Saturday, January 15, 2011

Socialists debate consumerism

"The impulse to consumerism remains tied to the alienation of work. "  `Productivism' or liberation?

By Ben Courtice
November 2, 2010

In a recent seminar on trade unions and the climate movement, I observed a surprising disagreement between some of the socialists present. It was started by a comment from Melbourne University academic (and Socialist Alliance activist) Hans Baer, who suggested that the “treadmill of production and consumption” had to be challenged, that we need to challenge consumerism and the alienation of work that makes people buy things to feel better.

Liz Ross of Socialist Alternative took umbrage at this, declaring that workers should create and enjoy wonderful technological products, tearing down a straw figure that Hans was supposedly arguing to stultify the creativity of the working class.

A more nuanced response came from a member of Solidarity, Chris Breen, who suggested he was fine with rich people giving up their second house but against the idea that ordinary people should be asked to sacrifice.

The disagreement over consumerism highlights a strategic debate among environmentalists, but also an important debate on the left.


Consumerism has often been a convenient scapegoat for conservatives, a way of blaming problems on the consumer not on the capitalist system that creates consumerism. Barry Commoner related the following hypothetical scenario to show that how pointless the consumer's decisions tend to be:

You go to the store to buy a refrigerator. You and the storekeeper have no idea how the thing was delivered from the factory. It could have come by railroad or truck. If it comes by truck, it causes four times as much pollution as if it came by railroad, because the fuel efficiency is four times lower. But what am I going to do, go into the store and say, “Listen, I’m an ecologist. I must have a refrigerator delivered by railroad”?

Simplistic liberal consumer-sovereignty arguments are in fact not an argument against consumerism, but an argument for enlightened consumerism. As such they pose no challenge to capitalist relations and we can expect the left to reject them. This has been explored in great detail in The Ecological Rift (Monthly Review Press, 2010), by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York. (Read the relevant chapter here).

This is a debate between the left and the right in the environment movement, a debate that sorely needs to be had, since in the 1990s “green consumerism” became the dominant form of environmental consciousness.


Jonathan Neale, in his (generally quite good) book Stop Global Warming: Change the world (Bookmarks, 2008) entitles a chapter “Sacrifice is not the answer”. This is a counter-intuitive notion for many environmentally aware people: hasn’t our over-consumption of resources caused the ecological crisis? Don’t we have to cut back, to “sacrifice” some of the rich world’s consumption? Neale explains the weakness of this approach as it relates to convincing people to take action, an argument which is convincing, as far as it goes.

Many liberal environmentalists say that people must sacrifice some of their luxuries for the sake of the environment and the world’s poor. More equitable sharing of the world means some have to give up a bit.

But for poorer, working-class people, sacrifice has another connotation. It’s the sacrifices made for the boss at work and the government, sacrifices that are never reciprocated or repaid to those making them. It is the mantra of the last three decades of decreasing standards of living: longer work hours, lower wages and less social services. Talking about “sacrifice” won’t go down easily with broad sections of the population. In particular, when you consider that the majority of the world’s population do not have much to sacrifice, and actually want more not less as part of a just solution.

For the well-off (and particularly in the rich world), sacrifice is like charity: giving up a small part of their privileges to make themselves feel better. For such people, talk of sacrifice only reinforces an elitist mentality. “Live simply, so others may simply live” is a common mantra of this political current, which may be applicable to their personal circumstance but not always useful for others.

But if this elitist notion of “sacrifice” is not useful, does that mean we have nothing to say about consumerism more generally? In reality it is a complicated and rich topic of discussion for the left.

`Affluenza' and the growth fetish

Australian author Clive Hamilton has written two books against consumerism, Growth Fetish and with Richard Denniss Affluenza: when too much is never enough. The authors explain that a growing level of material wealth is not matched by growth in happiness.

There are many levels to engage with their argument, and valid criticisms to be made. Not all left critics appreciate the scope of what Hamilton is analysing, however. Brian Webb wrote a criticism of Hamilton’s views in the Socialist Worker magazine in 2006 (published by the predecessor of Solidarity, the International Socialist Organisation).

Webb summarised Hamilton’s argument (as expressed by Hamilton in Quarterly Essay) like this:

Hamilton argues that modern capitalism has transformed society such that the idea of class is redundant. “Affluence” means that working Australians have become selfish, identify primarily as consumers, and consequently the ideas of class and solidarity are no longer relevant.

Poverty and oppression now only exist at the margins of the system, which has eliminated structural oppression. The “defining problem” that parties need to concern themselves with is alienation.

…As a solution he proposes the “politics of wellbeing” – that instead of economic prosperity we need to focus on our consumer choices and lifestyle.

Hamilton’s thesis is a dangerous one. It is pessimistic and elitist, and disarms the left ideologically against the free market.

…The left needs to rebut Hamilton and in the process become clearer about the principles and issues around which it can build influence.

Webb rebuts Hamilton’s arguments that the idea of social class is redundant. Yet the underlying reality – that most of the population are still in the wage-worker class – is not the whole picture. My reaction to Hamilton's and Denniss’ books was not so much that class analysis was missing but that their centrepiece, criticism of consumerism, did not go deep enough.

Neoliberalism (usually called “economic rationalism” in Australia) saw a massive restructuring of the working class by outsourcing and privatisation, breaking up large centralised workforces into atomised and competing groups of workers, which has been one of the factors in the decline of the union movement. Hamilton conflates this with a shift from industrial to consumer capitalism, considering it an established reality rather than an ongoing process of class struggle.

The change in emphasis from the production to the consumption sphere is one shared with postmodern social analysis, except that postmodernism accepts consumption at face value, with little appreciation of its historical purpose or personal significance. It was not "modernity" that had changed; it was capitalism that had morphed from industrial capitalism into consumer capitalism… This transition’s effect on the definition of self has been as profound as the effect of the transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism, and it is this basic truth that postmodernism has unwittingly grasped. (Growth Fetish, p. 149)

The observation that capitalism is increasingly dominated by marketing is not new to Marxists. Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran analysed it well in their 1966 classic Monopoly Capitalism. Hamilton provides a useful survey of the psychology of consumerism. He criticises the culture of work too, or more precisely the culture of overwork.

But the alienation of work remains unchanged. The impulse to consumerism remains tied to the alienation of work. This is not explored systematically enough; for that, we have to turn to (for example) Sharon Beder’s Selling the Work Ethic (Zed Books, 2000). Marta Harnecker’s Rebuilding the Left (Zed Books, 2007) also includes an historical analysis of how the work ethic turned into the consumer ethic. (For Liz Ross – a published author on union struggles – to conflate work with “creativity” may have been an accidental error, but it’s definitely an error.)

“Affluence” is a dangerously vague term. In Stop Global Warming, Jonathan Neale quotes Vincent Navarro:

An unskilled, unemployed, young black person living in the ghetto area of Baltimore has more resources (he or she is likely to have a car, mobile phone, and TV, and more square feet per household and more kitchen equipment) than a middle class professional in Ghana, Africa. If the whole world were just a single society, the Baltimore youth would be middle class and the Ghana professional would be poor. And yet, the first has a much shorter life expectancy (45 years) than the second (62 years)… It is far more difficult to be poor in the United States… than to be middle class in Ghana.

In some ways this is the argument made by Hamilton and Denniss, but they consider the relatively few poor in the rich countries not relevant to the overall problem of consumerism.

But Neale adds, “That person in Baltimore may not need those extra things, but he or she does not want to give them up. They are a sign that at least they have something. Possessions are the way people in their society keep track of power and powerlessness.” Neale goes on to search for “the sort of measures that can stop global warming without ordinary people having to sacrifice what they hold dear.”

The other side of the coin

Now, having poured scorn on the liberal moralists who patronise what they see as the pampered masses, let us be even handed and consider the absurdity of this profound love that people supposedly have for their flat-screen TV or their new hair dryer. We all know that people do get obsessed with these things. Cars, entertainment/sound systems, cars with sound systems – these are all things by which many people measure their social worth, hold dear even. Do socialists have to protect that?

Let’s think of an analogy: Many people invest a lot of self-worth in being promoted into management at work, but socialists and unionists have always considered that to be a sell-out or cop-out. Consumerism parallels this. A small section of the world’s working class can afford the trappings of luxury that consumerism provides. Many of the world’s poor working people aspire to join them. To accept this as a given – as some socialists seem to do – is akin to thinking that to attain some dignity at work, some control over one’s conditions of work, the only way is to get a promotion or set up one’s own business. Either mistake fails at class analysis, simply following a superficial expression of class identity, idealising working people’s shallowest wants.

Without joining the condescending liberals who consider working people too stupid and greedy to liberate themselves, socialists need to steer a course that finds a way out of the consumerist nightmare and appeals to the people who are in it. Telling people to sacrifice is usually not a useful approach, as a PR strategy, but finding ways to promote better lifestyle rather than more consumption are important.

Webb’s article defends workplace collectivism and working-class altruism against what he sees as Hamilton’s conservative and right-wing views. Hamilton, on the other hand, looks to “downshifting” for his solution: voluntary opting out of the system of overwork and overconsumption.

Webb rightly suggests that “Hamilton’s downshifting may connect with the widespread sentiment that we are working too hard, but it is an individualistic solution that ignores those that don’t have the option of accepting a lower income or cannot change jobs or negotiate lower hours with their employer.”

I can vouch for this: a professional IT worker, for example, may easily find a part-time position, but for an industrial maintenance fitter like me (with a similar skill level, in a different industry) part-time jobs are basically unheard of. And for unskilled casual workers, knocking back one shift often leads to being passed over for future shifts.

Hamilton, to be fair, doesn’t just rely on individual downshifters:

While the downshifters might be seen as standard bearers in the revolt against consumerism, the social revolution required to make the transition to a post-growth society will not come about solely through the personal decisions of determined individuals. The forces devoted to buttressing the ideology of growth fetishism and obsessive consumption are difficult to resist, and they are boosted immeasurably by governments’ obsession with growth at all costs. Making the transition to the new dispensation demands a politics of downshifting. Political downshifting can be defined as the entrenchment within popular culture , public and private institutions and, ultimately, government of a predisposition to promote the quality of social and individual life rather than surrendering to the demands of the market.

Which presumably is why Hamilton has now been a candidate for the Greens.

Two sides of a bad coin

Let’s rescue the class struggle from Hamilton’s dismissal. The destruction of unions and working life perpetrated by neoliberalism is not a done deal, it is a continuing process. That workers have already lost so much in this battle makes their conditions of struggle in the workplace all the more difficult, but not irrelevant. Consider the upheavals these last few weeks in France, or the massive street protests against the anti-worker WorkChoices laws in Australia in recent years.

But let’s not ignore the real issues raised by Hamilton either. Let us not reduce the class struggle to the workplace, nor to simply gaining a larger share of the pie. As Hamilton notes, “The cold war ideological divide was not about the desirability of economic growth. On that all agreed.”

Wikipedia defines Productivism as the belief that measurable economic productivity and growth is the purpose of human organisation (e.g., work), and that "more production is necessarily good".

The left does not have to follow the productivist path: capitalism won over state socialism, and that should settle it. The only strong holdout from the 20th century socialist states is Cuba, and its survival has a lot to do with the alternative ideology provided by Che Guevara’s critique of Soviet economic planning.

This confusion over productivism is not new on the left, but the ecological debate has made it a confusion that must be dealt with.

It is hard to debate “productivism” in the abstract. For example, if we challenge that “more production is necessarily good” with the alternative that “better production is necessarily good” are we still productivist? How do you define vague terms like “better” or “good”? Do we mean production of consumer goods, or production of the necessities of life (food, shelter etc)?

Are we referring to the (re)production of social relations, as discussed extensively by Marx? A 1970s article by Fredy Perlman, recently republished here, is a good starting point for any reader not familiar with this last, crucial point about reproduction of social relations.

Capitalism is not just something that occurs when a boss exploits a worker: it is a global economic system. It impacts everyone, not just workers. The exploitation of workers' labour is the key element for the survival of capital, but the reproduction of the whole system hinges on those workers not challenging their role in its reproduction. Ideology is key, and consumerism is the ideology of modern capitalism – so much so that otherwise astute analysts like Hamilton even think that consumer capitalism is a new stage surpassing industrial capitalism.

Living well, not better

He who is richer is not who has more, but who needs less. -- Zapotec saying, Oaxaca, Mexico -- quoted by Bolivian delegation at the UN

Challenging consumerism is an important part of defining a politics that can liberate not just the working class, but all humanity, from capitalism. There are elements of this idea in the global left. The Bolivian government of Evo Morales has been promoting the indigenist concept of "Living Well" as a way to respect and preserve life on Earth.

The culture of Death is capitalism, what we, the indigenous peoples, say that it is To Live Better, better at the cost of another. The Culture of Life is socialism, which is Living Well.

What are the deep differences between Living Well and Living Better? I repeat again, Living Better is to live at the cost of another, exploiting another, extracting the natural resources, raping Mother Earth, and privatising basic services. (The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth, Evo Morales, Bolivian Foreign Affairs Ministry 2010)

Of course, there is a long way to go before this ideology really sinks into the masses – even in Bolivia. As Bolivia's vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera explained in 2007:

The outlook according to which the indigenous world has its own cosmovision, radically opposed to that of the West, is typical of latecomer indigenists or those closely linked to certain NGOs ... Basically, everyone wants to be modern. The Felipe Quispe [Indigenous] insurgents, in 2000, were demanding tractors and internet.

Bridging the gap

Let's consider the lessons of trade unionism again. If the skilled, better-paid part of the workforce spurn unions and seek to join management or go into business for themselves, there is a strong encouragement for less-skilled, less-educated workers to follow that example. Efforts to unionise are undermined. To organise an effective union, it is usually with an alliance between at least some of the more skilled workers and the greater mass of unskilled and semiskilled.

The left in the First World cannot wait for the impoverished Third World masses to beat down the doors of imperialism and destroy our enemy from without. Nor can we rely on the spontaneous wants of workers to mobilise them against capitalism in the heartlands of imperialism and consumerism. We have to find struggles that break out of the logic of capitalism while providing tangible benefits to the working people who we want to see mobilised.

One most obvious such struggles is to halt climate change. Capitalism keeps inventing new schemes to try to fix the problem (or be seen to be trying): emissions trading, efficiency measures, feed-in tarriffs and so forth. Some of these measures do produce verifiable results (although not emissions trading!) but none of them really solve the problem. That takes an inter-industrial plan, out of the hands of the big corporate interests of the day like mining corporations, car manufacturers and the oil companies. And for all the false solutions marketed by capitalist governments, they cannot paper over the worsening climate crisis when floods, droughts, wildfires and heatwaves kill thousands at a time.

On a less grand level, what should the left advocate as a solution for rising petrol prices? Wage rises at work? Or increasing public transport services to the level where most people no longer need a car? The second solution is not an easy ask of capitalism, but it does actually solve the problem. It is also a threat to a key sector of capital – the auto industry (I recently wrote an article on that). The auto industry is close to the largest part of consumerism, measured by cost (after housing, but houses are more of a necessity in some ways).

I also recently wrote an article about utopian ideas and rehabilitating them on the left. Many practical cooperative schemes are dismissed by the traditional left because they look naïvely utopian, hippy even: community gardens and organic food co-ops, for example. But would the left dismiss such cooperative efforts if they were like the Black Panthers’ free school breakfast program, not a hippy trip at all but a real help to a community they were trying to organise?

Prejudices and preconceptions on the left, based on the arguments of yesterday, often hinder the development of new, creative and necessary responses to the problems of capitalism.

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