Arivis and Avarice

August 18, 2010

Joegodson and Paul

Do you have the right to live if you are not helping to produce profits for those already awash in profit? Who do you allow to determine what your life is worth?

As we organize our fair trade enterprise, surrounded by an ever-expanding and increasingly ruthless empire of capital, we continually confront fundamental questions about the nature of human existence. Both in Canada and in Port-au-Prince, we see how our enterprise is irreconcilable with the global economy. And yet, it is only in the context of the current order that we can proceed.

Today’s reflections: what we reject. Then we consider the challenges that we face in operating in such an environment.

Haiti is already tied to Canada and other capitalist states through the exploitation of its labour force: waged-labour and peasantry. Canada, likewise, is now integrated into a global neoliberal order in which producers and consumers are kept apart and are ignorant of one another. Like the fair traders who have come before us, we place the producer and consumer at the centre of trade. And we place their welfare first. That move is absolute heresy in the empire of capital. Knowing first-hand the conditions of workers in the global economy can lead you in a couple of directions: resignation or refusal. Resignation is cowardly. What do we refuse and where does it lead us?

To the Haitian bourgeoisie, who have happily integrated themselves into the empire represented by Bill Clinton and his neoliberal thugs, we as workers represent nothing more than a potential profit. Once you accept that proposition and become what they require you to be, you close the door on your future. Seen from above, you are very, very small indeed. As the profit-makers climb higher and higher, you become smaller and smaller. No one worries about the ants that are squished while they go about their daily lives. On Wall Street and in the boardrooms of multinationals, we do not exist in any human form. So when we are crushed, it concerns no one. When you accept the authority of people who care nothing for your welfare, then you can only be contemptuous of yourself. Self-contempt is a global pandemic. If you refuse to allow yourself to be defined by those who want only to profit from you, you become dangerous to them.

Port-au-Prince is poisoned by the daily need for survival. This did not begin with the earthquake; but that didn’t help. Joegodson is currently and patiently organizing the artisans and talented workers who are becoming our partners in fair trade. We will be connecting those producers to Canadian consumers. On both sides of this equation, we know that we are speaking to a specific audience: those who, like us, refuse to believe that we exist to enrich those who are contemptuous of us. In the consuming nations, the number of people rejecting the neoliberal world order is growing, according to the figures for the fair trade movement worldwide. (This observation is not meant to whitewash the fair trade movement that is controlled and organized from the wealthy, consuming nations. We have something different in mind.) Meanwhile, the globalizers continue to try to bring every single human into dependency upon the market, where they control the flow of everything. But they cannot take your spirit unless you give it up. That is our strength.

Joegodson is confronting a sickness that is endemic in Haiti and that, for the moment, precludes inclusion in our project of a number of talented workers. In Creole, the ‘sickness’ is called arivis. These people have come to see nothing but the immediate profit that might follow from any action. They cannot plan for the future because the future ends today. They imagine nothing beyond that. They will haggle and fight to profit from everyone in each instance of daily life. They have absolutely no faith in authority, for very good reasons. Everyone is there to extract profit from you, just as they have been exploited in every conceivable manner. These people, the arivis, did not choose this system, but have become participants in its continuation by surrendering to the notion that their lives have no more meaning than profit for someone else. Once you reject the notion that you exist to profit someone, it is hard to see where to go, what to do, how to behave. There is no groundwork for that.

Just like the two authors have developed a relationship of trust across the international border that keeps consumers and workers apart, so Joegodson has nurtured many solid relations with Haitian workers: being one of them himself. Regrettably, most Haitian workers are not ready for the enterprise that we are creating. This is frustrating because we have to excuse even very talented people whose only question is, “How much will I get?” While that question is gold in the neoliberal world – testimony to the power of the ideology that greed must drive the world – it is not conducive to our vision and our enterprise. This also puts us at odds with the literature on fair trade that insists on inclusion. We happily encourage inclusion of all people in full appreciation of their gender, religion, race, sexuality, age, and physical ability, to name some of the most important divisions in Haiti. However, we can’t accept those who only want to profit from a marketing scheme. In that case, we would be undermining our vision. We start from the value of the human being and the nobility of work. We are operating in a world of our own making.

What is encouraging is that there is a number of very talented workers who have quietly been rejecting the system imposed on the poor from above but who have not been able to find the way to surmount it. We find that we are treading the same path that many people before us have already discovered. We are not the first to place human life – workers and the things they produce and consumers and the things they buy – before profit. It is dignity and respect, not profit, that we see as the foundation of a world we want to live in. As it happens, the quality of work is only enhanced by the dignity of the worker. Just as we are not the first to discover this vision, we don’t want to be the last. And so, we will be patient and allow our enterprise to grow as the vision convinces people that they are inherently valuable.

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