The consumerism-generating-capitalism- it usefully loyal, generating-consumerism cycle that characterises the developed or ‘Northern’ world depends on inequality, even as it purveys certain equalities, and is the main obstacle to tackling climate change, the most serious long-term problem facing humanity.
Capitalism is struggling to maintain itself. In one formal sense this is good for equality. 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: status, is replaced by capital or money as the measure of societal eminence. As a result, other than the great inequalities of money, we now live in communities with a level of personal and legal equality that was totally unimaginable throughout human history or even 40 years ago – for gender, sexual orientation, race, ‘legitimacy’, nationality, and religion, for example. Capitalism eschews the personal inequalities which torpid caste-based civilisations emphasised. Only money matters now.
But the crucial point is that the promotion of personal equality by capitalism also causes constantly growing agitation by workers for a just share of their social production as they now see themselves as equal to their bosses.
In response to this growing agitation for equality, the capital-owning class must react, like any ruling-class or mafia, in two ways: one section of the exploited must violently be repressed, the other will be bribed to keep inside. England, as one of the biggest imperialist powers has done this regularly and systematically. It did it in the 1819 Peterloo massacre of demonstrating workers. It did it in the 1840s when famine starved a million people in ireland while massive amounts of food were being exported under British army guard to Liverpool. Towards 1850 when Chartist agitation for equality again became strong in england, instead of violence the Corn Laws were dropped to allow imports of cheap food as the ‘bribe’ to quieten agitation. Colonies were brutally plundered by England’s imperialism to deliver bribes to English workers. Friedrich Engels noted this in a letter from 1882 to Kautsky: “English workers gaily share the feast of England’s colonies”.
Ireland at this time was used as one source of those bribes as part of the effort to maintain the English working-class comfortable enough to forgo dangerous agitation, even to join the imperial army. But the equality drive continued, Ireland demanded and won independence, and after two diverting world wars and the likes of the Jarrow march in the 1930s, in the 1970s and 1980s there again arose agitation among the English working-class against capitalism’s economic inequality – most noticeably the 1974 and 1985 miners’ strike and opposition to the poll tax from 1990, in spite of the material benefits to the working classes third world imports of cheap food and raw materials. There was also strong, often violent agitation by the colonies, following Ireland and Viet Nam‘s example, for national liberation, for the equality of races and nations. This new agitation was a dangerous crisis for capitalism, and as there were no further colonies to plunder, a new source of wealth, beyond cheap food and raw materials, 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 and to buy back spun and woven goods. The new policy was that the ex-colonies and third world in general needed to get the national liberation they were increasingly demanding and could then develop manufacturing on their low wages to export the new agitation-quitening bribe of cheap manufactured goods back to England. Reagan and the North in general did the same. Ireland had become part of this group, exploiting not exploited. This new system worked well and subsists: a surfeit of cheap manufactures from the southern nations, often produced by children working in horrible conditions, as the North’s diminishing manufacturing drifts toward a financial economy where billionaires speculate to produce damaging bubbles and get bailed-out when a bubble bursts, as Thomas Piketty notes in ‘Capital in the 21st Century’. The class-struggle, previously within nations, has become global, between nations.
The ‘bribes’ mentioned are not just cash incentives, there is an intrinsic turbocharge for the enthusiastic wealthy consumer. Consumerism thrives when a worker in the US or Ireland receives the equivalent of $15/hr while the worker in, for example, China producing equally-sophisticated manufactured goods is only paid $2/hour. Capitalists gloat at the classic opportunities to trade the spoils, the only issue is
the ‘terms’ of trade. A worker in the US or Ireland can trade one hour’s labour, in a shopping mall, for several hours of equal-quality Chinese labour. This looks like a winning gambler cashing in the chips. The more you shop for consumer goods the more your profit grows as you indirectly exploit foreign workers. This is the economic basis of that particular ‘buzz’ element of our Consumerist consciousness. The incentive is inbuilt, the process stacked to the advantage of consumers in the North.
It is the instinctive grasp of this situation by a worker who is comfortable with capitalism that matters. a worker might exchange 30 minutes labour at a routine retail job for the price of a pair of imported jeans. the cotton must be: planted-grown-harvested-spunwoven-dyed-cut-sewn,then zips-pockets-hems-buttons- belt-loops-rivets-labels applied, and the lot transported. The same is true, though it is less obvious, if both workers are on car-assembly lines in their own countries. The consumerist ‘buzz’ arises from an unequal worker-to-worker relationship, not worker-to-capitalist.
In striking contrast shopping for manufactured goods before 1980 felt like the much cruder experience of being mugged by capitalists as the wages earned exchanged for a less than equal amount of labour because when a worker shopped, those workers who produced the manufactured goods were in the same economic area and so were paid the same wage rate (the missing labour-value of course expropriated as profit by capitalists). This is why shopping for the working class didn’t have that seductive ‘profit-buzz’ it has gained since spanking 1980s Consumerism arrived.
This profit by Northern workers from global exploitation compensates for their own exploitation by our own capitalist class, and is the fundamental reason we in the North still vote for capitalism. For example the US has a $300bn trade surplus with China, so a working-class US family may be expected to get a kicker of 20% to its wages. That’s just from China, then there’s US trade with Mexico, Bangladesh (wages $2/day!) etc.
This system is also reflected in how Northern workers increasingly define themselves as ‘Middle Class’(in England, 36%; the US, 50%). This economic term originally described a working shop-owner, blacksmith, in Ireland perhaps a substantial farmer, who at the same time was profiting from having a few employees, so were in the working-class and capitalist-class at once, in the ‘middle’. As described above this is replicated in Northern workers doing a full day’s work but when consuming are profiting from developing-world 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 1970s, because such actions reduce the immediate money income to swap for that consumerist profit (US: in 1970 381 strikes; in 2012 11 strikes ). 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 by workers in the ex-colonies and southern world in general, repeating globally the struggle for what was historically won by Ireland along with other 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 response by the capitalist, along with endless imperialist wars, is to claw back some of the gains of their own Northern 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 debt, zero-hours contracts, rising medical and education costs, in Greece strict austerity, in the U.S. in tent cities on charity food and medicine, and the present generation will often be poorer than their parents. This has produced a move to supposed alternatives such as Brexit, Trump, Sanders, Corbyn; and in Ireland the rise of Sinn-Fein and other Left groups, though we are still diverted – as is the US – by loyalties to civil-war based parties.
Ireland has experienced this whole historical gamut, from vicious colonial exploitation with starvation while food was being exported, to finally reach external equality with the historically biggest exploiters such as England and France. But that capitalist-generated starvation and poverty hasn’t just evaporated, it has now gone globally to places such as Africa, Bangladesh, etc. Ireland’s harsh historical experience might explain our neutrality and the importance of charities here. But with the problem of global warming this is not sufficient.
While wages stay low enough 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 countries such as England during WWII, and afterwards there was considerable nostalgia for the sense of community, focused on a moral cause and therefore socially unified despite the frugal amount of rationed consumer goods.
But without an inspiring cause, would we in Ireland, now part of the developed ‘North’ consuming at a rate
that would require four planets to sustain, accept our one-planet equal share to halt climate change: one airplane trip every 5 years, a family car for only two days per week, fish twice, meat once, one egg (though plenty of bicycles and green vegetables)? I don’t, and certainly most of the North would not, though countries like Cuba manage it. So we in Ireland, like the rest of the North vote with our feet” to consume 4 planets: no surprise then that we still vote for consumer capitalism through our ballots.
Because Consumerism arises from an unequal worker-to-worker relationship, it will end as workers in the third-world do the maths to demand equality and justice, as Ireland did some time ago. This will diminish exploitation as global wages increase to follow production, replicating what Northern working-classes 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 austerity, inequality and injustice will again be fully experienced by most Northern workers. Our middle-class Consumerism will collapse and action on the climate can emerge.
In Ireland we can help by reducing our own consumption while supporting southern workers in uniting to demand that global equality which will end our Consumerism. If this fails there is little hope of avoiding climate disaster.