Ben Courtice, Melbourne
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.”
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
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
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
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.
sides of a bad coin
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
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
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
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,
Are we referring to the (re)production of social relations,
as discussed extensively by Marx? A 1970s article by Fredy Perlman, recently
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
aside: the IST tradition and the environment movement
Talking of preconceptions hampering people, Solidarity and
Socialist Alternative especially are still wed to the Cold War debates that saw
their political tradition (the UK-based International Socialist Tendency, which
includes Jonathan Neale's Socialist Workers Party) defend a theory of state capitalism to explain the
Soviet Union’s problems – and, in a kind of guilt by association, the Cuban
system as well. Hence they are probably unaware of the profound and useful
anti-productivist criticisms of the USSR made by Che Guevara, and even tend to
downplay or ignore the significance of the (pro-Cuban) Bolivian and Venezuelan
revolutionary processes that are unfolding before us in real time.
It is less understandable that these groups would have so
much trouble grasping the nettle of productivism. Coming from a Trotskyist
background, one would expect they might be independent of the productivist
ideologies of Stalinism and social democracy. Sadly, most of the Trotskyist
groups in Britain at least were stridently anti-Stalinist in form, but often
melted into social democracy in content, joining or defending the Labour Party
and often opposing new social movements outside the unions (women’s liberation,
gay liberation, ecology and so on).
The IST were never as blinkered as some of the truly awful
cults like the Socialist Labour League (parent to today’s Socialist Equality
Party). Yet I recall that until the 1990s in Australia the ISO regarded the
Greens and the environmental movement broadly as a “middle class” distraction,
unworthy of socialist participation.
Fortunately most of them have in practice
overcome this sectarianism, although Socialist Alternative are having the
hardest time grappling with it.
Courtice is a climate activist in Melbourne and a member of the Socialist
Alliance. A version of this article first appeared at Courtice’s blog, Blind Carbon Copy.]