Has Rationalization Ruined Global Commerce?

By Doctor Comrade

The following is a conversation I had with Matt Hall on Junot Diaz's contention that rationalization has ruined the enchantment of global society. Our conversation took place online from September 8 to September 9, 2016. Hall is a student of History at Harvard University.

Matt Hall: Junot Diaz made the emphatic argument that the rise of rationalization has disenchanted our world. He specifically talked about how we used to live in a society where everything we wore, everything we ate, was made by people we personally knew. How sad has the world become, that our medicine is provided by those we never see, our books printed by those we've never known, food grown by those we'll never interact with?

He would likely respond that modern trade is different -- there is no sense of mystery when we turn over a jacket and see on the tag 'Made in China', where such a feat would have wowed people in 200BC. Not only are our goods produced far away, but they are made far away with a disenchanting regularity. The mechanized processes of production have taken the mysterious human element out of goods. The problems are in how it's produced (uniformly, without human hands) and in how much of it is produced (market saturation).

I can agree with him on the point of human production. When I went to Turkey, when I shopped for Iznik ceramics, I sought out the store that painted them right there. I even have a magnet on my fridge that was produced right in a tiny seaside town. This has a similar appeal to getting an author to sign his book -- the human element feels special, not to mention making the item feel more rare.

However, that raises the issue of market saturation, which I believe gets often quietly wrapped into this line of argument. The fact that food saturates the market, that machine-made water bottles line the grocery stores, may make water less 'magical'. However, those clean bottles of water are lifesavers to communities like Flint, Michigan. Mass food production makes global food aid possible. Even Communists were excited at the possibilities of mass production, especially in China, where droughts could capriciously kill hundreds of thousands of people due to low crop yields. The hope was for a world where children didn't need to starve. The UN today has a similar mission -- "All of us – citizens, employers, corporate leaders and governments – must work together to end hunger."

I only pick on Junot Diaz's line of argument because this is just one of many times I've heard the same thinking here at Harvard. The rare gets held up as valuable, without realizing that in part, the argument could be stated, "Wasn't this type of object/experience better when it was only available to rich people?" or "Isn't this type of more expensive experience better?" or "Wow, wasn't this time period great, even though it involved stomping on the poor and minorities?". You only get the best experience of watching a movie when you see it in theaters. Americans are falling out of touch with the art of letter-writing, instead sending impersonal texts. In the days of chivalry, people had true values like loyalty and nobility. Reading James Joyce's Ulysses is a truly great experience that will change your life. Pirating movies and video games is wrong -- it's not like people have a right to entertainment. How inane and shallow social media has made us now that millions of people around the world can share their thoughts publicly. Books are better than digital copies (even if they're more expensive).

What bothers me is that self-proclaimed liberals and progressives uphold these values, frequently without acknowledging the class-based part of it, or the history of the topic at hand. All of these topics have other sides. Maybe Americans are writing fewer letters, but they're sending text communications to each other more than ever before, in much faster ways. Those values of chivalry glorify a class of people who essentially reduced the lower class, the serfs, to slaves bounded to the land, and the stories that encapsulate those ideals tend to make a system even more brutal than Game of Thrones (much more poverty, rape, and disease in real life) sound noble and good. Ulysses is a long and boring book held up by primarily privileged white people for privileged white people and the inaccessibility of the book is somehow considered a good thing, while fantastic television programs and disgusting pop literature, enjoyed by the masses, gets ignored. Why should someone too poor to pay for books, games, and movies not get the chance to experience that artwork? Is art a luxury meant only for the bourgeoisie? The same social media that is apparently draining our world of sense has given millions of previously unheard people voices. What matters isn't the format of the media, but the fact that you experienced it -- I would rather a student read the form of book they can take anywhere with them and read at their convenience.

What I'm saying is this: Perhaps the world is less enchanting to some because humans have less of a hand in producing the food we eat and the clothes we wear. Fair. However, perhaps the world is less enchanting to some because more people are able to experience and enjoy it than ever before. The lack of rarity takes the fun out of it. That's unfair.

I don't want to downplay all of the many problems in the world. This specific type of 'problem', though, that Diaz raises, often strikes me as particularly tone deaf to the poor and disadvantaged.

DC: Do you mean "rationalization" to mean "industrialization" and the organization of working peoples following the Industrial Revolutions; or perhaps do you mean rationalization as in the globalization of industrial trade; or do you mean the global division of labor between the pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial parts of the world; or do you mean a kind of routinization of production that mass produces what was once hard to make and/or rare?

I'm also curious as to why you chose to conflate rationalization with global trade. Perhaps this will be informed by your answer to my previous question. Let me also say that I see a dialectical materialist analysis hiding in your post and I like it!

MH: The professor quoted Weber when he used the term 'rationalization', saying he took the term directly from him. Weber appears to have spent a lot of time writing about this topic, which could be a bottomless rabbit hole. So, I'll steal/summarize: from a ye olde summary from the University of Regina,

Rationalization is a move towards science away from superstition. It's also a move toward rational thinking away from emotional thinking.

This can be characterized several ways, but especially by a desire for:

a. calculability: the desire to quantify problems.

b. efficiency: the desire to get the most good for the least energy.

c. predictability: as opposed to randomness. hard to quantify random. rules, regulations, structures, and authority all help with this.

d. non-human tech: machines are more predictable than people.

The idea is that rational people are swayed more by thought and reason than by religion and mysticism and in-the-moment feeling.

However, Weber saw all this as really important for the rise of Western capitalism. Rationalization also seems heavily tied to the development of modern bureaucracies, because bureaucracy is all about rules, regulations, structure, and authority.

In short, rationalization is huge. Junot Diaz is decrying a huge movement away from tradition and mysticism, because it takes all the enchantment out of life. Your first and fourth examples seem closest to what's described here. However, I would say every major Communist project also seems based on rational thinking, too. I mean, Das Kapital is an economic textbook. Weber and Marx would sharply disagree on how awesome Western capitalism is, but I think both of them would agree that a movement away from religious, superstitious world is good.

Where they might disagree is on the importance of emotion. Weber seems pretty happy that both superstition and human emotion get tossed out with the rise of rationalization, but Marx is definitely not happy with treating people like raw production costs and ignoring their humanity. It seems more like efficiency (as a subset of rationalization) is decried for making life too easy and simple, for making certain goods too common. Kind of the stereotype of the grandpa complaining, 'back in my day...'. Further, I suppose I didn't say this in the main block, celebrating superstition and myth seems a bit historically tone deaf.

All of this was wrapped, in class, if the package of rage against neoliberalism, which Diaz defined as a stage of capitalism in which market economics have bled into every aspect of life. I must admit, that's not really how I define neoliberalism personally, but there ya go. That's a whole different rabbit hole!

DC: I was ready for Weber. So let's start with the competing sociological claims about rationalization. You outlined Weber well, so I'll move to Marx, and specifically his theories of alienation.

Rationalization--read broadly either as the process which produced modern western capitalism or the process western capitalism uses to consolidate and grow power and profit--is one of the ways in which alienation occurs. Marx outlined four ways:

1. Alienation from products of labor - the worker is alienated from the profits derived from their labor. And in many cases, alienated from the physical product created because it is beyond their means, needs, or desires (I imagine a factory worker in a Ferrari factory, for example).

2. Alienation from labor itself - the worker has no control over what is created, how it is allocated, and who controls its use. And the work itself is menial and repetitive, as well as psychologically unfulfilling (industrial labor in factories mass producing interchangeable parts, for example).

3. Alienation from species-essence [Gattungswesen] - Marx theorized that an essential part of human existence was productive labor. Because laborers are alienated from the products of labor and labor itself, they are also alienated from themselves, which is psychologically damaging (growing food for your family, building a house, or engaging in meaningful work that you find enjoyable).

4. Alienation from other workers - workers are in constant competition with each other, which breeds working-class in-fighting and conflict. Some Marxists have argued this is the root of racism, sexism, and nativism (for example, unions made of Protestants barred Catholics and Jews from entry).

As you've outlined it, rationalization could create alienation in several other ways, for example:

5. Alienation from cultural practice - destroying cultural traditions rooted in mysticism or superstition, like daily church attendance. If rationalization monopolizes a laborer's time or builds social expectations that some practices are no longer accepted, then they will find it very difficult to go to church every day, spend time with their peers, build working-class relationships, etc. Just look at church attendance in late-stage capitalism for example.

6. Commodification of foreigners - perhaps Diaz is onto something here. If we indulge his premise that exotic artifacts were once rare and therefore powerful in some way, then we can draw the conclusion that reducing foreign products to "Made in China" tags tells us about how the foreign peoples have also been reduced to commodities. Imagine if every time you unlocked your iPhone, a picture of a slave in China building it was displayed. Would we still be comfortable buying iPhones produced in China, or perhaps would we grow numb to the images of suffering? In both scenarios, that Chinese laborer is reduced to an image that is accessible to us but at the same time separate from our own being. There is no affinity toward that person, and certainly no empathy for their suffering. Rationalization has allowed companies to move these types of jobs to countries where labor laws do not protect workers, so it is cheaper to produce those products abroad.

But we should hesitate to say that communists were engaged in rationalization as it was practiced by capitalism. This is not to discount its role, however. If rationalization is the organization of the means of production to be their most productive, then communist societies are not strangers to rationalization. For example, in Revolutionary Catalonia, when the factories were collectivized, many smaller and inefficient factories were closed in order to move workers to bigger factories that were more efficient. And having workers more heavily condensed in a smaller number of factories meant it was easier to decide what to make, how to make it, and where to send it.

This can easily be interpreted as redefining efficiency from capital to labor. If efficiency is defined by the amount of surplus value produced, then it makes sense to rationalize how capital is used, including keeping wages low and limiting the power of unions (and all the other aspects of capitalist allocation of the means of production). On the other hand, if efficiency is judged by metrics like worker happiness, productive labor, or something else, then of course a communist/anarcho-communist/anarchist society could use some form of rationalization. Returning to Catalonia for a moment, when the farms were collectivized, agricultural yields actually increased [pp. 81, 84] between 30 and 50%. This was because the farming collectives could more efficiently allocate farming machinery and workers, and then the yields were kept locally to feed the local population rather than being shipped off to other parts of Spain at the whim of the landowner.

So returning to a point from your original post about the classist implications of exotic goods. (Let's put aside for a moment the orientalist/colonialist implications of what is "exotic.") I think most of your analysis is spot on, and could be applied to Marx's claims about commodity fetishism he makes in Kapital. I'd say that the value attached to commodities--as you said, "The rare gets held up as valuable"--is because of the relationship between class and goods. If poor people had access to it, it would be neither rare nor valuable. In this way, because something is off limits to the working peoples, that is the only way that a commodity can retain its value.

Take a stereotypical and offensive example. If Bubba Joe from the trailer park bought a Lamborghini, would we then see rich people abandon the Lambo in favor of something else? Of course! It's class status. The Lambo is valuable because it confers some kind of legitimacy of a person's wealth and status. When it no longer carries that same meaning, then it is not valuable to the bourgeoisie. I think your instructor's critique is hopelessly classist for this reason.

Value is abstract and contingent. Marx says, "the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things."

Mass-produced products are widely available and generally accessible to almost everyone. This means they have less value for the elite, because there is nothing about these products that confer elite-ness.

I would contend that the social value attached to such products is what actually determines its value. For example, I heard that Leonardo DiCaprio drives a Prius. Because of his social capital as a trendsetter, we know that driving a Prius--which would otherwise be a kind of middle-class signifier--is the mark of someone who "cares" about the environment. The Prius' value may not go up in terms of price, but the Prius' social value may increase because it signifies a kind of rich person's indulgence in environmental politics, which confers some kind of altruistic aura for them. But in both cases--the Lambo and the Prius--the rich have attached a meaning to the product, while at the same time stripping away from that product its physical production. On one hand, the Lambo says, "I'm so rich, I can buy this expensive car which most people can't have"; and on the other for the Prius, "I'm so rich, I make real statements about my character by the car I drive. Look, I'm so magnanimous that I have foregone the Lambo for the Prius."

Look at art. What kind of art do the rich prefer? Van Gogh or Monet or Picasso paintings sell for millions. And the lower classes? Banksy prints, movie posters, graffiti. If Van Gogh paintings could be mass produced, they would lose their value. That's why you can buy a print of "Starry Night" for $10 at Target, but the original is worth millions. And you'd never see a print of "Starry Night" hanging up in Martin Shkreli's parlour.

In total, I think Diaz has made accurate claims that relate to alienation and fetishization, but I think Diaz is wrong about the implications. Rationalization has led to alienation and fetishization, yes. But if the solution to that is a return to the fetishization of bourgeois values, then it ignores the actual historical circumstances produced by both bourgeois values and rationalization. And if his solution to rationalization is like primitivist or anti-technologist or something, then he is ignoring the impacts that will be felt by the working classes.

MH: When I was reading about 'alienation from cultural practice', perhaps different sorts of cultural practices become more acceptable. For example, watching television together, playing games, or going to dinner are all still accepted cultural practices without roots in superstition. Pokemon Go certainly created a week or two of obsessive go-outdoors-with-your-friends fun. Then again, one could easily say 'all of those are forms of capitalist consumption'. Yes, that's true. However, churches also seem to have been primarily oriented around sapping money from people, just for the glory of god (and wealth) rather than the glory of wealth directly. Maybe this is a good development, is what I'm saying.

On the commodification of foreign labor, I think that's always existed to some degree. Tulips from the Netherlands, gold from South America, cotton from North America, oil from the Middle East, cheap factory labor from China. Regions (and by extension, their people) have always been reduced down to the resources they produce. It's always been easy, especially for the rich most likely to import these goods from afar, to forget about the humans producing these goods and their labor conditions. I don't think rationalization created this. Religions themselves seem awfully eager to treat foreigners, or even locals (during the Inquisition) in nasty, callous ways. Ethnic nationalism has been a violent, dehumanizing tendency since at least the days of the Old Testament. I don't think rationalism is directly responsible for this problem.

Rationalization is a tricky term. On the one hand, I think it's fair to describe it as trying to remove instinct, superstition, and human emotion from decision-making. That tends to represent the nasty side of the trend. On the other hand, rationalization transforms into a much better trend if we consider human well-being and happiness to be valuable goals. This reminds me of the recent trend towards World Happiness Reports, the Human Development Index, and the Happy Planet Index. Rationalization led to the development of these (obsession with putting numbers on everything), and now increasingly more economists want to use these indicators above GDP as a measure of progress in countries. This also ties into your Catalonia example, which, by the way, sounds awesome. I'd love to learn more about it. We seem to agree here that rationalization can be used in these two different ways, which leads to two rather different conclusions.

The following paragraphs, where you were talking about wealth, status, and the imbuing of objects with value to the upper classes, that's the part where I wanted to stand up and clap. The Prius/Lambo examples are particularly delicious, especially because the types of people who drive a Prius are likely to be those that claim themselves liberal or progressive. They have a classist, smug sense of superiority, which is what I was most upset about the whole time, the hypocrisy of it. At least a Lambo owner is probably rather aware of what kind of person they are.


This conversation was edited for length. You can read the full PDF of this discussion here.