Against “ethical” consumerism; for socialist planning

“The assumption behind consumer activism is that we’re limited to shopping to express our discontent. This is effectively saying the neoclassical economists are right: the economy runs on consumer preferences, not exploitation.  This shifts blame onto individual consumers for the failings of the system: if there’s alienation and environmental misery, it’s your fault for buying the wrong things.  Yet consumers are also workers who must sell their labor power or lose their homes and livelihoods.  They buy what makes their wages stretch further.  From the capitalist’s point of view, providing cheaper goods allows them to pay workers less, as Marx wrote: ‘In a society founded on poverty the poorest products have the fatal prerogative of being used by the greatest number.’ They’re not more useful, in terms of providing nutrition or health.  But then, capitalism provides profits first and useful things second.

In fact, the vast majority of people in the world need to consumer more.  You read that correctly.  Given the excess of cars and appliances filling our roads and homes, it may seem obvious that growth is a bad thing.  But for the vast majority of people, capitalism isn’t meeting their needs.  In the Global North, only those lucky enough to have a job can pay for essential needs like transportation, education, and healthcare.  In the Global South, billions of people live on less than $2 a day.  In this context, calling for people to consume less misses the point.  Real ethical consumption is collective.  Capitalism makes it impossible for most people to meet their needs on their own, but as a society, we could provide houses, hospitals, and schools for all.  The only reason shoddy merchandise gets made is because capital creates a market for the people it underpays.  Redistribute wealth and consumption could skyrocket, as everything from public transportation to musical instruments got used communally, while poor quality, useless items wouldn’t find any demand.  Obviously, this implies a vast change in the structure of ownership and consumption, but it’s a far more positive vision than localism’s individualism.

– Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World

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