Half Past Horizons of post-capitalism

How to avoid dying of consumption Dec 29, 2021

I've been thinking about the Left's approach to consumption. I'll start with some key phrases that have made it into relative prominence, which embody moments of attitudes

"Buy nothing day": 1990s anticonsumerism seems quaint at this point, because it's based on the premise that people have enough income to buy more than they need. The true core of anti-consumerism is an environmental critique of frivolity, planned obsolescence, and the advertising industry's honing of its ability to map every human emotion onto consumer spending. The substance of those important critiques tends to get lost when anticonsumerism is filtered through neoliberism, which winds up creating hierarchies of high and low consumption wind up being based on economic class.

"Fully automated luxury communism": This started as a sort of online joke, but people have since written books advocating for it. I read it as a contemporary reaction to anti-consumerism, on the backdrop of plummeting disposable income among millennials and Gen Z—and a lot of Star Trek. The idea that robots will make whatever good we want to consume and we can devote our time to meaningful work, personal development and leisure activities is certainly an appealing fantasy. The pitfalls to me are that it contributes to technological mythmaking. Right now, all the things that we imagine will be made by robots are actually still made by humans for the foreseeable. Projecting a near-future automation defers any discussion of how consumption should change by effectively deferring our current consumption patterns (or fantasies about same) into the future.

"No ethical consumption under capitalism": The idea here is to remove the stigma of making consumer decisions based on cost, particularly by people facing financial constraints and heavy debt loads. It's a reaction to the truncated version of anticonsumerism that reduces a systemic critique to individualized moralizing about purchasing decisions, and their environmental or social impact. At its best, this phrase deflects that individualization into a systemic critique. But by opposing instead of proposing, I worry it could leave an aftertaste of fatalism and inevitability.

"Communal Luxury": This phrase actually comes from the Paris Commune (and is the title of a book on that subject) but a contemporary version shows up in some of the Green New Deal literature. The modern version is that in a finite world being burned by current levels of consumption, we have to shift our desires toward free time, relationships, and communal spaces like social housing, public spaces like libraries, parks, pools and community centres, and common production spaces like kitchens, gardens and collective transportation.

I find communal luxury the most promising, because it sidesteps the classism or asceticism of anti-consumerism without throwing out the insights that fuel it. But in terms of what shines through to public discourse, there's a lot of work to do.

At some risk of oversimplifying, the right has tended to present and affirm people as consumers. For example, the right has emphasized tax breaks over wage increases, and typically presents strikes and labour militancy as a source of additional costs for the political subject qua consumer.

The left has preferred to emphasize people as workers. There are a bunch of reasons for this, a key one being that our social conception of consumption is individualized, whereas labour movements have invested a lot of work into collectivizing how we think of ourselves as workers. That work builds upon the affordances that workplaces already provide (though in many cases these qualities are dwindling): a common space, a common struggle, a common adversary and so on.

Not that the left hasn't made some forays into the consumer realm as well. Consumer cooperatives are basically as old as industrial unions, and have at times served as a way to collectively bargain for better deals, healthier food, and so on.

Some small fraction of consumer cooperatives have completed the loop, getting interested in the value chain itself, usually food coops sourcing from local food producers. Some even smaller number have become interested in (or had the capacity to become interested in) cooperativizing the production process, using pooled purchasing to buy some of the means of production.

But those are clear exceptions to the broader trends, which tend toward a mainstream managerialism that defaults to exploiting labour and running things very closely to the style of for-profit competitors. In a lot of cases this reflects the lack of a distinctive cooperative culture that can develop business leadership that serves members and mission rather than maximizing shareholder dividends. And even where a distinct culture does exist, it is subject to the same issues that plague progressive political parties and trade unions: professionalization, careerism, and a general insecurity about being accepted in the perceived real halls of power.

(Cases in point: two recent nasty labour disputes involving consumer co-ops in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.)

The pervasiveness of these conditions leads many to give up on consumer cooperatives as a model. Unlike political parties or unions, there aren't enough prominent hopeful examples to convince a critical mass that the form can be potent.

I bring up cooperatives, because I think what is missing from all four slogans above is the opportunity for people to take a first step into, and have a first experience of collectivizing and transforming consumption.

Cooperatives (consumer, producer, worker, and solidarity/multi-stakeholder variants) could be a gateway to the transformation of consumption from an individual act of survival or self-expression into both a political weapon and a convergence point of cultural and material transformation.

Calls to boycott this or that are still common. But how much more powerful would they be if they were coupled with a call to join a democratic organization that could pool and direct resources, make decisions and potentially be a horizon for transformative shifts in consumption and production relations?

Two examples are worth drawing attention to—both in the food sector. (I'd love to hear others).

The Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn sets itself apart from other food coops started in the 1970s by not just holding onto but leaning in to the labour requirement. Where other food co-ops became affordable supermakets where members fell into their role as individualized shoppers, the PSFC maintained a requirement that members volunteer for three hours per month, where they work in teams to do the labour of stocking shelves, doing inventory, working registers and so on. Broadly speaking, that creates a feedback loop of social investment, greater democratic participation and perhaps most consequently lower prices. As opposed to the typical feedback loop of growing member passivity, boards populated by social democratic functionaries (at best), and vulnerability to lobbying by distribution companies.

Japan's Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Co-operative Union was started by housewives in the 1960s, but has grown to over 300,000 members, $1 billion in revenue. It deals with over 600 worker cooperatives, which (by my understanding) it has in many cases helped to start, and they own eight associated companies, including a dairy processing plant.

There are others, but I think these two are helpful in showing that it is possible to create models that break out of models that tend toward membership passivity and the corporate culture slide at the board and staff level.

Seikatsu in particular shows how powerful it can be to pool purchasing power. A bit of collectivized purchasing power gets you a better deal (Groupon even made this into a dot come business model). But a lot of purchasing power can turn into upstream ownership of the supply chain, which opens up new strategies.

If we're being honest, government is the most effective mechanism for organizing and asserting collective control—even though its powers at all levels have been severely truncated by trade agreements. But what co-ops are much better positioned to do is to create social fabric and social relationships around consumption and allocation of resources that builds a base of political power that is won't be derailed by losing an election to two.

Policy proposals aimed at government tend to miss that first step where people have the opportunity to experience transformative material and cultural change directly, participating in it and building relationships within it. That's where cooperatives and other kinds of movement organizations that democratically allocate resources come in.

Consumption isn't going to displace production anytime soon. The experience of being exploited in the workplace is usually going to be more intense and direct than the experience of not having access to local organic food, affordable union-produced goods or community space. Exploitation and alienation are felt directly, while making collective decisions about purchasing power with millions of others is something that has to be imagined (and ideally experienced in some form) before it can be desired.

Another shortcoming of centring consumption in the wrong ways is that it can empower those with the most spare time and purchasing power. But structures, practices and organizational cultures along the lines of Park Slope Food Co-op can even those out... to an extent.

Labour is going to be the primary point of intervention of leftist organizing, and for good reason, for the foreseeable. But I also think that consumption has been neglected materially and culturally by the left, and perpetuating that going forward would be, I think, short sighted.

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