By Jaime Dixon; comments from the editor at the end
The consumerism generated by capitalist imperialism in the ‘Developed‘ or ‘Western’ world is the main obstacle to tackling climate change, a major problem facing all of humanity. So the next question must be: why is capitalism still so widely accepted? Why do workers in the ‘West’ vote submissively to support conservative capitalist parties?
One of the less obvious features of capitalism is that by historically expanding its ‘free’ market into every corner of life it puts a price on everything, and it thereby becomes a great social leveler: 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 birth or background, comes to measure social status. As a result, other than those massive inequalities of money, the West is now a society with a level of personal equality (though often abused) that was unimaginable throughout class-based 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 a just and equal economic share of their social production, because capitalism encourages them to see themselves as the social equals of their bosses. This causes desperate problems for the capitalist ruling-class which therefore lacks the acceptance of inequality which earlier class-based civilizations had, civilizations that could last hundreds of years with little change in spite of vast degrees of inequality with class divisions, emperors, racism, slavery, gender discrimination, etc. Money matters above all now in the West, and that can come and go regardless of birth or status deceptively easily.
England’s history demonstrates this capitalist dilemma. In response to the rapidly growing agitation for equality, the capital-owning class must react, like a Mafia, in two ways: one section of the exploited is violently repressed, the other is bribed to keep them usefully loyal insiders. Violence was used by the state in the 1819 Peterloo massacre of English protesters, but towards 1850 in England when agitation for equality again grew with Chartism, instead of violence the Corn Laws were ended and imports of cheap food allowed as a bribe to quiet agitation. Colonies were regularly plundered by England’s Imperialism to deliver these bribes to English workers (noted by Engels1). For example in the 1840’s, while the famine was starving a million people in Ireland, massive amounts of food were being exported under British army guard to Liverpool.
Most wars fought during Hobsbawm‘s Age of Empire 1875-19142 and continuing now were essentially imperialist, seeking access to cheap labor, food, and raw materials. The English working class has been kept comfortable enough to forgo dangerous agitation, to favor capitalism, even volunteering as soldiers in the imperial army and winning electoral equality over the years (though as Pinochet’s coup in Chile shows, all voting must be for capitalism or it will be attacked). But after 2 diverting world wars caused mainly by imperial rivalry, there eventually again arose agitation with demands for more equal national wealth distribution by English workers (e.g. the 1974 and 1985 Miners’ Strike) along with US soldiers to their credit refusing to fight in Vietnam, many street protests and strong and often violent agitation by colonies for their 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 West in general came under strong pressure to find a new source of wealth to quiet this agitation by their own workers.
Up to the 1970’s colonies were generally not manufacturing, this had been 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 to keep English workers loyal was available if the ex-colonies and 3rd world in general gained the liberty they were demanding and then became industrialised with their low wages to export cheap manufactured goods back to England. Reagan and the West in general 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 West with diminishing manufacturing drifts toward a purely financial economy where billionaires produce damaging financial bubbles and get bailed-out when a bubble bursts. As T. Picketty notes,3 since the 1970’s the trend of incomes becoming more equal has reversed as 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 labor for several hours of equal-quality Chinese labour4. This then is like a winning gambler cashing in the chips: you go shopping and spend one hour’s labour value and take home two! The more you shop the more your profit grows as you exploit foreign workers. This is the economic basis of the ‘buzz’ of the West’s widespread ‘consumerist’ consciousness.
It is the awareness of this situation by the US worker who then votes for capitalism that matters. Workers when shopping will grasp that the product bought contains a surplus of socially-necessary labor in comparison with their own labor time. For example a US worker may exchange one hour’s labor at a minimum-wage cleaning 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 clearly means gaining a surplus of labor. The same is true, though less obvious, if both workers are on cellphone or car-assembly lines each in their own countries. Consumerism thus is generated mainly by a worker-to-worker relationship, not worker-to-capitalist. The gain by western workers of economic profit from neo-colonial exploitation compensates for the exploitation by its own ruling class, and is the fundamental reason the working class in the West votes always for capitalism.
This system is also demonstrated by western workers increasingly defining themselves as “Middle Class”5. This economic term originally described someone such as a working shop-owner, small producer or farmer who had a few employees, so was in the working-class and capitalist-class 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 consuming are profiting from developing-world workers, so they instinctively
—and accurately —term themselves “middle class.“ Also reflecting this situation is the diminishing of campaigns for shorter working hours and strikes,6 both common in the 1970’s, because such actions 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.
The important historical point is that the spread of capitalism’s neo-colonialist global ‘free-market’ will always encourage a demand for equality, just as national capitalist markets historically generated personal equality in the West. This is absolutely inescapable in a world capitalist system, so is causing a growing insistence on democracy and equality by workers in the ex-colonies and non-western world in general, repeating globally the struggle for what was historically won by western working classes up to 1970. 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 ongoing austerity ‘crisis’ as western workers increasingly get kicked out of their ‘middle class’ consumerist lifestyle to face the hard reality of capitalism, in the US living in tent cities on charity food and medicine. This growth of poverty in the West will add another factor to the growing global agitation against the system.
However while wages remain low enough in the developing-world that self-centred ‘consumerist-buzz’ will continue to divert many western workers. It will therefore remain difficult to build in the polluting west a society which champions the unity and caring for global equality 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 WWII, and afterwards there was considerable nostalgia for that community focused on a moral cause and thereby socially unified regardless of the minimal amount of rationed consumer goods.
But without an inspiring cause, would the developed ‘West’ consuming at the rate of 4 planets accept an 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 5 years? Certainly most of western society as it behaves at present would not, though countries like Cuba manage it. So the working class in the west, as the saying goes, ’vote with their feet’ to consume 4 planets
—no surprise then that they also vote for consumer capitalism with their ballots.
Because Consumerism arises from an unequal worker-to-worker relationship, it will end as workers in the developing-world unite to demand equality and justice to push their wages up to match their production, replicating globally what western workers historically struggled to win in their own countries. When these wages reach even one-third of western wages there will be little margin left to fund diverting Consumerism and finally capitalism’s inequality and injustice will be fully experienced in the West. Consumerism will collapse, capitalism will begin to crumble, and action on the climate can emerge. Activists in the West can help by joining developing-world workers to unite to demand the global equality and justice which will end Consumerism
—hopefully also soon enough to avoid climate disaster.
This article does well to expose the sort of ideology constructed around consumption which is so pervasive in the first world. The concept of an international concentration of capital and the class struggle of the working classes of the metropoles creating such relief and allowing for the hyper-consumerist culture of the west today, is one that is central to our understanding of the first world and their culture of consumption at the expense of the earth, and those who die in sweatshops making their increasingly cheap commodities.
That said, there are a few things we should comment on and clarify. Beginning with the assertion of equality which Jaime has stated came to represent the formerly oppressed peoples of the west. The queer and national oppression of people at the hands of a heterosexual male and white supremacist society at large. There are two aspects to this statement which warrant unpacking:
Firstly, the bourgeoisie practices equality more symbolic and superficial than it is tangible. Such as in the US there is a neo-colonial situation where a black man can be president, yet reside over a police force that’s put more black people behind bars than were slaves during the height of slavery, and that kills black people at a rate higher than during the height of the kkk and lynching.
Secondly, while a move towards symbolic equality has had some occasional positive effects, the development of the neo-colonial system in the core cannot be abstracted away from imperialism. The core will fund reactionary movements in the Third World, and even install fascist governments to put down anti-colonial states that threaten their profits, and this comes at the expense of the nationally or gender oppressed. In times of war due to imperialism, oppression is always amplified; armies will rape wimmin en-mass, surges in poverty will hit disabled people the hardest, and little heed will be paid to the destruction of the nationally oppressed’s land. So it is no coincidence that some of the gains in equality, even at the symbolic level, are confined to the metropoles.
Letter Engels to Kautsky, 1882: “…English workers gaily share the feast of England’s colonies..”
E. Hobsbawm, Age of Empire 1875-1914, London, 1987.
T. Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century, Cambridge MA, 2014. The growing wealth gap since the 1970’s is one of the book’s main arguments.
China’s trade with the US is in surplus by approximately $300 billion of imported value or about $4,000 per US family. If US worker is paid $15/hour, that $4,000 product could be bought for 270 hours of US worker’s labor. Chinese labor 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 labor value, which is (@ $15/hr) possibly perceived by 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. — Trade: US Census Bureau. Wages: Monthly Review Feb. 2013 p 29,
US: over 50% (Pew Research 2012). England: 36% (Ipsos Mori Poll 2013).
1970: 381 strikes; 2010: 11 strikes. — US Census Bureau 2012