Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mr. Palmer goes to the Farmer

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Creative] 

A friend wrote to me the other day:
According to someone's comment on facebook

"For example, fishermen on the Kerala coast get SMS at 3:30 AM on the current price of fish at neighboring villages.  This allows them to select which village to dock at and maximizes their income.  Similarly, small farms in South India can use their mobile phones to turn on and off the water motors from any location.  So, they do not have to be at the farm when the Govt turns on the water.  There are so many uses of the mobile phone which provides access to information that wa spreviously unavailable and were beign exploited by the known few.  

And we not talking smartphonees.  We are talking about Rs 700-900 phones."

What's your take on that?
I wanted my response to double as a blog post, and here was my attempt:

I would ask a few questions first:
  1. What were the lives of these fishermen and their families like before they became dependent on the "market"? What's the market? Who sets the prices in the neighboring villages and why are these prices so important?
  2. Why are the fishermen being forced to compete with each other to obtain the best price they can? Was such competition part of their lives before they were forced into the market economy? Was it in their own interest to join the market economy?
  3. What has happened to the fishing village's self sufficiency and subsistence life that existed before the village was put on the global economic map? What's the role of technology in this change?
  4. For the farmers in South India, is this new convenience of being able to control their motors from their cell phones something they asked for? Is this something they wanted?
  5. Why is the government involved in their lives, turning on and off their water at its discretion? How did the farmers get water for their fields before the government got involved in their farming? How else is the government involved in their lives?
  6. How has the introduction of cell phones changed overall rural social life considering that cell phones put a man in the middle? Could this actually be a symptom of some other problem?
We're witnessing an interaction between two types of society here. One society is ours. The one you and I and everyone we know live in. Let's call this "commercial civilization" because it's based on commerce, consumption, markets and prices. It's based on private property and the use of private property to accumulate more private property. This accumulation is endless.

When the wealthy invest their money in various businesses to grow it further, the one who invests his money in such a way that he gets the most returns becomes richer faster. This is not only because he's making more money directly through his operations, but because more capital investment will start moving into his operations from every direction. Other millionaires, banks, and mutual funds (really, anyone who has money to invest) would invest their money with him instead of with others. Sooner or later, the other rich men are forced to emulate his operations to maintain their own profitability. If one of them invents a new technology, his competitors must soon play catch up. If one of them disposes of his industrial waste into the river, the others would have to do it too. If one of them underpays his workers, the others must copy him too. Or they'd risk shutting down their enterprises in a competitive marketplace.

This process is endless. This is capitalism. It's an endless accumulation of capital. Money moves in the direction of those who are willing and able to grow their share of the capital the fastest. Our society, commercial civilization, is based on capitalism and the fact that it has to expand and grow in order to survive is critical for us to understand how it interacts with other societies, and to answer the above questions. Commercial civilization is not the only kind of civilization human beings have had. On the continuum between hunter gatherers and today's dominant form of civilization (commercial civilization), there are others with varying degrees of centralization and control. Largely self-sufficient kingdoms have existed for thousands of years in many parts of the world including India, China, Middle East and South America. The need to grow endlessly was not a central feature of these civilizations. They warred with each other on and off but they have also existed in equilibrium with competing civilizations and other societies including hunter gatherer societies for thousands of years. 

There have been cruel dictators throughout history. But the power of a cruel despot decreased as we walked away from his fortress. Before high speed communications, roads and rail, telephone and telegraph, and carrier pigeons, the ability to exercise power was limited. People living far away from the capital felt little interference in their way of life. But, today, distance has no such shielding effect. We're subjects everywhere due to the enormous centralization of power enabled by technology and the nexus between the rulers of the world who while competing with each other for more control, also collaborate to increase what they collectively control. And this, they do by constantly expanding commercial civilization's footprint. They each want a bigger slice of the pie but they get together occasionally behind closed doors and talk about how they could increase the size of the entire pie too. They do this by knocking on the doors of those who are not yet part of commercial civilization, those who still live on their ancestral lands, those whose lives are self-sufficient, independent from commercial civilization, those who live in tune with nature and its cycles, those whose ancestors have lead similar lives before them.

What makes our civilization unique is the commercial nature of it, the central features being trade and endless capital accumulation. In just a few hundred years, commercial civilization has taken over most of the world. It has taken over the planet not only geographically, but also in other ways because capital comes in so many forms. It comes as tangible natural resources of the Earth like fossil fuels and minerals as well as intangible resources like patents, trademarks, copyrights, and really, as ideas. And everything in between. Anything that can be ascribed a value can be treated as capital. And if something is not yet ascribed a value, it will soon be. We even put a value on how much we can pollute, when we talk about carbon credits. That's capital too.

Mr. Palmer goes to the Farmer!
Commercial civilization knocks on a villager's door, somewhere in the deep third world, and introduces itself.
[Mr. E. Palmer, Vice President at Conglomerate, Inc. represents commercial civilization]

Palmer: Hi, how are you? I'm here to help you.
Farmer: Thanks, but no, I don't need any help. My family and I live happily here. We don't need anything more.
Palmer: But you have almost nothing. Look at us. We can give you some of the stuff we have.
Farmer: No, thanks again. We're self-sufficient just like our ancestors were for thousands of years. We don't need your stuff.
Palmer: Look, I don't think you get it. You have no choice. You have to give us some of what you have. In return, you're welcome to have some of our stuff.
Farmer: What do you want from us? Didn't you just say we have almost nothing?
Palmer: Err... you have things we could use. You're not using them efficiently enough. We need your land. The land you live on could be put to more productive uses than you're putting it to. You're barely getting anything out of it.
Farmer: This land and the forests feed us well. We don't need more food than we have. We have plenty, even for all our dozens of festivals and special occasions when we gorge ourselves.
Palmer: Yes, but you see, we work differently. Where I come from, we put a value on things. We use this thing called Science to do it. Trust me, we're figuring it all out. We have Math geniuses working on it. And they say your land has more value to us than to you. You don't have to leave if you don't want to. You can stay on this land but you need to do things differently.
Farmer: You say we don't have a choice?
Palmer: You have some but not a whole lot. The village up the river from you, they didn't fare well and you don't want to end up like them, do you?
Farmer: What happened to them? Haven't heard from them in a while. Rumor is they were chased away from their lands. Was that you?
Palmer: It wasn't us. It was your government. But... come to think of it... you have a point. We did make some of your politicians very rich. Of course, we also took full ownership of that land for our new mining operation.
Farmer: Why did you do that? What have they done to you?
Palmer: Well, we discovered Bauxite on their land. We had to kill some of them because they wouldn't let us build the road. The rest agreed to cooperate with our plans. There are still a few hiding out in the forest but it's a matter of time before they give up.
Farmer: So they didn't do anything to you but you went after them anyway?
Palmer: They didn't realize that they were sitting on valuable land. We offered them money but they wouldn't take it. They didn't want our stuff either. We tried so hard. We promised to build them a school and a hospital too.
Farmer: What's a school? And what's bauxite?
Palmer: Schools are where you will send your kids to learn about our culture. We teach them our language and our history. We teach Science too. But most importantly, we teach them how to think like us. Hospitals are where you go when you're sick. Look, you all look healthy now but you and your family needs a hospital, don't you think?
Farmer: No, we're all healthy. We know of so many herbs, plants and minerals around here that we use to cure ourselves. This is how we've lived for thousands of years. What's bauxite?
Palmer: Ah, you're very curious about bauxite, aren't you? We make aluminum from it.
Farmer: What's aluminum?
Palmer: It's a metal. We use it in all sorts of things. From foil to airplanes. You might have seen our airplanes up in the sky? Aren't they cool?
Farmer: They make a lot of noise.
Palmer: They're actually not that loud inside. I came here in one of them.
Farmer: So you came here to take aluminum. You build an airplane with it, get on it and go somewhere else to get more aluminum for more airplanes?
Palmer: Hmmm... yeah... kinda... but we also make foil with it.
Farmer: I think I get it. Thanks for explaining. Have you thought of when it will all end? When you will run out of bauxite?
Palmer: Haha... you're smart. You should become a banker. Well, let's see. we're definitely not running out of bauxite in the next quarter. Actually, we're good for several quarters. I should be promoted to Senior VP and be out of this backwardness by then. But look, that reminds me I need to get back to my hotel in the city and finish up my report. I'll be back. I like you. Hope you'll be around the next time I'm here.

10 years later...

Palmer: You there, hi... we've met before. Haven't we?
Farmer: Yeah, and I've been regretting it ever since.
Palmer: Funny! You haven't lost your sense of humor, eh?... How's it going?
Farmer: Don't you see? I grow soybean now. Isn't this what you wanted us to do? Because soybean is what your civilization needs from us? That's all I grow now, season after season. The soil has lost most of its nutrient content. The soil used to have so much life in it. It's all gone because I grow only one crop season after season without allowing the soil to recover itself. And I work long hours. My whole family has to work now. My 10-yr old son helps after school. We sell the soybean in the village market to the trader who set up shop soon after you left. They also opened a store where we buy everything we need. We're dependent on the trader for everything. When the crop wasn't doing well a few years ago, he said I should buy fertilizer from him. And when the pests came, he sold us pesticide. We never needed either fertilizer or pesticide before. Our compost pile was more than enough for manure and pests were under control naturally. That was how we'd lived for thousands of years, in tune with the nature around us. We used to depend on nature for everything and it used to provide us with plenty. I worked only half the day. But not anymore. I'm dependent on the trader. I tried switching to a different trader but they are all the same. They don't pay me enough to live as well as we used to. I have to work 10 hours a day. My family has to work too. Everything we are now forced to buy, we used to either get from our neighborhood and the forest for free or our villagers would grow and we'd all share. Our village used to grow all sorts of foods and sometimes we'd trade with the fishing village over there but now everyone here grows only soybean. Half the foods we used to eat before have disappeared. And we're now buying corn flour and bread from the store.
Palmer: Great! Thanks for the update. I'll put it in my weekly report to my boss at headquarters. He should be pleased to hear all of this. He said he'd promote me to president soon. We were a bit worried about how the plan would unfold but it seems to have worked out quite well.
Farmer: What plan?
Palmer: The integration plan. You're now well on your way to being fully integrated into the market economy.
Farmer: The market? That's the word the traders keep talking about all the time. I ask my trader why he gives me so little money for the soybean and charges so much for the things we need. And he says something about how it's not in his control. He says someone called the market sets the prices. But he doesn't know much about it at all.
Palmer: No, he wouldn't. We have PhD's working on it trying to understand how exactly the market works. It's not a person, by the way. It's hard to explain. But your son will be able to explain it to you soon if you continue sending him to school. How's he doing? We could use a few more scientists. Is he showing any interest in Science?
Farmer: How would I know? I know nothing about Science. I know he's not as healthy as I was when I was his age. Can Science help explain that?
Palmer: Let's see. Is he getting a balanced diet? Make sure you give him plenty of protein. A child his age needs protein to grow.
Farmer: What's protein? Where can I find it?
Palmer: Do you eat fish? It's a good source of protein.
Farmer: We used to eat fish all the time years ago. The fishing village over there used to give us plenty of fresh fish in return for milk and other dairy products. But now, they don't come to our village that often. They must be buying milk from the store.
Palmer: Ah, that's too bad. What do they do with their fish these days?
Farmer: I don't know. Someone said they sell it to the traders in the village down the river. One time, I saw a fisherman on his way to my village. We were walking and talking and suddenly something starts making music. He pulled out a small box from his pocket and spoke to it. It told him he could get a better price at the village down the river. And he left. I was excited my family and I would be eating fresh fish after a long time but I was disappointed that he left. I don't like that box that spoke to him.
Palmer: Ah, yes, great! Glad to hear modern technology is making inroads into your lives. That box is called a cell phone. See, I have one too. It's magical. You can talk with anyone anywhere. As a matter of fact, it was me who gave the idea to my friends.
Farmer: What idea? What friends?
Palmer: My friends from business school. I told a few of them of this great opportunity to bring cell phone service to this region. Glad that's working out so well. We call it synergy. Welcome to the 21st century, my friend.
Farmer: I still don't like that music box.
Palmer: You're gonna have to get used to it. You can't stop progress. I heard your community hall has a color TV now. What do you think of that?
Farmer: Oh, that thing. It's another strange box. The talking heads tell us all sorts of stuff that we don't understand. My son understands more than I do and he explains it to us sometimes.
Palmer: Yeah, I hear you. Government news is boring. Wait till you get cable, haha!
Farmer: What government? The trader talks about the government too. I don't know what that is. We didn't have to deal with it before.
Palmer: The government is our friend. It makes laws to help us. Well, some of us get helped more than some others, haha! But it's a great friend of commercial civilization. It takes what you have, keeps some and gives the rest back. And thus it assures security for all of us. Well, some of us more than others, but you get the point.
Farmer: I think I get it. It seems everyone in commercial civilization is trying to figure out how to steal from us poor ignorant farmers. We never used to be poor like this.
Palmer: There's hope my friend. Don't be so pessimistic. This is the cost of progress. I mean this is the cost you pay for our progress. But soon you'll be like us too. Your children will love it. But do tell your son that the private sector offers better opportunities than the government.
Farmer: You steal more efficiently through the private sector, I suppose?
Palmer: Haha, you're being funny again. But all this is for your own good, don't you see? Think of it as the cost of entrance to civilization. It's worth it, I promise. Your son's life will be so different from yours.
Farmer: Got it. Private sector, not the government.
Palmer: Yeah, the government is way too inefficient for my taste. See, you still don't have electricity in your house.
Farmer: I don't need it in my house. And besides, we can't afford it anyway.
Palmer: It'll come soon. Then you will have your own TV. And electric motor and what not.
Farmer: What's a motor?
Palmer: You use it to pump water into your soybean fields.
Farmer: The water doesn't need to be pumped. It's always there. It comes from the river through the canals. Why does it need to be pumped.
Palmer: Ah, see, this why you need electricity. So you can buy a TV and watch the nightly news. Then you would know about the dam.
Farmer: What dam?
Palmer: The one your government is finally starting to build. They're going to divert all the water away to the dam. The canals will be dry.
Farmer: Why are they doing this dam thing?
Palmer: For the hydroelectric power plant that's coming up.
Farmer: What's that?
Palmer: It's used to make electricity. The electricity that will power your house and fields. Listen, you'd need to dig a well to irrigate your fields.
Farmer: I think I get it. The government takes my water away, makes electricity from it, sells it back to me so I can pump water with an electric pump. From a well I have to dig.
Palmer: Yes, you should get together with your village folk and ask for subsidies to get those wells dug. Don't tell anyone I gave you this idea. This is how we do it in the private sector. The government helps us with all sorts of subsidies.
Farmer: How do we talk to the government?
Palmer: There are people called politicians. They run the government. You talk to them. They teach all this in school.
Farmer: I see. I'll have to speak with my neighbors then.
Palmer: You'll figure it out.

<Mr. Palmer gets a phone call and talks for a few minutes>

Palmer: Check this out... my team just called me. They said our latest iPhone app is almost ready to be released.
Farmer: What's that.
Palmer: It's this thing you put on your phone. And you can turn on your electric pump with your cell phone. Because your government, I tell you, is very inefficient. They will turn your electricity off for a few hours every day. And they will do it on no particular schedule. You'd want to use our app so bad, you see. These are what I call synergies. We do offer a heavily discounted special pricing for third world countries. You and your family might want to skip a meal and save up. I have to go now!
Farmer: OK
Palmer: Bye! Oh, find me on Twitter!
Farmer: Whatever!

==============

Let's ask the questions again:
  1. What were the lives of these fishermen and their families like before they became dependent on the "market"? What's the market? Who sets the prices in the neighboring villages and why are these prices so important?
  2. Why are the fishermen being forced to compete with each other to obtain the best price they can? Was such competition part of their lives before they were forced into the market economy? Was it in their own interest to join the market economy?
  3. What has happened to the fishing village's self sufficiency and subsistence life that existed before the village was put on the global economic map? What's the role of technology in this change?
  4. For the farmers in South India, is this new convenience of being able to control their motors from their cell phones something they asked for? Is this something they wanted?
  5. Why is the government involved in their lives, turning on and off their water at its discretion? How did the farmers get water for their fields before the government got involved in their farming? How else is the government involved in their lives?
  6. How has the introduction of cell phones changed overall rural social life considering that cell phones put a man in the middle? Could this actually be a symptom of some other problem?

2 comments:

  1. You should have replaced 'Bauxite' with 'Unobtanium' ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Haha :) This is what Avatar was about! A reminder to the members of commercial civilization!

    ReplyDelete