrically opposed. Indeed, whereas the former, the commercial, is essentially mercenary (reducing all to buying and selling – to a price – and subordinating all other values to the dictates of the market), the latter, community (exemplified by the radically egalitarian societies of indigenous people) is marked by the opposite of commerce; that is, not by buying and selling but by sharing the common. To the extent that one preponderates, the other is diminished. And as commercial fundamentalism determines the distributions of the world (with its so-called free trade agreements, corporate-bought legislatures, and other apparatuses), nearly all social relations are replaced by commercial ones. Even the concept of ‘neighborhood’ is being privatized and commodified. Although the primary definition of neighborhood is a social relationship (a neighborly, i.e. amicable relationship), its colloquial, everyday meaning has become a section of a city. Influenced by commercial notions of property, the social relationship designated by the term neighborhood has largely been supplanted by commercial relations – neighborhood is conceived of as real estate.

The virtually total subjection of social life to the dictates of commerce has reached a degree of intensity that even the Pope claims to be concerned about it. Of course, from his other remarks it is clear that the Pope is not interested in the dissolution of the superstitious ideologies and hierarchies that this economy depends upon. Though the Pope may not approve of the commanders in your head compelling you to do whatever capitalistic thing it is he disapproves of, he would not eliminate these commanders so much as replace them with his own – with the ministers of the Church. For, let’s not overlook the fact that the Pope’s recent statements are less a departure than a return to earlier Church concerns about poverty – words that, in the pre-Reformation period, consistently honored and exalted the poor, yet nevertheless managed to coexist with feudalism (that is, with lords and landlords) pretty well, reproducing poverty for centuries.

Notwithstanding the above, and though social relations based on mutual aid and trust (community) have been forced to the margins of social life over the past few decades, this forcement has been recently meeting increasing levels of resistance. Inseparable from the legacy of the Occupy movement, the labor strikes and protests planned by Walmart workers for Black Friday comprise just such an instance of community resisting commerce.

Beyond its commercial elements (and the fact that it derives from a rejection of commercialism), and the degree to which it illuminates the conflict between community and commerce, it is also worth reflecting on the genealogy of the word Thank. So central to Thanksgiving, the word ‘thank’ is etymologically rooted in the word Think. And when one thinks about the historical, imperialist horrors associated with Thanksgiving – not to mention the contemporary harms our commercial culture constantly recreates (from the mundane, everyday forms of domination, like police brutality, to ecocide and wars) – one would think that, instead of contributing further to the exploitation and harm of that which we share in common (community), it might make sense to not only refrain from the thoughtless consumption of consumeristic rituals, but to refrain from reproducing the exterminatory commercial political-economy ruling our lives entirely.

Not only should we support Walmart workers and others struggling for a just distribution of the community, we should extend these struggles. Not only should we recognize that the dictates of community ought to restrict and determine the limits of commerce, we should recognize that those things that people need to live well – that are common to and commonly needed by all – should not be privatized. Instead of being deformed into private things, they should be transformed into public, common, community things. Moreover, we should recognize that such things are what a community – a society – has an actual duty of care to provide to itself (not to sell between individuals, but to share among neighbors). If we gave it some thought, we just might recognize that those entities that people need to live well (nutritious food, housing, education, and the ability to govern our own lives, among other things) are so valuable that they should not be for sale at all.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com, and on twitter @elliot_sperber