Another Step Down the Slippery Slope and Back Again

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One of the headlines today pointed to a bill bubbling up in the US Congress that would require employees to provide genetic testing data on themselves and their families to their employers. It is tied in with wellness programs, which I do not quite understand.

House Republicans are proposing legislation aimed at making it easier for companies to gather genetic data from workers and their families, including their children, when they collect it as part of a voluntary wellness program. From the NYTimes today (3/11/2017).

What I do understand is that this fits into a long slide that is taking the human beings that comprise most of the United States from citizen to consumer to commodity. I have taken these last words from an interview of Jill Lepore, Ugo Mattei, and Roberto Unger by Christopher Lydon on December 15, 2016. Mattei offered this pattern.

The article suggests that companies want to see the employees as a genetic profile to determine if they are a health risk, rather than as a living, unique human being. I see this practice wrong on two accounts. One is moral going back to Kant’s imperative: never treat a human being as a means, only as an ends. The other is factual: genes, by themselves, do not accurately predict the appearance and course of many common diseases. Ironically the working environment is an important factor.

Each step represents a major shift in the distribution of economic or political power. The role of citizen springs from the Enlightenment that took this progression in reverse order by establishing the idea of human rights. Prior to that, most individuals lived as feudal serfs or subjects of monarchs and owed their existence to them. They were largely born into their place in life and never moved from it. The idea of nation states was developing at the same time in which individual rights were associated with the place one was born or settled in. The idea of citizen carried with it a set of rights that varied from nation to nation, but always carried the basic idea that humans possessed some set of natural rights.

The United States was clearly founded upon this belief whether these rights were actually to be found in all people within its borders or not. At the beginning, they were not, but eventually by war and amendment they were, in theory, accepted as universal. The word, citizen, has appeared widely in public conversations during the early development of the US, but has been dropping for about 100 years. The following charts, obtained by using Google’s nGram program that plots the frequency of a word’s usage, based on a vast collection of published material, show a very interesting trend. This first chart searched on source anywhere in the entire English language.

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The next searched only on American English sources.

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The decline over the past 100 years is much more evident. Not being a social scientist, I will not try to analyze the causes of this behavior; it stands for itself. In the past 100 years, we have referred less and less to ourselves as citizens, but more and more as consumers as the next chart, based on American English shows. The one for all English shows virtually the same pattern.

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Just to add more grist without any particular outcome, the next graph plots the word “customer” over the same period. I don’t have an easy explanation why it continues upwards where “consumer frequency” starts to fall around 1980.

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I also searched for and found some data (not shown) on the growth of GDP per capita from 1900 to 1940. The growth during this period was almost linear, so the growth of the use of the term, consumer, far exceeded any direct correlation with the size of underlying economy. I attribute this to some sort of cultural factor. There is one fact that might be interesting.

Completely serendipitously, a few weeks ago I watched a documentary on Julius Rosenwald, the man who made Sears Roebuck into the giant it was once. He bought into the company in 1895 and was in complete control after about 1908. He made Sears into the largest merchandiser of his times, the Amazon of the early 20th century over approximately the same time as the in the big jump. All of a sudden, people in the US heartland could become consumers in the modern sense of the word. The upward trend continued right through the Depression, again showing a disconnect between the word and the economy.

The early part of the 20th century followed a period of consolidation of economic power. Although Theodore Roosevelt broke up the largest of the massive corporations, 44 by some counts, their overall power still continued. Unger did not distinguish workers in his use of these three terms, but, given his overall philosophy, would have, I think, seen them in an equally diminished role in the same sense that Marx did. He agreed with some of Marx’s ideas that humans’ view of themselves was subject to historical constraints. Workers became commodities in Marx’s view of capitalism, alienated from the meaningful fruits of their labor. Before addressing why Unger might argue that we have all become commodities, I need to explore a little of his ideas.

Unger believes that humans have infinite possibilities but become limited by the roles given to us by our social context. We are, in his terms, both “context-bound and context-transcending” The human being has no intrinsic nature. I would compare this to the existentialist Sartre’s famous saying, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. There are philosophical differences here, but not any that would lessen my point. Unger claims that social institutions do constrain and shape us, but we can always change and transcend them. This “both and” conjunction may be true but is a bit paradoxical at the same time.

My own work is based on the same general idea. Humans have no fixed nature in the sense of Homo economicus or original sin, but tend to lead inauthentic, meaningless lives guided by the immediate norms and power structures of the society. As far as a biological nature is concerned, we are merely the same as animals, except for our immense cognitive powers. What makes us different is that we have meaning available to us through language. We can gaze on the same bit of reality—the world outside our bodies—and tell an infinite number of stories about it. Other animals except for a few, can only react to it in the same way every time.

Language is not neutral. It does more than merely describe the world. Some stories have rules attached. All the stories about the institutions that form the frameworks for our social lives have such rules. They are the context that Unger refers to. They are powerful and do constrain our actions and our beliefs about ourselves. What Unger refers to as our ability to transcend context is that we can change the stories and the rules that go with them. Some humans, very few, are sufficiently wise and powerful that they can escape the social constraints and become more than the rest of us. Occasionally, some tell a new story that is so powerful in terms of what it envisions that institutions and their constraints themselves change and free us to aspire to a new level of human existence.

I believe that language, which evolved over millennia within social structures based on caring—direct interaction with others and the world-at-large—has lost the context of that period due to the workings of powerful human and technological forces, particularly in our modern era. The unlimited possibilities for human existence has become diminished by a kind of resignation resulting from the stories about modern institutions, particularly economic and scientific and, as Mattei and Unger now argue, political.

That’s where his move from consumer to commodity may arise. At least that how I hear it. We have become nothing but inert items in the political market place there to be manipulated by those with political power. Of course, there is a connection, in liberal theory to be avoided, between economic and political power.

The very idea of “citizen” carries a sense of sovereignty. I have a right in shaping the institutions that govern my life. If not, how could I ever really become whatever I want to be. Now, I am not arguing that we should or could become whatever we want. That is an impossibility in a finite world, but the call to become more than I seem to be able to be under the present circumstances does seem possible and relevant.

I am sure all of you have been reading about threats to freedom as one result of this last election. I see this language as saying the same thing. Freedom is a description of the ability to express one’s own unique existential intentions. Commodity is a word meaning just the opposite. Commodities are materials or goods that are valuable just as lifeless stuff; one pound is just as valuable as the next. Where Unger may be importantly different from most of what I have been reading is that he sees this election as a opportunity to change the story. That has usually been his tune about significant societal shifts. 


It would be pure hubris to argue that the changes I have been proposing in my own work are the right ones, but I do think that we are at a moment when we must look elsewhere than our own histories for possibilities. I have had a chance to examine that history in a course I am taking about the US Presidency in its historical political context. I do not find anything that holds much promise to prevent a further slide in the direction we have been going. Unger’s phrasing has given me another argument for the relevance of flourishing, care, and complexity in today’s world. It could reverse the order of his three descriptors and jump directly from commodity to become flourishing human beings.

(Image: 1902 Sear-Roebuck catalog page)

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