How Small-Scale Producers become Virtuous (Part 3)

Part 1 and Part 2

Small-Scale production

The difficulty in establishing the conditions for creative labor to be an end in itself in a capitalist system lies in the ideal scale of production in such a system. Only in large-scale production can a firm maximize efficiency and thereby drive down production cost. As mentioned in a previous post, this requires large amounts of simple and repetitive labor. It also leaves a vast gulf between producer and consumer such that any affirmation of labor from the consumer is impossible. Production and consumption become impersonal and both become merely means to an end. At the same time, this increased focus on competition and efficiency drives down prices, sending many small-scale

businesses, which operate less efficiently, out of business. The larger businesses begin to take more and more of the market share, ensuring that production to consumption is almost universally impersonal. Large and highly efficient stores, such as Walmart offer goods and services that were once offered by multiple different types of stores, often owned by families. With sophisticated production and transportation processes (which do make their prices remarkably low), these mega-stores have systematically made the traditional “mom and pop” stores obsolete. And as forces for the impersonalization of the producer/consumer relationship, they do not permit the type of relationship in which the consumer affirms the producer’s meaningful work.

The best setting for such affirmation is in small-scale production. In pre-modern times, these private operations would include the grocer, blacksmith, farmer, locksmith, etc. Due to the limited transportation technology, these specialists primarily served their community in their work, and their invitation to share in the satisfaction of creative production was personal and direct. They knew their customers and could receive feedback and direct appreciation; and because the laborer was part of the community, he could view his work as service to the community, as being an integral part of the social organism. Production would continue to be a means of making a profit, yet its end is creative labor affirmed by the consumer. In this highly personalized setting, the producer can put a “face,” of sorts, to the product; it is made public and subjected to scrutiny. From this scrutiny, the brave producers hope to achieve realization through the affirmation of the meaningfulness of his or her labor.

But today being a small-scale producer has a difficulty that pre-modern producers never experienced. Consumers search out the best prices, and the internet has provided instant price comparisons and purchasing with a click of computer mouse. Local small-scale producers typically do not have the sophisticated methods of marketing, branding, and distribution as do the megastores. Many of these small-scale stores try to grab hold of a niche market, yet when a niche turns popular the market is quickly taken over by the capital-rich and flexible megastores. The megastores are so impressive that they are able even to have higher quality and more available customer service than many small-scale stores.

The state contributes to the competiveness of large companies, particularly the large retail stores, such as Walmart, Target, and The Home Depot. Government road and highway networks permit not only speedy transportation for bulk order (reducing cost), but also ensures easy access to these stores. No longer must (or can) one walk to the local strip of stores to buy what they need. Not only can one comfortably drive to these locations, almost everything one needs is conveniently located in one or two stores.[1] Small-scale operations face almost insurmountable odds.

At this point, the only angle small-scale operations (which includes both producers and retails stores) have is to present themselves as local establishments or they must have a strong internet presence. The former angle (and partly the latter) hopes that a certain ideological commitment to localism will spur on local patronage and investment. The most obvious successes in this regard is found in the farmer’s markets in which local farmers and ranchers sell their products for cash. Other examples include the brewpub, offering craft beer. Indeed, the craft beer movement has done quite well, forcing the larger companies to sell their own unique beer. In general, though, the time of various separately owned and operated shops supplying the needs of a community has succumbed to large conglomerates. Still, these small-scale producers are the closest things in the United States economy to having the conditions necessary to bring about the affirmation of meaningful work.

Some may object that since many of the small-scale producers use wage-labor, the owners are denying the workers meaningful work in I’ve described. This is false. It is not the presence of a wage that denies an affirmation of meaningful work; it is the lack of personalized exchange. One can receive a wage, not own the means of production and still have his or her work as an end, not the means to earn a wage, affirmed. In this sense, even a slave could have his or her work affirmed as meaningful, despite the injustice of slavery (of course, this doesn’t justify slavery). In a company with a few workers, the affirmation would depend on a certain unity as to the nature of the invitation to exchange. The owner of the means of production would ultimately have the final say on the matter, but in the interest of justice the owner ought to ensure a certain unity of purpose in their production and exchange. This ensures the greatest realization of the workers’ creative potential in the affirmation coming from the exchange.

Upshot of everyday life

Those of us who are uncomfortable or horrified by the state of our consumeristic and industrial society too often propose solutions that call for an addition to life: activism, protesting, marching, charity, etc. These are what we can call “additional duties,” activities separated and added onto everyday life. Some proposed solutions are so radical that they cannot sufficiently be practiced at all or at least only in limited and special occasions (e.g., some of the Occupy activities). Everyday life is separated from the ideal.

But if my argument is sound, then those who care for a more just economic order can actually participate in it now. This is because small-scale producers continue to exist, and they exist only because people buy their products. Too often activism is denouncing someone or some institution and calling for them or it to change. But what I’ve presented here is not so much a call for the producers of capitalism to change, but for the consumers to change. Affirming the meaningfulness of another’s labor can happen now through local purchasing. Any increase in the demand for locally produced products will increase the availability of locally produced products. This requires the type of massive individual change that so often activists demand on others.

The individual change required is complex and deeply personal. But what I want to emphasize is that my presentation, though it makes demands upon small-scale owners and calls for workers of all modes of production to seek the type of affirmation I have described, primarily calls on people to realize that the everyday, the ordinary demands of life, is a sphere of possible impact in one’s community, particularly in our purchasing. The problem, as most people quickly discover, is the price. Small-scale producers rarely can compete with the prices of the high efficiency stores. Shopping local means being able to purchase less. Each person must decide what they are willing to sacrifice. I do not presume to answer such a question.

Small-scale producers also sell online. Though it is not local, the exchange still affirms the creativity of the seller and most sites offer some type of feedback mechanism. It would be better for various reasons to buy local, but the internet has broadened the market of small-scale producer in such a way to make their production possible. Local markets rarely can support businesses selling highly specialized items with low demand. The internet has opened up the possibility of creative productive labor for products that cannot be distributed locally.

Conclusion

These post have been an attempt to describe an important feature of human potential and its realization. Those who conduct creative productive labor want an affirmation of its meaning through the consumer’s satisfaction of the product. This prevents a certain alienation. Alienated labor in my presentation is labor separated from the consumer satisfaction of the product of labor. Many, if not most, jobs in modern capitalist economies cannot ensure this. They do not have the conditions necessary to alleviate the alienation by consumer affirming the meaningfulness of the labor, though a worker could view his work as affirmed to a certain degree. My argument calls not for the world to change, but for individuals to change; and changing their buying habits would be a good start. It is a process of making deliberate one’s daily actions, being conscious of what one is doing and contributing to. Deliberately purchasing products from local producers and stores creates the demand for such producers. It can revitalize a local economy and community. It re-personalizes a major part of one’s everyday life and an essential part of any robust community.

Part 1 and Part 2

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[1] Walmart is the best example of this.

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