Columns / Discourse / January 31, 2018

the Diagnosis: How can a consumer be against capitalism?

America, quite simply, is a land entrenched in a system and culture of consumerist capitalism. This is not a very controversial statement, although much debate is had over whether this is for the better or for the worst. Generally speaking, both sides of the bipartisan landscape are willing to agree that capitalism is the best option we have, although liberals and conservatives have different views on how it should operate. There does exist, however, a prevalent strand of anti-capitalism among Americans today. It is common, specifically among the millennial generation and youth of today, to hear lamentations about capitalism. Certainly, it’s more acceptable now to groan about it. But while complaining about capitalism is in style, most people are unlikely to take a strong, principled stance against it.

Some indeed do. As frustrations with the American capitalist political system grow, many are pushed to the far-left side of the spectrum, specifically young people. Still, there is very little mainstream acceptance of serious anti-capitalism. Many will complain, but not as many will picket or agitate. While it has grown in visibility among young people today, most serious anti-capitalists, whether they are Marxists, socialists, anarchists, etc., are often treated with condescension and alienated as “radicals,” “idealists” and “dreamers.” But for those of us who have been at the brunt of these insults, the mainstream and watered-down anti-capitalism of today’s pop culture begs a serious question: are we, as consumers, hypocritical if we criticize consumerist capitalism?

If you have ever publicly identified as someone opposed to capitalism, you’ve certainly heard this before. Arguments include: “So you’re against capitalism, but you own an iPhone?” “But you’re wearing American Eagle jeans.” “You do realize, if you get a job, that you’re partaking in capitalism?” and so on and so on. These questions, while fatuous at best, do offer a good chance for us far-leftists to reflect: are we hypocritical for using iPhones, built in a foreign country with worker exploitation? When we buy that Starbucks coffee, perpetuating the corporate system, are we working against our own principles? If we accept a job position for the higher salary, are we no better than the average capitalist entrepreneur?

I believe the answer to these questions is no. For those of us who have faced these arguments, the rebuttal should be quite simple. The main basis for anti-capitalist philosophies is that capitalism, as a system of economic division and oppression, encapsulates all who live under it, making voluntary non-participation basically impossible. Try living in America today, seeking reasonable standards of living, without a phone. Or without nice clothes. Or without a quality education and job. Or without enough assets to buy food, pay for healthcare, live in anything but squalor, have and maintain a family, or achieve a fulfilling life. Participation in a capitalist system is coerced, not voluntarily given. According to this maxim presented against us, the only way anti-capitalists could be faithful to their principle is by retreating to the forest to live in a cabin (a la Ted Kaczynski) with no electricity, no income and no running water, making our survival possible through hunting and gathering. Only then would we truly be anti-capitalist!

Now, it can obviously be said that on the left spectrum there can be hypocrisy. I’m sure you have seen it before: people who were all for Bernie, all for socialist-sounding policy, but then turn around and fantasize about an Oprah Winfrey presidency, or worship “progressive” capitalists like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. However, the most prominent and accurate critics of these hypocrisies are and have always been far-leftists. Neoliberalism, it is well known, is just as much the scourge of far-left circles as right-wing fascism is. To argue that if far-leftists were really serious they would abstain completely from capitalism is to argue an inane point based on complete ignorance of the anti-capitalist philosophy. The inescapable and entrapping nature of capitalism is central to the philosophy itself.

The far-left, correctly I believe, are concerned with diagnosing the failures of the capitalist system and seeking real solutions. What’s more important: Trying to be as anti-consumer as possible, or agitating and fighting for what matters (e.g. union organization, community planning, economic and social liberation, direct action, human rights and the alleviation of the poor)? One is a fashion statement, the other is true activism. Progress past capitalism will come from purposeful action, not passive abstention.


Tags:  capitalism consumerism the diagnosis

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