consumption

We have been duped into moving capitalism’s problems around instead of resolving them, into the foolish notion that buying green is an act of divergence from capitalist exploitation.

Worried about car emissions? Buy Tesla’s Model S. Want to fight water misuse? Take shorter showers. Concerned for underserved children around the world? Use a credit card that supports a NGO. Interested in bettering working conditions for exploited laborers? Look for the “fair trade” stamp at corporate outlet malls.

But by all means, NEVER stop buying.

Identifying the central issue with this behavior, Derrick Jensen explained, “Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.”

As individuals we should do what we can, but we have to realize that letting corporations frame/limit global issues like environmental responsibility to consumer choice is self-defeating. We need bigger tools than our individual selves. Imagine trying to fill a dump truck using a spoon. That is what we are doing when we decouple the need for organized, community-wide political resistance from our individual ability to partake in generating and sustaining solutions.

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Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption

For his series Intolerable Beauty, photographer Chris Jordan peered into shipping ports and industrial yards around America. Though these sites remain unseen by the majority of the population, they hold the stunningly massive remains of our collective consumption. Jordan’s findings include seemingly boundless troves of cell phones, e-waste, circuit boards, cell phone chargers, cars, spent bullet casings, cigarette butts, and steel shred. Jordan describes the immense scale of our detritus as simultaneously “desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful.” Like Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of our vast industrial landscapes, Jordan’s images portray a staggering complexity that verges on the sublime. The photographs reflect the loss of individual identity that results from actions that occur on such a large scale, but Jordan hopes his work can “serve as portals to a kind of cultural self-inquiry” and inspire people to reestablish a personal stake in issues of energy consumption.

Commodity

One of the most essential terms with regard to Marx and Marxist theory that often comes up in conversation and tumblr discussions is the word “commodity”. While a commodity, most simply put, is a product of labor – either a good or service – that can be bought, sold, or exchanged in a market, it is important to break down the meaning of “commodity” as a concept.

First, a commodity is produced by a worker’s labor (or the labor of many workers). Under capitalism, commodities are consumed – purchased and used – but first must be produced. Workers, whose labor is exploited under capitalism, produce commodities, while those who control the means of production – the bourgeoisie – aim to make maximum profit from the sale of such commodities primarily by lowering the cost of labor and creating surplus value in the form of underpaid labor. Workers sell their labor to the bourgeoisie in order to get paid so they can secure for themselves food, water, shelter, and other basic means of survival. When labor is sold, it becomes a commodity, and becomes alienated from the worker because the labor no longer belongs to the worker; it belongs to the factory owner. 

Culture can also be a commodity, as we see in the current phenomenon of gentrification – wealthy (typically white) individuals spend extra money to live in a city neighborhood in order to “consume” the idea of “other cultures” or the cultural value created by the presence of artists and community gardens, while at the same time pushing out longtime residents who cannot afford increasing rent prices. This is just one example of how culture is a commodity – going to a movie, buying music, and paying to see art are also forms of “consuming culture”.

It is important to remember that a commodity is not just something that is tangible, that can be held in your hand (like an iPhone), but can also take the form of workers’ labor and culture. There are many forms of consumption that parallel the many forms of commodities, and a Marxist perspective on consumer culture emphasizes the endless nature of production, the exploitation of workers, and the irony that we are all workers, but are also forced to consume the goods we produce.

Mod E

Within this culture wealth is measured by our ability to consume and destroy…

Seeing the insanity of it comes as a direct contradiction to our daily function. We can sample humanity’s dissonance in the acronym GDP (gross domestic product), whereby a tiny phrase serves substitute for the enormity of converting all life into human-serving commodities at a rate of 85 trillion dollars a year (the value of the world economy). To understand that better, a stack of 85 trillion dollar bills would be about 5,768,618 miles high. This is like going to the moon 25 times.

Yet, still, for the most delusional of our species, it’s not enough. The drive to expand, consume, exploit at rates ever escalating is presented within the global market as a zero-sum game. Either our economy must grow, or we will suffer. Either our economy must grow faster than all other economies, or our nation will suffer.

If the rate at which we convert the planet into human consumption slows, we call it a recession — nothing to celebrate, for to us recession represents austerity, loss of jobs, and altogether diminished livelihoods. If the rate at which we convert the planet into human consumption reverts, we call it a depression — again, nothing to celebrate, for to us economic depression represents declining power, that maybe we are in fact not exceptional or separate from the natural world.

In this culture of death only if and when we expand our evisceration of the planet can we be comfortable in our lives.

A central problem we activist have is disempowerment. We feel even with EVERYTHING we do as individuals, it will never be enough. And you know what, it wouldn’t be… [B]ut we have to realize that internalizing our global issues can be self-deprecating. We need bigger tools than our individual selves to challenge global capitalism. Imagine trying to fill a dump truck using a spoon, because that’s what we are doing when we decouple the need for macro-solutions – for concentrated, community-wide political resistance – from our individual ability to partake in generating and sustaining them.