Tag Archives: education

The Commodification of America

Artwork by Banksy. Photo by Chris Muniz.

Editor’s note: Guest writer John T. Marohn (@johntmarohn) was kind enough to allow the Project to republish this excellent piece on the commodification of America, wherein he asks the crucial question: “Is America for sale?”

Mr. Marohn is a retired college teacher, a freelance writer, novelist, poet, socio-political commentator, international film critic, and recovering alcoholic. John currently lives in Buffalo, New York. Please visit his website: Against the Grain.

“Business — that’s easily defined: it’s other people’s money.”
- Peter Drucker

“The social responsibility of Business is to increase profits.”
- Milton Friedman

“First amendment never shows why freedom of speech…did not include the freedom to speak in association with other individuals, including association in the corporate form.”
- Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission

There it is folks. The American way: Profits. Corporate free speech. Other people’s money.

There is little doubt that America has become the global symbol for upward mobility, profits, and economic success. But we have also become the global capital of commodification in all of its forms, including prisons, education, health care, and, more cruelly, in our political arenas.

There are few institutional venues in the United States that aren’t, in some way, touched—some would say tainted—by the profit motive. Politicians curry favor with the wealthy who contribute to their campaigns. The health care system continues to be driven by ever increasing profits. The national defense budget has become so entrenched with defense contracts that it would be safe to say that United States Defense is an industry in and of itself.

And some of the top universities are run as corporations with heavy endowments, investments in the stock market, and huge government grants. Not to mention the sports industry that dominates the budgets of many very wealthy universities and colleges throughout the United States.

Who would have thought that we could have moved from an innocent laissez-faire economic model that still works well in the small local merchant world to a sprawling octopus of big-business and global corporatism running through every artery of our society.

Is America really for sale? It seems so.

I live in a small urban area in Western New York. Almost every day, I stop at one particular intersection that has a long wait at the traffic signal (there are at least six or seven traffic lanes the traffic light has to accommodate). If I’m in the south lane of traffic, I get a chance to see one billboard, conveniently placed on top of a two-story building.

It is always an ad about a particular hospital. The latest ad makes the claim that the hospital successfully treated more strokes than any other hospital. I wasn’t sure whether the hospital meant that stat to apply to the whole world, in Western New York, in the state, or throughout the United States.

I was not comforted by the fact that the hospital is scheduled to close within a year. I could only assume that, before the hospital goes down, it wanted to make one last foxhole effort to redeem itself from anonymity.

I also suppose that if I felt a stroke coming on, I would quickly flash back to my intersection stop, the billboard sign would pop up in my Pavlovian mind’s eye, I would call 911 and have the ambulance take me to the hospital’s emergency room. Ah, the power of advertising.

It is impossible to escape ads on television. The pharmaceutical and health-care industries are two of the many blatant users of the television ad industry. Marketing, of course, is the name of the game.

Image courtesy of semissourian.com

And marketing is not so much about “actual” competence as it is about the “image” of competence. Americans are supposed to believe, in theory anyway, that if an ad, especially a big billboard ad, says a health-care provider is good, then it must be true.

My point here is that the commodification of the health care industry is not just about health insurance premiums, deductibles, copays (all business terms, by the way); it is also engaged in the pro-active marketing industry.

And the commodification of health insurance is so widespread that Americans begin to believe that the privatization model is the only model that has any credibility. It becomes extremely anxious about even discussing Medicare-for-all paradigm because the health insurance industry controls the narratives in employer-sponsored health insurance policies, in the group plans strategy, in television and other media advertising, and in the lobbying halls of Congress.

More tragically, the health insurance industry completely dominates the “language” of health insurance with all the business panoply of words that have crept into the American vocabulary—premiums, deductibles, plans, copays. One can easily say, that the health insurance industry, through its control of the health insurance language, has made it almost impossible to think outside the box.

Americans have bought the insurance model for health care, not just because it is necessarily better model, but because, in theory, it is supposed to “insure” the patient that they won’t be saddled with a financial medical burden. That is the purpose of insurance: to protect a consumer from financial ruin by having an insurance plan. And the insurer hopes that not everyone in the plan needs to cash in at the same time.

However, “insurance” is a business. Businesses need to make a profit. Profits cannot take a back seat to expensive medical procedures that have the potential to put them out of business. So, you can be sure, a profit-driven company is going to do everything it can to scrutinize, stop, or delay a payment to a doctor or a hospital, especially if a procedure does not appear to be “cost-effective.”

Insurance, as Americans have come to know, is definitely a business. It is very much like having a debit card. A customer puts money into the premium. The premium is stored with other customer premiums. And the insurer holding those premiums pays a doctor or a hospital from those premiums after reviewing the doctor or hospital’s bill for a procedure, an office visit, an operation, or a test.

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle and the Salt Lake Tribune.

Now credit, on the other hand, is another model that a consumer can use to pay off a medical bill with a credit card, if they don’t have the cash or their insurance deductible is too high, or they don’t have any insurance. Of course, a credit card is also a very expensive way to pay off a medical bill because of the monthly interest charges

Credit, the more sophisticated capitalist term for money that’s available to borrow, has also crept into the higher ed business. Students generally take out loans from the federal government or a bank. The total amount of those loans has begun to rise in the US and graduating students are now confronted with a jobless work environment and a student loan to pay off.

What about politics? Well, the evidence, to most Americans is pretty well known. Lobbyists spend an awful lot of money in Washington to plead their cases. And the corporate world has now won a victory with the Citizens United case which allows corporations, unions,and non-profit political fronts to pour unrestricted amounts of money into media advertising. This, of course, is a variation of buying influence. After all, campaign money is not just about supporting a candidate; it is also a way of trying to convince a candidate to vote a particular way.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Occupy Wall Street protests are all about a capitalist/corporate/business-model system that is out of control. When politicians can be bought, when health care has become a very expensive business, when our college education system has become burdened with rising student debt, when some of our prisons can be owned by shareholders, when the business model of running a country has seeped into the country’s pores, on all levels, this younger, very articulate group of protesters are beginning to see how deep and wide the cracks in capitalism really are.

Let us hope that we can find alternative ways to vote on public policy in America, to educate our youth, and to give reasonable health care.


Walking the Walk: Occupy Philadelphia Forges Ahead with a Free University

Occupy Philadelphia's Free University Working Group. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

In a cafe mere blocks from posh Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, 25 or so activists assemble to chart a new course for the Occupy Philadelphia movement. It’s an idea that was just as subversive some 50 years ago as it is today, and perhaps more so, given the deepening crisis facing primary and higher education.

The first Free University of Philadelphia working group meeting has convened, and it is composed of a broad cross-section of people: professors from Bryn Mawr, Villanova, and Princeton; a homeless, unemployed construction worker; citizen journalists; and of course, activists who have committed themselves to the movement here since it began here in October.

As Larry Swetman, an activist and one of several behind Occupy Philadelphia’s Free University initiative tells me:

“When I got the chance to go to college I realized the empowering nature of education, and how it can change everything. It can make your life and it can also break it. I come from the poverty mindset, and those who haven’t had a chance to be educated, I can’t stand for that anymore. I have to educate people so they can better themselves.”

Larry Swetman. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

Many here who want to teach have become disillusioned with how education has shifted to a commercialized enterprise–charter schools and for-profit colleges–and are upset that rising tuition and school closures have shut out an increasing number of people from a chance to better their minds.

Others, like Jacob Russell, who is a published author and artist, feel that it is necessary to “get rid of the gatekeepers of literature and integrate the arts into all aspects of life.”

Initial courses such as comparative literature, creative writing, race and gender studies, physics and even a course on how to change car oil have all been discussed. The idea is to continue building course offerings if the idea grows in popularity and attracts more teachers.

Still others here just want to help build a fresh way of learning, a horizontal model that would take a page from the non-hierarchical General Assembly that the Occupy movement has become known for, and in so doing, introduce new students to the process of direct democracy.

How this would translate into the classroom remains to be seen.

One aspect of this endeavor that is more certain, however, is the venue where the university might be based: the Elkins Estate. This sprawling property was once the home of William L. Elkins. According to the estate’s website:

“Elkins was largely responsible for the production of the first gasoline ever refined from petroleum at Philadelphia’s Monument Oil Works, which was established and operated by Elkins until his partnership with John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil Company in 1875.”

Elkins Estate

The irony of nurturing an idea with anti-capitalist overtones in a space where oil barons once rubbed elbows is certainly not lost on this group. The arrangement to use the estate as a venue has not been finalized, however, and a rotating list of locations is under consideration – including Rittenhouse Square.

Other occupations are taking up the idea too, including Occupy Berkeley. The concept of a free university seems like a natural outgrowth of this movement. The encampments, despite the national crackdown, are meant to be a microcosm of what occupiers want the world to be.

What’s that saying that’s so often shouted by protesters nowadays? Oh, that’s right: “You can’t evict an idea.”


Occupy 2.0: “Defending the Everyday Aims of Life” while Persisting in a Police State

Occupy Philadelphia marches in early morning hours after eviction. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

“No government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people, willing or forced, and if people withdraw their cooperation in every detail, the government will come to a standstill.”
–Gandhi

The Occupy movement is now a genie that cannot be put back in its bottle.

And while it has certainly gone through growing pains, and will continue to do so, the adversity faced has only forced the movement to adapt and refocus.

After their first eviction, Occupy San Francisco decided to occupy sidewalks around the downtown financial district (the original strategy for Occupy Wall Street before 17 September, I should add.) Can’t have an encampment? Adapt and take public sidewalks. There is now a nationwide movement to also throw the gauntlet at major banks like Bank of America, and re-occupy foreclosed homes for families thrown out by the financial criminal class. The move has even prompted Bank of America to fire out an email to its employees. And yes, the email’s existence has indeed been confirmed by a Bank of America representative.

The financial elite are not the only ones concerned about this nonviolent peoples’ movement, of course. Incredibly, Mayor Jean Quan stated in a recent interview that mayors from at least 18 cities have been holding conference calls with each other to discuss how to deal with the Occupy movement. There are legitimate questions as to whether federal agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are playing some kind of advisory role or even assisting in coordinating crackdowns on occupations too. Indeed, it would be surprising if the federal government were not, given the history of programs like COINTELPRO. It is well known, however, that DHS operates what are known as fusion centers, which serve as “focal points within the state and local environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information between the federal government and state, local, tribal, territorial (SLTT) and private sector partners.” Investigative journalists such as Jason Leopold are continuing to search for more answers about what role, if any, the federal government is playing in these crackdowns.

What is no mystery, however, is the contempt and cruelty often displayed by police towards this movement. Here’s what Patrick Meghan, a writer for the sitcom “Family Guy” experienced at the hands of the LAPD:

“I was arrested at about 1 a.m. Wednesday morning with 291 other people at Occupy LA. I was sitting in City Hall Park with a pillow, a blanket, and a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Being Peace” when 1,400 heavily-armed LAPD officers in paramilitary SWAT gear streamed in. I was in a group of about 50 peaceful protestors who sat Indian-style, arms interlocked, around a tent (the symbolic image of the Occupy movement). The LAPD officers encircled us, weapons drawn, while we chanted ‘We Are Peaceful’ and ‘We Are Nonviolent’ and ‘Join Us.’”

It gets worse.

“When the LAPD finally began arresting those of us interlocked around the symbolic tent, we were all ordered by the LAPD to unlink from each other (in order to facilitate the arrests). Each seated, nonviolent protester beside me who refused to cooperate by unlinking his arms had the following done to him: an LAPD officer would forcibly extend the protestor’s legs, grab his left foot, twist it all the way around and then stomp his boot on the insole, pinning the protestor’s left foot to the pavement, twisted backwards. Then the LAPD officer would grab the protestor’s right foot and twist it all the way the other direction until the non-violent protestor, in incredible agony, would shriek in pain and unlink from his neighbor. It was horrible to watch, and apparently designed to terrorize the rest of us.”

The police state will continue to use terror to coerce this movement into backing down. It will not work, however. As Andrew Kolin states in his book State Power and Democracy: Before and During The Presidency of George W. Bush: “Keep in mind that police states are by their inherent nature dysfunctional,” Kolin said. “The Occupy movement is hope of a return to mass democracy as a countervailing force to the police state and to it’s possible breakdown.” In an excellent interview with Jason Leopold at Truthout, Kolin says that “in all police states, ‘and Germany in the [1930s] is the classic example, they develop by crushing democracy.’”

Philadelphia police on a SEPTA bus arrive in riot gear to evict Occupy Philadelphia. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

Myself and over 50 others were arrested in the early-morning hours after Occupy Philadelphia’s eviction–for marching. My resolve, as well as those who were arrested or were outraged at the way the police handled the eviction, has only strengthened. This movement must use love and persistence to fight back. There is no other way. The state knows only violence and fear, and this can only continue for so long in the face of what the Occupy movement offers as an alternative. This movement must continue to struggle for what dissident playwright and later president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel calls “defending the everyday aims of life.”

As Mark Kurlansky writes of Havel in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea:

“Organizations were formed to support the families of those persecuted by the government; alternative ‘universities’ taught the things excluded from official education; environmental groups were formed and cultural activities established…Increasingly citizens could live life apart from the one established by the regime. Though the actions were small, the goals were large.”

Kurlansky goes on to write of Havel’s strategy:

“…if people lived their lives parallel to the state system and not as a part of it–which he [Havel] termed “living within a lie”–there would always be a tension between these two realities and they would not be able to permanently coexist.”

The Occupy movement has for months now been engaged in creating the very same “counter-society” Havel and the Solidarity movement created to eventually bring the Soviet empire to its knees. Occupations across the country have been stepping up to offer free food, shelter and healthcare to the homeless because the state has failed to do so, a state that in turn uses its own failure as an excuse to evict peaceful protesters. The “occupation” has plans to offer free college education in Philadelphia, with local college professors volunteering their time, as I’m sure there are similar initiatives to do so in other parts of the country. And the movement is now standing–physically–with American families from across the country who are trampled on by banks who knowingly committed fraud and tossed people out of their homes.

Despite the winter, Occupy 2.0 is just getting warmed up. What are YOU going to do now?


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