Is "living simply" the answer?

The collective problems of a society require collective solutions.

INTERNATIONAL PROTESTS against globalization have cast a bright light on how transnational corporations run roughshod over ordinary people's lives everywhere.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [email protected].

In reaction, activists have come up with a broad range of responses--from demonstrations in the streets to personal choices about consumption.

Most activists don't see any contradiction between protesting in Washington, D.C., against George W. Bush's theft of the White House and deciding to eat only organic food or ride a bicycle to reduce pollution.

But mass collective action and changing your personal consumption habits imply very different approaches to changing the world.

This isn't an argument against anyone deciding to make personal changes that suit them. People should have the right to eat and live as they please. But can such choices have any significant impact on society?

What motivates young people to decide to change their lifestyle is their genuine alarm at the way that the profit system wrecks our lives. But the mass of the world's poor and working-class people doesn't, in today's world, have the luxury to "eat and live as they please."

For the majority, the question is not what lifestyle to choose, but figuring out how to get by.

One billion people live on $1 a day or less. In the U.S., there are more than 34 million poor people. The main choices in their lives--and in the lives of most working-class people--are work or starve, work or lose your home, get a better-paying job or forget the education for your kids, and so on.

A factory worker in Los Angeles may prefer to take a bus to work rather than drive his or her car. Unfortunately, the public transportation system in LA is so bad that taking the bus isn't really an option.

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COLLECTIVE PROBLEMS require collective solutions.

The worst environmental problems--like the depletion of the ozone layer and global warming--can't possibly be solved by individual consumer choices.

You may choose not to drive a car. But what impact will that have when power plants burn coal and the national transportation system consists of fleets of diesel trucks spewing filth into the air?

You may eat organic food. But organic food is out of the price range of the majority of people.

Mass action is necessary--not only because it's the only way to achieve real change, but also because people's consciousness about the world and how to change it can only develop when they move from despairing alone to hoping collectively.

The struggle in Bolivia against privatization of the water system is a good example of why collective action, rather than personal choices, is the key to real change.

Millions of Bolivian workers, peasants and poor people took to the streets and forced the government to back down on its plans--which would have led to massive increases in the cost of water.

This not only achieved what individual consumer choices could never have--after all, you can't decide not to consume water--but mass struggle raises the possibility of collective solutions to capitalism.

The danger of focusing on individual choices is that it tends to place a value judgment on those who don't live in certain ways.

Sometimes, ordinary people who are the victims of the system get blamed for contributing, through their bad consumer choices, to the world's problems.

But the root of the problem is the way production is organized for profit, not what people choose or don't choose to buy.

As the English writer William Morris put it so eloquently:

It is profit which draws men into enormous unmanageable aggregations called towns, for instance; profit which crowds them up when they are there into quarters without gardens or open spaces; profit which won't take the most ordinary precautions against wrapping a whole district in a cloud of sulphurous smoke; which turns beautiful rivers into filthy sewers, which condemns all but the rich to live in houses idiotically cramped and confined at the best, and at the worst in houses for whose wretchedness there is no name.

Only when the world's united producers collectively seize the means of production can we establish the conditions in which corporate profiteering and degradation of our planet can be reversed.

First published in the March 16, 2001, issue of Socialist Worker.