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Are ordinary people in the U.S. to blame for world poverty?
Do we consume too much?

August 8, 2003 | Page 8

IT'S A commonly held belief that we could go a long way to ending world hunger, poverty and pollution if Americans would stop consuming so much. BRIAN JONES explains why this is wrong--and why it lets the real culprits off the hook.

"THE WEALTH of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails," wrote Karl Marx in the opening of his famous study of capitalism, Capital, "presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities." A century and a half later, the "immense accumulation of commodities" is nowhere greater than in the U.S.

Many people fighting for a better world recognize that the methods of capitalist production are rapidly destroying the environment, and that U.S. imperialism has created poverty and misery in the Third World. But many people also ask whether the American consumer is also to blame.

The Detroit Project, for example, organized by left-wing gadfly Arianna Huffington, sponsored television commercials that blamed SUV drivers for the destruction of the ozone layer and the war on Iraq. In reality, however, stopping people from buying SUVs will solve neither problem.

First of all, U.S. citizens don't rely heavily on Middle Eastern oil--our oil comes from other parts of the world. The U.S. ruling class isn't interested in using Iraq's oil, but in controlling and selling it to the rest of the world. Control of the world's second-largest oil reserves would be a top priority for them, even if there weren't a single car on the road in America.

Nevertheless, it's true that carbon dioxide emissions from cars are destroying the earth's ozone layer. But banning SUVs still leaves almost 200 million carbon dioxide-emitting automobiles on the road, not to mention the emissions of countless factories in countless industries. A real solution to the emissions problem therefore would have to involve, at the very least, not only a reorganization of factories that pollute but also a revamping of our whole mode of transportation.

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IF THE goal is to the save the environment--to actually save it, and not just feel like we're saving it--one's individual choice of car is virtually irrelevant. As consumers, we don't get to choose whether or not there will be public transportation, for example. We are only given a choice among vehicles that will make a profit for the auto companies. Blaming the destruction of the environment on those who drive SUVs lets the real organizers of pollution--the auto companies--off the hook.

The real obstacle to protecting the environment is not the appetite of consumers, but the appetite of a system that's driven by competition for profit. SUV sales account for about 90 percent of the profits of the Big Three automobile manufacturers.

The fact is that for most people, cars are no longer a luxury but a necessity. Changing the organization of our lives so that we no longer require gas-powered cars directly conflicts with the interests of the largest corporations in the U.S. The first, third and seventh corporations on Fortune's 500 list are automobile producers. Three more of the Top 10 are oil companies. Altogether, 22 of the top 50 rely on automobiles for their business.

Can we, as consumers, seriously challenge these companies? If we organized 3,000 car-buyers to not buy cars, the automobile-industrial complex would probably not even notice. But in 1996, just 3,200 autoworkers struck General Motors in only two Ohio plants and, as a result, GM's entire North American operation was crippled.

We have much more power as workers than we have as consumers. Focusing on stopping people from buying SUVs, at best, means we're pursuing a weak strategy for change. At worst, it leads to blaming the wrong people--the consumers--for the problem.

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THE BELIEF that we, as individuals, are to blame for society's problems also persists in the way many people think about world hunger. Many believe that people around the world are starving at least in part because Americans are overeating.

First, this argument ignores the fact that plenty of Americans aren't getting enough food. Some 13.6 million U.S. children under the age of 12 are chronically hungry or at risk for going hungry. That's one out of every three children under the age of 12.

But for those of us who are relatively well-fed, the question still stands: Do people around the world starve because our French fries are super-sized?

There might be a grain of truth to that if it were the case that there wasn't enough food in the world for everyone to eat. But that's not the case at all. World food production at its current level could provide every single man, woman and child with 3,500 calories a day, or roughly 4.3 pounds of food--in other words, enough to make everyone fat.

Under capitalism, the "shortage" of food is artificial. So, in sub-Saharan Africa, some 213 million people are chronically malnourished. Yet year after year, sub-Saharan Africa is a net exporter of food.

In a capitalist economy, food isn't produced to feed people, but to sell for profit. There's no profit to be made from feeding poor people. That's why so many people are hungry--there's plenty of food, they're just too poor to buy it. What we really need is a socialized, rational production of food for the purpose of feeding people.

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THE CAPITALIST system has convinced us that we need all of kinds of products that we don't actually need--such as DVD players and the latest style of shoe. Therefore, the argument goes, refusing to buy these products not only decreases the power of the corporations that produce them but also frees our minds from the "capitalist mentality."

It's easy to see where this idea comes from. In 1992, U.S. corporations spent $1 trillion on advertising, $600 billion more than was spent on education. This enormous sales effort does affect our mentality, but it's not the root of the problem.

Marx wrote 160 years ago about what he called "alienation." He argued that even though all of the products of the world--the "immense accumulation of commodities"--are produced by us, they seem to be separate from us. Workers make them, but they don't own or control them. As Marx said, "that life which he has bestowed on the object confronts [the worker] as hostile and alien." In fact, it appears as if the products own us, as though they control us!

So it's a natural reaction to think that we can be free from the system by rejecting its products. But this reaction is actually the flip side of the same coin. The person who must have the latest fashion and the person who must not have it actually have the same fetish.

The mistake is to see the commodity itself as having too much power. It's true that shopping will never make us as happy and free as commercials would like us to believe. It's also true that not shopping won't emancipate us either. Neither approach actually creates much change.

So even though some people may think that it's radical not to buy name-brand products, as long as they want to remain alive, they have to get food, water, clothing and so on somehow. In other words, one way or another, they will rely on the production of the things that they need.

This said, there is a tiny group of people at the top of society who do consume too much--the ruling class. While we produce all of the wealth of the world, they grow richer as they demand that we make do with less. If we really want to make sure that all of the world's people are provided for, the key is fighting for a totally different society where the priority is providing for the needs of the majority, not the profits of the few--a socialist society.

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