On the last day of May 2018, an elderly man known simply as Ted died in a 24-hour Tim Hortons in a city whose housing crisis is more acute than ours, Vancouver BC. (Tim Hortons is a Canadian-based fast food restaurant that's "known for its coffee and donuts.") Several reports claim that Ted lived in this shop for a decade. He settled in just before the city's housing market was exploded by rampant speculation. He had nowhere to live, but his small income from a pension and wages from a low-paying job enabled him to appear like a coffee shop customer. He did this for 10 years. If you can blend with the business' surroundings, you can sit in it for as long as you want.
Ted was terminally ill, and, according to another homeless man who sleeps on the street right outside of the Tim Hortons, had been hallucinating. "I think he was getting ready to go, to pass on," said Ted's homeless acquaintance to Laura Kane, a reporter for the Canadian Press. "... He's saying things that he never said before." At 3 am, someone noticed something was not right with the way Ted was resting on the table. The man who appeared to be a customer for 10 years now appeared to have a vacated body. A sleeping body still resists. A vacant one does not. The friend touched the body: it was cold. He smelled the body: it stank. He looked at the body and "saw black bile pooling" next to it. Someone called 911, an ambulance arrived, and the body was transported to the Vancouver General Hospital where it became officially dead. The Guardian reports that a friend of his "said he overheard a paramedic speculating that Ted might have been dead for 12 hours."
In the next part of this post, I want to consider Ted as an animal, a human animal. What does it mean to be a member of this species in this world that we find ourselves enmeshed in?
Before I examine the corpse that replaced a coffee shop customer, I should warn you that I have spent the past week or so reading Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory by Moishe Postone, a Canadian critical theorist who died three months before Ted. Both died of cancer. Postone's book is very dense, and yet his ideas are not hard to grasp if stated plainly. These ideas will explain a part of the corpse that caused a small disturbance at the Tim Hortons.
What was first revealed by the corpse? Ted the animal. And what kind of animal was he? A human one. And what is specific to this kind of animal? It is the most social mammal in the animal kingdom. But what does it mean to be hyper-social? It only means one thing: a great and deep dependence on conspecifics. This is how this kind of animal thrives—when its animality, which is its sociality, is connected by a system of calls and answers to relationships (culture) that reach the closest attunement with the kind of body that, through biological time (Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution), it has become: a hyper-social mammal. Ted died on a table in a coffee shop. There was his end. The smell of coffee and cakes thick in the air. His moment in the universe came down to this. What kind of society was his social body in? What was the essence of its human relationships (culture)?
Postone proposed that capitalism actually has two key parts. One is defined by value, and the other by wealth. The two must not be confused. The former is not transhistorical. Meaning, you will not find capitalist value in Ancient Rome or Shaka's Zulu Kingdom. You will only find it in a set of economic arrangements that are expressed through the historically specific medium of capitalism. Value is, according to Postone, wholly socially constructed (I would call it culturally constructed, because I believe it is important to separate the social from the cultural—the former is biological and transhistorical; the latter is fabricated and historically plastic). What Postone calls social, I call cultural, because something like value really does not have a direct biological basis like the location and folds of our larynx, the organ that generates human linguistic complexity, the social. Value is more like a poem.
Postone says that because value is cultural (my definition for his social), it is not material wealth. Value, and also surplus value (which can be expressed as profits), is abstract, not material. You cannot see value and nor is it expressed directly in the world of things. There is in capitalism a big difference between its essence (value) and its appearance (the market of things—wealth). They are not, as many people think, the same. And thinking so—believing that value and wealth are one and the same thing—makes the culturally fabricated system look all natural. Meaning, a worker in a coffee shop appears to be doing the exact same thing as a farmer in the times of Jesus or Confucius. Labor in capitalism is transhistoricized if wealth is confused with value.
In capitalism, value can remain the same through (its form of historically specific and imposed) time, and yet material wealth can explode (over-supply). Condos go up. Luxury apartments go up. More and more stuff materializes all over the place. But value remains the same. And in this way Ted lived and died in a double strange world. For one, it was estranged from him as an animal, the hyper-social animal (the transhistorical, or sociobiological). The natural gifts of his body (to borrow wording from Rebecca Brown) were not in tune with that which is supposed to enhance precisely those gifts, the culture. (How did culture become so separated from the social? That is for another post.)
Secondly, value, which is mostly made up, is more real than actual things and activities. This is why the maintenance of the incredible reality of value can result in, say, a housing market with lots of empty homes and, at the same time, lots of homeless people. Value must be policed and protected like a painting in a museum with a guard in front of it.
You can have thousands upon thousands of Tim Hortons around the world, and each one might have enough food to alleviate hunger and even homelessness on its block. But that is the world of wealth. What made Ted homeless is not wealth (there are lots of empty apartments in Vancouver) but value (the maintenance of which demands the cultural imposition of scarcity in the world of appearance—consumers, coffee, wages, cakes, cash registers, and so on). This is the cultural concept that matters. And when the market is exposed in such way that it sees that everyone can see that it has absolutely no connection with what Madonna calls the material world, the wheels of the economy come right off and we have another crash. A capitalist crisis is not a crisis of wealth but of value. Goodnight, Ted.
Note: This is the kind of post that's structurally inspired by Cecil Taylor's performance of "After all no. 2" at Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974. (Another similarly structured post is "Seattle's New Normal: Homelessness Is Now Middle Class.")