The problem with attacking consumers at Christmas time

Christmas and the holiday season is a time of anxiety, frustration and guilt for a lot of people, and in countries like the US, it is more so in 2011, as the economic crisis hits and people’s lives become a lot harder, with wages being pushed down and prices being pushed up.

And what makes me angry and frustrated at the moment, aside from the impact of the economic crisis, is the conventional response by people who call themselves progressive, essentially attacking workers under the guise of anti-consumerism, especially around Christmas time.

I have written around this issue before but it seems to be more of an issue this year round, stemming in part out of the more conservative sections of the Occupy movement, and I’d argue, that the anti-consumerist ideas and tactics actually push the Occupy movement and the Left away from the 99% and fall into line with the agenda of the 1% seeking to maintain the exorbitant gap between the minority of rich shits with millions and the millions struggling to get by.

A quite common example this year is the image below, pitting starving people in the third world with ordinary workers in more developed countries, such as America and Australia.

The conclusion meant to be drawn from such an image is that the reason there is mass starvation in Africa is because of the ‘greedy’ desire of consumers, particularly around Christmas time, to buy ‘unnecessary items.’ I would argue though that these two groups, despite the obvious disparity in living standards, are in fact on the same side, are both denied higher living standards by a group that earn much more and spend much more than a mother wanting to buy her kid a few toys at Christmas time.

A website that makes a similar argument to the image above is globalrichlist.com which asks you to enter your income into the box before it situates you on the rich list against the rest of the world. And basically, it says anyone earning over $47,500 a year, US, is in the top 1%. I hope I’m not the only one that immediately questions the statistics and calls ‘bullshit.’

The point of the website is to argue that most ordinary workers are ‘rich’ and that we should stop complaining. But the website misleads and lies in order to make it’s point. Firstly, it calculates this based on income, which is different to overall wealth that can also include assets and money in the bank.

Counter to the stats of globalrichlist.com, the Boston Consulting Group found, as of May 2011, that the world’s millionaires, representing 0.9% of the global population control 37% of the world’s wealth and that those with over $5 million of overall wealth, representing just 0.1% of the world’s population, control 22% of the world’s wealth. These statistics point out that more wealth is concentrated in far fewer hands. The problem I would argue is these people and not workers in the developed world with far less wealth.

But the main problem lies in looking at inequality along a sliding scale of wealth. Just working out how much people are worth does not reveal how someone ‘earned’ or accumulated that wealth. Those at the top of society, ‘the 1%’ as Occupy calls them, accumulate their wealth, not through work, but the exploitation of the workers who these anti-consumerist ideas seek to blame. In the developed world, workers produce a far greater amount of the wealth, but are paid much lower than the value they produce. So the rest skimmed off the top is profit for the 1%, who already control a massive amount of wealth and assets through the cunning method of being born into a rich family.

When we look at redistributing wealth, for instance, after a revolution to overthrow capitalism, it is the wealth of the 1% that will need to be taken and redistributed, meaning that the vast majority of humanity will see their living standards increase, from those in the third world to workers in the developed world.

In this respect, there is something fundamentally wrong about seeking to blame a worker and ignoring the capitalist class that control billions of dollars. The ridiculous wealth of the 1% is either spent on luxury goods that make iPads and Christmas gifts look like junk, or their wealth sits in banks, accumulating more wealth through gambling it on the stock market.

But I’d also argue that the working class striving for better living standards, to buy ‘luxury’ goods to make their lives better, is a good thing and part of that project to redistribute the wealth and cut into the fortunes of those who control most of it.

Where as strategies to redistribute wealth by workers consuming less leaves more wealth in the pockets of big business, driving down wages, affecting the whole global labour force. And it’s not as if when better off workers consume less, that the leftover wealth is then given to those in the third world. It’s incredibly naïve to think that the 1% wouldn’t keep it for themselves especially in times of crisis, beyond tokenistic charity efforts to save their own consciences and increase their PR rating.

These arguments are especially important in the context of the economic crisis. In the US and Europe, especially, wages are under attack and prices are rising, making it a lot harder to barely live, let alone comfortably. The scenes of parents rushing around shopping centres madly trying to find bargains, so often attacked by anti-working class people far more comfortable than the shoppers they attack, stem from this downward pressure on wages. The problem is that workers don’t earn enough, not that they spent ‘too much.’

And to argue otherwise, sides with the governments and corporations trying to maintain their own wealthy position in society, by driving down wages and making it harder for us to get by, whilst pitting sections of ordinary people against each other. Instead, we need to place the blame with the real wealth section of society and take our wealth back, rip it from their greedy hands, and redistribute so we can all live far better than we are now.

3 thoughts on “The problem with attacking consumers at Christmas time

  1.  Okay, to start with, merely pointing out that this goes on and what effects our actions as consumers have, is not to “ignore” the wealth of the 1%, and how their actions affect the world.  It is to say that both contribute.

    “Strategies to redistribute wealth by workers consuming less leaves more wealth in the pockets of big business” – how?  By what possible mechanism could that work?  If I refuse to buy a plasma, instead of going to the billionaire owner of the electronics company my money will either stay in my pocket, thereby maintaining my own wealth, or it will go to charity – thereby actively narrowing the gap.  I fail to see how refusing to participate in wanton consumerism – or even just trying to minimise involvement – could possibly divert funds to the 1%.

    Of course, in a world where the revolution happens and wealth is distributed evenly, the vast majority of the wealth transferring to the third-world needy is going to come from the 1%. Nobody’s arguing that. But pragmatically speaking, that’s very unlikely to happen any time soon, so it’s important to note what any Average Joe who might be reading this can do in the here and now.  And paying attention to your consumer habits is a big part of that.

    • When workers put less pressure on pushing their living standards up, it is easier to drive down wages. It is much more indicative to look at how people interact with the world as producers, as workers, rather than consumers.

      “But pragmatically speaking, that’s very unlikely to happen any time soon.” Sure, revolution isn’t around the corner, especially in Australia, but it looks much more likely after this year than it has for in a while. You’re basically arguing for a strategy on capitalist terms because revolution seems unlikely, when fundamentally, it’s what needs to happen. Shifting wealth between one section of the 99% and the other doesn’t really address the problem, and I’d argue there isn’t enough wealth in our hands to seriously address poverty. It is also about changing the nature of production and the society in the third world, that is so often exploited and neglected by big business.

      But also, I think a strategy that focuses on pushing wages up, on all fronts, rather than reducing consumption benefits all sections. That, like how low wages in one sector, can drive down wages as a whole, higher wages, can push wages up in other areas.

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