It is impossible for ever-higher levels of consumption to make us happy. The logic of the system is that we must be perpetually unsatisfied, always wanting more. In a system that guarantees considerable inequality, we are bound to be envious of the consumption of those richer than we are. But every time we think we have caught up, we see that there are still many richer people above us. And if those below catch up with us, we have to consumer more to stay ahead. It could be argued that a consumption-based society would be more acceptable if there were a rough equality of spending power. But this is—and cannot help but be—the case; capital accumulation will not allow it. We are not and cannot be “slouching toward utopia,” to use the inapt phrase of economist J. Bradford DeLong, a utopia of a worldwide majority middle class of happy consumers, all buying big-screen televisions and nice automobiles. And does DeLong imagine that the world could ecologically support several billion human beings consuming at a pace on par with middle-class U.S. households? It is estimated that it would take the resources of four worlds like our to provide the equivalent of a U.S. middle-class consumption pattern for all of the world 6.5 billion people. Now, we are certainly not arguing that everyone should be poor or that those now at the bottom don’t need a healthy dose of consumption, especially food, clothing, and shelter. But we are saying that the so-called consumer culture that characterizes that United States and a few other rich countries is not a model worth fighting for, nor is it ecologically sustainable.
What is worth fighting for? Perhaps this severe recession offers us an opportunity to ask this question. This crisis has revealed the rotten foundation of our economy and called into question the neoliberal policies and ideology that have deepened the rot. We cannot sustain ourselves with ever-larger doses of debt relative to the underlying economy. We cannot be happy in a world of rising insecurity: How will we pay the debts? Where will we find decent and secure employment? How will we cope with health problems? How will we survive old age? Will our air, water, and food supply be poisoned? We cannot be happy in a world in which the fruits of human labor are distributed in an obscenely unequal manner. Inequality itself causes a host of problems, from lower life expectancies of those further down the ladder to more people in prison, and it raises the level of insecurity. The rage of the poor and the fear of the rich are the legacies of the growing gap between them. Finally, and of the greatest importance, we cannot be happy with the nature of the work most of us are compelled to do. Millions of us are unemployed, and this is a bad thing. But for those working, the stress is rising, as fewer people are being forced to do more work and employment becomes more precarious. Employers use periods this like to discover ways to permanently reduce the size of their workforces. They continue the strategy of lean production, using as little skilled labor as possible, constantly stressing the system so that work can be sped up, and then cutting benefits as much as possible. There is no way that the majority of people can do meaningful work in a system like this. Labor is simply a cost of production, to be minimized and on a par with a piece of equipment or fuel. What does it mean when there is a joke that says, “The only thing worse than being employed is being unemployed”?
It seems to us that there are many things worth fighting for. Here is a list for starters. Readers will no doubt think of others.
- Adequate food for everyone.
- Decent housing.
- Universal health care.
- Full employment/good jobs.
- Quality education for all.
- Adequate income in old age.
- Enhanced public transportation.
- A commitment to a sustainable environment.
- Progressive taxation.
- A non-imperialist government.
- Labor- and environment-friendly trade.