On Consumerism, Capitalism, and Ecosocialism
This article is intended to be an introduction to an ecosocialist approach to production and consumption. What we have today is a hegemonic obsession with mass production that is catastrophic to the evolutionary processes which allow the biosphere to uphold life as we know it. Capitalist modes of production based upon endless economic expansion and mass consumption disrupt the equilibrium of ecosystems by reshaping the metabolism of nature which regulates earth systems. Within this article I will discuss some issues that I see as problematic in achieving an ecological society and address possible solutions. This is not intended to provide a critique of consumers; my aim is to develop an assault on the hegemonic creation of consumer culture and its devastating impact in maintaining the status quo. This is not an outline for revolution; it is merely my attempt to put forth issues as I see them and contribute to the discussion about the construction of consumer culture as a barrier to achieving social transformation.
“Once upon a time the working class had nothing to lose but its chains; but now it has been absorbed within capitalism, is a prisoner of consumerism, and its articles of consumption own and consume it.” – Michael A. Lebowitz
We have the productive means to fulfil our material needs and to liberate ourselves from alienated labour. However this idea is incompatible with capital which does not aim to address real human needs beyond what is required to reproduce itself. Rather capitalism is contingent upon the realization of wealth accumulation, an endless expansion that is based upon the production and consumption of alienated products. This mass production is a fundamental problem that restricts our ability to create an ecological society by being the unshakable cause of most of the environmental problems we face today.
In order to mobilize and attack expansive production, consumer culture must be attacked. This entails attacking the hegemonic institutions that spread consumerism, develop our identification with material goods, and enforce the association between goods and freedom. Capitalist forces expend great resources to ensure that we are socialized to identify ourselves with what we consume far more than with what and how we produce which creates a barrier between us and critical revolution. In fact, Americans are subjected to over 20 times the global average of targeted advertisements. We are made to identify so strongly with commodities that a rejection of capitalism will equate to a rejection of self and require a redefinition of freedom that will demand a revolution that stems beyond the workplace. Within advanced capitalism consumer culture serves as a counter revolutionary safeguard, a sedative. And as we come to identify with the products of our alienated labour rather than realize our alienation within the process of production we sink deeper into the veins of capital, becoming the reproductive organs of the beast.
Social Contract and Social Mobility
The working class as a revolutionary subject is the force by which the world will be changed. However, change will only happen if the will to do so exists. The American social contract, which states that what we can achieve given our rights as free and equal people to ascend the social economic ladder with no barriers but our own determination, is a pacifier based upon dishonest assumptions. It enables the institutionalized ignorance of systemic oppression, inequality, and environmental exploitation while generating the individualism needed to ignore the roots of the problem. We need to change the course of the struggle away from a struggle for upward mobility, which is at the heart of the capitalist conflict, to one of economic sufficiency and cultural sustainability.
A struggle for upward mobility is a conservative struggle. It will aim to reform until reforms have returned the working class to a state of equilibrium within capitalist society or one of equally distressing productivism. The world cannot survive our economic system. We have an environmental crisis that requires complete recognition however such recognition will require a cultural revolution, one that rejects the products of alienated labour. In order to survive, capital must expand therefore it must synthesize needs and implement planned obsolescence in order to produce and maintain a market for its growth. A systematic manufacture of discontent places commodities as an affordable means of social achievement therefore contentment by upholding an understanding that has elevated capitalism to a position synonymous with freedom by the mere fact that it provisions the goods. This paves the way for a consumer culture that is impervious to systematic change.
Commodity accumulation leads people to not only identify with the means of destruction but it also paralyzes their ability to mobilize action against the ecological crisis. The resistance to capital must be built in communities most affected by modes of exploitation, those closest to the realization of capitals limits of sufficiency. Poor communities and communities of color are an ecosocialist revolutionary force and the movement must take root in these areas. We must aim to disintegrate links in the chain of capital reproduction by building community sovereignty which will enable the active thinking required to liberate humanity from our impoverished condition. We must acknowledge the multi-faceted struggle for ecosocialism as one encompassing the total impoverishment of humanity which entails not only the patriarchal plundering of earth’s environment but also the systemic theft of our self-governing, self-realizing, debt free value.
It is widely recognized that the profit motivated consumer fueled industrial waste and pollution is a broad and time sensitive issue which must be addressed to prevent absolute ecological catastrophe. However, capital cannot provide a fix without dissolving itself. The climate issue is in a stage of terra incognito so the global environmental crisis will be positioned to fall onto the consumers and a new “green” market will conjure the illusion of ethical mass consumption and market growth (see Jevon’s Paradox). Consumer culture identifies the free market with freedom in general which is a landmark of success for a system that must perpetuate itself through alienated production and identification with the products of alienated labour in order to avoid overthrow. In light of the urgency of our current ecological situation there is no alternative route to developing an ecosocialist bloc and dismantling advanced capitalism that does not entail the targeted dismantling of social identity with consumer goods. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.
The continued existence of the biosphere as we know it depends upon the reduction of the human industrial impact. This stands in contrast to capital’s need to portray the false idea that human needs are unlimited and that the earth and its natural limits are capable of accommodating such an absurd reality. It is implanted into the growth strategy to enforce such a notion, for once actual needs are fulfilled the market will stop growing so the system must manufacture discontent to raise demand. This demand situates society in a state of derangement which merges desires and needs while denying that consumption is culturally manufactured and that our culture is the stimulus for environmental instability.
In order to liberate mankind and do so in a way that enables a cultural symbiosis with nature we must seek a social model that distances itself from accumulation. This entails establishing the preexisting condition for revolution which is a class based insurrection against mass self-recognition in commodities. The ability to disdain capital commodities will enable the induction into common knowledge the absolute limits of capital production. We must reinvent a human identity that is aligned with our place in nature as actors within an ecosystem. This in practice is counter hegemonic against the conservative forces surrounding capital exploitation of nature. We must see the impact of our consumption in disrupting the metabolism of nature, but we must recognize it as systemic and not limited to individual lifestyle politics. We must see the reality behind our identity with these alien products as a defining attribute of capitalism’s incompatible relationship with the natural world and its alienating impact on human consciousness. We must recognize consumer culture as a coercive socializing agent of capital not simply a lifestyle choice made between masses of individuals.
Ecological society is made possible by limiting production to fulfill actual needs and to do so by means of maximizing use value. This will eliminate profit by redistributing surplus time back into society by means of reduced working hours and allocating surplus toward human and ecological development. A true cultural revolution will entail human efforts being aimed toward human liberation and ecological harmony. In order to achieve this the dominant social value system must be replace with one not dependent upon material haves and have nots. We can no longer define the pinnacle of achievement as the output capacity of our civilization and a person’s ability to obtain a suite of commodities in a private wealth generating system. A new understanding of surplus will be developed to recognize the creative output of humankind as a common heritage made possible through historical efforts and the reshaping of natural environments, raising a new understanding of ourselves in nature history.
The obsession with production has generated circumstances which require an active assault on our cultural understanding of productivity. Productivism must be understood as an enemy to ecological and social balance. A new society will not arise like a phoenix from fire and ashes it will be built on the foundations of history which is entwined with social injustice, oppression, exploitation, and environmentally destructive forces. In building a socialist society we will be forced to deal with the inevitable cultural reproduction of capitalist ideals and do so in part by abolishing the emphasis on productivism. The socialist world view that maintains a possessive relationship between humanity and nature will be condemned to the same toxic existence as its capitalist predecessor.
In the construction of a new world there must exist the preconditions to harness the new order. A transformation from our current alienated world will not be carried out by a seizure of the means of production alone but must entail a seizure of our identity from the clench of alienated goods. The contentment with this capitalist arrangement of society will last until problems arise that cannot be diverted by means of it, such as the crossing of planetary boundaries and the global displacement of entire populations, an approaching inevitability of our economic model. A revolutionary condition is looming and a force beyond our timeless socioeconomic conflict is a driving element. Natural contingencies will arise which will push aside humankind’s ability to negate systemic collapse. The readiness to adapt to and seize the state of nature and the state apparatus may not be present in the common stock of knowledge. The revolution may be ready for us, but we may not be ready for the revolution.
Ecosocialist Participatory Economy
Ecosocialist economies are not contingent upon growth, they are oriented toward the development of human potential which means that they do not aim toward commodity production as an end but as a limited means toward the fulfillment of human needs. Contrary to capital’s logic human needs are not unlimited so as to develop an entire economic system around that premise is counter intuitive in its limited potential for human enrichment and its paradoxical existence in a world of finite resources. In ecosocialist society economic value will be transformed, prioritizing use value. Whereas in capitalist society economic exchange value dominates all forms of social worth, placing all other achievement in subordination to it.
Ecosocialism focuses on use value as the aim of productive output but use value is not the lens through which we view nature. Capitalism’s utilitarian view of nature is divisive, it limits our ability to identify ourselves within the natural world. This is a cause behind capital’s inability to see limits to expansive production. The logic behind capital production creates barriers where boundaries should be, making obstacles out of natural limits. It is not an issue of fossil fuels alone which deem our consumption immoral, for once achieved, a renewable energy structure will not erase the exploitative productive systems that capital relies upon. A clean energy source does not prevent the exploitation of nature and people for profit. It is only with the full self-determining power of workers to control their own destiny that we can produce an ecological economy.
The democratization of our entire society is essential in establishing an ecological order that is able to see the abolition of inequality and exploitation. Democracy must be established to a degree in which it allows people to truly control their own heritage. What is a common heritage of society such as the products of labour exist within a social commons therefore must be democratically regulated and distributed. People not profit must decide what is produced and what is consumed while taking into account the impact it will have on ecosystems and workers alike.
The environment is to be considered more than a source of raw materials and by what it generates to accommodate for human life alone. Our economy exists within the biosphere as a social ecosystem, a subcategory that is a part of a self-regulating earth system in which we as organisms alter at great expense to the harmonious flow of life. It is imperative that nature be protected from privatization by enacting democratic laws surrounding the regulation and preservation of environments from human exploitation. With our knowledge of environmental science we can reduce our impact and protect nature and the people who are most vulnerable to environmental instability.
In a democratic economy decisions must be weighed and votes balanced according to the degree in which the measure would affect the voter. Those most impacted will have more say. Worker, producer, and consumer councils are an organization structure that will accommodate for the diverse needs of each system while enabling the preservation of unique ecological limitations per region. A social opportunity cost will be considered in the process of what is produced in relation to its environmental and social exploitative relationship. This is a system in which a true social accountability is accepted and social production becomes normative. Privatization is criminal in a system such as this for it immediately reduces the democratic integrity that a social society operates on.
Major sources of inequality and power such as inheritance must be rejected in this system as it gives disproportionate social influence to people least affected, the deceased, which is then sequestered away from society and funneled into the hands of the few which leads to disparate power structures. Corporate decisions alike would be seen as anti-social however the democratization and worker ownership of the workplace can help eliminate this problem. It is necessary to state however that worker ownership of the enterprise will be a vital element of social society it is not a sure fire way to ensure the integrity of our biosphere is maintained. The bureaucratic development of social means of production can easily assume the same exploitative characteristics of a capital enterprise and it has in the past. Therefore a circulating responsibility structure should be implemented as well as an establishment of democratic council powers and social vetoes to ensure that what is produced is regulated according to the standards of the environmental treaties.
The world will experience a lifestyle shift that will enable a new standard of economic equality to become institutionalized. We will need to decide what people need to live a good life with health and opportunity. Necessities such as access to water, food, shelter, clothing, transportation, communication, education, health care, sanitation, culture, the pursuit of personal development must exist in the new social contract as a standard guaranteed to all. For most of the world’s population the conditions of life will be vastly improved, while the minority wealthy classes will experience a neutralizing shift from excessive consumption to sustainable socially conscious living. We must ensure the elevation of impoverished people to an equal global standard while not barring their ability to achieve self-reliance.
In a society not bound by the limitations of economic growth, resources such as labour will be freed up to provide for the continual progress of our human legacy. The divestment of human capital from profit and power driven maintenance of consumer lifestyles will enable a social investment into more culturally enriching productivity. An ecosocialist economy is based upon evolution not expansion and when advancements in productivity sufficiently fuel society we will have achieved surplus time for all.
Environmental consciousness must be emitted into the common procedure of production in that what is taken and produced must be quantified not only by its human value but by the implications such maneuvers will have on the socioecological world. As producers within nature we have an obligation to not only sustain our environment but also improve it. As an eco-conscious society we must strive to enhance our relationship with nature by inventing an economy that produces more than neutral but positive environmental results. This will be achievable with a new productive philosophy and through a new division of labour as humans are liberated from hours spent supplying synthesized needs. Resources then can be redirected toward creative pursuits, science, engineering, and socioecological development motivated by ecological sustainability and social accountability, not economic profitability.
There is no question that capitalism is a self-serving system that has no place in an ecological social organization. The disasters it creates with its monstrous growth principles devour the earth as well as the minds and bodies of all who exist here. We must seek to build a resistance to this oppressive and exploitative system by focusing our efforts away from reform which only strengthens the system. We must establish community sovereignty to allow pre-socialist conditions to exist in the hearts and minds of those who are most threatened by capitalist exploitation. The understanding of ourselves as social beings must extend its association to reconnect our society to nature and to do so by liberating ourselves from the shackles of consumer culture. •
- One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse
- The Socialist Imperative by Michael A. Lebowitz
- Creating an Ecological Society by Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams
- Parecon: Life After Capitalism by Michael Albert
- Consumer Culture and Modernity by Don Slater
- The Enemy of Nature by Joel Kovel
- The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, Richard York
This article published by Hampton Institution.