by Nathan Rothenbaum
The Center for Refugee Services (CRS), a nonprofit organization located in San Antonio, Texas, tasks itself with promoting “wellness, self-sufficiency, and successful community integration of resettled refugees and their families.”11
In addition to the usual variety of activities and reeducation programs which accompany resettlement agencies, CRS has recently opened a for-profit wing in an effort to generate more revenue for the organization. The for-profit establishment, the World Mosaic Market, is located directly in front of CRS. The store sells fair trade goods produced by refugees abroad as well as local crafts produced by the refugees that CRS assists. My research revolved around this store and utilized both ethnography and close interviews with volunteers who staffed the store as well as a refugee who sold her crafts in the store. From my experiences in the World Mosaic Market, I have determined that a fantasy of fair trade sustains the World Mosaic Market, and that this fantasy produces a purely virtual and ultimately unsuccessful solution to the problem of commodity fetishism.
I use the term “fantasy” intentionally. In addition to outlining the ideological presuppositions which sustain CRS’s World Mosaic Market, the term demonstrates the value of psychoanalysis as part of an anthropological method. This is quite a task to undertake; many conceive that therapy is not well situated for talking about the day-to-day practices of power and culture. If anything, popular reasoning seems to suggest that the relationship anthropologists ought to have with psychoanalysis is in revealing how power exercises itself through “neutral” and “objective” therapeutic practices.
Some of the existing literature concerning the intersection between ethnography, anthropology, and psychoanalysis still clings to this therapeutic model. One scholar contends that ethnography itself can be conceptualized as “a form of therapeutic praxis.”1 From this perspective, the analyst/analysand relationship extends into the field wherein the practice of ethnography itself constitutes the meaning-making process of psychoanalysis; in this model a culture placed on a couch finds itself subjected to a host of psychoanalytic practices in order to be returned to a functioning and proper equilibrium. On the other hand, another scholar suggests that ethnographers can use psychoanalysis on themselves to interrogate their unconscious biases in the field.8 In the case of the former, psychoanalysis works to bracket social dynamics into various stages of denial/psychological repression (i.e: disassociation, externalization, etc), while the latter encourages the analyst to play with free association and dream interpretation.1
I want none of the above. I am not a clinical psychoanalyst and these therapeutic variations amount to little more than glorified pseudoscience. Instead of being “deep inside” the subject, Lacanian psychoanalysis sees the unconscious as a force that exists outside any individual subject.5 We are subjects with beliefs, and contrary to the therapeutic model this does not mean those beliefs are repressed at a pre-psychic level. Instead, the unconscious should be conceived of as located within, and reflected by, the “social practices, rituals, [and] institutions in which the subject participates.” 5
The fair trade fantasy is a poor solution to commodity fetishism.
This interpretation may not completely avoid the pitfalls of the clinical model, but it does satisfy a sufficient basis for using psychoanalysis in anthropology. Critics may argue that this Zižekian interpretation of the unconscious remains ill-suited for ethnography. They would likely counter that it operates at a much-too-abstracted macroscale to deal with the delicate manifestations of power with which anthropologists concern themselves. Although Zižek strokes with a broad brush, a great deal of attention must be focused here in order to make sense of the so-called micropolitical practices which shape us as ideological subjects.
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In my time at CRS and its store, I could not help but reflect on how disorganized and sporadic the organization seemed to be. One afternoon, a woman named Mary wished to purchase a couple of crafts. In her free time Mary works at CRS, but she was not volunteering at the store that day (that duty fell on Susan). As Mary and Susan chatted about the products for sale, Sasha, the preteen daughter of a refugee who receives assistance at the center, was playing with an iPad which served as the store’s cash register. When Mary finally decided on what she wanted, Susan instructed Sasha to get off the cash register and began to use it to complete the transaction. Suddenly, Mary interrupted Susan to say, “No, you can’t do it! [Sasha] has to do it.”12
What animated Mary as a political being to make this demand? Those wishing to dispense with psychoanalysis may simply insist that Mary’s push to have Sasha “ring her up” reflects the exact kind of normalizing practices which work to produce refugees as certain types of citizens. An open and shut case. While these scholars wouldn’t be incorrect per se, what they miss is a compelling question: why this practice specifically? Why have Sasha “ring her up”? Why not have Sasha instead pitch the products Mary was thinking of buying? Why not have her help carry the gifts to Mary’s car? Does the center think the only opportunities for subject creation are in retail? Doubtful. Later that day Susan purchased a pizza for Sasha and her brother. If Susan was dedicated to inculcating skills, why did she not have Sasha navigate the order or pay for the food?8 If the gift shop was serious about these “citizen making practices” in having the refugees handle the sales, then why did Susan and another volunteer state that the refugees were too timid/inexperienced to handle those parts of the shop?8
What animated Mary was not the specifics of this particular scene, but rather an unconscious ideological script she and other employees participate in at CRS. The decision to have Sasha “ring her up” seemed good, it sounded fine, it worked in a way she wanted it to, but how much reflection occurred before Mary suggested it?
The exercise of power on these micro levels of subject formation are secondary to the unconscious fantasies which propel agents to work to shape bodies in the first place. To clarify this distinction I am drawing: psychoanalytic ethnography should not only explain how ideologies become inscribed in the body, but also chart and explore a collective ideological landscape. Our organizing fantasies are not hidden things we have to uncover through years of scrutiny, rather “fantasy is manifest in our actual practices; these practices, what people actually do, are the location of ideological beliefs.”2
Exposing fantasies can explore a collective ideological landscape.
The World Mosaic Market is the product of such a fantasy. The stated purpose of the organization is twofold: first, to generate revenue for CRS, and second, to help refugees develop skills.13,12 And yet, if this was really the exclusive goal, why focus on crafts made by refugees both in San Antonio and abroad? It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a host of alternative practices which would satisfy these two goals. CRS’s choice to dabble in fair trade, and to plug products produced by refugees into that market reveals how the organization sees itself and a number of assumptions that modern capitalist subjects have about the marketplace.
When asked what fair trade was, Susan defined it as a trading scheme where workers are paid a “fair amount” (determined by their home country) for their labor; she went on to stress that this labor is voluntary, not forced.12 Susan’s definition reflects the common belief that fair trade is aimed at “combating the negative effects of neoliberal globalization.”3 Advocates of fair trade who accent the conditions under which a commodity’s production occurs, such as Susan, attempt to resolve capitalism’s inherent problem: commodity fetishism.
Commodity fetishism refers to the practice of splitting an object into two parts: use value and exchange value. As a result of this split, we become seduced by these objects, detached from the social and political impacts of their production. In valorizing an object’s worth, its exchange value, commodity fetishism results in the treatment of things like people and people like things. In our modern age, globalization has furthered commodity fetishism by exporting workplace environments out of sight and mind, leaving consumers unsympathetic to the violence which indirectly sustains their highly developed country lifestyle.7 By presenting the ethical production of its objects, fair trade works through “ethical consumerism” to generate more conscientious buying practices on the part of the masses.
For a limited time: Ethics can be bought in aisle three.
Despite its grandiose ambitions, fair trade often works in tandem with neoliberal inequalities. Numerous transnational-exploitative organizations use fair trade as “an ethical fig leaf to mask their devotion to a broader neoliberal agenda that runs contrary to the needs of small farmers and rural workers.”3A For example, the World Trade Organization mandates that the coffee which stocks their regular meetings be fair trade certified. This decision functions mostly as a symbolic concession as they continue to use their policies as a battering ram against developing nations. Additionally, fair trade’s success depends on neoliberalism in many ways; only through satisfying a niche market are fair trade producers able to stay afloat.3B
The products bought and sold in this niche market are not only the naked commodities. Unaccounted for in the exchange lies an ethical surplus – the true reason a consumer purchases a fair trade item. Ethical consumerism makes it possible for one to “purchase ethics at the local supermarket.”3C Slavoj Žižek argues ethical consumerism in the market becomes the mechanism by which its own negative externalities are said to be resolved.10 In the very act of purchasing a product, you are saved from being just a consumer. While this seems wonderful in theory, in practice the feeling works as a palliative.
Capitalism attempts to shape us as subjects that feel like contributors who really matter. This libidinal charge, this positive feeling in the consumer’s heart, does not emerge from changing the material conditions of exploitation; rather, it is generated through the expression of fantasy.
The concept of fantasy serves as the glue which permits CRS’s market to function. As Joshua Gunn puts it, the stories we tell ourselves through fantasy are real “but not necessarily really Real [Gunn’s emphasis].”4 In other words, fantasies are real because they shape the way we interact, view, and approach the world, but are not real in the sense that they do not explain the totality of life. Tucked into our fantasies are beliefs, prejudices, and stories most importantly. The point is not to ask if a particular fantasy is true. No fantasy is “really Real.” Lacan would tell us that all fantasies work to suture over the quaking void of ourselves as subjects, our constitutive lack, and in that sense they are all lies. Rather, the question we ought to ask is: what does this fantasy do?
Fair trade often works in tandem with neoliberal inequalities.
Fantasy is powerfully wielded in the World Mosaic Market not only by its customers, but also by the store’s volunteers. One afternoon, I had a conversation with Susan while Sasha was in another room. Susan whispered to me and asked me if Sasha had told me anything about her family back in her home country. When I told her that she hadn’t, in a whispered hush, Susan asked me a rhetorical question about why I thought Sasha’s father would stay back home and not come with the family to the U.S. The implication was that Sasha’s father was in prison. I asked Susan if it was hard knowing the refugees’ stories and she told me that the volunteers at the center do not pry because they imagine it would be too traumatic for the refugees to share. Evidently, this doesn’t stop them from inferring. She then told me how a woman at the center had numbers tattooed on her arm and said she was also, likely, from prison.12
Is Susan right about Sasha’s father or this woman with tattoos? Perhaps she is. To this question we should ask another: does it matter if Susan is right? Judging the truth or falsity of Susan’s statement is a task best left to historians or private investigators. What matters is that the source of the tattoos or the location of Sasha’s father serves as a fantasy–a fantasy Susan accepts as true. Now that we know Susan believes Sasha’s father is in prison, the question we must ask ourselves is: how does she use that knowledge? When Susan purchases Sasha a pizza later that evening or goes to get her and her brother toys to play with, is that a consequence of this fantasy or a reflection of a much deeper and powerful fantasy operating in Susan’s life?12 In this situation and others like it, fantasy functions as a shorthand heuristic to translate the things we see and hear; it gives our world meaning by explaining to us the significance of the signs we encounter.
In the World Mosaic Market, one can grasp fantasy by reading the plaques that the volunteers at CRS leave out for customers to read. A plaque near the products made by the San Antonio refugees regrets that “many of [the refugees] are not free to have their photos and stories made public to you,” but went on to explain that the products for sale are a process of “our teachers [working] with their students to produce professional quality work.”12 If all it takes is a pair of numbers tattooed on an arm for a volunteer who spends her time working with refugees to suspect something as traumatic as prison, imagine the fantasy these words create for the uninformed but well-meaning fair trade consumers of products at the World Mosaic Market.
By declaring that none of the refugees are free to share their photos or stories the consumers already begin to fear the worst. The ethical urgency of the scene, clear for those considering purchasing products at the store, fits neatly within the story-arc championed by fair trade. In this fantasy, consumers finds themselves positioned as protagonists in a fantastic (in both meanings of the word) narrative. The resolution of the refugee’s precarious situation is a purchase away, and they can be this refugee’s hero.
But who is that refugee that the consumer has helped? In order for fair trade to challenge commodity fetishism and usher in more ethical practices, there is a necessity for the consumer to know the history and origin of the products they are purchasing. The use of testimonials and stories are aspects of fair trade which reinforce bonds between those that produce commodities, and those that purchase them.9 This is complicated at the World Mosaic Market because there is a noticeable absence of San Antonio refugee voices. Their products are made to speak for themselves. Without stories or pictures, the only tie a consumer would have to the refugee who made their product would be knowledge of two letters and four numbers which constitute that refugee’s store-specific serial number.12
Currently, CRS need not worry about this abstraction because their consumer demographics resolve this ambiguity. One volunteer informed me that most of the people who make purchases at the shop are those that have personal relationships with the center and the refugees.13 These are people that know about the sewing classes which go into making the goods, or are friends with the artisans that make the items for sale in the World Mosaic Market. On one visit to the store, the nature of this close relationship between producer and consumer was showcased in all its complexity when a woman from the refugee community specifically requested her friend and fellow refugee come to the store, because she wanted to order a custom craft and haggle down the price of an item CRS was selling.14
Ethical consumerism will be inevitably ceded to the dollar.
For the World Mosaic Market to be a success, however, it needs more customers than friends of friends – it needs to expand. Volunteers expressed a serious concern that the World Mosaic Market is currently “not very commercial,” and as such they had released a number of advertisements on the radio.13 If a new influx of customers were to arrive to CRS, the current structure of the store would undoubtedly reproduce relationships of commodity fetishism.
An optimistic reader may claim that, yes, fantasy negotiates the consumer’s interaction with the products – but if a fantasy is factual, i.e: if the center really truly helps refugees, then what does it matter? However, the cost in the potential failure of fair trade will be subtle, but bears careful attention. While fair trade is undoubtedly problematic, much rides on its success. If fair trade does not resolve commodity fetishism, it must fail spectacularly. A soft failure would produce the worst of all words, wherein a new type of fetishism will emerge–the fetishism of the ethical consumer–and the expansion of exploitative labor practices will be all but guaranteed.
Global Capitalism operates through a proliferation of labels: GMO-Free, Free-Range, Pesticide-Free and so on.7 It is clear that producing mechanisms to deploy a system of exploitation against itself, hijacking a project of consumerism to solve unethical consumptive practices, can be recuperated into the functioning of the same system. If we take a fantasy at face-value and invest ourselves into it without healthy skepticism, the end-result of the failure of fair trade would mean we will end up praising corporations like Union Carbide for “fairly compensating” its “valued employees” at Bhopal.
Scholars have argued that the expansion of fair trade will bring a process of Othering.6 According to this reasoning, the central problem with the fantasy of fair trade lies in the manner which it divides the Earth into North and South. From this perspective, fair trade will create a new project of European paternalism wherein we believe we are righteous Western subjects looking to help the victimized and disenfranchised refugee Other.6A
Currently, this criticism does not apply in the context of the volunteers who work at the World Mosaic Market. On two separate occasions I was told that refugees are talented and skilled workers, and that the goal of the World Mosaic Market (among many), was for the public to appreciate that.15 My critique is more effective when viewed from the perspective of the consumer. It does not take much of a leap to see how the formulaic and linear fantasy used by those that shop the World Mosaic Market can lead itself into Western chauvinism: “Yes the refugee made this item, but I am the one giving to charity by purchasing it.” In fact, to the uncritical eye the language that CRS uses to describe its goal (“wellness, self-sufficiency, and successful community integration”, “our teachers [working] with their students to produce professional quality work,” and so on) present the refugee as an object molded and sculpted–not a subject. The consumer may reason that they simply play another part in this sculpting.
To merely echo that CRS is interested in subject creation would not add very much to current scholarship. But, if we take the idea of ethical consumerism demarcating our ideological landscape seriously, that subject’s look and feel changes significantly. In postmodern capitalism, we are constantly being channeled into fitting a set of formulaic practices which can identify and define us as consumers. “Oh,” our sensibilities inform us, “you want to be environmentally conscious? Purchase a Prius.” These low-hanging fruits, the easy answers to the deep ethical questions which haunt our existence point to the way fantasy serves as a screen to make certain acts appear desirable, and the contribution of this particular fantasy in limiting a collective egalitarian response to the crises that we face.
If we recognize that our current route toward subject creation emerges under a fantasy of ethical consumerism and postmodern capitalism, then we should also recognize that the line connecting the ends of ideology with the practices which are supposed to “get us there” are anything but certain.
CRS claims it is interested in “wellness, self-sufficiency, and successful community integration,” but its methods are not set in stone. Whereas other conceptions of power are viewed as striated and teleological, postmodern capitalism desires endless creation of the self and experimentation.10
Under this holistic view of identity creation, the World Mosaic Market can be seen as another “go”, another “try” at making subjects. The sewing classes and anger management classes are going alright, but maybe we would do better if we brought the refugees into retail? This logic is the same present within the coordinates of postmodern capitalism: be a Buddhist today, an Environmentalist tomorrow, and the next day a Hedonist–but above all else, consume goods and services.
This mentality is clear when speaking to the volunteers; the goal of “self-perfection” is painfully obvious. Volunteers carefully craft and select each word in describing the World Mosaic Market to give the impression that the store is a work in progress. A tremendous amount of optimism abounds about the trajectory of the store, and it feels that even in failure the store will expand and grow spiritually as if it too were a subject: one day the store will hire refugees full time, it will sell food prepared by refugees, refugees will be able to bring in whatever they like to sell, and so on.13, 14 This experimentation is not just reserved for the future, CRS is experimenting now. Be it a grand opening sale, a “buy your own custom poem” event, or the introduction of vendor forms to make the buying/selling process at the store more official.13
But despite this focus on experimentation, there remains a feeling that this freedom is permitted only to go so far. In the end, capital reigns king; when a woman wished to haggle with another refugee, Susan acquiesced to the refugee’s demand, but it was quite clear that she was upset about the whole affair. At its base, the conflict was one about costs. These types of conflicts are not isolated incidents.
On a public level, CRS is proud of its store and products. But speaking to the volunteers in private about the products produced by the refugees, they express a belief that these crafts are not as “finished”, or are qualitatively inferior when compared to the international fair trade items the World Mosaic Market sells. On one visit to CRS, I was told that an item had been pulled from the shelf for “quality control.”13 The item in question, a pot holder, had a beautiful design and was fully functional, but the stitching was far from perfect. Regardless, the decision to pull that item reflects an understanding that the shop is not a refrigerator on which refugees hang the crafts they are proud of. Rather, it is a business first and foremost.
The interpretation of the World Mosaic Market as a business clashes with alternative conceptions advanced by refugees. A male refugee creates beautiful calligraphy, but when I talked to a volunteer at the center about him and the prices for his products, I learned that they persuaded him to raise the prices of his art.13 For this refugee, the amount of money he earned from selling his art was irrelevant.
He was chiefly concerned with how many people appreciated his calligraphy, and wanted to sell his art at bargain bin prices. CRS’s attempt to convince him to raise the price on his calligraphy reveals how, through a fantasy of postmodern capitalism, fidelity to the dollar continues to be sustained as the bottom line.
CRS’s World Mosaic Market already shapes CRS’s horizon of possibilities. Given its popularity among the public and volunteers, it appears to be here to stay. Practically, we ought not be opposed to the World Mosaic Market. Overall, it does much less harm than good. It provides jobs, practical training and socialization. Nevertheless, this argument should also be read as a warning against the naïve fantasy of fair trade.
In conclusion, the reduction of ethics to the form of a commodity has the potential to reify a global system of wealth inequality. If we are ever going to grapple with the realities of global market injustice, ethics must be something more than a commodity to be bought and sold.
Nathan Rothenbaum graduated from Trinity University in 2016 with an Anthropology degree.