“If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.” — Karl Marx

Consumption and Consumerism in Capitalism:
Myths and Reality

An editor of the German Marxist quarterly GegenStandpunkt
Lecture and Discussion in Copenhagen, Denmark (in English)
November 9, 2010

Marx once wrote that in capitalism, workers have “nothing to lose but their chains.” But whoever makes that claim today only makes a fool of himself. After all, nowadays, everybody seems to agree that even in the case of the working class, we live in a consumer society in which consumption is the goal and the “customer is king.”

If there is any debate on the issue at all, it is over whether that is a good or a bad thing. The one side maintains that despite undeniably “hard times” and the sacrifices required by globalization, “demographic change,” etc., capitalism has allowed even the working class an unparalleled standard of living. The other side counters that the reign of consumerism is in fact tyranny: Greedy corporations and the advertising industry invent “artificial needs,” tricking consumers into thinking that the way to happiness lies in consuming more and more stuff. And consumers, with their chronic materialism, are viewed as a threat to third world peoples, the environment, their own health, and the long term stability of the economy.

So which is it? Should consumers thank capitalism for putting them on such a well-furnished throne? Or is consumerism to blame for the harm that capitalist growth inflicts on the third world, the environment and people’s health?

This talk aims to show that both sides are wrong. It explains the true role of consumption in capitalism, the purpose of advertising and the advertising industry, as well as the ideologies of “consumerism,” “anti-consumerism,” and the power of the consumer to undo the harm done by the capitalist system.

Sponsored by: Gruppe Arbejde og Rigdom, København

Lecture & Discussion
or Text

US Health Care Reform:
Another Historic Moment in the Administration of the Nation’s Poverty

An editor of the German Marxist quarterly GegenStandpunkt
January 3, 2010

Just in time for Christmas, the Senate has passed its own version of the healthcare reform bill, jumping yet another hurdle on the path to “change” in the way Americans receive and pay for medical care. Yet controversy continues to rage. On the one side, President Obama has deemed the bill the single most significant piece of legislation since the creation of Social Security, and many Democratic lawmakers have solemnly declared that, despite the many bitter concessions they have had to make, this is the moment of their legislative lifetimes. On the other side, Republicans have expressed their utter revulsion at both the substance of the bill and the manner of its construction. And on the liberal left, there is disappointment and even disgust at how politicians have once again failed to put an end to the scandal that is the current American healthcare system.

Meanwhile, average citizens get to follow the ups and downs of the negotiations in Congress, listen to the pleas and arguments of big and small business, weigh the options and come to a conclusion about which is worse: their current inability to pay for the most basic care or their inability to pay for compulsory insurance, the risk of financial ruin posed by a serious illness or by unbearable healthcare costs on the companies that employ them?

These people would do well to pay attention as to why, despite all the rancor of the debate, elites on both sides of the aisle regard healthcare reform to be so urgent. Without far-reaching change, two things they regard to be much more important than the health of individual citizens will face impending doom: the nation’s economy and the solidity of the national budget. On that basis, the population’s poor bill of health raises some urgent questions for the ruling class: Is the health of the nation’s competitiveness in danger? Does the illness of broad swathes of the population represent a disadvantage in international competition that America can no longer afford? That requires a solution. How to extend basic care to a greater portion of the population without imposing unbearable costs on “the economy”, i.e., the profits of employers, while making sure that America’s premier growth industry can emerge stronger than ever?

This gives us no reason for joy or even “cautious optimism,” but raises some unwelcome questions of a more fundamental kind:

The answers to these questions illustrate why the hopes for a “historic moment” in the history of American healthcare are not only woefully modest, but hopelessly wrongheaded. We invite you to find out why.

Supplement: The Democratic Debate

Lessons from the Crisis

Audio in mp3 or Text

A writer from the German Marxist quarterly GegenStandpunkt
Lecture and Discussion
September 3, 2009

Unfortunately, what the overwhelming majority has learned from the recent collapse of the financial sector and the general breakdown of business is how much they need the success of banks and business in general. The worse things get for them in this crisis-stricken economy, the more they are convinced that basically everything in the capitalist system is their means for making a living – including bank profits, booming stock markets and even complex derivatives. Faced with capital’s failure to grow and with the malfunctioning enrichment of the rich, the masses and the elite demand that all of that be made to function again. The public’s initial outrage at the machinations of investment banks has long since turned into the hope that these greedy speculators get back on their feet again and do business in a more stable fashion. Meanwhile, capitalists are rescuing their property and protecting their profits by passing on the damages to their employees, sacking them and exposing them to greater deprivation. And the victims – they accept that sacrifices will have to be made in order for “our” economy to get off the ground again.

For those on the democratic left, the crisis has confirmed their doubts about the beneficence of “the market” and its capacity to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. They demand more state regulation, perhaps even the nationalization of certain banks and key industries, so that “the economy” can function more reliably! For the more radical left, capitalism’s real flaw is that it is prone to crises; without them, one wonders whether they would have anything to criticize about it.

In drawing these lessons from the collapse of finance and the subsequent “great recession,” both these groups show disregard for the lessons that the crisis itself is teaching. All the more reason to raise some critical questions:

The answers to these questions suggest that the capitalist system doesn’t deserve to get back on its feet, but to be abolished. The domination of capital reveals its absurdity and brutality all the more in times of economic crisis, when the expansion of capital – because it doesn’t succeed – strangles the entire material life-process of society.