Can we shop our way to a better economy?

January 15, 2013

Below is an interesting TED lecture by Stacy Mitchell that deals with one of the most important moral and political issues of our time–the corporate control of our economies and societies. In most capitalist economies, the trend over the past several decades has been towards greater consolidation, where the goods in question–whether food, retail, banking, healthcare, or the media–are being produced or delivered by fewer and fewer larger corporations. There are of course major social and environmental costs associated with this trend and increasingly many people, it seems, are realizing that the corporate capitalist system they are living in is not working in the public interest.

Some such individuals are responding to this situation by changing their shopping habits, by buying certain kinds of products (organic, locally grown, or free trade), or buying avoiding other kinds of products (e.g. meat, or cars, or products from Walmart or Israel). Stacey Mitchell believes that these individual acts of “enlightened” consumption, while small steps in the right direction, will never bring about meaningful change, which will only come about when individuals get together and act collectively to reform the political process.

While Mitchell may be correct in making this judgment, two comments are in order. Although collective political action is noble in principle, it is naive to ignore the massive obstacles that prevent or impede it. The political system is itself largely owned or controlled by the corporate forces that need to be constrained or dismantled. The US elections, for instance, prove time and again, that important change is not going to come to Americans through the ballot box. By contrast, individual action in the form of changes to one’s patterns of consumption is something that can happen immediately–there is nothing (other than bad thinking or the absence of thinking) preventing one from making important changes in how one shops. The is is a good reason for prioritizing individual consumer action or collective political action (though this is not to suggest that the two are mutually exclusive).

Secondly, the important changes that need to take place on the individual level may not just be a matter of people becoming “enlightened consumers” but people transforming themselves (individually and in groups) from consumers to producers. The farmers markets, for instance, sprouting up all over North America are great, but greater still are the small communities around the world where different individuallsor families produce different food crops or other goods and then share them with the others in their community so that all benefit from the fruits of the others’ labor. Importantly, small communities of individuals can find ways to divide labor and sustain themselves without relying on any corporations at all. Ultimately, there may be more hope in constructing these sorts of self-sustaining communities than in reforming the US political system. Or to put it differently, if enough Americans lived in communities of this sort, the US political system would no longer be the grave problem that it is.



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