A Small Measure of Power that Can Restore Dignity
Introduction to a dossier on critical consumption in Mosaico di Pace, September 1994A vicious circle, illustrated by the itinerary of many familiar, everyday, foods and other products which have been part of our daily routine for varying lengths of time, generates misery and dependence in the ‘Third World’, and makes us thoughtless accomplices in a chain of exploitation and destruction of human beings and the natural environment. The coffee we drink, the tropical wood furniture that adds lustre and prestige to our houses, our cars, our bicycle tyres... - all cogs, along with many others, in a complex and precise machine that determines the fate of millions of people, whole countries and continents, and huge ecosystems.
For hundreds of millions of human beings, the cultivation of agricultural products, the raising of cattle, fishing, and the extraction of valuable raw materials from the earth have remained a form of slavery, regardless of the social and democratic principles that characterise our times. The dimensions this slavery has reached and the further advances it risks making are going to represent a threat to the natural balance; super-exploitation of people and of land, environmental and social deforestation, are closely associated with each other.
The deserts our civilisation creates, damage the human and cultural fabric just as they do the natural surface of the planet. On the other hand, for other hundreds of millions of people, the same mechanisms result in their expulsion from the land, the forests, or the seas, from which they derived subsistence, and transform them into environmental and social refugees, uprooted from that common ‘mother earth’ which guaranteed food, housing and clothing to the uninterrupted chain of their predecessors.
What can one do to combat such deadly injustice, destructive not only to those who suffer it directly, but also to those who, from a short-sighted, short-term, perspective, appear to be benefiting, in that they can buy the fruits of the earth and the products of the labour of others at a low price? How can one begin to halt the infernal mechanism, where can one initiate a rebalancing act, what can one do to repair the damage and injustice that so much of humanity and the planet suffer through the entirely legal and merciless violence of commerce, prices and the stock markets?
When the peoples of the southern hemisphere began the process of political liberation to achieve national independence - often later shown to be deceptive - a supportive, generous, informed section of the population of the north, with a sense of justice, decided to support this struggle, trying to become a sort of ‘fifth column’ allied to the liberation movements inside the citadels of colonialism and imperialism. Becoming an activist in France for the independence of Algeria, in the USA in support of Vietnam, and supporting an economic boycott throughout the world of the apartheid regime in South Africa, were likewise forms of reparation for the injustices committed in our name, and of support for the process of liberation in these countries. Perhaps it seemed more heroic and enthusiastic to go on a march with the banners of a liberation movement, but there are other forms of active solidarity, maybe less visible, but no less important, and perhaps even more effective. Finally,why not begin to use that small measure of power that our civilisation leaves us, the practical effects of which count for more than voting and going on strike, and use it on behalf of the southern hemisphere?
This small measure of power is that of the ‘consumer’ - a horrible word, because it lays bare the true scope of the role assigned to us by the system, a much truer and deeper quality of ours than that of being even citizens or voters, but a realistic term to describe the function that falls to us in the powerful world of commerce and money. The theoretical construction, the ideology (that is, the false consciousness propagated to protect the system) never ceases to tell us that consumers are the crowning and final objective of every commodity and service, and that everything is done to satisfy them and constantly improve the service to them. But in practice one knows that the market strategists regard consumers as livestock to be fattened up and slaughtered, no less than the animals raised in industrial cowsheds - just as predictable and easy to manipulate, just as easy to nourish and milk. And they know that their tastes and preferences can be created and steered by advertising propaganda, and that they will always obey laws dominated by money and convenience, not by idealistic choices and values.
But what if we were, finally, to take it seriously - this lever, which we find in our hands and which, up to now, we have allowed to rebound against us, happy to allow ourselves to be deceived by the advertising propaganda, and to perpetuate a state of blessed ignorance and complicity? What if we were to start not only claiming, but practising, more self determination in apparently apolitical and unheroic areas, such as the choice of our foodstuffs, our purchases for the house, the use of our money, and the types of products and packaging to accept or reject?
Personal choices can undoubtedly have great weight, above all if they are sufficiently explained and publicised. It makes a difference whether one rejects a product in silence, or explains the reason in a conversation with the supermarket manager, followed perhaps by a letter to the local newspaper, or a placard carried in front of the entrance to the sales point. Conscientious objection in the face of products stained by too much blood, too much environmental destruction, too much underpaid sweated labour, too many unhappy children robbed of their childhood, is as valid and forceful a choice as that in the face of military service or expenditure. But for it to carry weight, it needs to be multiplied and become known, to generate debate and greater awareness - and to offer acceptable alternatives, even to citizens who are not disposed to draw only ascetic consequences, involving total renunciation (necessary as this is in some cases).
To link personal choice (as an aware, supportive, informed consumer, capable of creating a ‘scandal’) to more collective and political behaviour, and to the construction of less polluting and damaging exchanges - this is a possible ‘virtuous circle’, which may contribute to lightening the oppression exercised by the commercial chain on the people of the ‘Third World’, and restore to us, the ‘consumers’ a fragment of freedom and self-determination, and thus dignity.
When in the early days of the labour movement, the workers noticed that their meagre wages were immediately swallowed up again by the bosses in the form of rent and the prices to be paid in the shops, they began, with the help of trade unions, to organise consumer and building cooperatives. At that time the objective was to lower prices, by-passing the boss as middleman.
Nowadays it is possible to make similar choices as regards the southern hemisphere, which in some cases have been started and tried on a small scale in the world of voluntary organisations and movements for solidarity, ecological conversion and social sensibility.
But now it is not a case of proposing to lower prices, but - paradoxically - to raise them, to make them more valid and correspond to the real value of the goods and services offered, and thus less an invitation to dissipation and waste. Certainly, to by-pass the many parasitic and thieving middlemen who interrupt the transfer of coffee, bananas, soya or rubber and load them with injustices and crimes, is asking a lot. But we have to find an escape from a world without quality, based on mass-production of huge quantities of goods, whose manufacture and sale provoke human, social and environmental devastation at the point of departure, and often harmful effects on arrival too, given that the boomerang of our exported pesticides is starting to come home to us. It is now also in our own interests - and not just a matter of generous solidarity - to ensure that the environmental and social quality of the products we buy contributes to restoring the equilibrium, instead damaging it in ways which will undoubtedly end up causing repercussions for us - at a later stage, when the refugees from an unjust economic order come knocking at our doors, in the form of rootless immigrants.
To know, and select carefully, the social and environmental impact of our purchases and consumption; to carefully reduce their harmfulness and instead increase the degree of equity and ecological compatibility; to organise and use distribution chains capable of promoting and disseminating acceptable choices; to contribute - whether through the choice of purchases or by investing one’s own savings - to financing structures offering solidarity; and (attentive to the natural balance) to denounce and boycott iniquitous and harmful trade and products (and they are the vast majority); to deepen and spread information and awareness of facts and circumstances; to insist in the political and social spheres that our governments, local administrations, cooperatives, trade unions and associations make the right decisions and avoid complicity in these injustices: this is a small programme of support for a ‘liberation struggle’ which the people of the southern hemisphere are undertaking for us too, and which we can support and share every day - much more comfortably and less exposed to blackmail and threats than them - at the moment of purchasing and consuming. Let us redeem something from our and their slavery!
Introduction to a dossier on critical consumption in Mosaico di Pace,