Image from The Telegraph
Long lines of people standing, sitting, even camping in 30 degree weather, just waiting for a store to open to buy that phone, that TV, those sneakers. These folks cut short their Thanksgiving dinner, or even skipped it, in order to sit outside in the cold. Every year on Black Friday, there are fights and injuries as a result of the rush to buy — the rush to save some money on some expensive or new product.
Every year, millions of workers have their holiday cut short in order to to go to work on Black Friday, serving these excited and often rowdy crowds of people. Some make overtime pay, but many do not, working through the night on the day after Thanksgiving.
Yes, this is capitalism in the wealthiest country in the world. The day after Thanksgiving, supposedly a day to be thankful for non-material things — friends, family, loved ones — millions go to work and even more go shop, literally fighting for the best deal.
Many liberals are quick to judge those who stand in lines for the best deal. “They are so capitalist!” they say. This is an important misunderstanding of what exactly capitalism is.
Capitalism v. Consumerism
Capitalism is a system in which the owners of the means of production exploit workers who produce. In other words, they buy the labor power of workers and make a profit. It is easy enough to see how this works through this (slightly oversimplified) example: If a worker makes Subway sandwiches, her labor power is purchased at about 8 dollars an hour. However, in an hour, the worker produces, say 30 meals at 6 dollars each, producing about 180 dollars an hour. So, the worker gets paid 8 an hour and produces 180. Where does all that money go? Sure, some portion goes to pay the necessary expenses of production (maintenance of the machines, purchasing the ingredients, etc). But, a good chunk of that money goes to the pockets of Subway’s owners. When you think about this difference between the profit produced and the take-home pay for every single worker, we can see how company owners get so rich while the rest of the working class remains so broke. This is the essence of capitalism — the workers gets exploited and the capitalist pockets millions produced through workers’ labor.
Consumerism, on the other hand, is associated with consumption of commodities. That is very different from capitalism. Of course, within today’s capitalist economy, people buy lots of commodities and capitalists are always trying to create desires for new products. Consumerism is fed by constant reinvention of products, like the new versions of iPhones released every year or so, as well as by the lack of durability of products, so that we must always go buy more. Consumerism is, without a doubt, a central marker of American culture, which the U.S. hopes to spread across the world along with their corporations and their products. No doubt, consumerism plays a central role in capitalism, but it does not define capitalism. Today’s capitalist economy could not live without consumerism, but that was not always the case. The U.S. was still capitalist during times of much lower individual consumption such as the depressions and wartime economies.
Modern mass consumerism picks up in the ‘50s, when the American war industry was no longer producing weapons and had to find new commodities to produce. It was a moment when the demolition of the European economy and European industry made the US the central producer for the whole world. However, weapons were no longer in such high demand, so the force of U.S. industry was put behind producing consumer goods and making a lot of profit. These economic conditions allowed the US to provide a higher standard of living after the war. An additional benefit of these higher standards of living was demonstrating that that “life was better” in capitalist countries, as the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries kicked off.
The Problem With Equating Capitalism With Consumerism
Defining capitalism as consumerism creates several problems for those of us who wish to change society. First of all, it means that all those who line up for a cheap TVs are big capitalists, regardless of their job or relationship to production. It means that someone who works at Subway for 8 dollars an hour but really wants Nike sneakers is more capitalist than someone in the Walton family who shuns material possessions and hope to live a more simple life without mass industrialized products.
Secondly, if capitalism is equated with consumerism, the strategy to fight capitalism is just buying less. The problem is that we still have to buy to live—we have to eat, wear clothes, etc. Less consumption won’t stop the capitalist from producing or profiting– it won’t stop the capitalist from paying workers meager wages in sweatshops in China or in retail in the US. Reducing consumption will maintain the exploitative relations of production. At best, it just means the capitalist will profit less or seek to make a profit elsewhere (through layoffs or paying their workers less oversees).
When faced with the hyper exploitation of workers at huge businesses like Walmart, some people buy local. Yet, often these local shops are more expensive and less convenient for working class people. Additionally, even these local businesses hire workers who they exploit– sometimes less than large conglomerates like Walmart, but the essential relationship of exploitation is still there (the owner still depends on the worker to produce profit for them).
We hear this logic all the time from people who say “Some socialist you are. You have an iPhone!” Yes, I have an iPhone and yes, I am a socialist. Even in a socialist society, everyone should have access to Smartphones! Being a communist does not mean that I am against having a cell phone — it means that I am against the exploitation of the Chinese workers who made my cell phone and the American workers who shipped and sold it to me. I do not fight for a society without cell phones, but for a society without bosses who profit off of workers’ labor.
If capitalism, in its essence, is the exploitation of the worker by the boss, then fighting consumerism is not the same as fighting capitalism. Fighting capitalism means that the workers must unite to rebel against the boss that profits from their labor and the system that maintains exploitative relations. The focus for anti capitalists should not be on changing how the middle class consumes; it should be on changing how the working class produces. We must fight for a society without exploitation, not for a society without products.