Rethinking the Ethics of capitalism

Well I loathe to admit it, but the other day I found myself listening to Q on CBC Radio. The topic of discussion was the ethics of oil. Ezra Levant, the right-wing activist, who has just written the book Ethical Oil: The case for Canada’s oilsands was debating environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk on the ethics of purchasing and consuming oil.

Levant was defending the tar sands saying that it was the most ethical oil on the planet because it didn’t fund terrorism or Chavez. Nikiforuk, on the other hand, stated that there is no such thing as ethical oil.

Levant totally ignores the sovereignty and health claims of Indigenous downstream communities in the Athabasca.  He also doesn’t count the high amount of energy and water needed to extract the oil from the tar sands or the massive amount pollution dumped into the land. Part of me wondered why Levant even bothers to justify the tar sands using the language of ethics and social responsibility? What happened to the good old up your ass man needs his gas conservative logic?

What is noteworthy is not Levant’s arguments (which are never noteworthy) but the form in which the debate is framed and what this frame says about our current predicament. The old logic of capitalism of production and alienated meaningless consumption (think Mad Men) is no more. Capitalism has perversely incorporated the critiques levied against it. In the 1980s and 90s products were increasingly sold not as things but as experiences, as a way of life.

Now products are not just sold as personal experiences or lifestyle symbols, they are now marketed as ethical choices. This “cultural capitalism” allows consumers to do something meaningful while buying and consuming. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has noted, “the very act of participation in consumerist activity is simultaneously presented as a participation in the struggle against evils ultimately caused by capitalist consumption.” Shopping and doing good in the world can be accomplished with just one gesture of buying an ethical product.

The freedom to choose in our society is now not on the collective political level but at the grocery store. Individual consumption is now the place where we make our ideological preferences known. (Fair trade, free range, organic etc…) Instead of having real alternatives we are forced to choose among a range of options that may makes us feel better but do little other than sustain market operation that is creating the problems we are trying to counteract (poverty, climate change, imperialism and so on)

Let’s think about this on the political level. During last years health care debate in the United States the obvious choice of universal single payer health care was a non-option not because it was more expensive but because it was ideologically unpalatable. Hillary Clinton famously said that single payer was not on the table despite poll after poll showing Americans supported some sort single payer health care system. Americans then were forced to choose between already broken options, subsidized consumers of private insurance and so on.

The point is that the root of the problem was not only not addressed but also not discussed. Was this not also the case when Tim O’Niell, the former BMO economist released his report on Post Secondary Education in Nova Scotia?  He presented an array of options that the government could undertake to pay for future post secondary education; deregulate tuition, merger of universities and so on. However what was unmentionable was that universities need more federal funding. Far from being unreasonable, more funding requires only a modest change in our wasteful spending (think fighter jets, the G20, Artic expeditions, new prisons)

When we talk about ethical consumerism it is important to keep in mind that framework in which that debate takes place. It locates problems and their solutions on the individual level. Even if you advocate or express an anti-consumerist position (reducing the amount we shop) you are still reducing large structural problems (climate change, poverty etc.) down to individual choices and thus not discussing their systemic causes.

We can’t change the world by just changing our personal shopping habits. We can no more consume our way out of the coming ecological crisis than we can dig ourselves out of a hole. This doesn’t mean that we should stop buying fair trade coffee. It does mean we should stop expecting that those choices will have tangible impacts or replace the necessity of collective political action.

We should be critical of utopian liberals and conservatives who insist we can buy our way out of capitalism’s problems. The only realistic solutions to our various collective problems are the seemingly impossible options. If we simply think and act within the premise of market-based solutions to market based problems are we really free to choose how to best tackle these problems? Zizek aptly states, “one should emphasize that freedom is “actual” precisely and only as the capacity to “transcend” the coordinates of a given situation.”


6 responses to “Rethinking the Ethics of capitalism

  1. “This doesn’t mean that we should stop buying fair trade coffee.”

    How come the target audience of your political blog is “ethical consumption” yuppies?

    • I wrote this for the Dal gazette originally and then posted it here. (Green washing being pervasive on campus I though it not a bad idea to open up a space to discuss what that means)
      “How come the target audience of your political blog is “ethical consumption” yuppies?”
      The short answer is it isn’t.

      The target is people who want to improve their analysis.
      If we fail to account or discuss issues of the changing nature of consumption and marketing don’t we do a diservice to our own radical politcs?
      Won’t we just simply rehash tired political tropes about capital exploitation? The point being that capital is able to reincorporate these critiques so we must discuss and arm ourselves with better analysis. Who could object to that? I guess I am a little perplexed about the quote you used in your comment. Is it to show that my article is indeed for yuppies? If you have an actual criticism (or want to elaborate on your previous comment) of my post or blog, please post it or tell me… Because I am confused as to the point you are trying to make.

  2. Yes I do think you narrow your audience considerably by addressing your reader assuming that they belong to a niche consumer market, in this instance the ‘fair trade’ and ‘ethical’ products market. I was curious as to why you chose to narrow your audience in that way so I asked the question. If that’s not your goal with the blog, then consider that in all likelihood the majority of working people here don’t have any illusions about their buying coffee changing the world.

    I agree with you when you write, “We can’t change the world by just changing our personal shopping habits”. The problem is not what products we happen to buy, its commodity production in itself, right? What I think is missing in the article is any discussion whatsoever of the social relations of capital, namely waged labour. By all means avoid lame slogans, but don’t avoid talking about it or pretend capitalist social relations are fundamentally different than when they originally emerged.

    Another question: You talk about the need for collective, political action, which I agree is key, but on what basis, and amongst who? ‘Ethical consumers’? People who “express their ideological preferences through consumption choices”, or what?

  3. First off I am not avoiding anything. I am writing an article not a treatise..
    Second off this was an article orginially published in the Gazette for students.
    Third off my blog is a political blog talking about specific issues. Those issues range from Veil laws to the uses of violence, to ecological theory. When I write about Veils laws do you assume I am writing for French ex-pats? Obviously not. Just cause I write about fair tarde doesn’t mean I am writing for fair trade consumers. I am talking about how products are increasingly markerted. This is important because the language and framework and perceptions capital creates (namely ideology) are worth talking about. By simply dismissing capitalism’s symbolic elements by insiting that all discussion focus on the social relations of capital, namely waged labour, we invetiably miss other key elements in the construction of capitalist ideology. That is not to say that production relations aren’t key, rather that by ignoring or dismissing how capital markets its products or how some people rationalize consumption is to do a diservice to one’s analysis.

    Fourth off you need to read some Zizek.

    “If that’s not your goal with the blog, then consider that in all likelihood the majority of working people here don’t have any illusions about their buying coffee changing the world.” Who says I do? I do think that people reading this who don’t give a fuck about fair trade products would welcome analysis and discussion about these supposed “choices.”

    “don’t avoid talking about it or pretend capitalist social relations are fundamentally different than when they originally emerged.” You should explain this more because it is too vague to argue with. (too ivory tower for my taste) “Capitalist social relations” can actually mean many different things. Are you talking about production, industry, changing nature of exploitation, money circulation, finicial capital, consumer culture, cultural production, capital accumuliation??? I am interested depending on your definition I may or may not agree with you…

  4. To be honest, when I got an email about your blog I wasn’t sure who the intended audience was so I checked it out and read this article. While reading it struck me that you were writing to people who are into ‘ethical consumerism’ (again it was the collective ‘we’ in the “This doesn’t mean we should stop buying fair trade coffee” line that gave me that impression) and I was genuinely curious as to why you chose to do so. Nothing intrinsically wrong about writing to that audience, just trying to see where you’re coming from with this and how you’re trying to relate to “people who want to improve their analysis”.*

    By “capitalist social relations” I meant what I understand to be the fundamental characteristics of capital: waged labour toward commodity production, private ownership of the means of production; the creation of a class of people (the working class) who are dispossessed from the means of production and who must work to make ends meet. I don’t see that these relations have radically changed since their initial development. I see them as the current relations that define daily life. I’m not saying there’s nothing else interesting to discuss about capitalism, only that there are some fundamental characteristics about it that haven’t changed a great deal.

    In your article you say people should stop expecting our consumer choices to have tangibles impacts on the ecological crisis for instance. I couldn’t agree more and I personally don’t have any time for the few whiny-ass liberals who’ve patronized me about mine in the past. I just think you should have followed your argument through and explained why it is that personal consumption choices are irrelevant insofar as overthrowing capitalism is concerned. To me, that would have been getting to the point.

    My own view on why we can’t change the world through consumption choices is this (I’d be interested to hear where you agree or not):

    It is our daily activity as workers that reproduces capital. Our revolutionary potential is derived from our condition as (commodity) producers – therein lies the possibility to collectively reorganize production to meet our needs, rather than for accumulation of value. It doesn’t matter what commodities we choose to consume because until we disrupt the process and seize the means to produce on our own terms, we have no control over what is produced in the first place.

    Sure, I’m kind of curious to read Zizek, he seems to be fashionable in the academy and on the Left these days. You make him sound like he’s required reading – do you have any specific recommendations? Are you able to summarize what you think his important theoretical contributions are? If so, it’d be appreciated.

    * I had read your article “More Smoke than Fire” on the Media Co-op site a while back not realizing at the time it was part of this blog.

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