Cynicism as the cultural expression of neoliberalism

When we discuss neoliberalism, the current stage of capitalism, we naturally focus on economics and politics. But no domineering system can arise, much less remain and even intensify over decades, without a cultural apparatus that extends well beyond basic propaganda.

Feelings of hopelessness must be engendered. Although such injections can be, and often are, spread via propagandistic techniques — Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” being a prime example — an absorption into the bones of a society must be accomplished through multiple channels. Continual cultural reinforcement is critical to maintain a system such as neoliberal capitalism and the austerity that is imposed in ever more harsh forms.

Negative CapitalismA bleak cynicism — a deep pessimism that, bad though things are, there really is no alternative — keeps a populace in check better than bullets can. What is such resignation other than passive acceptance of the status quo? To believe in a better world is an act of optimism, one requiring a belief that a better world really is possible, that we don’t have to accept declining living standards, overwork, precarious employment and a corporatized monoculture that substitutes celebrity gossip and spectacle for authentic human exchange and community.

Cynicism, then, is the natural cultural expression of our neoliberal age, binding together collective fatalism and thereby constituting a disorganizing force, argues J.D. Taylor in his lively book Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era.* Although cynicism can take many forms, and often acts as an armor against an indifferent world, Mr. Taylor conceptualizes it as “the perverted psychological resistance of the modern individual, one that refuses to believe in governments or media, but refuses to do anything about misrule or misinformation either.” [page 102] Refusal to act can only devolve into acceptance:

“Collective fatalism is a mass belief that meaningful change is impossible, with individuals deferring decision-making in the expectation someone else will make them on their behalf, with or without their consent. This leads to an infantilisation as citizens enjoy their disempowerment as consumers alone … whereby shopping replacing voting as the final, meaningful act of affirmation, signalling a new boredom that, lacking alternatives, leads to fascism.” [pages 105-106]

Space and time themselves have been conquered by capitalism, and the stronger capitalism is, the less our lives matter. This of course does not just “happen” — it is not some natural phenomenon such as ocean tides as propagandists would have us believe — but is an ongoing project, a consensus of global financial and corporate elites. More than ever, we are consumers rather than citizens, “empowered” through more choices of what to buy simultaneous with diminishing control over our lives.

Anger is futile without an alternative

Compensations such as alcohol, drugs and a seeming consumer cornucopia that only makes the hamster wheel go faster make poor substitutes for healthy communities. The author writes:

“Frenzied working and, in between that, friends rarely seen. The laptop screen is the window through which a continuously awake and alert world bombards our neurons with to-do emails, Viagra spam, narcissism, rolling catastrophes, and DIY porn. This ontological shift in the status of the human is one of the essential reasons for the profound sense of malaise and depression one feels in young adults today. This way of living simply isn’t enough, and when one either cannot or chooses not to behave simply as customers, or interact with the world using advertising logos and applications, anger and frustration increases. …

[L]ives are getting faster, harder, more impoverished, depressed, and disenfranchised. This isn’t inevitable, and it certainly shouldn’t be acceptable, even if at present many continue to consent to the dreariness of everyday life because of a lack of credible alternatives.” [pages 15-16]

There is no alternative within capitalism — cultural rebellion is soon co-opted as the logic of economic enclosure of all spaces leads to their eventual commodification. Only economic and political transformation through decisive mass actions is possible. And mass action in turn cannot be effective without tangible, large social goals. Mr. Taylor argues that the responsibilities and rights of adults could be defined by “a new constitution and social contract that imbues citizenship,” which would be a building block toward creating an alternative to capitalism.

Full employment with reduced working hours for all would be a route to not only providing a necessary level of goods and services but also access to work. But in fleshing this idea out, Negative Capitalism offers a curious mix of reformism and revolutionary thinking. One the one hand it advocates a political movement around work that demands improved labor protections and, at one point, a movement to “force” the United Nations to impose social-welfare measures globally. In almost the same breath, the book goes well beyond such basic reforms by demanding the introduction of a global living wage, universal restrictions on working hours and swift punishment of corporations that damage workers or ecosystems.

Then again, a global movement to overturn capitalism can’t coalesce unless there are tangible goals and ideas for what a better world would look like and not simply theoretical or abstract concepts. Although he is never mentioned in Negative Capitalism, Leon Trotsky’s concept of “transitional demands” comes to mind here: Goals and demands that appear as reformist and initially can be worked toward as reforms, but are “too big” to be accommodated and ultimately can only be attained through transformation into a new and different system. The theory here is that once people see that reasonable goals are impossible, they will be prepared to go beyond reformism.

Thus we should be open-minded about goals and tactics. An effective movement will have to state goals clearly, in terms readily understood. So how do we get there? None of us knows the answer for this with certainty, but a multitude of forms of refusal to cooperate are necessary. A democratic movement can remain united in a “civil war” against neoliberal finance with a focus on simple strategic programs, Mr. Taylor argues:

“Power cannot disappear, but it is neutralised when diffused among an equal mass of democratic agents who acknowledge only the rule of the collective, not the individual. Negative capitalism can be undone. It will lead to a greater disruption of social life and period of civil war initially, but the history of human societies demonstrates that cultures are fundamentally neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good,’ as many moral critiques or defenses of capitalism assume. … It makes for less compelling polemic, but people enjoy conversation, friendship, and generosity far more than consuming or working.” [page 26]

Creativity in opposition

So how might we get there? To begin with, throwing off cynicism and a belief that nothing can change. Creativity is a necessary weapon for any effective fightback. Negative Capitalism advocates “spectacular disruption” of points of weakness as part of a mass disobeying of social conventions, disruptions as “for once as violent as the enforced poverty, lack of social care and environmental destruction” imposed by capitalism.

Hacking, debt strikes, creation of new autonomous local and national parliaments, community organizing and strategic acts of targeted violence, such as community “supermarket sweeps” and coordinated occupations of financial and governmental seats are some of what is suggested, along with a plea for the Left to abandon “moral righteousness and an elitist language.” No list of tactics, the above included, can possibly in itself lead anywhere without an overarching idea of what is to be accomplished, a realistic larger strategy and at least the contours of what a better world might look like.

Mr. Taylor will be a little too dismissive of theory for some activists’ taste (admittedly including myself), but he does himself credit by acknowledging his doubts as he grapples with these large issues as an activist himself. It simply isn’t enough for us to say what we don’t like, nor to point out the immiseration that pervades the world — we must be for something. The author’s concepts of a new social contract and constitution, guaranteeing meaningful citizenship participation and rights, can strike a reader as tepid or dramatic and perhaps some mixture of both, but as general concepts they can express the contours of a better world in the most general terms, a basic goal while the difficult work of making those abstract, if lofty, concepts more concrete and fleshed out.

Learning to take responsibility for the future, particularly on the part of young people, and imparting the skills, education and compassion to create the democratic citizenship that a better world requires is both part of the for and the means of someday arriving there. There will be no shortcut to that. Action from above can only be countered with action from below:

“Optimism cannot just mean cobbling together convenient lies to make unhappy people more able to face their misfortunes, but instead contains the creativity to sidestep all existing meanings and engage in an entirely new and unknown path or activity. Optimism is creative. … Pessimism is reactionary. … Its failure to confront the violent nature of desire in life, both cultural and biological, forces it into cynical submission to forces more willing to creatively assert themselves. Neoliberalism is one such powerful system.” [page 87]

Such a powerful system will not be thrown off until we cease to accept it:

“History will not be created by the nihilists, but by those who determine to leave behind their nihilistic contemporaries.” [page 88]

J.D. Taylor is not offering us a blueprint — and this is good for such a thing is not possible — but rather imploring us to pay much more attention to the cultural dimensions of the world’s neoliberal dominance. He has done well to remind us that an all-encompassing system such as modern capitalism cements itself through a full spectrum of institutional mechanisms and can’t be tackled without grasping the degree to which we absorb its cultural expressions.

* J.D. Taylor, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era [Zero Books, Winchester, England, and Washington, D.C. 2012]

Corporate green-washing on Earth Day

Earth Day was celebrated three days early in New York City, with a pop-up shopping mall in a park. Green-washing in all its glory: We’ll shop our way to a clean environment and a re-stabilized climate! Adding a touch of bitter irony, this corporate green-washing took place in Union Square, traditionally a site for organized protest.

Although not really expecting anything different, going only to hand out fliers against the pending Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic “free trade” agreements and the threat these agreements pose to knowing what is in the food you buy, it was nonetheless a depressing spectacle. There were large displays there for Toyota and Honda — the automobile industry can not realistically be described as “green.” Citibank was there, too, as were a collection of food companies who brand themselves as environmentally sensitive but are owned by multi-national behemoths who don’t believe you have a right to know what is in the food you eat.

The two automobile companies were hyping electric vehicles. A bit less fossil fuel exhausts adding to the atmospheres’s carbon dioxide is good, yes, but building and driving an electric-powered automobile hardly qualifies as a stroke for a cleaner world. An electric automobile still has the metal, plastic, rubber, glass and other raw materials a gas-guzzling one has. By one estimate, 56 percent of all all the pollution they will ever produce comes before the vehicle hits the road.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

Then there is the matter of where the electricity comes from; the electricity used to power the vehicle is only as clean as its source. A full two-thirds of electricity produced in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels. Coal is the biggest source of U.S. electricity, accounting for 39 percent in 2014; natural gas, also a huge contributor to global warming, is the second biggest source at 27 percent. About half of European electricity comes from coal or natural gas.

So increasing electricity usage, if it means an increase in coal or other global-warming and polluting sources, isn’t “green.” Then we would need to consider the battery for an electric vehicle, which is not without greenhouse-gas emissions and which contains nickel as a major input. Nickel exposure can cause damage to blood, lung, noses, kidneys, reproductive systems and skin. Mining it causes not only pollution but contributes to global warming. So, again, not really “green.”

And Citibank as a “green” enterprise? A 2011 report by a coalition of environmental groups, “Bankrolling Climate Change,” found that Citibank provided more than €4 billion in financing for coal mining in the previous five years, the third highest total of any bank in the world, and is also one of the top three financiers of mountain-top removal coal operations.

“Organic” brands that promote GMO foods

Two of the sponsors of New York City’s Earth Day fair were Morningstar Farms and Honest Tea. Both had prominent displays. But these are not mom-and-pop operations; both are part of multi-national conglomerates. Morningstar Farms is owned by Kellogg Company and Honest Tea by Coca-Cola Company. Coca-Cola contributed $1.2 million and Kellogg more than $600,000 to the corporate effort that narrowly defeated California ballot measure Proposition 37 in 2012, which would have required labels on genetically engineered foods and banned the industry practice of marketing GMO-tainted foods as “natural.”

Most natural foods brands have been swallowed by multi-national corporate behemoths, which gladly use consumers’ money for purposes anathema to organic consumers’ interests. The Cornucopia Institute notes that:

“[M]any iconic organic brands are owned by the titans of junk food, processed food and sugary beverages—the same corporations that spent millions to defeat GMO labeling initiatives in California and Washington. General Mills (which owns Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm, and LaraBar), Coca-Cola (Honest Tea, Odwalla), J.M. Smucker (R.W. Knudsen, Santa Cruz Organic), and many other corporate owners of organic brands contributed big bucks to deny citizens’ right to know what is in their food.”

The Cornucopia Institute also reports that Morningstar Farms’ veggie burgers (along with several other brands) are produced using hexane, an air pollutant and neurotoxin. The institute writes:

“In order to meet the demands of health-conscious consumers, manufacturers of soy-based fake meat like to make their products have as little fat as possible. The cheapest way to do this is by submerging soybeans in a bath of hexane to separate the oil from the protein. Says Cornucopia Institute senior researcher Charlotte Vallaeys, ‘If a non-organic product contains a soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, or texturized vegetable protein, you can be pretty sure it was made using soy beans that were made with hexane.’ … Troubling, then, that the FDA does not monitor or regulate hexane residue in foods.”

At least two New York City food coops refuse to carry Morningstar Farms products. Yet there it prominently was at the Earth Day fair, with passers-by lining up to be green-washed.

And then we have Honest Tea, or more accurately, Coca-Cola, its owner. The worldwide string of human rights abuses that Coca-Cola is so frequently implicated in speaks for itself. The activist group Killer Coke has compiled a country-by-country list of outrages in various countries, including thousands of children, as young as eight-years-old, used as labor on El Salvador sugar-cane farms that supply the company; multiple kidnappings and murders of union officials at a bottling plant in Guatemala; and, in the Philippines, the use of outsourced labor to avoid paying benefits and accusations of “smuggling” sugar into the country to avoid taxes and undercut local sugar producers.

Shopping is not participation in your world

The organizers of Earth Day New York, said to be organized by an unspecified “broad coalition of environmental groups,” have this to say about it:

“Earth Day is more than a one-day event or annual environmental wake-up call. It is a catalyst for ongoing education, action, and change. It simultaneously broadens the base of support and rekindles old commitments through highly participatory strategies.”

So there we have it: Consumption of corporate products falsely branded as “green” or “environmentally friendly” is participatory! Undoubtedly, many, perhaps most, of the people passing through Union Square that day wish to be have a lighter footprint on the Earth and have would like to diminish their contribution to global warming. But to do that requires less consumption, not a re-arrangement of unsustainable consumption patterns.

Above all, it will require a complete overhaul of the world’s economy. Most of the ideas floated to deal with greenhouse-gas emissions reaching a critical point feature untested technologies, reliance on biofuels that are no less polluting than fossil-fuel energy or various other techno-fixes. The cost of all these too good to be true “solutions” to global warming will be virtually nothing, according to, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued last year.

Alas, cost-free “green capitalism” is an illusion. The economies of the world’s advanced capitalist countries are highly dependent on consumerism; household spending accounts for 60 percent or more of gross domestic products across the global North. Wasteful practices such as planned obsolescence exist to continually induce us to buy more and more products. And nor is it simply a matter of wishing away polluting industries — capitalism has no mechanism to provide jobs for the untold millions of people who would be thrown out of work if just the most polluting industries were shut down.

Production in the capitalist system is done for private profit, not for human need; environmental costs are externalized. Thus a capitalist corporation, faced with the need to expand because of the rigors of competition and forced to focus on “maximizing shareholder value” over all other values by market forces, has to expand and dump as much of the costs of its production, including pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, on society as possible. It also means that popular demands for “green” products are nothing more than a marketing opportunity to exploit.

Producing products that consume less energy and resources is certainly good, but if more of these are being produced, then there is no real savings. All the incentives in capitalism are for more production, more consumption.

There is no alternative to drastically reducing what is consumed and building a new economy based on human need, incentivized to protect the environment and possessing the flexibility to re-deploy labor in large numbers when industries are reduced or eliminated. This would require a socialized economy that would have no need to grow. We can’t shop or grow our way out of environmental crisis. No amount of corporate green-washing can render “green capitalism” anything other than an illusion nor can shopping replace organized activism.

The concrete roots of capitalism’s magical thinking

Most people don’t actually like capitalism. Dislike of the jobs we head to each day is quite the norm. Resentment of the power of the corporations we deal with in our daily lives crosses all social lines. Loathing of banks is nearly universal, across the political spectrum.

A sullen resignation to the continual unfairness of the world is pervasive. And yet, “there is no alternative.” Mercenary scribblers furiously tell us so. That this barrage of propaganda ceaselessly flows from the corporate media and other institutions speaks for itself as to the necessity of reinforcing this message; but it doesn’t in itself account for the widespread acceptance of “there is no alternative.”

There is the argument that if we simply ceased to cooperate, it would grind to a halt. Tempting though that argument is — and, in theory, it holds much truth — the puzzle of capitalism’s continued acceptance is a good deal more complicated.

"Nothing is nothing" photo by Darwin Bell

“Nothing is nothing” photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

Advanced capitalism is intertwined with so many aspects of our lives, and the capitalists who effectively rule the world possess multiple levers of power and influence to keep themselves in the saddle. There is also the not inconsiderable problem of the livelihoods of millions being entangled in destructive production and exploitation. Nor should the power of modern ideologies, such as nationalism, to provide emotional underpinning be ignored.

Except for the hopelessly cynical, humans need something to believe in, something bigger than themselves of which to be a part. The nation is the object par excellence for this; nationalism to this point in human history has proven stronger than class solidarity or any other more general identification in a common humanity. It has also superseded tribal or other local-community loyalties. Nationalism is a unifying glue holding together what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities” — human constructs that are mostly recent in origin.

Professor Anderson, in his classic book with that very name, Imagined Communities, offers this definition of a nation:

“It is an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” [page 6]

Approaching the question from a different angle, a nation might be thought of as a group with a common ethnicity, cohesive culture and shared language occupying a particular area (diasporas excepted). Most commonly, nations are organized as countries, although some countries (such as the United Kingdom) can contain multiple nations and settler countries (such as the United States) can be organized on an idea rather than an ethnicity, although culture and language are unifying factors. Some nations are colonies of or minorities within a larger nation and some nations are split among adjoining countries.

Nationalism versus solidarity

Religious belief has obviously been, and remains, a powerful force — as Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., political Islam in the Middle East and Hindu chauvinism in India attest, to cite merely three examples. Religions offer answers to life-and-death questions that other systems of thought don’t, not to mention promises of eternal life. It’s hard to top that. But religious belief has declined in most of the advanced capitalist world as science has taken hold since the Enlightenment.

To return to Imagined Communities, Professor Anderson argues that something was necessary to fill the void left by the withering of religious belief, and nationalism became the substitute as it came into being out of preceding cultural systems. He writes:

“What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning. … [F]ew things were (are) better suited to this end than an idea of nation. If nation-states are widely conceded to be ‘new’ and ‘historical,’ the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and, still more important, glide into a limitless future. It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.” [pages 11-12]

The erasure of boundaries (for capital) through “free trade” agreements or entities like the World Trade Organization is a function of capitalist expansion. Globalization advances as competition within a given industrial sector narrows from separate sets of local corporations dominating particular countries or regions to a handful of corporations operating around the world. Yet although the largest capitalists are today transcending national borders, the largest capitalists of the 19th century were an important force in creating unified nations. What is today Germany and Italy were once a myriad of small principalities; capitalist trade required the barriers that frequent borders represent be dismantled.

The rise of books and other printed materials, and the accompanying rise of literacy along with the construction of centralized states, bureaucracies and school systems, brought about standardized languages. Often the dialect in the capital became the standard language, and a common language became a crucial building block for national consciousness. Nationalism became a necessary prop to wage modern war with the need for mass conscription, without which imperialism and colonization are impossible. Few soldiers would fight for corporate profits, but will for “national honor.”

The abject failure of the Socialist International to have any effect on the outbreak and initial enthusiasm for World War I was due not only to nationalism being more powerful than international or class solidarity among social democracy’s constituents but that social democrat leaders themselves were nationalists.

In no sense can nationalism be said to have lost its potency. It remains a durable force to divide the world’s people and block international solidarity — a devastating development when the world’s biggest capitalists are trans-national, conscious of their common interests beyond borders and relentlessly organizing chains of production that span the globe.

Democracy as consumerism rather then participation

We can freely buy whatever we like from whatever corporate behemoth we wish (assuming we are fortunate enough to have a job that provides a living wage). Untold billions of dollars are pumped into advertising campaigns designed to induce us to buy particular products and, crucially, to define this choice as “freedom.” Democracy is reduced to the ability to buy a corporate product as opposed to being defined as the ability to meaningfully participate in the decision-making processes of your society.

That crabbed definition of democracy and the ability to freely vote in elections with little meaning or choice (although the ability to vote is being eroded in the U.S., particularly for People of Color) are promoted as the epitome of political development. But how much freedom do working people in capitalist countries actually have? We have no control over our lives when on the job, which consumes most of our waking hours, nor any control over the corporate behemoths that routinely run roughshod over communities, nor legal recourse against “market forces” that enable the relentless privatization of previously public spaces and services.

I can think of my experience at Occupy Wall Street, the encampment of which was close to my place of employment. Invariably, anytime I happened to mention that I was handing out fliers or engaging others near to where I was employed while on lunch hour or after the end of my workday, the response was always concern that I would lose my job or get in trouble should my employer discover my participation. I wasn’t discovered, but the commonality of such reactions speaks for itself on the topic of democracy.

Political control in a capitalist society is hidden in a way that it was not in a country like the former Soviet Union, and the contrast in the manner of social control in capitalist versus Soviet-style societies became an invaluable tool undergirding capitalist triumphalism. Because the power held by capitalists in a capitalist society is secure through a myriad of institutions upholding their ideologies and deferring to them, bolstered by the appearance of democratic assent provided by elections, there is far more elasticity to capitalist régimes than Soviet-style régimes (which should more properly be called “post-capitalist” than “socialist” as their form congealed far short of any socialist ideal.)

The illusion of democracy

The historian Isaac Deutscher, in a series of lectures collected in his book The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917-1967, outlined this difference. He said of freedom in a capitalist country:

“[I]n bourgeois society it can be a formal freedom only. Prevailing property relations render it so, for the possessing classes exercise an almost monopolistic control over nearly all the means of opinion formation. … Society, being itself controlled by property, cannot effectively control the State. All the more generously is it allowed to indulge in the illusion that it does so. … In a society like the Soviet, freedom of association and character cannot have so formal and illusory a character: either it is real, or it does not exist at all. The power of property having been destroyed, only the State, that is, the bureaucracy, dominates society; and its domination is based solely on the suppression of the people’s liberty to criticize and oppose.

Capitalism could afford to enfranchise the working classes, for it could rely on its economic mechanism to keep them in subjection; the bourgeoisie maintains its social preponderance even when it exercises no [direct] political power. In post-capitalist society no automatic economic mechanism keeps the masses in subjection; it is sheer political force that does it. … Capitalism has been able to battle against its class enemies from many economic, political and cultural lines of defence, with much scope for retreat and maneouvre. A post-capitalist bureaucratic dictatorship has far less scope: its first, its political line of defence, is its last. No wonder that it holds that line with all the tenacity it can muster.” [pages 106-7]

(“Property” in the above quote refers to large enterprises and other economic entities in private hands.) The Soviet bureaucracy could maintain its privileges only through undisguised direct political force. Capitalists, in contrast, maintain their rule by virtue of owning the means of production, able to maintain power through decisive influence over a range of social institutions and thus diffusing and mystifying the roots of power.

There is no dictator, no party in permanent power, and the ruling capitalists and their political servants have conflicting interests that are debated in public. Thus the illusion of democratic accountability can be maintained, on a separate track from the pervasive advertising that reduces democratic choice to consumer selection of corporate products.

There are more flavors of cola to choose from than ever before. What more could you want?

Show your individuality by buying the same product

Marketing has become so sophisticated that consumption of corporate products is equated with individual expression. Individualism must be continually stimulated to counter the development of social solidarity, without which change in the structure of any society is impossible, yet consumerism-dependent production requires the fostering of mass taste to facilitate mass production.

Consumers are encouraged to “rebel” by decorating their smartphone or buying a copy of the latest recording by a “transgressive” musical act, a work of intellectual property owned by a corporate behemoth and carefully calculated to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Today’s cultural rebellion is tomorrow’s marketing campaign. The use of the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” in a Nike commercial is but one example; more recently, 1960s icon Bob Dylan starred in a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler extolling U.S. patriotism.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

The word “revolution” has been reduced to a corporate slogan; the selling back to us of rebellion has attempted to shrivel the popular imagination to the point that the only change that can be imagined is an upgrade to a consumer product. This is no less true of the food we eat — as eating organic becomes more popular, large food corporations that have foisted on us unhealthy, over-processed foods are increasingly entering the organic field, both by creating new brands and taking over existing ones while being careful to not signal those corporate ownerships on the label.

Some of the largest multi-national corporations that spend millions of dollars to defeat genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling initiatives own some of the best-known organic brands. Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream may claim it is an “autonomous subsidiary” of its owner, multi-national conglomerate Unilever, but the profits it earns go to Unilever headquarters. Those profits fund a corporate parent that opposes GMO labeling, has been cited for making false health claims, has used its market power in tea to bully tea farmers in India, and promotes the World Trade Organization. Slick marketing keeps people buying the ice cream and obfuscating where the profits are going.

Yet even if a particular company stays true to a particular value, consumerism is an individualist gesture incapable of effecting change. All the more reason for it to be equated with “democracy.” In the 1970s, a frequently run public service announcement (PSA) featured a Native American man shedding a tear when a bag of garbage is thrown out of a car and lands at his feet, ending with the tag line that “People start pollution. People can stop it.” In a discussion of this PSA in his article “On the emotional terrain of neoliberalism,” Tim Jensen writes:

“Funded by beverage bottling corporations, the campaign was intended to lessen political pressure on manufacturers to stop producing non-refillable bottles and more generally be held accountable for creating the products that create litter. By placing the onus on the individual consumer, who is positioned as the cause of the problem and thus the solution’s origin, too, these corporate interests successfully deflected growing concern about pollution away from themselves. …

The PSA performs an emotional orientation focused on guilt, an emotion that is critical to our current landscape. What makes its rhetorical strategy effective is not simply the evocation of guilt in the consumer, but a specific form of guilt that is coupled with a pathway that channels the desire for atonement—one that does not put profit at risk. Asking why harmful bottles are being made in the first place and to what degree their manufacturer should be held accountable is trumped by a framework of consumer culpability, individualized responsibility, and ineffectual chores. It marshals the potential forces of transformative collective action and individuates them in an atonement strategy.”

If it is our own fault, then the system that actually compels such waste is blameless, beyond questioning.

Blow up that mountain or be out of work

Even when we are cognizant of the waste and destructiveness of capitalist production, it is not a simple matter to de-couple. Millions of jobs, and the communities where those jobs are located, are dependent on environmental destruction and unsustainable resource extraction. Faced with dismal, or no, prospects for alternative employment, the workers in such industries naturally oppose efforts to reduce the damage done — a market economy doesn’t offer new jobs for those put out of work.

The relentless competition of capitalism mandates that costs be steadily cut, so jobs are steadily lost anyway. Individualist ideology comes into play here as well: Something must be wrong with you for losing your job. And when that fails, there is always the strategy of finding scapegoats.

Scapegoating is not unique to any system, locale or time. But when a small elite commands the mass media and possesses decisive influence over educational, military, religious and other institutions, it possesses the means of shaping public opinion. The very fact of private ownership of the mass media contributes significantly to the effectiveness of the media in shaping public opinion. If several different media outlets report more or less the same thing, then those reports tend to be widely accepted.

It is surely true that the corporate owners of various publications and electronic news sources did not consult with one another, and in a capitalist formal democracy no government official tells you what to report. But the corporate plutocrats who own the mass media have a common interest in promoting a system that benefits them and thus narratives that reinforce those interests.

Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass-media decision-makers are quite likely to be men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered.

Battle in Seattle photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Battle in Seattle photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.

No collusion is needed. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries. The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure.

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped.

Nor does the structure of corporate-dominated mass media exclude sometimes vigorous debate — as long as the positions being debated fall within the range of “acceptable” ideas that don’t challenge corporate orthodoxy. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology than the media of a closed society. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

A network of institutional reinforcement

A web of institutions are necessary to maintain belief in a system, or to block to the extent possible, opposing narratives to the dominant belief system.

Educational institutions have been reduced to job-training facilities. University presidents and board members are increasingly prominent business leaders who seek to make educational institutions more “business-like” — pursuit of knowledge for personal intellectual enrichment is almost an after-thought. Educational initiatives at all levels are increasingly funded directly by corporate elites — instead of education being funded by the public through accountable institutions managed by education professionals, it is instead adapted to the needs of corporate-elite donors who seek to produce students grounded in technical skills without exposure to the types of courses that encourage creative or independent thinking.

Militaries in capitalist countries frequently function as enforcers of corporate prerogatives in weaker countries; militaries also underwrite corporate and university research and development, and are heavy buyers of corporate products. Politics cannot be anything but a significant corporate transmission belt because corporations provide campaign donations and give jobs to office holders when they leave office — those with money are those who get access, and thus provide the perspectives that will be heard.

The modern corporation also employs an army of lobbyists to influence politicians’ thinking. Corporate executives additionally create a network of auxiliary institutions — research centers and “think tanks” that can leverage lavish funding to disseminate class ideology through various channels. Bankrolling right-wing street movements, such as the Tea Party in the U.S. or outright fascist fronts in Europe, is another methodology for creating the appearance of popular support for anti-social tendencies.

Corporate institutions are competitors with sometimes sharply different interests — in terms of antagonisms between suppliers and buyers of raw materials and component parts; in divergence of the optimum conditions sought by different industries; and the ever present fierce fight over the sharing of profits between industrialists and financiers — yet these conflicts and antagonisms are contained within the perpetuation of the system within which they operate. As this collective power grows, it will steadily be wielded in harder forms in the absence of serious countervailing pressures in the form of mass movements.

Ideologies of individualism are not simply mechanisms to atomize society through breaking down bonds of solidarity — although that is an important reason for their propagation — they grant a license for those who have more but never enough. The cult of individuality, by reducing all social outcomes to personal behaviors independent of any social structure, provides the basis for the celebration of greed while simultaneously inculcating those who have been run over with the self-defeating idea that their individual failures account for their fate.

“Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for those at the top (regardless of the specific ideologies used to promote that goal, including demands for ever lower taxes) is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth.

Ongoing belief in capitalism, despite the widespread disapproval of its concrete results, rests on multiple pillars, none on their own decisive. The perceived lack of an alternative, however, is a linchpin. Cooperatives and other social forms of enterprise management, successful in significant numbers, would provide such an alternative — if people see examples of something better, “there is no alternative” would lose its force. But much organizing will be necessary to bring forward that day, for the massive force that capitalist society can bring down on alternatives hasn’t been, and won’t, be held back.

We cannot shop our way out of environmental crisis, ‘green’ or not

Eight weeks ago, I wrote about the delusions of “green capitalism,” that there is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy. That led to a vigorous discussion, and I thank all of you who contributed to it.

This week, I’d like to return to this theme, in the form of discussing an interesting paper that I could then only quote briefly. The paper, “Green capitalism: the god that failed,” by Richard Smith of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, packs a powerful argument into its 33 pages. The paper was published in issue No. 56 (March 2011) of Real-World Economics Review. (That a publication for non-orthodox practitioners needs to take such a name speaks volumes of the field as a whole.) The author’s basic theses are:

  • “Green capitalism” is “doomed from the start” because maximizing profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict; the occasional time when they might be in harmony are rare exceptions and temporary. This is because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Profit maximization trumps all else under capitalism and thereby sets the limits to ecological reform.
  • No capitalist government can impose “green taxes” that would force out of business the coal industry or any other because the result would be recession and mass unemployment. Without carbon or other “green” taxes, the “entire green capitalist project collapses.”
  • Green-capitalism proponents vastly underestimate the speed with which environmental collapse is coming. No amount of tinkering can alter the course of environmental destruction under the present system. Humanity, therefore, must replace capitalism with a post-capitalist ecologically sustainable economy.
  • Resource extraction is inherently polluting but can’t be shut without chaos. It is not possible to “dematerialize” much of the economy as green-capitalism proponents believe possible. The only way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is to “enforce a drastic contraction of production in the industrialized countries.” Such a thing is not possible in capitalism because the affected industries would be committing suicide to agree to this and nobody would promise jobs to those displaced; this could only be carried out through a socialization of industry and a redeployment of labor to sectors that need to be developed for social good.
  • Consumerism and over-consumption are not “cultural” or the result of personal characteristics — they are a natural consequence of capitalism and built into the system. Problems like global warming and other aspects of the world environmental crisis can only be solved on a global level through democratic control of the economy, not by individual consumer choices or by national governments.

Cap-and-trade equals profits by polluting

European attempts to implement “cap and trade” schemes to limit greenhouse-gas emissions were countered from the start by industry lobbyists asking for exceptions because, they argued, they would lose competitiveness, and some threatened to move elsewhere, taking jobs with them. Governments gave in. Polluters and traders took in windfall profits, with no real effect on emissions. Dr. Smith wrote:

“German electricity companies were supposed to receive 3 percent fewer permits than they needed to cover their total emissions between 2005 and 2007, which would have obliged them to cut emissions by that amount, instead the companies got 3 percent more than they needed — a windfall worth about $374 billion at that time.” [page 119]

A proposal to directly tax carbon in France, proposed by the administration of Nicolas Sarkozy, was ruled unconstitutional because most of France’s major polluters would have been let off the hook entirely while households would have assumed the burden. Dr. Smith put the farce of this failed proposal in perspective:

“The court said that more than 1,000 of France’s biggest polluters could have been exempted from the charges, and that 93 percent of industrial emissions would not have been taxed at all. But even if Sarkozy had successfully imposed his carbon tax, this tax would have raised the price of gasoline by just 25 US cents per gallon. Given that the French already pay nearly $9 per gallon for gasoline, it’s hard to see how an additional 25 cents would seriously discourage consumption let alone ‘save the human race.’ ” [page 120]

A part of Moofushi's bleached coral reef (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives), damaged by warming sea temperatures.  (Photo by Bruno de Giusti)

A part of Moofushi’s bleached coral reef (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives), damaged by warming sea temperatures.
(Photo by Bruno de Giusti)

Some advocates of cap-and-trade or carbon taxes in the United States try to get around industry pushback by advocating they be made “revenue-neutral.” But if “carbon tax offsets are revenue neutral, then they are also ‘impact neutral,’ ” Dr. Smith writes. That brings us back to the reality that imposing drastic cuts would be the only way to effect the significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming in coming decades. That, in turn, can’t be done without massive dislocation.

Yet reductions are not only necessary, but will be required by physical limits — the world’s population is using the resources at the rate of 1.5 Earths and the United Nations predicts we’ll be using two Earths by 2030. Moreover, if all the world’s peoples used resources at the rate that the United States does, “we would need 5.3 planets to support all this.” Needless to say, we have only one Earth available.

More efficiency leads to move consumption

One of the pillars on which green capitalists rest their advocacy is increased efficiency of energy usage, achieved through technological innovation. But energy usage has been increasing, not decreasing, despite greater efficiencies wrung out of a range of products. Gains in efficiency can, and frequently are, used to expand production; given that capitalist incentives reward expansion, that is what is done. Moreover, “green” industries are not necessarily green. The “god that failed” paper points out:

“Even when it’s theoretically possible to shift to greener production, given capitalism, as often as not, ‘green’ industries just replace old problems with new problems: So burning down tracts of the Amazon rainforest in order to plant sugarcane to produce organic sugar for Whole Foods or ethanol to feed cars instead of people, is not so green after all. Neither is burning down Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests to plant palm-oil plantations so Britons can tool around London in their obese Landrovers.” [page 128]

Making motor vehicles more fuel-efficient, although a goal that should be pursued, nonetheless falls far short of a solution. Fuel usage from the increasing number of vehicles and longer distances traveled are greater than all the savings from fuel efficiency. And focusing on only when the vehicle is being driven leaves untouched most of the pollution caused by them, Dr. Smith writes:

“Most of the pollution any car will ever cause is generated in the production process before the car even arrives at the showroom — in the production off all the steel, aluminum, copper and other metals, glass, rubber, plastic, paint and other raw materials and inputs that go into every automobile, and in the manufacturing process itself. Cars produce 56 percent of all the pollution they will ever produce before they ever hit the road. … [S]o long as [automakers] are free to produce automobiles without limit more cars will just mean more pollution, even if the cars are hybrids or plug-in electric cars.” [page 131]

Those electric vehicles are only as “clean” as the source of electricity used to power them. Many plug-in electric vehicles are coal-powered vehicles because coal is a common source of electricity. Looking at it holistically, such an electric vehicle would be more polluting than a gasoline-fueled vehicle; and the majority of the pollution from the manufacturing (for the vehicle itself) would be there just the same. Then there is the pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions of the electric-car battery. Nickel is a primary input; the Russian city that is the site of the world’s largest source of nickel, Norilsk, is one of the world’s most polluted places.

“I would not be surprised if the most ecological cars on the planet today are not those Toyota Priuses or even the Chevy Volts with their estimated [seven- to 10-year] lifespan, but those ancient Fords, Chevrolets, and Oldsmobiles cruising round the streets of Havana. For even if their gas mileage is lower than auto-producer fleet averages today, they were still produced only once, whereas American ‘consumers’ have gone through an average of seven generations of cars since 1960 (when the U.S. embargo ended car imports to Cuba), with all the manufacturing and disposal pollution that entailed.” [page 133]

Consumerism props up capitalist economies

Planned obsolescence is part of the problem, across the spectrum of manufactured products. Capitalist manufacturers don’t want products that last a long time; repeatedly selling new products is far more profitable. But it would be overly simplistic to lay full blame for this on greed, however much greed is rewarded by a capitalist economy. Household consumption — all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles — accounts for 60 to 70 percent of gross domestic product in almost all advanced capitalist countries. If people aren’t buying things, the economy struggles.

Proponents of green capitalism fail to grasp the structural causes of over-consumption. However much better for the environment, and the world’s future, drastic reductions in consumerism would be, moral exhortations can’t be effective. Trapped in an idealist mirage that capitalism can be “tamed” or “repurposed,” green capitalists, through seeking individual solutions to structural and systemic problems, not only miss the forest for the trees but leave the economic structure responsible untouched. People in the global North should consume less, but to place the blame on individual behavior lets the manufacturers of useless products off the hook and is blind to the economic realities should the system be left in place intact.

Once again, we can not shop our way out of economic and environmental problems. Even not shopping would bring its own set of problems, Dr. Smith writes:

“[H]ow can we ‘reject consumerism’ when we live in a capitalist economy where, in the case of the United States, more than two-thirds of market sales, and therefore most jobs, depend on direct sales to consumers while most of the rest of the economy, including the infrastructure and not least, the military, is dedicated to propping up this super consumerist ‘American way of life?’ Indeed, most jobs in industrialized countries critically depend not just on consumerism but on ever-increasing overconsumption. We ‘need’ this ever-increasing consumption and waste production because, without growth, capitalist economies collapse and unemployment soars. …

[I]t’s not the culture that drives the economy so much as, overwhelmingly, the economy that drives the culture: It’s the insatiable demands of shareholders that drive corporate producers to maximize sales, therefore to constantly seek out new sales and sources in every corner of the planet, to endlessly invent [new needs]. … ‘[C]onsumerism’ is not just a ‘cultural pattern,’ it’s not just ‘commercial brainwashing’ or an ‘infantile regression.’ … Insatiable consumerism is an everyday requirement of capitalist reproduction, and this drives capitalist invention and imperial expansion. No overconsumption, no growth, no jobs. And no voluntarist ‘cultural transformation’ is going to overcome this fundamental imperative so long as the economic system depends on overconsumption for its day-to-day survival.” [pages 141-142]

There is no way out other than replacing capitalism with a steady-state economy based on meeting human needs, and that could only be attained through bottom-up, democratic control. No one promises new jobs to those who would be displaced under capitalism; logically, then, those who jobs and ability to earn a living is dependent on polluting or wasteful industries resist environmental initiatives. The wholesale changes that are necessary to prevent a global environmental catastrophe can’t be accomplished under the present economic system; it would require a different system with the flexibility to re-deploy labor in large numbers when industries are reduced or eliminated, and one that would have no need to grow. Inequality would have to be eliminated for any kind of global democratic economy to be able to function.

Richard Smith pronounces this “a tall order to be sure.” That it is. But with many world cities, and entire countries, at risk of becoming inhabitable due to rising sea levels, more erratic weather and an accelerated timetable to deplete the world’s resources, what choice do we have? Green capitalism is not only not green, it is worse than illusion because of the false hope it dangles in front of our eyes.

The high cost of new and improved

Planned obsolescence is not a natural phenomenon like the tides. Yet most of us accept it as such. I’ve been forced to think about this because my computer is not long for this world. Eight years ago, it was as up to date as can be. Now, Mac OS 10.3 is evidently one step removed from a stone tablet.

That in itself is a solvable problem. But the friendly and knowledgeable computer person who advised me on new computer options calmly told me that some of my crucial software programs won’t be readable on the latest system. I will have a great many files that will become unreadable (yes, I do back up) without having to cobble together some cumbersome solution.

“New and improved” is marketing gospel. Well, it’s mighty big business — as much as $1 trillion is spent on marketing in the United States alone. People have to buy a whole lot of stuff to justify all the money spent on them to buy it. If products work for a long time, people won’t be moved to buy all that “new and improved” stuff. That’s where planned obsolescence comes in — it’s simply big corporations forcing us to buy new stuff.

Having a new computer isn’t a terrible thing in itself. But having your software be made outdated, thereby rendering many years of writing inaccessible, shouldn’t be the price paid for “progress.” As the friendly and knowledgeable computer person explained just how behind the new and improved times I was, I sighed and said to him, “This is why I don’t like capitalism. It’s all this planned obsolescence.” The computer person, clearly an intelligent person (and working for a quite reputable computer retailer), looked at me totally blankly. He had no idea of what I could be talking about.

To him — and far from him alone — the rapid updating of computer software and hardware was some natural phenomenon, as natural as the tides. I am not arguing here for stasis, nor am I unused to dealing with new computers. Because my original profession, newspaper journalism, was among the first industries to undergo computerization, I’ve been writing on computers since 1978. There were no personal computers then, nor was the concept of “user friendly” yet in existence.

We used highly specialized, balky computers where one had to continually devise methods of getting the machine to do what it was supposed to do but often would not. So I can say I am quite pleased at the advances of the past couple of decades. But continually updating systems so that they become obsolete in a few years is not “new and improved” — it is “let’s make people buy more of our stuff.” What about the many people who can’t afford to keep buying more stuff?

At least the electricity doesn’t have new operating systems

This perpetual consumer arms race is hardly limited to computers, although not necessarily carried as far in other industries. Can you imagine that, needing to replace your decade-old automobile, you go to a dealer, only to find out this year’s new model runs on a different type of fuel, and that you no longer can go to your local gas stations because it won’t run on the same old fuel. Or what if the electricity was changed every few years? Sorry, we’re on a different voltage this year, so all your home’s power sockets are now useless, and you can’t use your lamps or appliances.

Although other industries don’t have the audacity of computer and software makers, a relentless push to induce more consumer purchases is endemic. The weight and size of what we buy is bigger. And it is wrapped up in ever more packaging. The social costs of all this unnecessary consumption are high, and are paid for in environmental destruction.

Here are two statistics that put some perspective on this immense waste:

Add in the immense costs of advertising to induce us to buy stuff we otherwise wouldn’t want or need, and we are talking mountains of waste. Obtaining figures is difficult, but estimates of the money spent on marketing in the U.S. per year range from $460 billion to $1.07 trillion.* Further add in the costs of raw materials, production and transportation, the effects of all this on the environment and the psychological stresses on people continually told they are inadequate without owning the latest gadget, and the impact of new and improved becomes clearer.

All we need is another Earth

Almost all of the world’s higher-income countries, and many lower-income countries, are consuming far beyond Earth’s ability to recuperate. To put this in stark terms, a study by the non-profit group Global Footprint Network estimates that humanity is consuming the equivalent of one and a half earths. The group’s study says:

“This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one.”

The Living Planet Report 2012, a study produced by WWF–World Wide Fund For Nature in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Global Footprint Network, provides country-by-country and region-by-region breakdowns. It finds that the Middle East/Central Asia, Asia-Pacific, North America and European Union regions are each consuming about double their regional biocapacity. Africa and “other Europe” are about even, while Latin America is currently consuming at less than half its biocapacity.

To this it should be added that Africans themselves use less — much of the consumption there (and in other developing areas) is generated by multi-national corporations headquartered in stronger countries. People in poor countries consume minuscule amounts in comparison to the wealthy of the world and the middle classes of the advanced capitalist countries.

The Living Planet Report’s conclusions, despite being frequently couched in moderate language, nonetheless declare that “business as usual” will lead us to disaster:

“Clearly, the current state of human development, based on increased consumption and a reliance on fossil fuels, combined with a growing human population and poor overall management and governance of natural resources, is unsustainable. Many countries and populations already face a number of risks from biodiversity loss, degraded ecosystem services and climate change, including: food, water and energy scarcity; increased vulnerability to natural disasters; health risks; population movements; and resource-driven conflicts.” [page 10]

All those shiny computers and mobile phones — and so many other consumer products produced in every greater numbers — use metals mined from around the world, often under dangerous conditions. Many of these products are assembled under brutal sweatshop conditions. The environmental damage from moving all these raw materials, manufactured parts and finished products around the world is enormous, and increasing as more destructive and capital-intensive technologies are necessary to extract less accessible resources. We tend to not think about these costs.

“New and improved” is of human creation. If it were as natural as the tides, there wouldn’t be advertising bombarding us everywhere we turn. We have only one Earth and, for now, the rest of the universe is out of our grasp. In a satirical short story written by the science fiction author Stanisław Lem, space-faring marketers set off a series of supernovas that, from Earth, align in the night sky to spell out the name of the product they were promoting. Imagine the budget for that campaign!

And imagine life forms on the planets orbiting those exploded stars — would our morals be so low as to destroy all life on multiple planets to advertise a product? Surely they would not. Yet we seem to be on a course to destroy life on this planet for the sake of short-term corporate profits. Is new and improved really that important?

* The former estimate (from 2008) from Charles W. Lamb, Joseph F. Hair, Jr., Carl McDaniel, Marketing [South-Western Cengage Learning, Mason City, Ohio, USA, 2009]; the latter estimate (from 2005) from the Metrics 2.0: Business & Market Intelligence web site.