Artists, artisans, architects, builders, craftspeople, engineers and designers are makers. They make the things that the rest of humanity must live with, using the planet’s finite resources to make them. As such, makers have a particular responsibility and duty of care to humanity.
We live in a monetary system that devises scarcity, in order to preserve the wealth, power, influence and importance of those that have money, or more correctly, of those who control money. Because money is scarce, by design and is the only currency commonly used to obtain made things (barter being far less common), created by their makers, we encounter a peculiar set of circumstances that has the potential to utterly subvert and compromise the integrity of the maker.
Firstly, the making of things is nowhere near as well rewarded, in sheer monetary terms, as controlling the flows of money. Makers begin with a scarcity of reward for their efforts, however spectacular or accomplished. In fact, the very reality of having to exchange things they make for money already tells you that the actual art of making things is subject to a perversion. Things are made not for their own intrinsic value, utility or beauty, but because they can be exchanged for the currency required for survival on the planet, which perversely is not a guaranteed right of men. If you have no money, under the current economic system, you are not granted the automatic right to live, exist and to flourish. You are expected to quietly go away, some place, and die, to no longer inconvenience the moneyed.
Secondly, everybody to whom a maker sells made things is similarly blighted by the deliberate scarcity of money. They have little spare money either. Their purchasing decisions are, therefore, distorted by a need to buy what they can afford, rather than on the basis of utility, longevity, practicality, aesthetic beauty and intrinsic worth of the made objects they buy. This applies both to physical goods and intellectual property, as well as to services rendered. The distortion is that people are constantly seeking to buy something of quality for less and less money. They bypass what would be the best object made or most suitable for their long term purposes and interests, buying what they hope will be an adequate substitute instead, though cheaper. Makers know this. They know that making the best thing possible does not guarantee demand. In fact, they recognise that making something inferior, but pretending it is equivalent to the best thing it is possible to make, is the route to getting buyers to part with their scarce money.
In other words, the design of our monetary system, which through the issuance of money as debt, engineers a perpetual, insatiable scarcity of currency, subverts the work of makers. Instead of striving to make the best things they can possibly make, they instead compromise their art and create misrepresentative products – things that appear to be the real thing, but in fact are the result of corner cutting and compromise – shortcomings that only become evident long after the sale is completed.
Does this matter?
I think it matters enormously. Because labour is so frequently exchanged to obtain scarce currency, it must be remembered that labour is roughly equivalent to value. In debasing the objects that a maker makes, in order to provide “affordable” products, instead of products that are the most fit for purpose, two parties are being wantonly short changed. The maker is short changed, because they are spending their hours on earth creating products that are less than they are capable of creating. Their skill is never fully realised. In fact, their skill is hidden under a bushel, while they look for all manner of cunning ruses and wheezes, to pass off an inferior made object for a superior one. They’re wasting their talents, their gifts and their hard won and carefully honed skills. More importantly, they never fully realise their potential as makers. They are held back. Self actualisation is denied them.
The second offended party in the transaction of a shoddy or second rate object for scarce currency is the purchaser. Labour, once again, is exchanged for currency and therefore is held to represent value. A man’s value, in this economy, is equivalent to how much currency they can obtain for their labours (whether physical or intellectual). That value is only realised or actualised when the currency is exchanged for made things – the output of the makers. Therefore, if the purchaser is fooled into parting with currency to buy what they think to be an object of the finest quality, but which is in fact a corner-cut substitute of lesser quality, then than purchaser’s value is instantly devalued. The currency they obtained in exchange for their own labours is debased by the fact that when converting their labour into bought made objects, they got less than they paid for. They were duped. They have been sold a pup.
Here are two parties – the maker and the purchaser, – who are harmed by the necessity to make lower quality goods, in order to attract any scarce money at all, rather than price the made objects beyond the reach of most purchasers. The maker had to make junk and the purchaser had to buy junk. Both have been had.
The maker had to compromise his art and the purchaser will need to buy a replacement, when the first one inevitably fails prematurely, or else suffer having to use and live with what is in fact an inferior item, which may not work as well, be as long lived or function as intended, in perpetuity. There is no possibility of replacement with a better product, because the money has already been spent. A better quality replacement may not even be present in the market, forced out by less quality goods that are deemed to be “affordable”. Instead, the purchaser may be doomed to serial purchases of junky objects, replacing each unfit-for-purpose object, as it fails, with one of similar or even lesser quality. The scarcity of money makes it so.
The opportunity costs, meaning the things that could have been bought instead of replacing broken or obsolete products that the purchaser already had, as well as the things that could have been made by the makers and with scarce resources, instead of making replacements for broken or obsolete products, is incalculable.
So both purchasers and makers (who are also purchasers, after all) are faced with an endless, unbreakable cycle of converting their sweat into garbage. Meanwhile, scarce planetary resources are systematically converted into short-lived junk, and transported, soon after, to landfill sites. It’s as if we have a doomsday machine which disrespects labour, skill, effort, sweat and value creation, while simultaneously disrespecting the planet.
Not only are people degraded by the transaction, but the planet’s pristine places are raped and pillaged, only to return the processed bounty of nature as spoil, to rot in useless, landfill graves, further despoiling the planet and its water tables – slowly decaying monuments to the folly of an engineered monetary scarcity that fuels this entire dysfunctional cycle of sub standard production and waste.
Morally, using scarcity of money as an excuse to con people into thinking they are getting something of quality, but short-changing them with something shoddy, or made with planned obsolescence in mind, is indefensible. It might be a survival tactic for the maker, but it’s predatory. It predates on purchasers. It carries an enormous opportunity cost to the maker (who, in a parallel universe may be capable of producing sublime things of lasting quality and value). It pretends that the planet has a limitless capacity to supply raw materials (when these are, in fact, the real scarcity) and to absorb the pollution and discarded garbage that results from this cycle.
Recycling makes no amends, because the velocity of recycling is crucial. If things are made and discarded rapidly, the planetary impact and insult to labour is not mitigated greatly by recycling the materials. The labour can never be recycled. Only the landfill sites will fill more slowly. The energy resources needed to recycle will be pillaged just as if a new item was being made, rather than a recycled one.
Repairing items, however, is a partial remedy. Things that were once made, if repairable, can be used and have value for a longer period of time, thereby reducing the demand on planetary resources, limiting the impact on energy resources (repair is less energy expensive than recycling or manufacturing from new). Repair also holds the skills of the people who repair (often the makers themselves) up to a higher standard, since repair often takes diagnostic, thinking skills and ingenuity to trace, remedy and rectify a problem with a made object. It rewards the skilled repairer, even when money is scarce. However, do repairers command the same sort of monetary rewards as those that control the flows of money? Hardly, but it’s less soul destroying and compromising than making and discarding rubbish.
Another tactic that some makers adopt, in the face of scarce money, is to target those that have surplus money (i.e. the controllers of the monetary flows) and charging them way over the odds for a made object. This is just as deceitful as passing off a lower quality good as a higher quality good. No matter how high the quality of the overcharged object, it can never be equivalent, in value, to the price (over)charged. Deceit is not good for the soul of a maker. It’s a cancer that affects the makers’ ability to create. It inevitably leaves its mark on the art.
One can argue that the holders of this surplus currency didn’t justly earn their money in the first place, but as a maker, if you make something, no matter how fine, but cheat a purchaser, however undeserving, by pricing exorbitantly, you have broken your duty of care to humanity to make the best things you can make, in fair exchange for currency (however distorted and subverted that debt based currency may be), using the fewest resources possible. You have also allowed yourself to be extravagant with scarce materials, rather than designing to optimise use of those inputs. You’ve made the planet and future generations into the losers.
Your goods might be fine, but you might, ultimately, be using more of the earth’s resources than you really need to in order to over-engineer or provide unnecessary opulence to products that your elite purchasers don’t really require. You may be sacrificing utility for decoration. A Fabergé egg is no more useful for being diamond encrusted (what is the use of a Fabergé egg, anyway – besides being pretty and surprising to the first recipient, the first time they use it?). In any case, utility will be made into a secondary quality of the object. That’s not right. It turns the planet’s finite resources and much human labour into fripperies. Planetary resources, being scarce, need to be more carefully husbanded than that. Labour ought to be afforded more dignity than to be exchanged in the production of mere baubles of dubious, temporary novelty.
So makers are subject to a moral imperative. They have a responsibility to not degrade themselves and their gifts, to not cheat their customers and disrespect their labour and not to disrespectfully despoil and lay waste the planet and its finite resources. There are no excuses, in the end. We all have to answer for our actions, as makers, in the ultimate planetary reckoning. Adhering to some kind of morality, as makers, is a partial solution.
Maintaining a fictional, man-made monetary system that is rigged to keep the wealthy wealthy, by issuing money as debt, thereby ensuring its scarcity, is not a good enough reason to exhaust and consume the planet, or to degrade humanity – both the makers and purchasers of made things. The solution is, I think, equally obvious and imperative.