In protest against France’s refusal to join the United States in invading Iraq in early 2003, various American conservative groups took to the streets to pour imported French wine down in the gutter. The act was, as expected, criticized, but not in the typical fashion: they were ridiculed for making a self-defeating act. After all, in order to dump French wine in the gutter, one would have to first purchase the bottle. As Alan Reynolds from the libertarian think-tank, Cato Institutes, wrote at the time, “Any French wine available to be poured down the drain is wine that has been paid for by some American. Destroying the wine after buying it does not hurt the French seller, only the American buyer.” Furthermore, even before the protesters purchased the wine, the French suppliers and the American distributors had already received payment for bringing the product to retail. The key assumption of the criticism is that the producer’s interest in the product was satisfied and ended upon receiving payment for it. This represents a common view, shared by many on both the left and right, namely, that a product’s value is solely reducible to its price and that the producer’s interest in the product ends with its sale.
But, despite the silliness of these acts, the wine-defamers recognized something important that is often lost in current discussions on work and products. They recognized that certain products, typically those in which intimate and personal care went into their production, carry with them more than its price—they embody the producer’s or producers’ meaningful labor. The protesters understood that pride, tradition, and personality went into French wine production. The wine also carries with it the characteristics of the region and land from which the grapes were harvested. The wine represents not only the winemakers’ labor, but also the winemakers’ home.
The offense given and taken by dumping such wine in the gutter is not simply in the act itself, but in what the act prevents, namely, the consumption and possible enjoyment of the wine. The protesters prevented the type of consumer satisfaction that satisfies the producer. The producers intended for the wine not only to be sold, but to be enjoyed and appreciated; and by enjoying and appreciating the wine, the consumer affirms the meaningfulness of the producers’ labor. By doing this, the consumer affirms that the producer’s labor was not merely a means to a wage, but an end in itself. Much more is at stake than monetary profit.
This series of posts explores the relationship between the producers and consumers. I argue that the consumer’s satisfaction in the product is indispensable to the producer’s satisfaction in his labor as an end in itself. The sale of a product makes the production, and therefore labor, a means to profit, but consumer satisfaction affirms that the labor was meaningful as an end in itself, as something worth doing for its own sake. Their labor is revealed as virtuous. I also argue that this relationship is possible typically only in small-scale and local production and consumption, though there can be a sense of it by workers in large-scale production. Finally, I call on the consumers to purchase the goods and services produced by small-scale production. The upshot of my argument is that it can be practiced now in everyday life. It is not an addition to life (as is charity or activism); nor does acting on my argument require waiting for some world-historical event that ends capitalism. One can practice small-scale patronage now and, if I am correct, ought to.