Capitalism’s Consumerist Treadmill is Making Us Miserable
Last week, we discussed the harms and inequities that have been normalized in our societies, and consequently which may be overlooked when we begin to think about what a better world might look like.
This week, I want to drill down into that subject a little more, reflecting on some of the themes we’ve been discussing about how capitalism has altered the social and economic relations of our society to serve its ends rather than prioritizing what would produce the best possible life for the working class.
A few months ago, I outlined how industry and state forces worked together to encourage people to drive automobiles, move into suburbs and embrace mass consumption. That’s been our normal for so long that it can be difficult to remember another way of living or of thinking about consumption.
But I’ve also increasingly become convinced that all that consumption has come at the expense of our working rights. Let me explain.
Consumer products are often presented to us through the lenses of how they’ll make our lives easier or how much of a deal we’re getting on them. Low prices, in particular, have become an important selling point for all manner of goods. That allows many people to buy more clothes, food and electronics — and send more of it to landfills.
But for the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to learn more about the supply chains of these products, with a particular focus on technology. What you quickly find is that there’s a ton of environmental and human damage built into the production of all those goods that companies try to make us ignore on the consumer end.
Mining the minerals that go into our phones, gadgets and electric cars is hurting communities and environments around the world. Manufacturing those products similarly hurts workers and pollutes the surrounding area. And as the West deindustrialized over the past few decades, we’ve pushed much of that harm out of sight and mind.
That harm is intensified by the pressure placed on suppliers to keep prices low by major retailers like Walmart and Amazon, and companies like Apple or Samsung, who outsource their manufacturing to low-wage jurisdictions.
But what do we get for all the harm? Mountains of cheap consumer goods that we’re told will fill the hole left by the erosion of our communities, the reduction of our wages and the need to work longer hours just to get by.
Think about that for a second. Big box stores, and increasingly dollar stores, drive other shops out of business by offering lower prices. Those lower prices are made possible not only by placing pressure on the supply chain, but also by driving down the wages of workers and making them more precarious.
That’s exactly what we see with Amazon, where injuries spike during peak shopping periods like Prime Day and the holidays. Dollarama workers say the dollar store is “our Amazon” with how badly it treats Canadian workers. And right now we see workers at Loblaws-owned Dominion stores in Newfoundland and Labrador fighting for better pay and full-time status as many rely on food banks and social support payments despite having a job.
This cycle, which further rodes Canadian living standards, is perpetuated because workers who are increasingly living paycheque to paycheque are more likely to shop at these low-cost stores.
Sure, we get some cheap products, but I think there’s an increasing recognition — especially during this pandemic — that all this consumption isn’t actually making us happier. That’s even leading to a growing movement toward the conception of a life beyond the mass consumption promoted by capitalism.
In Post-Growth Living: For An Alternative Hedonism, Kate Soper argues that thinking beyond mass consumption gives us “an opportunity to advance beyond a mode of life that is not just environmentally disastrous but also in many respects unpleasurable, self-denying and too puritanically fixated on work and money-making, at the expense of the enjoyment that comes with having more time, doing more things for oneself, travelling more slowly and consuming less stuff.”
She explicitly rejects the notion that consuming less is a sacrifice, and that’s very much in line with the conception of the future we’ve been building toward in this newsletter. If we do have more public luxuries — public spaces, parks and community centres — while living closer together and working less to have more time to enjoy them, would we also need to buy as much cheap, poorly made stuff to fill the gap left by public amenities and personal security in the first place? I don’t think so.
But we also shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking this future will naturally develop out of nowhere. The organizing among service workers for better wages and working conditions is hopeful because it illustrates workers are building power in an industry where they don’t have very much — in the same way that industrial workers did long ago.
It’s only with that power that workers can demand a world that puts their needs before those of capital.
Perspectives from around the world
Brandon Doucet, a dentist practicing in Newfoundland, argues Canada needs universal public dental care.
Taylor Lambert, an Albert politics writer for The Sprawl, details Jason Kenney’s war on public healthcare.
Chelsea Nash, rabble’s labour beat reporter, explains how gig workers in Canada are organizing.
Jamie McCallum, author of Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream, spoke to Meagan Day about why we shouldn’t have to work such long hours.
Ben Lennon, a researcher at Platform London, explains how most oil workers in the United Kingdom are supportive of a just transition.
This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Subprime Attention Crisis author Tim Hwang about the financialization of digital ad markets and how it’s created a bubble that could change the web as we know it.