In Spring 2020 the first signs of consumer and marketing messages related to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic emerged. Like the virus itself, such marketing spread rapidly. The words “we’re all in this together”, and representations of such a sentiment, appeared in adverts and campaigns that were intended to invoke a sense of connectedness, community, and mutual care. Brands wanted people to relate to them and to seek comfort in the form of retail purchases during this time of crisis. Hence, taglines that alluded to togetherness cropped up amid the wave of content that companies created in response to COVID-19, including the marketing of supermarket giants Asda, Lidl, Marks & Spencer (M&S), and Tesco. When noticing this I found myself thinking about the relationship between COVID-19, capitalism, and consumer culture.
Although during the COVID-19 crisis brands have worked hard to cloak their capitalist activities in claims of connectedness, community, and care, to many people it is obvious that the main purpose of such promotional work is to keep the soul-grinding cogs of commerce turning. Despite their efforts to sometimes suggest otherwise, brands are not community organisers. They are not at the core of mutual aid and community care. If anything, brands are often a component of the very structural problems that community organisers strive towards dismantling as part of liberationist work. The imagined “we” that brands brazenly construct via adverts that are meant to tug on the heart strings of individuals during the pandemic is a “we” with money to spend. Such a “we” consists of consumption, not care, and profit, not people.
Are the often overworked and underpaid employees of such brands part of the imagined universal experience that they refer to in adverts about togetherness and weathering this storm with each other? Will such brands make meaningful shifts to substantially improve the precarious work and labour conditions of their employees or will they simply stick to surface-level representations of human connection and care rather than enacting change? There is nothing new about commercial organizations with track records of mistreating and exploiting staff arrogantly making sentimental and marketed claims about the experiences of “you”, “me”, “us”, and “we”. However, this does not detract from the reality that companies being so quick to create such crass content during this ongoing crisis was jarring. Furthermore, the way that some brands have implied that everyone has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in the same way is outright inaccurate.
As the Artic sea ice rapidly melts and the communities across the world suffer dire consequences, we are experiencing the tragedies from emitting greenhouse gases from human activities into the atmosphere. Climate scientists warn humans are running out of time to bring down CO2 in the atmosphere to stay below even 2 degrees celsius, as the planet’s ecosystems become unstable and the earth becomes increasingly uninhabitable. Arguably, we already have the policies and the technology required to combat climate change. Climate scientists at COP 21 in Paris 2015 laid out roadmaps for how to transition to clean energy in time, and these clean energy roadmaps show how more jobs are created, consumers save money, and together save life on earth as we know it.
Public discussions about how to convince people and governments to stop using fossil fuel energy take two paths. One is to emphasize that people’s lifestyles don’t have to change, as long as they electrify cars and homes–putting their faith in technological progress. The other is to emphasize climate justice and point out that many middle-income and affluent families need to consume less and share their prosperity. Lifestyle changes include living in smaller homes closer to work, flying less, eating mostly plant-based diets, and not buying so much stuff that ends up in the landfill. More broadly, re-envisioning economic growth and creating a circular economy that replaces wasteful private consumption with essential public services can improve the well-being of people today and in the future.
The Green New Deal resolution by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey sparked an immense amount of discussion on all layers of political discourse, national and international. The way Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and many others phrase the problem in the broader context of social, economic, and environmental grievances caused by capitalism is crucial for setting the terms of debate and struggle. This opens up space the left can use to address such issues in a systematic way rather than being content with symptomal healing. In fact, countlesscontributionshavealreadybeenmadeon theoretical and tactical grounds. In this piece, we build on those contributions, and unpack the dynamics inherent to the capitalist system that would need to be addressed in the ongoing discussions. We also shed light on the limitations of a market-based and growth-centered approach to tackling climate destabilization, while offering other domains of political intervention such as property relations and demarketization of subsistence.Read More »
The SDGs are are a good example of our inability or unwillingness to deal with consumption, writes the author. Photo: Arthur Kraft/Unsplash
Consumption, not population, is the elephant in the room of the sustainable development agenda.
The population question seems to be experiencing yet another resurgence in discussions on climate change and sustainable development. This is perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising is the extent to which population is presented as a ‘forgotten’ or ‘taboo’ topic, or as an ‘elephant in the room’ (just google population in combination with any of the terms).
Population has always been part of sustainability agendas and still is. As David Johnson from the Margaret Pyke Trust puts it in a recent blogpost, ‘the elephant left the room quite some time ago’. Furthermore, I would add, while addressing population growth is obviously important, and while we should continue placing reproductive rights at the core of development efforts, population growth is not our main sustainability challenge.
If we are to make development sustainable, we should rather be dealing with questions of distribution of resources and with the consumption patterns of the rich.
The concept of secular stagnation, first propounded by Alvin Hansen in the 1930s, has enjoyed an academic – and mainstream – resurrection thanks to Lawrence Summers (2014, 2016), who first advanced the theory as an explanation for the subdued recovery and anaemic growth prospects of advanced economies. A surprising criticism recently came from Joseph Stiglitz (August, 2018), who believes that the theory offers a convenient escape away from assuming responsibility for failed policy during the crisis. An acrimonious debate between Summers and Stiglitz followed.
On the face of it, Summers – and Gauti Eggertson – are right: the modern theory of secular stagnation does see a central and substantial role for fiscal policy. The problem, however, lies in the fact that a short-term fix for aggregate demand shortfalls – fiscal policy – is being advanced as a long-term solution of the problem of reduced growth prospects. The central question of what drives investment in a capitalist economy is not addressed.Read More »
With the consumption patterns in rich countries being more unsustainable than ever and the consumption of the ‘emerging middle classes’ increasing rapidly, it is about time ‘consumption and development’ becomes a field of study. Such a field would necessarily be interdisciplinary and combine analyses of everyday life and the structures of capitalist development. A useful starting point could be found at the intersection of theories of practice and systems of provision.Read More »