Ethical Consumption

What does it mean when we are told that there is no ethical consumption under Capitalism? Are we to believe that this is a criticism of an ideal? A person? An activity? How shall we change—or shall we change at all? How shall we respond?

It is a slogan to be sure, but it is more than this. It approaches a subtle truth. The struggle for life—our struggle for life—is systematically compromised. In it only the preservation of favoured classes. The moneyed class, as we call it, controls the means of survival. In this condition our lives serve to entrench the power of this moneyed class against our own interests, our own flourishing. We are subject to the new law of the new jungle: one Amazon lives while another Amazon dies. This new law transcends the individual, subjecting each of us to its destructive power.

In this condition we have been alienated—but from what? From justice? If the slogan is substantive, this is what follows. There is no ethical consumption under Capitalism. In our present condition, the conditions for justice are entirely shorn from us. We are enslaved, exploited, powerless. Nothing we could do would ever contribute to our justice or the justice of our community. We can only preserve the system, Capitalism, injustice itself.

The slogan so understood is at best controversial. Whether we have been irreparably alienated from justice is a question about what justice is, about what systematic factors contribute to it or prevent its cultivation, and about whether we exist in any condition in which justice is impossible for us. And to this extent, the slogan faces a clear challenge from the experience of our own consumption. We do not generally perceive the injustice of our consumption. Surely my eating a garden tomato does not prevent me from cultivating justice! Surely I am not to blame for how my neighbour treats their employees because I bought a teacup from their shop!

From this experience we may derive some general principles. Consumption is just, we might say, or ethical, when it benefits all immediate parties or is at least done willingly (since we might assume that no one does injustice willingly). My garden tomato harms no one, not even the plant, and provides me with a delicious treat high in a number of important nutrients. And likewise when I buy a teacup from my neighbour’s store. I willingly pay my two dollars for a cup I will use to improve my welfare while my neighbour uses that money to pay their employees. So long as all parties benefit, there is no reasonable grounds for denying the justice of a consumptive act. Only were I to be allergic to tomatoes or were I to steal the teacup might there be a plausible case for injustice, but only because all parties do not benefit from these events.

There is good reason to distrust our experience of consumption, however. We cannot as a rule directly perceive a system in which we participate. We can only grasp it by inference, by studying the downstream results of our actions all together. Each individual action fades into a shifting sea that determines our course of life and that of all others within our community. We might think then that only from this perspective can we understand the significance of our consumption.  Only from this perspective can we understand the effect of our gardening practices or what our patronising a business does for its employees. But this doesn’t quite follow.

It is at least plausible that the sum of our economic relations, the sum of our gardening practices, our tea cup purchasing, and all other relations we may instantiate within the systems that structure our lives, distance us from justice. But this was not what was claimed. The slogan claims that there is no ethical consumption under Capitalism. It is a claim about individual acts. It must be. But it does not follow that every act within a system is determined by it. For no system is totalising. No system is uniform. There is always variation. There is always exception. It is one thing to say that the tendency of our consumption is to alienate us all from justice, but it is another altogether to say that every single consumptive act so alienates.

Unless the slogan is trivially false, then, it must mean something different than this kind of universal claim about acts. And so the emphasis of the slogan shifts from the universal negation “no consumption” to the indexical “under Capitalism.” By this we mean that those acts which are subordinate to the Capitalist mode of consumption, which are in some way determined by it, those acts are unjust. Capitalism in this sense becomes an ideal (or anti-ideal) to which certain consumptive acts aspire or not. If this is so then only those consumptive acts are said to be unjust that meet the Capitalist criterion, that are done in the spirit of Capitalism. My eating a garden tomato does not presumably qualify, nor even my purchasing a tea cup from my neighbours shop. For in the first instance, there is no exchange of capital at all. I am merely plucking a tomato from the vine. And while I do exchange capital in the second case, the exchange does not adhere to the logic of Capitalism. I may employ capital towards my own means of consumption, but my neighbour does not employ capital for the sake of capital. Running their business is not done for the sake of capital alone. They too wish only to procure by their labour the means of their own consumption. My neighbour is a good person. They pay their employees what they produce and take only what they themself produce. Neither consumptive act in this sense stands under Capitalism, nor falls under it.

If we follow this line of argument then huge swaths of the economy are not to be condemned by the slogan. There is a great deal of ethical consumption because it is not under Capitalism. Surely too are huge swaths of the economy condemned. Certainly many of our consumptive acts are subject to the logic of Capitalism. Certainly we purchase our tomatoes from Walmart or our tea cups from Amazon. Certainly in these cases and uncountably many more is our consumption unjust—or at least so the hypothesis goes. But where we can avoid all this, where we can resist the temptation of big business, adhere to boycotts and research the hiring, firing, and production practices of all those businesses from whom we may purchase consumables, then we may possibly avoid injustice.

This is of course a difficult life to live. The just life always is. But what could be more worthwhile? What a small price it is to give up free one day delivery, to give up our moderate leisure time to commune with those who live within our communities, to learn their names and their virtues, to learn their sources and their production practices! What a small price it is to give up our meats and our creams, to give up our avocadoes and our almonds! What a small price it is to give up our cars and our plane tickets! What a small price it is to surrender all that is vicious in order that we might find our power, find our virtue within our communities!

The problem, however, is that this is not how the slogan is used. It is not a call to action. It is not a call to more deeply examine the sources of those products which we consume. It is not a call to resist the temptations of big business and Capitalist exploitation. It is rather a call to inaction. It is not a criticism of Capitalism. It is a surrender. It is a defense. The sloganeer seeks by its use to escape criticism for their own contribution to injustice. And so what can we do? How shall we change? How shall we respond? When we are told that there is no ethical consumption under Capitalism, we shall say this: Starve.

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