Fish: our tasty, slimy, and nutritious friends are disappearing. Fast. Since the rapid industrialization of the fisheries industry is hardly regulated, a lack of enforcement mechanisms means marine ecosystems are being scoured freely to keep up with the global demand for fish. Overfishing and bottom trawling by large, heavily industrialized fleets is destroying the physical environments of fish and preventing marine ecosystems from replenishing keystone species, essential to the food chains relevant to all marine life. Ironically, the large-scale fishing industries are not benefiting from their own greedy practices, as they are destructive beyond the rate of replacement necessary for their own profit in a given area. Entire coastal areas are rendered lifeless as large vessels fly flags of convenience from countries with few fisheries regulations and avoid legal recourse. Yet even these massive industrialized fishing fleets, able to move freely with their flags of convenience and exploit new waters are experiencing increasingly lower catch levels, caused by their own harmful practices. As a response to this growing worldwide ecosystemic crisis, the European Union has been debating the terms of future changes to its Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
Realizing that such destructive vessels exist within the sovereign waters of EU countries is disturbing. However, realizing that many times that number of vessels operate internationally is absolutely terrifying. This is particularly pronounced in countries with weak capacities for enforcing environmental laws. The Environmental Justice Foundation has an excellent short documentary on the topic with particular relevance to the developing country context.
Data gathered in 2009 by the European Commission show that 88% of the catches exploited in EU waters exceed their stock’s renewal capacity because of trawling techniques. The same data also show there are 15,744 vessels (18% of the EU fleet) using trawling as their primary method of harvesting. If even the EU, among the strictest of environmental enforcers, is unable to prevent the decimation of their fish stocks, how can the international community expect to tackle the issue at a global scale?
Bitching and complaining has indeed been rampant about the failure of quota proposals for overfished species. At the same time, those in the UK seem obsessed over the idea of regional policy management and a general reduction in overall fishing. Unfortunately, NGOs and European policy makers have failed to propose measures that strike at the heart of the ecosystemic issues I just highlighted. In addition to its current suggestions an effective CFP must set a bold global example by:
– Outlawing bottom trawling and industrialized vessels over 75 meters in length in all cases
– Going beyond the promotion of eco-labeling and create EU-wide policies that prevent any unsustainably caught fish from legally entering European markets
– Supporting the growth of small-scale, locally sourced and operated fisheries and markets
– Actively lobbying outside of the EU for municipalities, national governments, and intergovernmental organizations to recognize that, regardless of the short-term profitability, the global demand and supply for fish must decrease due to changes in policy, consumption ethics and a decrease in fishing practice, not an industry status quo through “free market” liberalization, deregulation, or a primarily economic focus
I know, I know….Marx is terrifying! Thanks in part to Fox News. But seriously, it seems that any literature with the slightest reference to the old philosopher with the tweed suit and shaggy beard still makes goose bumps crawl on to the skin of the mainstream. Nevertheless, I say we should venture into the haunted house of Marxist cultural theory and search for some mental tools for development practitioners to keep in mind, particularly the idea of commodity fetishism. Its defining characteristic, for our purposes, is that the world’s current practice of labor, trade, and market relations creates a false reality and this has damaging sociological impacts. It might seem broad to extrapolate these ideas to development, but it is important to challenge our assumptions and perspectives.
So what is commodity fetishism?
Celia Lury tells us that: ‘Marx used the term fetishism of commodities to describe the disguising or masking of commodities whereby the appearance of goods hides the story of those who made them and how they made them.’
Applied to contemporary culture, some seriously weird things are commodifed (even Marx’s corpse) due to a variety of factors that determine value from labor to transaction costs to preferences. If we stick with an anthropological interpretation, Marx provides the challenge that, in the absence of natural and direct producer-consumer relations, we buy into another level of commodity fetishism that heavily impacts our psyche through our distant versions of monetary exchange for physical products in particular. All of this causes a distorted and falsified reality. Support for this can be seen in contemporary advertising in particular. According to Axe body spray, scent takes on sexuality, power and voice, pretending to have additional objective use value by exhibiting the human traits of attraction that the product apparently heightens
So how does this relate to international development?
Unfortunately, these concepts of commodity fetishism in contemporary culture link consumption with international aid. Here’s just one type of example to illustrate the point:
The institution of development aid is supposedly responding to challenges that threaten human welfare, particularly for the world’s poor. Aid has truly globalized, with multinational institutions, massive NGOs, and government agencies working worldwide with presence felt virtually everywhere on the planet. Consumers (reminder: you and I) fund these development actors through institutions they either directly or indirectly support and even through conscious personal donations of capital. Aid itself, is commodified. A great example that illustrates this line of thought can be see here in the Product RED campaign.
The way international aid discourse is portrayed through media, television advertisements, and other visual stimuli such as logos is damaging public perceptions about the realities of poverty, oversimplifying vastly multidimensional human development problems, and doing so through the medium of consumption culture to an overwhelming degree. This approach in part decontextualises livelihoods and reciprocates ineffective policy approaches to development both at the production and consumption ends of the commodity spectrum.
Most importantly perhaps, it is essential for development practitioners to think about the psychological impact that Western goods (from the Coca-Cola in a rural village to the NGO land cruisers) and services (from the physical presence of your typical expat in the field to imagined impact as policy makers for ex.) have on communities in developing countries. An additional problem is that the international aid industry is exporting its ideals surrounding consumption en masse with a particular relevance to cities in the global south.
What do we do now?
The point here is to challenge our normal way of thinking with another paradigm. If we understand the ever-changing manner of our global systems, it can hopefully result in more conscious and informed choices.
For example, promoting local sourcing of necessary resources in your community by directly buying your groceries at farmers markets is a start. For the development practitioners…begin deconstructing the context of the work you do in the developing world and examine the various impacts you have. Talk to others and spread the importance of critical thinking. Advocate for specific changes in the treatment of commodities through speaking to your politicians. If there is to be systemic change addressing these issues of consumption, equality of opportunity instead of equality of outcome must be both promoted and lived. Marx’s lens of commodity fetishism is a useful, and often misunderstood, lens that allows for materialism to show its true colors as the opposite of idealism and we must act on that which it reveals.