When I was in college, back in the early seventies, my buddies and I earned a little extra cash working for Irving Office Supply, Dusty Rhodes, proprietor. Dusty had built himself a decent little business that earned him a good living. Now, it is important to note that he was not the only office supply store in town, and his success depended on providing useful products and prompt service. And the need to provide prompt service provided my friends and me with a little extra drinking and dating funds, no small matter at the time. True, these were minimum wage jobs, paying the equivalent in today’s money of $8.60/hour, but it was sufficient to our purposes and even a welcome break from the books, or at least from the Cliff Notes.
Dusty was not an educated man; in fact, Dusty was the reddest of rednecks, and had only a high school education, and not much of that. My friends and I, on the other hand, were smart college boys who knew absolutely everything—or so we thought—and we had a lot of fun at Dusty’s expense. But Dusty was something else, something we did not realize at the time, but something that has become extremely important—even precious—because it has become extremely rare: Dusty was a free man and a good citizen.
Dusty was, of course, free in the political sense, but he was also free economically. Everything he had came from the work that he did and the products he could provide. He called no man “boss” and his customers were free to choose him or his competitors. Dusty could always be relied on for a donation to the hospital fund or for a contribution to high school band fund. His ads helped sustain the local newspaper, and his civic activities, Rotary Club and the like, although a form of advertising in itself, helped maintain a dense network of social and political relationships. Dusty was a free man who depended only on the presence of a free market, a commercial commons where every man was free to enter and make a fair living.
I think of Dusty every election year, because he embodies all the issues we should talk about, but never do. Our politics should not revolve around the question of whether to make the sand glow at night or whether to exclude Mexicans and Muslims, but how to restore the free market and the free man; that is, how to restore the commercial commons that provided an opportunity for all who wished to try their hand. For make no mistake, that commons is largely closed, a closure accomplished by the capitalists, men who adopt the rhetoric of the free market while destroying the reality.
In the last election cycle, Mitt Romney claimed that he had created 90,000 jobs because his hedge fund was an early investor in Staples, the office supply chain. But this is incorrect; you do not make money in capitalism by “creating jobs,” but by destroying as many as possible and deskilling and degrading the ones that remain. For make no mistake, there were tens of thousands of Dustys spread across every city and town in America. They were embedded into the fabric of their communities, and into the social, political, and moral life of the nation.
Dusty’s grandchildren have no opportunity to do what Dusty did; what he considered as normal, as given, as something to be taken for granted, has all been taken away. The best his grandsons can hope for is to be clerks or managers for the behemoths that now dominate their father’s business. The commons that provided a living for thousands of entrepreneurs has been enclosed within the walls of the big box store. For the office supply business, the world has been largely divided between two oligarchical firms, Staples and OfficeDepot (along with its subsidiary, OfficeMax). Call it what you like, but do not call it a free market, because it can never be that.
The defenders of this ersatz “free” market will tell you that Staples is more “efficient,” but they will never tell you what they mean by “efficient.” They seem to mean “lower prices,” but lower prices do not necessarily correlate with “efficiency.” More likely, they correlate with subsistence wages, subsidies, political privilege, currency manipulation, and the elimination of competition, all of which are market inefficient.
To give but one example, it makes no sense, from an engineering perspective, to ship low-value goods in bulk 10,000 miles. This only appears “efficient” because the transportation system is highly subsidized, so that long-haul trucking pays only a fraction of its costs. The imposition of weight-and-distance tolls (since weight capacity is the major cost for any highway) on the so-called “freeways” would instantly wreck the big-box distribution model, and reveal it for the fraud it is; if they had to pay their own costs, they would instantly go bankrupt, or would be unable to compete with locally produced items and shorter distribution chains.
Dusty had some power and influence in his local community, but one power he lacked: he could not demand that his suppliers close up shop and move their production to a nation willing to impoverish its citizens to serve the Americans and Europeans. But that is the modus operandi of the big box store; that is Mitt Romney’s America. As Dusty disappeared from our common life, his suppliers disappeared from our country. They were all once united in a “commercial commons” that determined the economic and political life of the nation; now that commons is gone. And what has happened to Dusty’s business has happened to most other businesses, as the capitalist oligarchs have colonized one commons after the other, so that less and less space remains for the entrepreneur. The space for free men, the commons has disappeared into the corporate collective, a collective as brutal and as unfree as anything ever imagined by Josef Stalin. And it has created a new kind of America.
And this America has no place for Dusty; hence, it has no place for any of us.