Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Time to sacrifice consumerism

This abridged version of my article Consumerism or Liberation has just been published in Green Left Weekly (edited to be somewhat shorter than the text below).

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

For the well-off, sacrifice is like charity: giving up a little of their privileges to make themselves feel better. For such people, talk of sacrifice only reinforces an elitist mentality.

But for poorer, working-class people, sacrifice has another connotation. It’s the sacrifices made for the boss and the government, sacrifices that are never 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.

British socialist Jonathan Neale argues against the idea of “sacrifice” at the outset of his 2008 book “Stop Global Warming: change the world”. In particular, Neale points out 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.

But what about “giving up” some of the unpaid overtime that people work? What about “giving up” some of the menial call centre or production line jobs for less repetitive, monotonous work? What about “giving up” the time spent in traffic jams to take public transport instead? Sustainable socialist society is necessarily about better living standards and individual empowerment. “Sacrifice” may mean much more than giving up SUVs and flatscreen TVs and airconditioned McMansions.

Part of the problem is that the argument for “sacrifice” is only made in relation to what the individual buys. In conservative economics, “consumer sovereignty” is the idea that the consumer’s demand determines what is manufactured for sale. Barry Commoner related the following hypothetical scenario to show that how pointless this idea is in reality:

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”?

Arguments against consumerism based on “consumer sovereignty” only really argue for a more enlightened consumerism. They also reduce consumerism to the actions of individuals unrelated to other people or agencies. Sadly, since the 1990s “green consumerism” has been the main form of environmentalism in many countries.

‘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 convincingly that a growing level of material wealth (affluence) in the rich countries is not matched by growth in happiness.

“Affluence” is a dangerously vague term. Neale quotes socialist writer 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.

Neale commented, “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 says we need to find “the sort of measures that can stop global warming without ordinary people having to sacrifice what they hold dear.”

Reality check 1

We all know that people do get obsessed with their things. Cars, hi-fi sound systems, cars with sound systems – these are all things by which many people measure their social worth, “hold dear” even. What is the significance of this? Let’s think of an analogy: Many people consider promotion at work a sign of self-worth and empowerment, but trade unionists have often considered it to be a sell-out or cop-out instead.

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 would be like accepting that the only way to attain some dignity at work is to get a promotion or set up one’s own business.

Telling people to sacrifice may not be useful as a PR strategy, but finding ways to promote better lifestyle rather than more consumption are important. Working people have to fight for not just more money, but for better social institutions and community facilities that will improve the quality of life regardless of wealth.

Hamilton looks to “downshifting” for his solution: voluntary opting out of the system of overwork and overconsumption. Australian socialist Brian Webb commented 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.”

Hamilton, to be fair, doesn’t just rely on individual downshifters. He also called for “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.”

Reality check 2

Neoliberal economic policy (traditionally 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. Hamilton conflates this with a shift from industrial to consumer capitalism, considering it an established reality rather than an ongoing process of class struggle.

Let’s retrieve 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 mass strikes just recently in France, or the massive street protests against the WorkChoices laws in Australia just a few years back.

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 wealth. As Hamilton notes, “The cold war ideological divide was not about the desirability of economic growth. On that all agreed.” We could add, capitalism won over state socialism in this contest, and that should settle it.

Capitalism is not just something that occurs when a boss exploits a worker, even thought that is central. It is a global economic system. The continuation of the system relies on workers not challenging their role in its continuation. Ideology is therefore 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

The one who is richer is not who has more, but who needs less. -- Zapotec saying, Oaxaca, Mexico

We cannot wait for the impoverished Third World masses to beat down the doors of imperialism and destroy it from the outside. Nor can we expect spontaneous uprising against capitalism in the heartlands of imperialism and consumerism. We have to make struggles that break out of the logic of capitalism while providing real benefits to sustain the people who are fighting for them.

For example, what is the best reponse to 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 one of the largest sectors of capital – the auto industry. How do you sell cars when no-one needs them anymore? The auto industry is one of the largest consumer expenditures (after housing). If people don’t need to pay off their cars, why work such long hours? And that’s not even factoring in the climate benefits of less car use.

Many practical cooperative schemes are dismissed by the old left because they look naïve and utopian, hippy even: community gardens and organic food co-ops, for example. But what is wrong with people organising to recreate community and solidarity against the flow of capitalism? That is a resource for change to be tapped into. Not to mention these kinds of initiatives are potentially a vital part of the solution to climate change.

To imagine a future worth fighting for, progress has to be defined ecologically and culturally, not in pure politics and economics. We need to base ourselves on the class struggle in the broad sense, not just wages and taxes. We need to fight for victories that undermine the treadmill of production and consumption.

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