The Commodity Market

History is sepia-colored and correctly distant for most; if they think on the past at all. I still remember my own shock some years ago after I had regaled a committee group with my memories of the Vietnam War—an era all too real in my memory. A design assistant looked at me blankly: “I wasn’t born then,” he stuttered. What was My Lai to him? Antiwar protests, if he’d ever heard of them, could only be images of close-cropped, bell-bottomed youthful pique. “A thing that is past, of which they are unmoved,” to lift the Reverend John Owen’s lament to Parliament in the mid-1600s at the drift away from the Republican experiment with godly rule in England.

Atilla the Hun, the Black Death in Europe, the Crusades, and even the U.S. Civil War have become abstractions; removed from reality and without any linkage to present actions. American Henry David Thoreau professed horror at the idea that cable messages from Europe might enter “the great flapping ear” of America. But mixed metaphors aside, the curiosity factor was not high even then.

I love history, and read and study as much of it as I can. I might have my young friend’s tabula rasa of firsthand experience of something as recent as World War II and the horrors it brought to a technologically emergent world—but I seek out the facts. I find that, unlike the mythology of history, the reality is that the entire Western World of the 1930s was enamored with eugenics, or the science of human genetic improvement. The Germans may have bellowed out the threat from the “Untermensch” and championed their view of the Ubermensch—but it was in the United States that poor people ran the risk of imposed sterilization and lobotomization; and it was to us that the German officials came formally to learn the protocols of miscegenation laws. No wonder the history books still have little appetite to explain the systemic “commoditization” of human beings in Germany during the 1930s and Europe into the next decade.

As a young man I was horrified to see photos of piles of eyeglasses, gold teeth, and shoes taken from concentration camp inmates as they were prepped for gassing or boiling down for soap. It seemed purely malicious and sadistic. But it actually was worse. The Nazis in particular reduced humans, especially their unwanted captives, to basic value units. Businesses using the slave labor were charged a minimal but specific amount that together with the pillaging of personal goods was designed to make the whole operation self-funding. Just like an animal slaughterhouse, each particle, fiber, and hide was used. The state saw not persons but units of cost and income.

But that was yesterday. And many choose not to remember. Or at least easily invoke such times when reacting to periodic horrors such as the genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda. Horrors of blood these surely were, but not so parallel to the commoditization that operated less from blood lust than from depersonalized business policy.

There is an echo of those smokestack days today, however. It is a situation of several decades and yet still largely ignored by the West.

China has officially some 1.5 million detainees in prison camps. This is a large number, but actually lower than the total in U.S. prisons. What makes these camps of special interest is the makeup of their population. A very high percentage are practitioners of Falun Gong. Largely unknown in the West or ignored as their representatives routinely pass out appeals for help at public gatherings, the group is as large as 70 million in China. While the movement is a modern reiteration of Buddhist traditions that combines meditation, moral philosophy, and exercise, its mere size is seen as a threat by the Chinese government. Persecution has been severe. Another significant element in the prisons comes from the Muslim Uyghur ethnic group, who are in severe conflict with the state, largely for their faith. And of course, we cannot dismiss the reality of many Christian detainees. While Christianity is allowed and administered under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement; any deviation from this control, such as private house meetings is severely punished.

Study after study and various commissions and congressional enquiries have looked into the shocking abuse of these prisons-for-profit. Prisoners are routinely tested and evaluated on the health of their organs--markedly organs only, not general health. Organs are systematically harvested from the prisoners. This is not denied; the discussion is only as to the scale. But the billion-dollar organ donation business in China involves very few private donors, so the math on prisoner “donation” is damning. Stories have come out via defectors and informants of on-demand organ extraction on living victims, of people skinned alive, of execution performed to fulfill specific organ needs.

China may be Communist in ideological identity; but it has embraced an all-out capitalism that goes a long way toward describing this profiteering approach to persecution. The question is How will people of conscience in the West react to this and do what they can to end the practice? The last U.S. administration famously declared that they were delinking civil rights discussions from trade talks. At present we are in a trade war with China, but it seems all about trade and not contingent on addressing a crying crisis like this.

Perhaps we are not so morally vigilant because the commoditization of life is a full-on aspect of our digital lives?

Not too long ago, one of the political parties rather openly railed against the “eaters” or “consumers” as being a drag on the “producers.” One natural consequence of that is a dulling of human sensibilities as we deal with illegals who are costing us (so we are told) and threatening us (so we are told) and must be cleansed from our midst. Of course, any country has a right to take steps to protect itself and uphold its laws. But I do see in the social dynamic a reduction of humans to utility value.

Meanwhile we all fondle our cell phones, which track our every move and watch us incessantly. We install ever-listening bugs in our homes. We are surrounded by ever-smarter AI that triangulates all our personal information to evaluate our personality, our health and security risk factors, and indeed our very utility to the economy and to the system.

In the U.S. at least there is still a residual memory of the founding principle of republicanism—power deriving from the people. In the Constitution there is still unobliterated (if largely unread) applications of the greatly fought-for protections such as habeas corpus and protections from intrusion into our private affairs. There is still an insistence on hands-off for religious practice. But what will we do when the algorithms and the public mood tell us we cannot afford certain viewpoints?

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."