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Should we be "voting with our dollars"?

By Geoff Bailey | April 26, 2001 | Page 7

THERE'S A common idea among people who consider themselves radical opponents of the system that we're all partly to blame for the way capitalism works. The problem, the argument goes, is that we buy the products that keep the system going.

Instead, we should consume less--or, at the very least, buy from "socially conscious" businesses. In other words, we should vote with our dollars to make the world a better place.

The problem with this argument is that it's based on a false picture of society--that everyone in it is in essentially the same position, that of a bought-off consumer with the resources to make different choices.

There certainly are some Americans who do consume too much. Michael Dell, the CEO of the computer company Dell, for example, recently spent more than $30 million on a new 33,000-square-foot mansion.

But the U.S. also has the greatest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized nation. The richest 1 percent of American families owns almost 40 percent of the wealth.

At the other end of this scale, things are very different. Forty percent of U.S. children under the age of six live in poverty. According to the 1999 census, 31 million people in this country lack adequate access to food.

For tens of millions of Americans, the problem isn't consuming too much. It's not consuming enough.

It's also not true that Americans' buying habits cause hunger and poverty. Under capitalism, people are poor amidst plenty. In other words, they go hungry, for example, not because there isn't enough food--or because too much is being consumed by Americans--but because it isn't profitable for corporations to produce food for those who can't afford to pay for it.

Similarly, the idea that we have any real choice as consumers--or that the choices we do make have a real impact on the system--is an illusion. Buying Ben & Jerry's ice cream instead of Haagen-Dazs, or Reebok instead of Nike, does nothing to alter the system.

Even supposed alternatives, like consumer co-ops and fair trade stores, have a limited impact--if that. First, the "socially conscious" alternatives are usually accessible only to those with enough money to afford higher prices. Just as importantly, these alternatives are forced--like it or not--to carve out a niche within the market.

Under capitalism, companies have to compete. Even co-ops and fair trade stores have to struggle to avoid being driven out of business. As the Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote in response to similar arguments almost 100 years ago: "[Workers in cooperatives] are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur--a contradiction that accounts for the failure of production cooperatives, which either become pure capitalist enterprises, or, if the workers' interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving."

Strategies for consumers to change the world are based on the myth that we live in a "middle class" society where our main identity is what and how we consume. Most consumers, however, are also producers.

The majority of Americans are working class. They produce the goods that line store shelves. And workers have far greater power in the workplace than as consumers--the power to stop production by uniting and going on strike. Ultimately, by taking over factories and running them under democratic control, workers have the potential to build a different type of society, based not on profit, but on human need.

The fight against the inequalities of capitalism needs to be based not on where our side is weakest, as consumers, but where we're strongest--where we have collective power as workers. As Rosa Luxemburg concluded: "Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must they be broken."

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