Report – Living ethically correct

29 Oct
discussion of 25 October 2011, Vienna

Here follows the report of the discussion about “ethically correct living”, held by the Spartacus discussion group in Vienna. Because I found this first discussion very interesting and profound, I’ve made a more elaborated report, so that it can serve as a reference for future discussions. The report reflects without doubt my own point of view on the matter, but I’ve tried to integrate other view points as much as I can. Feel free to add things I’ve forgotten to mention and comment or criticize the text!

Which framework?

My impression was that most people agreed that the social context in which we live in today is a capitalist society and that we should understand the question of fair trade and eco-products within this framework. According to me we should even be more precise about what capitalist period we live in, that is: capitalism in its international and historical crisis.

Capitalism and/or consumption society

Capitalism means that production is in function of profits and not the satisfaction of human or ecological needs. For this reason it could be dangerous to say we live in a consumption society, because the term implies production is orientated on consumption. If that was the case, there would be no hunger and poverty on this earth. Someone remarked that the term refers to the continuous pressure, especially in Western-Europe and the USA, to consume, which is exerted through publicity, until a point that it seems to become part of culture. I think however that even for this phenomenon the term “consumption society” does not apply, because publicity forces you to buy, and not necessarily to consume. Coca Cola doesn’t care if you drink their product, important for the company is that you buy it, so she can make profits. The same distortion of words can be found in economic theories talking about “producers” and “consumers”, whereas they respectively mean “sellers” and “buyers”. This discussing about the meaning of words (semantics) can seem unimportant and hair splitting, but it is not if we think of “1984”, the roman written by George Orwell describing a dystopia in which a totalitarian state promotes a new language (“Newspeak”), based on an older one (“Oldspeak”), but words in Newspeak have reduced or changed meanings as the same sounding words in Oldspeak. This results in a reduction of logical thinking and thinking about deeper meanings of words such as “freedom”.

Publicity and marketing

Everyone agreed that publicity and marketing are inherent to the capitalist system and that it works like a poison on society: nowadays many people, especially kids and adolescents, seem to define themselves solely by what they consume. Consuming is natural, nothing to be ashamed of: to stay alive we have to eat, drink and clothe. It is the reduction of living human individuals to death things (in German we could call this process “Versachlichung”), that is works alienating. So publicity spreads the illusion that you can be “cool” by having this and wearing that. In the same way, marketing creates “lifestyles” coupled to certain products, music, etc. You can live ‘ethically correct’ by buying this and that. This last phrase implies that people who do not buy the ‘right’ products aren’t ethical, which is a slap in the face for the ones who just can’t afford the mostly more expensive fair trade and eco-products.

Fair trade and markets

Fair trade and eco-products are mostly more expensive than the other products. What consequences does this have? All participants agreed with the introducer that these products are mostly sold to a social layer capable of buying them. It is a limited market that can grow until a certain degree, but in the end will not be capable of colonizing the whole world market. In that sense it is not a/the way to change capitalist society to a durable society, with a fundamentally different socio-economic basis. Most participants agreed on that. However, this only applies if fair trade companies work in a capitalist way, orientated towards profits. A participant claimed that there are 2 kinds of fair trade: a first kind, the “supermarket-fair trade”, is linked to big ‘classical’ capitalist companies and is profit orientated. Their labels are clear marketing strategies and have few credibility. The second kind is “real fair trade”, which is not profit orientated, but cost-covering. In my opinion these kind of companies, if they really work cost-covering, are doomed to fail or evolve into classical capitalist firms, because the world is dominated by capitalist social relationships. If these companies want to sell their products, which only happens on the market, they have to obey to market laws, i.e. make profits or go bankrupt. This kind of fair trade, resembles the co-operatives of the 18th and 19th century, often managed by the workers themselves and thus payed ‘fairly’. I think it would be interesting to investigate the history of these co-operatives to understand the (im)possibility of this 2nd kind of fair trade.

Complete solutions and half solutions

Can we shop our way out of the social and ecological crisis we face? Nobody seemed to believe in this. Everyone thus seemed to agree that fair trade (we didn’t talk that much about eco-products) is no real and durable solution to the problem. Can fair trade and eco-products slow down the pace of degradation? Can it be a kind of temporary solution or solution ‘in between’ (in German: “Zwischenlösung”), to releave the most necessary needs on earth, until we find a real solution to the problem? Or is fair trade still a kind of step towards the ‘complete’ solution? Is it a temporary pragmatic solution?

If fair trade and eco-products are not a real solution, how much time and energy are we willing to spend on it, instead of investing in a real solution, even if it is not reachable in the short term? To my opinion there is not many time and space left for temporary solutions. Capitalism is living its historic and international crisis, which produces in a few months vast ecological and social disasters that 50 years of fair trade cannot undo. The last 2 years we have seen the greatest oil disaster ever (Deepwater Horizon explosion) and the greatest nuclear disaster ever (Fukushima). We could ad a lot more examples. What awaits us next year? The misery is sometimes unbearable and in that sense it is very human to want to milder the poverty or other suffering on an immediate scale. I do sometimes buy a street newspaper to support the homeless and poor. However, my feelings and my mind say it won’t bring any solution to their situation on a global scale and in the long run: for every person that climbs out of debts, maybe 10 others fall into. Therefore a real and thorough solution is necessary.

Why is there an economic crisis? One participant pointed out that it is due to an overproduction of commodities, which cannot be sold on the market. In that sense a way to overcome the crisis would be the creation of new markets. But how are markets created? And is the creation of markets unlimited? These questions can be developed in later discussions. Other related questions were touched in the discussion: how did capitalism arise and develop? How did capitalism conquer the world? What role did the colonies play? What role do the ex-colonies have now? Can they be ‘developed’ to the same level as Western-European countries or is this impossible?  I find all questions important, because necessary to understand how capitalism developed and functions/doesn’t function. According to me, a certain level of comprehension of the problem is necessary to find out the solution to it. It is clear that society is complex, that history is complex and so will be the alternative society we want and the way in which to get to it. But as a participant posed: to every problem there is a solution.

What kind of new society?

During the discussion was claimed that a durable society includes that production and transport has to be durable. In this sense a part of the solution would be to produce on a more regional scale. Apples for example shouldn’t be grown in Argentina and afterwards be shipped to Europe, as is the case, but simply be grown and eaten in the same region. And this applies for lots of other things, ranging from consumption goods to energy. Again I think that it is important to understand how and why the system works as it does: transporting goods from one end of the world till the other is very logic and rational to the capitalist system, when this means that production costs are lowered and profit rates are raised/losses are limited. This doesn’t mean it is logic from a scientific or human perspective, but for the system it is. The question of energy is similar. Is it logic that nuclear power plants are build in seismic risk zones (regions highly sensitive to earth quakes)? For capitalism it is, when it reduces the costs. In last example, risk analysis has an important role to play: how many are we prepared to pay for security? Can we afford us total security? Etc.

Does the above however means that we should produce, distribute and consume on a regional scale? To my opinion, we shouldn’t judge to quickly on these kind of models. George Monbiot, a radical ecologist, claimed for example that producing energy on a small scale, with water and wind mills, as was done in the European middle ages, leads to ecological disasters. To his opinion a rational, durable, nature-people-friendly production of energy has to be organized on a world scale. Governments should therefore cooperate to bring about such system. (You can read the article here.) I however think that in capitalism such a system is impossible to install, because of conflicting national/regional interests, conflicting economic, strategic, imperialist interests. If such a system is indeed necessary, then it requires the overcoming of capitalism.

How to overcome capitalism?

By trading without money? By stimulating a revolution? In a stepping stone or reformatory process? Are trade unions tools in this process? Is it so that the working class has a deciding role to play? Or is the working class something belonging to the past? All these questions can be treated in future discussions. Whatever the answers may be, all participants agreed that the end doesn’t justify the means.  Blind violence is for example to disapprove. Someone posed that violence results in a counter-reaction. Even a demand can content a certain threat, which doesn’t promote compromise. I’m not sure if I agree with that. Doesn’t overcoming the system means threatening the system? To make it disappear involves that its defenders, the ones that enjoy comfortale positions in the system and have great interests keeping it, lose all this. They will surely feel threatened.

What threatens the system? To know this, a study of history is necessary. What forces changed societies? Which forces drive history? How did societies in the past follow each other up? How were regimes overthrewn? Is a regime change the same as a society change? Etc. It is for example striking that fair trade and green products are completely accepted by the system (lots of governments, companies… support durable development, fair trade, green products), whereas the response to non-violent occupations of squares in Spain by unemployed youth was violence by the state. (I don’t mean by this that every occupation or demonstration that is repressed by any government, regime or state is something to support.) In that sense I think it is important for next discussions that we try to have a historical approach on the themes we discuss.

Consciousness & Responsibility

It is sure that fair trade and eco-products are not something innocent. One participant remarked that when products are made available on the market (literally “marketed”), marketing comes with it, this means a certain argumentation comes with it (“why should you buy our product?”) and thus consciousness/illusions are spread. The same thing applies for people who actively propagate fair trade and eco-products, even if they aren’t linked to the firms that sell the products, and even if they just want to do good and have positive intentions. Especially these people give fair trade and eco-products credibility.

Everone bears thus a minimal responsibility for his/her acts. Does this however mean that we all bear guilt for world problems? This are difficult questions, because our acts are in a way mediated by society, by the social system, as the introduction made clear. Must we condemn people that hunt rare animals or cut the rain forest because it is their only option to get a living? And what about people buying ‘unethical’ products, because they can’t afford the ‘ethical’ ones? Is it the fault of the unemployed that they have no job? Are they really lazy? Or is the lack of jobs a result of the economic crisis, which itself is created by contradictions inert to the system?

It is indeed too easy to say that the system is the problem, so I use as many water as I want (think of dry countries, where water can be a matter of life and death, but even in Spain water scarcity becomes more and more serious). To me the system is the problem, but everyone bears a certain responsibility. This responsibility starts with an indignation towards the contradictions in society. If we stay indifferent, then we renounce to our responsibility. I was therefore very happy that all participants on the discussion were not indifferent.

Next time

Because of the recent student demonstrations in Austria against the reimplementation of education fees, and because education was a major theme of discontent in several countries during last years, we’ll discuss about it next time. We didn’t really decide what questions to pose, but I propose following questions: why does the Austrian government have to reinstall fees? What consequences does this have on education/job chances for younger? Is there a link with the student movements in the UK (2010), the Netherlands (2010), Germany (2011), Chile (2011)… ? Why all these protests? The introducer is off course free to take over these questions and/or advance other ones.

Yann/31 October 2011

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2 Responses to “Report – Living ethically correct”

  1. Raffaela November 4, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    I’d like to add to your chapter on “fair trade and markets” that it’s interesting how fair trade products are brought to the market as somehow able to save “all those poor people in the south” and making the world a better place. That is, those who buy the products are the saviours – those, who can afford these products.

    Also, I wouldn’t call Fukushima the worst nuclear disaster ever. I mean, let’s not argue about a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, still, in my opinion, Chernobyl was much worse because of all those people who died from cancer afterwards and of all those pregnant women who had spontaneous abortions, stillbirths or gave birth to children with terrible deformities. However, it might be worse just from my point of view because this topic is still present in public discourses – as this nuclear disaster had effects in Austria too. Also, not all the effects on people in Japan are known so far and of course we never know how much of the information about it is hidden or gets lost through diverse media channels.

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