Want to Save the World? Don’t Buy What You Don’t Need

Is Covid-19 that just-big-enough-but-not-too-big catastrophe that is finally going to scare or inspire enough people to take realistic and constructive action to confront the major challenge of our time. That would be climate change, a problem based in exploitation and inequality, with the potential to one day make Covid-19 seem like a picnic in the park.

Some day we may look back and think of Covid-19 as a gift, our last best chance to really transform the world’s political-economic system before it went off the rails.

The system is grinding to a halt, not willingly, of course. It has been forced into survival mode. Not since the 1930’s have things been this dire economically. The oligarchs are on the run – although some of them think they are still in control. They are throwing money every which direction to try to juice the system up just one more time, for just a little bit longer. It’s not easy to keep the masses quiet when the 130,000 richest families own nearly as much as the bottom 90 percent, 117 million families, and three Americans own as much as the bottom half.

For those who want real change, a bold first step in the work has been done by the pandemic. People all over the world have stopped spending money on things they don’t need. And they’re finding out it’s not the end of everything they thought they treasured. The air and water are cleaner and brighter. Animals are coming out of hiding. It’s the oligarchy’s worst nightmare – loss of the fear of scarcity and of change.

What we miss is human contact and healthy exercise and creativity. This is the gift and the lesson. The thing that we fear the most may have already been accomplished for us. One might even say it is the planet’s way of speaking to us. Not spending money, not having or needing so much stuff, is the message and the tool to begin to win back some power over our lives and what happens in them.

When the economy hits bottom, that is the time for people to make a move to regain some say in how the world will be rebuilt. And to be sure, that moment is coming, thanks to the greed and stupidity of the oligarchs and their political servants. So far the disaster capitalists appear to believe they can work their dark magic one more time, while condemning tens of millions of Americans to endure unnecessary economic hardship and, its associated perils, unemployment, eviction, hunger, relentless insecurity. Most of the money in the first bailout went to prop up stock prices rather than help people. Will we allow this robbery in plain sight one more time?

The people hold some good cards. Bush the second already told us that our highest function in the scheme is as consumers. That is our real power. Two thirds of the global economy is consumer driven. And only about 40 percent of personal consumption is for necessities. That leaves about 40 percent of the world economy based on consumer discretionary purchasing – the fancy term for buying stuff we don’t really need. That’s enough of a force, if wielded in a unified manner, to stall the economy as it is now constructed for an indefinite period of time. That is a situation that the oligarchs cannot afford to allow, for it could easily bring down the entire house of cards of increasingly imaginative debt instruments now at the heart of the financialized economy. What would happen if the virus slowly went away but people didn’t go back to shopping like they used to? The system would not recover fully. Maybe not at all, depending on which ladders of debt collapsed.

If we had five hundred million of the big spenders – members of industrialized economies – maybe less, acting in unison as non-spenders, we could bring the oligarchs to the table and force them to agree to rebuild the economy in ways they otherwise would not. We could force them to spend more of the rebuilding money – and it’s going to be many trillions – in ways that make sense for the majority now, amid the landscape of the 21st century. To be sure, the money will be coming in fleets of helicopters as soon as the completely sheltered and out of touch neoliberalism true believers discover that the real problem is not stock prices but tens of millions of the previously employed suddenly joining the already poor, and the social unrest that may ensue.

When the time comes, maybe we could influence them to create jobs not to make throw-away plastic everything but to build the systems and do the planetary restoration we will need to survive. Energy and transportation systems for the post fossil fuel era. Universal quality health care. Free higher education. Ecosystem restoration. Farmland rehabilitation. Just about any way other than the way they spend most of it now – weapons of mass destruction, subsidies for oil and gas, bailouts for bankers and shareholders and assorted rent seeking grifters, which, as it turns out, are mostly the same few people.

You think it’s bad now, with countless millions of Covid-19 cases around the world. Wait 30 more years, when climate change is predicted to force 150 million people who live along the world’s coastlines to move to higher ground. And you know that’s an underestimate, like each succeeding study is quickly found to be.

To say nothing of submerging the infrastructure of every port on the planet, or killing all the bees and making it hard to grow stuff where you used to grow it.

What all the politicians are desperately going to try to convince you to do next is return to normal – when that is probably the worst possible outcome for the most people in the long run.

People already are not spending money on stuff they don’t need. They have experienced the fear of not having more of that kind of stuff and overcome it. More people than ever before now see, in unprecedented Disney channel digital clarity, the indifference and corruption of the system that controls their lives. The people that run this system can’t even make masks – let along testing kits – in what was once the greatest manufacturing power in the world. They can’t provide a decent health care system, and they don’t particularly want to. They don’t have to participate in a substandard one. They can buy anything they want. And they don’t care what happens to you.

People have stopped buying. The first and perhaps hardest task has been accomplished. This is in itself revolutionary. If we decide to stick with it, there is a chance we can force the masters of the universe to the table. We’ve seen that what really scares the billionaire class is the idea that their beautiful machine of depredation and exploitation is in danger. Threaten anything but the money. We have learned that from Covid-19. Final proof. As if we didn’t already know.

They said the cure would be worse than the disease, but the irony is that it may well work out better for the corporados too, at least in the short run. They might yet be smart enough to realize it doesn’t have to come to torches and pitchforks if there aren’t tens of millions of out of work, starving, evicted, angry people on the streets.

What are the chances environmental orgs and social justice groups and the rest of the left will rally to this idea and band together worldwide to stay out of the malls and resorts and airplanes as a tactic to regain lost power? They may retreat, for now, to the familiar, no matter how insecure and unsustainable it is. I’m not saying an end to consumerism is the only trailhead from which to start the journey to a more just world, but it’s a part of the path we’re going to have to tread someday, and the sooner the better. If nothing else, it may be one of our most effective ways of defending ourselves from the depredations to come.

In my experience, talk like this makes good liberal people uncomfortable. It just triggers the fear and uncertainty that are already there, as they watch unrestrained predatory capitalism consume itself from the inside out. When good liberals panic, they start calling this kind of thinking both radical and naive at the same time (as if a true radical does not know what is at stake), and certainly unelectable and definitely out of step with the American people. Fair enough. Stick with the old normal. But admit you don’t believe we can do better. You have surrendered to decades of propaganda that the old normal is not only the best system ever created, but the only possible system that really “works”.

Just scamper on back to your spot behind the white hair and broad shoulders of good ole Joe Biden. But remember: as it was in the 1930’s, so it will be in this depression. The Democratic party is not going to stand up for you when you need it. They will only do it when you make them.

Jeff Sher is a journalist specializing in the health care industry. He lives in San Francisco.