Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Erosion of Consumer Choices


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[S1 E14]
Prof. Harvey discusses Marx's theory of Capital and its relevance today. Consumers have less and less autonomy. Their choices, even how they will spend their leisure time, are increasingly influenced by capitalists.

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Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Erosion of Consumer Choices

This is David Harvey and you're listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work.

I had mentioned that one of the delightful things to do with Marx is to riff on some of his ideas in contemporary circumstances and try to connect his theorizing with what's going on around us in the here and now. One of the themes that comes up very strongly in the chapter on machinery is that the autonomy of the worker is taken away by the factory system. The skilled worker was in control of their tools. They could put them down and if they didn't want to do work in a particular way they didn't do it. So, they had a certain power simply by virtue of the fact that their contribution to production was the skill in using a particular tool and this was in one respect a free gift of labor to capital. But, on the other hand, it was one of those gifts, which is a little bit of a poison chalice because once capital accepts it has to accept the fact that the laborer is autonomous and has the skill. But, what happens with the machine is the skill is located inside of the machine. The autonomy in terms of the speed of the process is now located outside the purview of the laborer. We get the Charlie Chaplin Modern Times kind of picture of an automaton in which the laborer becomes, as Marx calls it, an appendage of the machine. So, the laborer has to do what this machine wants the laborer to do and they have to do it at the speed, which is set by the machine.

Now, this thesis of the erosion of the autonomy of the worker is one, which is well documented in history of capital. But, I'm led to think about the changing autonomy of the consumer. How autonomous are we in terms of our consumer choices? In what degree have we all actually become appendages of the capitalist production machine? In effect you could rewrite Marx's chapter about the machine to talk about contemporary consumerism. This came to me in a big way the other day when for the first time I walked around this new area in New York City called Hudson Yards, which is the biggest real estate development in the USA, perhaps even in the world though frankly I don't think it goes beyond what's going on in China at all. But, the incredible thing about Hudson Yards is that you enter into it and there's a shopping mall and you kind of say: “Well, why does New York need another shopping mall?” The thing about the shopping mall is it's built with beautiful materials, large areas through which you can walk but there's no space to sit down unless you go into one of the coffee bars, restaurants or whatever. And it's a very barren kind of environment. Beautiful in its own way, architectural beautiful. But, at the same time, kind of empty. And you maybe then say: “Well, how did this this monstrosity, Hudson Yards, get built?”

It's interesting that since its virtual completion in last month, the commentary on it has not been very positive at all. In fact, mainstream art critics and architects and so on have been very critical of the whole thing. It represents the expenditure of a vast amount of money and resources in terms of the glass and the marble and all the rest of it, all to make a space, which is frankly not very inviting to be in and I think most people feel that. So, there [is] talk now of “Well we have to get more greenery in it. We've got to do more gardening. We've got to make it more user friendly.” They just opened a public space called the Shed, which is supposed to be a space of spectacle. But again, it becomes transparently obvious that the role of the Shed is to create as many spectacles as possible so that people come into the space and then afterwards will wander into the mall and maybe eat something or will buy something in the mall. In a sense it's all about the manipulation of one’s needs and desires. It's all about building something in the image of capital.

This was how Marx talked about the factory system. He said the factory system was not built to lighten the load of labor and in fact he starts off the chapter on machinery by commenting on how is it that John Stuart Mill could not understand why it was that machinery, which should lighten the load of labor, actually ended up making the labor process more and more oppressive. Well, we can say the same thing about something like Hudson Yards. Here is a situation in which capital is building something, which to a casual observer should be about improving the qualities of life of the population, and at the same time all it really does is to present a symbolic presentation of the nature of what capital is about. It's a symbolic intervention not a real intervention. There are some people who are going to live there but when you ask about housing prices it's certainly not anything about affordable housing. Most of the housing is very high quality for, again, the top 1% of the top 10%. You then say to yourself: “What would have happened if all of the resources that went into building this place had been actually put into the creation of affordable housing? What kind of city would we be living in?” Furthermore, what would have happened had this gargantuan effort been oriented to creating the possibility of consumer choice in terms of, for instance, ways of life, ways of being?

It will be interesting to see if the site gets occupied by people and “civilized” by actually turning it into a place in which something vibrant can go on, like Washington Square for example, which is a public space where when the sun comes out the three bands appear and all kinds of people on skateboards and all sorts of things, people playing cards and whatever, and the chess players in the corner. There's a whole kind of life there and it'll be interesting to see if anything like that transpires within the space the because this can happen. I always think in Paris, for example, the Pompidou Center, which is the Art Center, which is itself not a bad building but it has a forecourt, which is the most forbidding and boring piece of architecture you can possibly imagine but somehow or other people get into it and turn it into a space, which is actually lively. But, that is going to also depend on the authorities tolerating certain degrees of freedom within the public spaces that there are there such that they can be freely appropriated by different people doing different things in which case the space might actually become a little bit interesting and a little bit livable. In other words they built a space in the hope that somebody comes. I hope that the somebody that come will actually civilize it and turn it into something, which is very different.

But, this in effect takes me back also to this whole kind of question about the nature of daily life under capital. Marx had held that free time is one of the big indicators of an adequate society. Marx indicated that what we should be looking at is what he called the realm of freedom and that

realm of freedom, he said, begins when the realm of necessity is left behind. So, a good society is one where realm of necessity is covered; everybody has enough food and enough clothing and enough housing and enough employment, if need be, to lead an adequate life. Then, after that everything is free time and people do what they like, in whatever spaces that they like. In other words, what we're looking at here is the idea that there's going to be some sort of autonomy of how people use their time, how people consume their time, and that autonomy, it seems to me, being steadily eroded by the invasion of capital of everyday life. Taking away the autonomy of time and certainly making it impossible for a large segments of the population to leave behind the realm of necessity. In fact, the largest segment of the population is struggling hard to try to meet certain realms of necessity, which means that they have a very restricted capacity for freedom of expression. Cities at their best are cities where there is a great deal of social autonomy of social groups to do what they want, how they want to do it. But, we again and again see the technologies and the capacities for those kinds of autonomous being eroded and taken away, removed.

This to me is, again, one of the sad parts of contemporary life that what happens is that more and more time is taken up, more and more consumer choice is controlled. So, even something like the internet, which has a very interesting sort of mini history. What began as almost an artistic peer-to-peer creative system in which all sorts of innovations were going on, which were created by individuals in very often in partnerships or in conversation with each other and at a certain time also that internet seemed to be a vehicle for real social advancement and social communication, social production and even in some instances social revolution. That process suddenly gets monopolized, suddenly gets placed under the aura of a business model. The business model starts to take over so we get the Facebooks, we get the Googles, we get the Amazons, all of which are essentially monopolizing the qualities of daily life and inducing all sorts of forms of consumerism, which seems to me to be lacking soul; they're like Hudson Yards. [It] looks great from a distance, kind of looks like a shining city on a hill. It looks like the kind of Oz that you can finally see but when you get close up there’s nothing much happening there and there's nothing much that happens emotionally to the population that circulates within it. Again, I don't want to say that it’s impossible, that that space cannot be converted into something different. Populations do take control of their social spaces and give them a flavor and they make much of what a city is about when capital, actually, all it does is to make this non-autonomous form of consumerism.

Marx doesn't spend too much time talking about the consumer side of things. But, this consumerism goes back to what I was saying in the last talk, which is that as the mass increases, so the question arises is where's the market for that mass? And how is that mass going to be absorbed through consumerism? As we increase the total amount of commodities, then obviously there must be a larger and larger population to consume those commodities, they must have the money to buy those commodities. All of this means that society has to be structured in some way around not only dealing with the tendency towards a falling rate of profit but to deal with the difficulty of realizing the value of an increasing mass and that increasing mass is now becoming more and more problematic. I frequently cite the case of the cement consumption in China where China in two years consumed forty five percent more cement than the United States consumed in a hundred years. Now, this is the rising mass, this is the increasing mass of production of cement and consumption of cement. Then you go: “Well, if the mass continues to increase then we're going to be in problem.”

I think this is one of the difficulties we're facing over global warming right now because the increasing mass of commodities, increasing mass that we're trying to control by, for example, suddenly trying to ban plastic bags because the mass of plastic bags is circulating in the oceans and we get these dreadful examples of a whale dying on a beach and when its stomach is cut open it's got about a ton and a half of plastic bags inside of it. So, that increasing mass is something that has to be looked at and that increasing mass is not only confronting the fact that it is putting increasing pressure on all of the resources that must go into producing that mass. So, the output of copper, the output of lithium, the output of iron ore has globally had to jump upwards. Even under conditions of falling rates of profit the mass is still rising. The mass is increasing and it does so at a compound rate. And the mass of all of those minerals, which are now being used in urbanization and the mass being consumed all of that mass, it seems to me, has to be understood as something, which is necessary for the reproduction of capital. And we should always be asking the question to what degree is this necessary for the reproduction of a way of life of the people? And what kind of way of life is it going to be? I'm fond of saying that there's a lot of discussion about what kind of cities we want to build. But, I think the real question is not what kind of cities we want to build but what kind of people do we want to be? Because that then, in some ways, defines what kind of city we would build. Frankly, I don't think I want to be the kind of person who would live in Hudson Yards without a good deal of civilizing influence, which is very hard to imagine, those very tall building somehow being taken over by the homeless population or punk rock groups or something of that that kind, which might make the environment rather more interesting.

So, the increasing mass and mass consumerism and we've always regarded mass consumerism as somehow rather having a positive side with kind of a grumpy undercurrent of discontent. I think it should be the other way around that, in fact, we should approach the whole kind of growth syndrome from the standpoint of a grumpy level of discontent while at the same time suggesting that decreasing and controlling the mass is actually another one the big social tasks would that we now face. Precisely because, as many people are pointing out in the climate case, it is not too hard to say that things once they reach a certain mass are very difficult to control and controlling the rate thereafter is irrelevant because the mass is already there doing the damage. Again, I think mass versus rate becomes significant but also the whole issue of what will be called compensatory consumerism and consumerism that is fixated on realizing the value in the mass no matter what and that kind of lifestyle, which also means that there's going to be more and more rapid turnover in that lifestyle, bringing us back to not only the lifestyle of which attaches to the labor process of neoliberalism but which attaches also to the consumerist principles of neoliberalism, which are very much about instantaneous transformations of the world into instant gratifications.

Speed-up, for example, just to take one other example, speed-up is integral to a capitalist mode of production. It's one of the ways in which I can get ahead of you in terms of the output that I have and my competitiveness. If I move faster than you, I win. Therefore, there is a tremendous emphasis upon speeding things up and the result of that is that most of us have to live much faster lives in terms of everything; we have to consume faster. Relaxed, slow consumption, people would like to think that it's possible to create an alternative society by talking about slow foods. Well, I like the idea of slow foods but on the other hand that's not how most people are going to be able to live and that's not going to be a revolutionary movement by any means. But it does at least pose the kind of question of how the speed at which a society is working, the way in which that wants, needs and desires are built so that instantaneous satisfactions are involved, where spectacle displaces real objects as objects of consumption and the advantage of spectacle is that they are instantaneously over. Again, what we're going to see is an attempt to validate Hudson Yards by a continuous attempt to organize spectacle in the Shed and various other places, I think there's a museum coming there, to try to organize spectacle so that it helps to validate the rest of the environment. In effect, what I'm saying here is this that any analysis of capital has to think about rate, mass, speed and the totality of relations within which rate, mass, speed consumerism, labor processes are all being pulled together into a particular lifestyle, which I think for many people is alienating and alien and is producing at the same time as it proffers vast surface satisfactions, actually is producing what seems to me an underlying world of deep alienations and discontents.

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles a Democracy at Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project.

Transcript by Jake K. 

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