Consumerism and Equality

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The consumerism generated by capitalism throughout the  ‘Developed‘ or ‘Western’ World is a major obstacle to tackling climate change, the biggest problem facing mankind.  So the next question must be: why is capitalism still so widely accepted?   Why do workers in the ‘West’ vote overwhelmingly for pro-capitalist parties?

One of the less obvious features of capitalism is that by exponentially expanding its ‘free’ market into every corner of  life it puts a price on everything, and it thereby becomes a great social leveller: kings and lords, upper-class birthrights and privileges decline as possession of money, which by chance can be acquired by anyone, comes to measure everything.  As a result, other than the massive inequalities of money, we now live in a society with a level of personal equality that was unimaginable throughout  human history up to perhaps 40 years ago for gender, race, single mothers, LBGT, etc.  But crucially this equality drive of capitalism has always encouraged constantly growing agitation by workers for a just and equal economic share of their social production. They now see themselves as the social equals of their bosses, which causes desperate problems for capitalists.  Capitalism thereby lacks the acceptance of difference which earlier civilizations did, and which could last thousands of years in spite of vast degrees of inequality, class divisions, emperors, slavery, etc.

England’s history demonstrates this capitalist dilemma. In response to the rapidly growing agitation the capital-owning class must react, like any ruling class, in two ways: some groups are violently repressed and exploited; some are bribed to keep them loyal. Thus colonies were plundered by Imperialism to deliver ‘bribes’ to English workers (noted in England by Engels 1 ) finally resulting in the compromise of social democracy.    For example while the famine was devastating Ireland massive amounts of food were exported under British army guard to Liverpool. Violence was used in the 1819  Peterloo massacre of protesters.  But when Chartist agitation for equality  grew towards 1850, this time instead of violence the Corn Laws were ended to allow imports of cheap food to quieten the agitation. It is clear that most wars fought during Hobsbawm‘s Age of Empire 2  and continuing today were concerned with access to cheap labour,  food, raw materials, and later oil.  The home working class was comfortable enough to forgo  dangerous agitation, even gaining the vote over the years. But after 2 diverting world wars, which were much caused by imperial rivalry, in the 1970’s there arose further demands for economic equality by English workers (e.g. the miners strike) and also agitation by the colonies for their own liberty, for the equality of nations.  As there were no new colonies to invade Thatcher and others in the West had to find another source of wealth to answer this new agitation.

Up to now colonies were generally not manufacturing, this was reserved for the West so that for example India sent its raw cotton to England then bought back the spun and woven goods. The direction Thatcher’s capitalism now took was that a new bribe was available for English workers if the colonies and 3rd world in general were given the liberty they demanded and could industrialise with their low wages to export cheap manufactured goods back to England. Reagan and the ‘West’ in general did the same. This worked well for the capitalists and it remains the situation at present: a glut of cheap manufactures from the developing nations, often produced by women and children working in disgraceful conditions, while the West drifts toward a purely financial economy where billionaires play Monopoly to produce damaging bubbles and get bailed-out when a bubble bursts.  Since the 1970’s the trend of incomes becoming more equal has reversed as the number of billionaires gallops 3.

It is important that the ‘bribes’ mentioned are not simple cash devices, there is a subjective element in the economic situation.   To take the example of China and the US: consumerism arises when a worker in the US receives $15/hr. while the worker in China producing equally sophisticated manufactured goods is only paid $2.  This means that even after profit-taking the worker in the West when shopping can still trade 1 hour of labour for several hours of  equal-quality Chinese labour 4.   This then is like a winning gambler cashing in the chips: you go shopping and spend 1 hour’s labour value and take home 2!  The more you shop the more your profit grows as you indirectly exploit foreign workers. This is the economic basis of consumerism.

It is the instinctive grasp of this situation by that US worker who then votes for capitalism that matters.  Workers when shopping will know from experience that the product bought contains a surplus of socially-necessary labour in comparison with their own labour time.  For example a US worker may exchange one hour’s labour at a minimum-wage job for the price of a pair of imported jeans. The cotton must be: planted-grown-harvested-spun-woven-dyed-cut-sewn. Then zips-pockets-buttons-belt loops-rivets-packaging-labels-transport. This is why shopping by the US worker obviously means gaining a surplus of labour. The same is true if both workers are on car-assembly lines each in their own countries. Consumerism thus is a worker-to-worker relation, not worker-to-capitalist. In contrast shopping pre-1970  was an experience of being exploited by capitalists, of how the wages earned exchanged for less than an equal amount of labour value because when a worker shopped, those workers who made the manufactured purchases were in the same economic area so were paid similarly (the missing cash of course funding capitalist profits).  This is why shopping for the working class didn’t have that particular ‘buzz’ it has gained since the 1970’s consumerism arrived.  This gain by Western workers of economic profit from global exploitation masks their exploitation by their own ruling class; it is the reason workers in the West vote always for capitalism.

This is also demonstrated by Western workers increasingly defining themselves as “middle class” 5. This term originally described someone like a working shop-owner or small producer who at the same time was profiting from having a few employees, so was thereby worker and capitalist at once, thus in the ‘middle‘. As described above, this situation is replicated in how Western workers still do a full day’s work but also when shopping are profiting from developing-world workers. Also reflecting this situation is the diminishing of campaigns for shorter working hours and strikes, both common in the 1970’s, which could reduce the immediate money income to swap for that consumerist profit. Many of the Western working class have joined the middle class, a class which consumes more than it produces.

however, the above-noted capitalist encouragement of a demand for equality has meant a growing insistence on democracy and equality in the ex-colonies, similar to that  historically won by Western workers up to 1970.  Workers in the former colonies will increasingly oppose cheap labour, as did the English workers, which will again put pressure on capitalism. But this time there are no more colonies to plunder to answer this demand, so the only way for the ruling class is to claw back some of the gains of workers.  This is happening in our current ‘crisis’ as Western workers increasingly get kicked out of their ‘middle class‘ consumerist lifestyle to face the hard reality of capitalism, even living in tent cities in the US, on charity food and medicine.

However while wages remain low enough in the developing-world our isolating and competitive consumerist  lifestyle will continue to divert many Western workers.  It will therefore remain difficult to build that society which champions the unity and caring which is the prerequisite for a deep enough understanding of the sacrifices needed to stop climate change.  This is not totally unrealistic, we can note the material sacrifices people willingly accepted in England during WW2.   But would we in the developed West, currently consuming at the rate of 4 planets, accept our equal global share to halt climate change: one family car for only two days per week, meat once, fish twice, one egg, one airplane trip every 5 years?  I don’t, and certainly most of society as it behaves at present would not, though countries like Cuba manage it. So we in the West vote ‘with our feet’ to consume 4 planets – no surprise then that we also vote for that consumer capitalism with our ballots! However it is notable that there was much nostalgia for aspects of WW2, for a community focussed on a cause and thereby socially unified though very poor in consumer goods.

Because consumerism is an unequal worker-to-worker relationship, it will end as  workers in the Developing-world do the maths and so demand equality and justice. Their wages will then go up to follow their production. When these wages reach even one-third of our Western wages there will be little margin left to fund our diverting consumerism and finally capitalism’s inequality and injustice will be fully experienced in the ‘West’ and action on the climate might emerge. We can help by encouraging those Developing-world workers to do the maths and to unite to demand the global equality which will end our consumerism –hopefully soon enough to avoid climate disaster.

Jaime Dixon is an ex-London teacher, who is now retired and lives in West Cork, Ireland.

Marx and Engels opposed colonialist “justice,” shown in the image above suppressing the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (or “Sepoy Mutiny”) in this Punch cartoon (via The Victorian Web).

Show 5 footnotes

  1. Letter Engels to Kautsky 1882 “…English workers gaily share the feast of England’s colonies.”
  2. Hobsbawm, Age of Empire 1875-1914, on p 83 sources approvingly a 1906 German economist that Europe will shift the burden of agriculture, mining then industry on to the ‘coloured races’ and be content with being rentiers, but also pave the way for the economic and political emancipation of those coloured races.
  3. T. Picketty: Capital in the 21st Century.
  4. China’s trade with the US is in surplus by approximately $300 billion of imported value or app. $4,000 per US family. If US worker is paid $15/hour, that $4,000 product could be bought for 270 hrs. of US worker’s labour. Chinese labour content of that $4000 (at $2/hr wages though sold at $6/hr after profit, transport etc.) 670 hours. So theoretical max. ‘profit’ 400 hours labour value, which is (@ $15/hr) possibly perceived by US family as $6,000 gain or ’profit’ annually, equalling up to 1/3 of the US worker’s wages. That’s just China, then there’s US trade with Mexico, Bangladesh (wages $2/day!) etc. -Trade: US census bureau -Wages: Monthly Review 2/2013
  5. US: over 50% -Pew Research. –England: 36% -Ipsos Mori Poll.
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