Consumerism and Equality

Photo by Daniel Oines | CC BY 2.0

The consumerism generated by capitalism throughout the developed or ‘Northern’ world prevents the tackling of climate change, the greatest problem facing humanity needing immediate action.

But luckily our global capitalism has always struggled to maintain itself,  because a crucial weakness of capitalism (not sufficiently noted by the left) is that by relentlessly pushing its “free” market into every corner of life to seek profit, it puts a cash-price on everything, and it thereby becomes a great social leveller: kings, lords and all upper-class birthrights, race and gender privileges etc. decline as possession of money, which by luck or cunning can be acquired by anyone regardless of their birth or origin, comes to measure social success. As a result, other than those inequalities of money, we now live in a society with a level of nominal equality that was totally unimaginable throughout human history to even just 40 years ago for birth, gender, race, single mothers, LBGT, etc.

Crucially this promotion of nominal equality also causes constantly growing agitation by workers for a just and equal share of their social production, because as noted capitalism encourages them to now see themselves as human beings equal to their bosses. This causes desperate problems for capitalists because their system lacks that acceptance of inequality which earlier civilizations had, civilizations that could last even a thousand years with little change in spite of vast inequality in class divisions, emperors, racism, slavery, gender discrimination, etc.  Only quantity of money matters now, though its effects can be quite subtle.

England’s history demonstrates this capitalist dilemma. In response to a  growing agitation for equality, the capitalist 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 demonstrating English workers.  In the 1840s famine was starving a million people in Ireland while massive amounts of food were being exported to Liverpool under British army guard. Towards 1850 when Chartist agitation for equality grew, this time instead of violence the Corn Laws were ended to allow imports of cheap food as the ‘bribe’ to quieten that agitation. Colonies were constantly plundered by England’s Imperialism to deliver bribes to English workers (noted by Engels in a  letter 1882 to Kautsky: “English workers gaily share the feast of England’s colonies.”)   The English working class was kept comfortable enough to forgo dangerous agitation against capitalism, even volunteering as soldiers in the Imperial army and moving towards electoral equality. But after 2 diverting world wars, caused essentially by imperial rivalry, there again arose agitation against capitalism’s economic inequality by English workers (e.g. the 1974 and 1985 Miners’ Strikes) and strong often violent agitation by colonies such as Viet Nam for their own liberty.  This agitation, sharing a general affirmation that all nations and peoples must be equal, was a new and dangerous crisis for capitalism, and as there were no further colonies to invade, a new source of wealth to quieten this agitation had to be found.

Thatcher’s capitalism achieved this: up to the 1970s colonies were generally not allowed to manufacture, this was reserved for the ‘North’ so that for example India was forced to send its raw cotton to England then buy back the spun and woven goods. The new policy was that  the ex-colonies and 3rd world, the ’South,’ must get the national liberation they increasingly demanded and would become sites for industry with their low wages to export, along with the usual basic resources such as cotton and oil, a new ‘bribe’ of cheap manufactured goods back to England. Reagan and the North in general did the same. This worked well and is the current situation: along with  brutal extraction of cheap food and raw materials  there is now a new bribe of cheap manufactures from the Southern nations, often produced by children working in horrible conditions, while the North with diminishing manufacturing drifts toward a financial economy where billionaires speculate to produce damaging bubbles and get bailed-out when a bubble bursts.  As T. Picketty notes in “Capital in the 21st Century”  since the 1970s the trend of incomes becoming more equal has reversed as the wealth of the 1% gallops.

The ‘bribes’ mentioned are not just cash devices, there is a subjective element.   To take the example of China and the U.S.: 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.  So even after capitalist profit-taking the worker in the U.S. when shopping can trade 1 hour’s labor for several hours of  equal-quality Chinese labor.   This is the winning gambler cashing in the chips: you go shopping and spend 1 hour’s labor value and take home 3!  The more you shop the more your profit grows as you indirectly exploit foreign workers. This ‘profit’ is the economic cause of the psychological “buzz” element of our Consumerist consciousness.

It is the instinctive grasp of this situation by the US worker who then votes for capitalism that matters.  a US worker exchanges one hour’s labor 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 the US worker when shopping instinctively knows they are gaining a surplus of labor. The same is true, though less obvious, if both workers are on car-assembly lines each in their own countries. The consumerist ‘buzz’ thus arises from a worker-over-worker relationship in contrast to the previous worker-under-capitalist.   Consumerism thereby contains a status element and, though based on material consumption is not essentially ‘materialistic.’

In striking contrast shopping for manufactured goods before Consumerism  was an experience of being exploited by capitalists because the wages earned exchanged for a less than equal amount of labor so that when a worker shopped, those workers who produced the purchases were in the same economic area and therefore were paid the same wages (the missing labor value of course taken as capitalist profit).  This is why shopping for the working class didn’t have that exciting “profit-buzz” it has gained since our 1980s Consumerism arrived.  This economic profit by Northern workers from global exploitation compensates for the exploitation by our own ruling class, and is the fundamental reason we in the North still vote for capitalism.

[A money trail: China’s trade with the U.S. is in surplus by $300 billion, about $4,000 per US family. US worker at $15/hour can buy that product for about 250 hrs. labor. Chinese labor content of $4000 is (at $2/hr wages but perhaps sold at $6/hr including  profit, duty, tax, etc.) 650 hours. So theoretical max. “profit”  is approx. 400 hours labor value, which is (@ $15/hr) perceived by US worker (and family)  as $6,000 gain or ‘profit’ annually, a substantial 20% on top of that US worker’s wages. That’s just China, then there’s U.S. trade with Mexico, Bangladesh (wages $2/day!) etc.1]

This system is also reflected in how Northern workers increasingly now define themselves as “Middle Class.“2.  This economic term originally described a working shop-owner, farmer, blacksmith etc. who though working was at the same time profiting from having a few employees, so was in the working-class and capitalist-class at once, in the “middle.“ As described above this is replicated in how Northern workers do a full day’s work but when consuming are profiting from Southern workers, so they instinctively – and correctly – term themselves “Middle Class.”  Also reflecting this is the diminishing of campaigns for shorter working hours and strikes,  both common in the 1970’s,  because such actions reduce the immediate money income to swap for that consumerist profit (U.S.: in 1970 -381 strikes, in 2012 -11 strikes 3).   Many of the Northern working class have joined the middle-class, a class which consumes more than it produces.

But as noted the capitalist-generated demand for equality  is always increasing, leading to growing insistence on democracy and equality both personal and national by workers in the Imperialist-dominated ex-colonies and Southern world in general,  repeating the struggle for what was historically won by Northern working classes up to 1970 within their own countries, and again putting massive pressure on capitalism.      But this time there are no new colonies to plunder to answer this demand, so the only solution for the Imperialist 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: pay cuts, mortgage debts, zero-hours contracts, in Greece under strict austerity, in the US in tent cities on charity food and medicine, desperately clutching at varied alternatives such as Trump, Brexit, Sanders, Corbyn.  And the present generation will now be poorer than their parents. There is also a great danger of Fascism arising, as it did with Hitler when Germany was deprived access to lower-waged colonies after WW1.

Cuba is forcibly detached from imperialism and though Cuban infant mortality is better than the U.S., that Cuba led the victory over ebola, that medicine and education are free and Cuba has a planetary footprint of 1, these aren’t always strong enough for the youth aspiring to our polluting consumerist culture, who don’t always realize that the middle-class  lifestyle shown in world media is experienced by only a few, that if they link up with Imperialism they are likely to wind up with Mexican wages and conditions rather than with the new car and latest fashion.  Working class aspiration to join the exploitative global middle-class is an ongoing problem for socialism.

While wages remain low in the South our self-centred competitive consumerism will continue to divert many in the North.  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 frugal amount of rationed consumer goods.

But without an inspiring cause, would we in the North 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 twice, fish once, two eggs, one airplane trip every 5 years (though plenty of bicycles and vegetables)?  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 4 planets:  no surprise then that we also vote for Consumer-capitalism with our ballots.

Because Consumerism arises from an unequal worker-to-worker relationship, it will end as  workers in the South do the maths to demand equality and justice to push their wages up to follow their production, replicating what Northern workers won historically within their own countries. When these wages reach even one-third of our Northern wages there will be little margin left to fund our addictive  consumerism and finally capitalism’s austerity, inequality and injustice will be fully experienced by Northern workers. Our middle-class consumerism will collapse, the brutal reality of capitalism will be exposed, and action on the climate can emerge. We can help by reducing our own consumption while supporting Southern workers in uniting to demand that global equality to end our Consumerism. If this fails there seems little hope of avoiding climate disaster.


1: Trade: US Census Bureau.       Wages: Monthly Review, Feb.2013 p.29

2 : U.S.: over 50%:  Pew Research.  England: 36%: Ipsos Mori Poll.

3: US Census Bureau

Jaime Dixon lives in Ireland.