What about ethical capitalism?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

Socialists do not believe ethical consumption choices, or ethical business strategies, can solve the systemic problems threatening life on earth.

For example, a plant-based diet may avoid the excesses of factory farming, but not exploitation of humans. In Australia and Aotearoa, fruit and vege farms exploit migrant workers in slave-like conditions. A study by ABC’s Four Corners found that Australian farmers who abided by the rules were dropped by supermarkets.1 This is not because the supermarkets are evil: they were simply fulfilling their legal obligation to serve the bottom line, by opting for cheaper sellers.

Perhaps the solution is Fair Trade fruit and veges, avoiding the brutalisation of both humans and animals? However, independent studies attempting to quantify the effects of Fair Trade have found that farmers in Fair Trade cooperatives did not have a higher average income than those in other cooperatives. Likely the biggest reason was that cooperatives controlled the premium, rather than farmers. Many farmers were unaware that the premium even existed.2

This does not necessarily mean Fair Trade is a malicious scam. Many in the Fair Trade movement have excellent intentions, and some lives are likely improved. However, the nature of the global market makes it difficult (if not impossible) to implement ethical production consistently. In contrast, unionised workers generally earn more than non-unionised workers in Australia3 and Aotearoa,4 so even under capitalism, a working-class strategy can better improve conditions.

Even when relatively ‘ethical’ options exist, they are often pricier. Paying workers slave wages, or packing chickens into inhumane pens, is simply cheaper. Ethical consumption therefore becomes a luxury niche, rather than a replacement for the megacorporations that operate with impunity.

We cannot buy our way out of capitalist exploitation. This is not to deny that consumer activism can be effective for targeted wins, such as ensuring supermarkets only stock free-range eggs. However, the power structures that produce abuses remain in place, and activists are left to put out individual fires while a global gang of arsonists operates with impunity.

Recently in Australia, newspapers revealed that significant amounts of recycling are dumped in landfills. The author of this article continued to diligently separate the recycling, fully aware that it may make no difference. In light of the controversy, federal and state representatives committed to making all Australian packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025. Sounds good. However, socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly pointed out that the distant date was not matched by clear mid-term commitments, and that goods being recyclable does not necessarily mean they will be recycled. Green Left continued:

There is a recycling crisis because the international “market price” for recyclable waste has collapsed. Individual households may see recycling as a civic duty or a contribution to society. But governments and corporations see it as a market.

Moreover, Green Left argued, the generation of waste is the problem, not simply the failure to clean it up. A ban on single-use plastic containers would be more effective than the scramble to clean up the resulting waste. Green Left concluded that waste should be minimised at the production stage, not just the consumption stage.5

Every stage in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan would be hugely aided by changes to production, distribution and exchange which are outside the control of consumers:

  • Reduce: Ban single-use plastic containers

  • Reuse: Get rid of planned obsolence

  • Recycle: Actually recycle what we put in recycling bins

Consumers are not responsible for these problems, although we have a stake in solving them. If production were run democratically by worker and consumer co-ops, we could develop ethical ways to meet human needs, rather than burning through everything for profit. This isn’t completely hypothetical; we do have living examples to build on. However, bluntly, “the global economy doesn’t care about your local chicken farm.”6 Most land and resources remain controlled by monopoly capitalists, who will burn the planet before they cede control. A storm is brewing uncontrollably, our only choice is how to respond.

1Caro Meldrum-Hanna et al, Labour exploitation, slave-like conditions found on farms supplying biggest supermarkets, ABC News

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-04/supermarkets-food-outlets-exploit-black-market-migrant-workers/6441496

2Anon, Is Fair Trade flawed and unethical?, GeoIssues http://geoissues.com/is-fair-trade-flawed-and-unethical-2

3Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia, August 2013, ABS http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/99E5614783415356CA25713E000F92B1?Opendocument

4Bill Rosenberg, Economic Bulletin 194, NZ Council of Trade Unions https://www.union.org.nz/economicbulletin194/

5Alex Bainbridge, Solving the Recycling Crisis means Challenging Corporate Power, Green Left Weekly https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/solving-recycling-crisis-means-challenging-corporate-power

6Anon, The global economy doesn’t care about your local chicken farm, Cold And Dark Stars https://colddarkstars.wordpress.com/2017/05/25/the-global-economy-doesnt-care-about-your-local-chicken-farm/

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