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Beauty & The Junkyard

MEXICO CITY PRESENTS THE WORLD with a new, modern plague. Salmonella and amoebas are now routinely transmitted through the respiratory tracts of people living there. When I arrive at the high valley of Tenochtitlan (8,000 feet above sea level), surrounded by mountains, I struggle to breathe the thin air, the atmosphere heavily polluted by an especially high-particle-density smog.

In four decades the city grew from one million to over twenty million people. The one experience shared by most newcomers before their arrival was nearly unlimited open space. Today, between four and five million people lack any special place to deposit their daily stool, urine and blood. And the general population of the city does not possess toilet habits appropriate to a densely populated habitat, habits which immigrants to Calcutta or Cairo bring with them to the city. Mexican concepts of cleanliness have never been shaped by the constraining ideal of Hindu, Muslim or Confucian disciplines.

Further, Mexican leadership remains singularly blind to the matter. The Western prejudice against bowel movements unless one sits over water with paper at hand is endemic among the Mexican elite. Mentally, middle-class Mexicans live in a complex nation where a temporary economic crisis has cut the flow of dollars and water. The illusion of living in a crisis, and the habit of flushing a toilet, pushed the body waste of more than four million of their other neighbors out of sight for most professionals. 

Then the earthquake of September 1985 shook the capital. One out of ten professionals, accustomed to living with a WC, could not flush for a week or more. For the first time, some public voices began to wonder whether hygiene inevitably meant the dilution of feces and the increase of black water. What should have been obvious long ago suddenly became evident to a few: to provide water for millions of toilets is beyond the economic power of Mexico, whatever timespan was set. And even if there were enough money and a more rational use of flush technology, the attempt to pump sufficient water to operate the city's toilets would destroy the semi-arid agriculture practiced within a radius of several hundred miles. Further, the amalgamation of potentially fertile feces with barely degradable waste characteristic of modern sewer systems would poison rather than enrich the fragile topsoil built up over centuries in the plots surrounding the city at lower altitudes.

A small but potentially influential number of people saw their image of the city broken by the earthquake. It still has not touched the smugness of the country's officialdom, but it did shake people who are able to look at their hitherto-unexamined certainties about the nature of waste and the very character of the megalopolis as the producer of economic value.

In many parts of the world today, cities are seen as sources of wealth and rural areas as the retreat of a privileged few, but, on the whole, as an economic "problem." The rural economy of the United States may be the best current example. But where does urban wealth come from? Every schoolboy can answer: the economy. Fine. But what is the economy?

I was helped in my understanding of this question by my reading of Karl Polanyi. He was instructed by Aristotle. The Politics had been read by Greek, Arabic, and Latin scholars for over two thousand years. The great modern European commentaries had long been written. But no interpreter had taken Aristotle at his word. They seemed to believe that he was either sneering at merchants or joking about them, speaking with tongue in cheek.

Aristotle observed something new and unheard-of in Athens. Some citizen merchants were using a previously unknown technique when they offered their goods in the market. Instead of selling these goods at cost plus profit, or keeping to the values established by treaty with a foreign supplier, these innovators let the price vary according to offer and demand. Aristotle was fascinated that such a transaction could take place and wondered how it worked. Polanyi was the first to recognize this.
He assembled a team of historians at Columbia University. Each studied a different society, trying to discover when prices first began to move according to supply and demand in ordinary times. All of them reported the same finding. The replacement of simple trade by this marketing technique, though practiced occasionally while being generally legally proscribed, was not part of the ordinary social life in any ancient society. Further, such an arrangement only became the form of common behavior at the time of Aristotle and after.

Here I began to see the first lineaments of what is today called the economy a system resting on scarcity.

History of Disvalue
No wonder Aristotle was surprised. Up to this historical moment, the management of the goods necessary for everyday life in the city was nowhere structured in terms of scarcity. In fact, societies were generally so arranged that the experience of scarcity could not emerge.

Back, then, to our question. Wealth is believed to come from the economy. But I have come to suspect that the primary product of the economy is waste. To understand both this statement and the situation of Mexico City, I suggest the use of the term "disvalue." What we need, precisely, is a history of disvalue. I choose this concept in order to emphasize its direct relation to economics. But it means something quite other than price, cost or economic loss. I strongly suspect that the social creation of disvalue is the necessary condition for the recognition and acceptance of, and desire for, mass products as valuable.

Disvalue is necessarily related to a certain kind of economics because it makes such an economics possible. Modern economics presupposes the devaluation of culturally determined patterns of behavior. The mass production of goods, services, and images demands cultural blight through the spread of disvalue throughout the society. The necessary matrix for the accumulation of economic value, the very character of a successful modern society, is the principled devaluation of traditional cultures.