We Buy, Therefore We Are

Whenever I have occasion to tour the architectural and cultural landmarks of the Old South—the mansions of Natchez, the River Road plantations outside New Orleans, Washington's Mount Vernon, or the U.S. Capitol, for that matter—I have the same thought. "It's amazing what you can afford when you don't have to pay for the labor."

That was, of course, the problem with slavery. It oppressed its victims and simultaneously corrupted the people who benefited from it. Southern slaveholders grew accustomed to reaping the harvest of other people's labor—so accustomed that they began to think it was their right. Then they began to believe their economy would cease to function if they had to pay the true price of the things they used.

When we take a vehicle for repair, we get a bill that says something like, "Parts $55. Labor $300." What if the price tag of every item we bought broke down the cost that way? One of Karl Marx's more reasonable ideas held that the value of a commodity was comprised of the labor that went into it. Today we might add to that calculation the environmental damage. If we think of prices that way, when I confront a $300 personal computer or a $20 pair of blue jeans, I am witnessing a robbery. And when I buy it, I am an accomplice. But we rarely think about that because we have come to expect those everyday low prices as our American birthright and to believe that our consumer economy would grind to a halt if we ever had to pay the true price of our commodities.

Someday, if the earth survives our petroleum binge, people may look back at archived editions of early 21st-century consumer catalogs and think that same thought. "It's amazing what you can afford when you don't have to pay for the labor." Of course, our slaves are mostly in China, but the distance only makes us more vulnerable to the corruption of our unearned loot.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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