Consumerism and Inequality
A Discussion Article by Jaime Dixon
The consumerism generated by capitalism throughout the ‘Developed’ or ‘Northern’ world is a major obstacle to tackling Climate Change, a crucial problem for humanity requiring immediate action. So the next question must be: why is capitalism still so widely accepted? Why do workers in the ‘North’ vote overwhelmingly to support pro-capitalist parties?
A crucial though less obvious feature of capitalism is that by forcing 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 luck or cunning, can be acquired by anyone regardless of their origin, comes to measure social status. As a result, other than massive and growing inequalities of money, the ‘North’ is now a society with an extremely high level of personal equality, a level that was totally unimaginable throughout human history up to perhaps 40 years ago for gender, race, single mothers, LBGT, etc.
But crucially this equality ideology of capitalism has also caused constantly growing agitation by workers for an equal and just economic share of their social production, because capitalism as noted encourages them to see themselves as the social equals of their bosses. This causes desperate problems for capitalists because capitalism therefore lacks the acceptance of inequality which earlier civilizations had, civilizations that could last perhaps a thousand years with little change in spite of the inequality of class divisions, slavery, emperors, racism, gender discrimination, etc. Only money matters today, and that can come and go regardless of status deceptively easily, as we all realise.
England’s history demonstrates the capitalist dilemma. In response to this rapidly growing agitation for equality, the capital-owning class must react, like any ruling class or Mafia, in two ways: one section of the exploited is violently repressed, another is bribed to keep them usefully loyal insiders. Violence was used by the state in the 1819 Peterloo massacre of English protesters. In the 1840s, while the famine was starving a million people in Ireland, massive amounts of food were being exported under British army guard to Liverpool. Towards 1850 when Chartist agitation for equality grew in England, this time instead of violence the Corn Laws were ended and imports of cheap food allowed as a bribe to quieten the agitation. Colonies were constantly plundered by England’s Imperialism to deliver ‘bribes’ to English workers (noted by Engels1).
Most of the wars fought during Hobsbawm‘s Age of Empire2 and continuing today were essentially imperialist, competing for access to cheap labour, food, and raw materials. The English working class was thereby kept comfortable enough to forgo dangerous agitation, to favour capitalism, even volunteering as soldiers in the Imperial army and winning electoral equality over the years (though as Pinochet’s coup in Chile, the bombing of Serbia and intervention in Syria shows, voting must be pro-capitalist). But after two diverting world wars caused mainly by imperial rivalry, eventually agitation arose again with demands for economic justice by English workers (e.g. the 1974 and 1985 Miners’ strikes) along with US soldiers to their great credit refusing to fight in Viet-Nam, many street protests and also strong and often violent agitation by the colonies for their own liberty, for the equality of races and nations. This widespread and varied agitation, sharing a general affirmation that all humans must be treated equally, was a new and dangerous crisis for capitalism. As there were no further colonies to invade Thatcher and the North in general needed a new source of wealth to continue the bribes which until now had quietened agitation by their own workers.
Up to this time colonies were generally not manufacturing, this was reserved for the North 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 to keep English workers loyal was available if the colonies and Third world in general were given the liberty they were increasingly demanding, and then would become industrialised with their low wages to export cheap manufactures back to England. Reagan in the US and the rest of the North did the same. This worked very well for the capitalists and it remains the present situation: a glut of cheap manufactures from the developing nations, often produced by children working in disgraceful conditions, while the North with diminishing manufacturing drifts toward a consumerist financial economy where billionaires speculate to produce damaging bubbles and get bailed-out when a bubble bursts. As T. Picketty notes,3 since the 1970s the trend of incomes becoming more equal has reversed, the number of billionaires gallops.
It is important that the ‘bribes’ mentioned are not just mechanical 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 capitalist profit-taking the worker in the US when shopping can still trade 1 hour of labour for several hours of equal-quality Chinese labour. 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! This indirect exploitation of foreign workers is the economic foundation of the ‘buzz’ of the ‘consumerist’ consciousness.
The instinctive grasp of this situation by the US worker who then votes for capitalism is what matters. Workers when shopping will intuit that the product bought contains a surplus of socially-necessary labour in comparison with their own labour. For example a US worker may exchange one hour’s labour at a minimum-wage retail 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-hems-buttons-belt loops-rivets-labels-packaging-transport. This is why shopping by the US worker obviously means gaining a surplus of labour. The same is true, though less obvious, if both workers are on car-assembly lines each in their own countries. Consumerism thus is generated by a worker-to-worker relationship, not worker-to-capitalist.
In striking contrast shopping for manufactured goods pre-1980 was an experience of being exploited by capitalists, of how the wages earned exchanged for a less than equal amount of labour value because when a worker shopped, those workers who produced the purchases were in the same economic area so were paid at approximately the same rates (the missing cash of course funding capitalist profits). This is why shopping for the working class didn’t have that particular ‘profit-buzz’ it has gained since our 1980’s Consumerism arrived. This gain by northern workers of economic profit from global exploitation compensates for the exploitation by our own ruling class, and is the fundamental reason why workers in the North vote always for capitalism.
(to follow the money trail more closely: China’s trade with the US is in surplus by approximately $300billion of imported value or about $4,000 per US family. If a US worker is paid $15/hour, that $4,000 embedded labour can be bought for 270 hrs. of US worker’s labour. Chinese labour content of that $4000 is (at $2/hr wages though sold at perhaps $6/hr after profit, tax, etc.) 670 hours. So theoretical max. ‘profit’ 400 hours labour value, which is (@ $15/hr) possibly perceived by a US family as $6,000 gain or ’profit’ annually, a substantial 20% of the US worker’s wages. That’s just China, then there’s US trade with Mexico, Bangladesh (wages $2/day!), etc.)4
This system is also demonstrated by northern workers increasingly defining themselves as “Middle Class”5. This economic term originally described someone such as a working shop-owner or small producer who at the same time had a few employees, so was a worker and capitalist-employer at once, thus in the ‘middle‘. As described above, this situation is replicated in how northern workers still do a full day’s work but also when consuming are profiting from developing-world workers, so they instinctively – and correctly – term themselves “Middle Class.“ Also reflecting this situation is the diminishing of campaigns for shorter working hours and strikes, both common up to the 1980s, because such actions would reduce the immediate money income to swap for that consumerist profit (US: in 1970 there were 381 strikes, in 2012 only 11 strikes6 ). Many of the northern working class have joined the middle class, a class which consumes more than it produces.
The essential point is that the above-described capitalist encouragement of a demand for equality hasn’t ceased, but has caused a growing insistence on democracy and equality by workers in the ex-colonies and southern world in general, repeating the struggle for what was historically won by northern working classes up to 1980 within their own countries, again putting pressure on capitalism. But this time there are no more colonies to plunder to answer this demand, so the only solution for the capitalist ruling class is to claw back some of the gains of their own workers. This is happening in our spreading austerity ‘crisis’ as northern workers increasingly get kicked out of their ‘middle class’ Consumerist lifestyle to face the hard reality of capitalism, in Greece under strict austerity, in the US living in tent cities on charity food and medicine. This is causing growing and dangerous agitation against the system.
One solution proposed for an exploited country in the South is to cut links with imperialism, as Cuba was forced to. But problems arise from this, Cuba had limited access to some of the main advances in technology created by the global scientific community. Also people in Cuba can’t always know that the consumerist lifestyle shown in world media is enjoyed only by a few, that if they restore links with Imperialism they are most likely to wind up on Bangladesh or at least lumpen wages rather than with nice cars and the latest fashion. This is an ongoing struggle for Cuba, and the fact that infant mortality in Cuba is better than the US, that Cuba led the victory over Ebola, that medicine and education are free for all, aren’t always strong enough arguments for the youth aspiring to the polluting consumerist culture enjoyed by us in the northern middle class. This pressure also probably helped to bring down the Berlin wall. Workers’ aspiration to join the exploitative middle classes is an ongoing problem for socialism. Possibly a continent-wide delinking could survive in the present stage of Imperialism.
However while wages remain low enough in the developing-world our self-centred competitive consumerism will continue to divert many northern 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, and afterwards there was considerable nostalgia for that community focussed on a moral cause and thereby socially unified in spite of the minimal amount of rationed consumer goods.
But without an inspiring cause, would we in the developed ‘North’ consuming at the rate of four planets accept our equal global share to halt climate change: one family car for only two days per week, meat once, fish twice, two eggs, one airplane trip every five years? I don’t, and certainly most of northern society as it behaves at present would not, though countries like Cuba manage it. So we in the North, as the saying goes, ’vote with our feet’ to consume four planets – no surprise then that we also vote for consumer capitalism with our ballots.
Because consumerism arises from an exploitative worker-to-worker relationship, it will end as workers in the South do the maths to insist on equality and justice, and unite on a continental or worldwide basis to demand that their wages mirror their production, replicating that which Northern workers historically won within their own countries. When these wages reach even one-third of our Northern 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 North. Our widespread consumerism will fade, capitalism will begin to crumble, and action on the climate can emerge. We can help by encouraging Southern-world workers to unite to demand the global equality which will end our Consumerism -hopefully soon enough to avoid climate disaster.
1 –Letter Engels to Kautsky, 1882: “…English workers gaily share the feast of England’s colonies…”
2 — E. Hobsbawm, Age of Empire 1875-1914, London, 1987.
3 — T. Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century, Cambridge MA, 2014. The growing wealth gap since the 1970s is one of the book’s main arguments.
4 –Trade: US Census Bureau. -Wages: Monthly Review, Feb.2013 p.29.
5 –US: over 50% -Pew Research, 2012. –England: 36% -Ipsos Mori Poll, 2013.
6 –US Census Bureau, 2012.
The above discussion article includes thought provoking ideas which our readers may wish to comment upon.