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Of Gas and God

Nothing exemplifies the popular logic of the economy more clearly than the “Pray at the Pump” meetings that have emerged as a response to the rocket-rise in gas prices. Here we have well-meaning, working-class citizens gathering at a gas station to pray for a drop in the prices. Rocky Twyman has spearheaded this sincere movement, in which he and at least seven other people hold hands and sing, according to the Washington Post, “We Shall Overcome,” adding a necessary verse, should God not be sure exactly what they’re after, “We’ll have lower gas prices.”

Makes perfect sense, really, since the “market” is always presented as a force in-and-of-itself. In most classrooms, newspapers, and TV stations, the logic of supply and demand is so naturalized as an element of human life that it takes a great deal of effort to think beyond it. So, logically, who or what else could possibly control this unpredictable force? There are few better examples of ideology at work.

It is no doubt a testament to my teaching rather than my students that I have little success getting them to fully appreciate that the economy is made up of human choices instead of an invisible hand. While I can get most if not all of them to agree that when a person decides to sell, say, their car, or perhaps a movie script, they are making a clear choice in the process, since they could theoretically choose to sell it for a penny, even if it might leave them in a financial bind. What I have a problem getting them to see is that the “market” price of their car or their script, what they can realistically sell it for in a certain time and place, is bound up in a set of collective human choices, not the result of an economic “system” or even forms of luck. Indeed, the notion that a price is determined by a “market” is deeply ingrained. A tenant of this logic is that human beings might be able to affect the market – and since a lot of my students are eager capitalists, this is often understood in terms of limiting or damaging the “market” with, horror of horrors, government controls – but it is the very notion of a market itself, as some a natural part of the world we live in which can only be affected in some form or capacity, is precisely what I can’t seem to get my students to question or even simply engage.

I try to get real simple. Perhaps too simple, but I’ll share my lesson for your amusement or ridicule, whichever you prefer. I ask my students to pretend that they have one hundred oranges to sell. I also ask them to pretend that they’ve determined that in order for their overall expenses to be met, to feed their family, to pay their mortgage and put aside a little money for unexpected supplies and a rainy-day, they need to make a total of one hundred dollars, so they’ve logically decided to sell the oranges for a dollar a piece. So now imagine that one thousand people show up to buy those oranges on market day – all kinds of people from all walks of life. Gee, you think, I can sell these oranges for more than a dollar a piece, since some people with a good deal of money are here, and, indeed, enough people pony up one hundred bucks an orange, some because they can and some because they must.

Some students get darn giddy with this outcome. Happy days, indeed, as the market worked out in their favor. But what I try so hard to emphasize is that there was not some “system,” not some abstract “market” working in this scenario. This was very much about choices, as a deliberate choice was made to sell those oranges for more than a dollar a piece – what was needed to live a fair life.

Now, because I’m in academia and am trying to brainwash each and every kid, I explain to my students that whatever you may think of that old dead white guy Karl Marx, the driving tenet of his critique of capitalism was grounded (and animated) by his instance that there are simply no abstract and invisible forces guiding the price of things.
Indeed, his argument was – standing in opposition to the prevailing wisdom, a logic that will not die – that there was no such a thing as a “market” by itself in the first place. The “market” was nothing but a cop-out used by people – whether they were aware of it or not it does not really matter – for self-interest and, far too often, exploitive greed. Prices are what some people choose to make them, not the result of some unnamable hand. An account, in my view, that has a great deal of merit and, to appease my students who express anxiety at the thought of agreeing with Marx, one you can embrace without becoming a Marxist.

I use the above to make a point about certain television shows and to try to suggest how ideology infuses both practice and content, but it certainly applies to the current “oil crisis,” particularly since every TV report that I’ve seen treats this issue as some uncontrollable Vegas card game. But just as in Vegas, there are real people with real names and addresses that are setting prices here, a heck of a lot of them here in the U.S., to be sure. And, I think at least, it may be worth a close look and consideration if these choices are aligned with needs as opposed to greed.

My own unashamed socialist take is that this reckless and sickening “oil crisis” will never be entirely extinguished until we all collectivity own the means of production and set prices according to a different set of criteria. The current moment, to me anyway, stands as an urgent case for the public ownership of oil production and sale. But you certainly don’t have to be as far left as me to see the absurdity in the logic of some invisible guiding force in play here, since nothing could be further from the truth. Guys and gals – real human people – making choices are who and what demand attention here, not a “market,” a “system,” or even God.

I’ve got nothing against the conceptualization of God, but I’m not so sure she really cares about the cost of oil and gas because she certainly has nothing to do with prices. A few, namable people do. Time we not only call for clear answers to “why,” but to also demand policies and guidelines that ensure we all have a say in the matter.

PAUL MYRON HILLIER is a PhD candidate in Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. You can email him at pbay@yahoo.com, but he may not be able to respond right away (or at all), since he’s feverishly working to finish his dissertation, which has nothing to do with gas or God.

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