Ethics and Anti-Capitalism

1291962_10151906769422578_56970374_nby Eamon Rooke

Darling of the Blairite right, Louise Mensch, made several remarkable public outbursts in her strange political career. One such moment was famously documented on ‘Have I Got News For You’. Whilst discussing Occupy London, Mensch lamented the hypocrisy of the Occupants for buying Starbucks coffee. “You can’t say ‘capitalism is crisis’, and then enjoy everything that capitalism offers”. Her opinion was rightly laughed at for its utter emptiness, since you can clearly hate capitalism and like coffee at the same time, and not be a hypocrite. Or, as another panelist put it, someone on death row can enjoy their last meal. Mensch does, nonetheless, raise an interesting topic: how can an anti-capitalist live ethically?

As an anti-capitalist, I’ve struggled with this dilemma for a while, as have my unwashed, vegetarian friends. I can’t answer the question here, but I can explain it and offer some thoughts on the discourse from which it’s born, which I think is important for people concerned about consumption, citizenship and the like.

The problem is that anti-capitalists aren’t specifically against Starbucks, or Goldman Sachs, or any individual capitalist, company, party or politician. We are against the entire system that encourages and necessitates immoral activity, within many different people.

Though specific company’s take the biscuit, as it were, on such issues as union busting and election rigging (Coca-Cola), collusion with governments murdering activists (Shell), pollution (BP), and tax avoidance (Starbucks, Amazon, Vodafone), they do so out of a deep-seated realism, not a personal immorality. Capitalism is a competition, and in order to win, you have to bend rules (and everyone else is doing it). It is this very act of competition, in and of itself, that anti-capitalists are against. Its not paying people very little, in poor conditions, that is the source of capitalism’s illegitimacy. The very process of extracting a profit through the exploitation of labour, sourced out of a forced disparity in incomes between people, is unethical.

Conditions can be better, pay can be good, but that doesn’t justify class and inequality, two things that capitalism cannot exist without, and therefore actively reproduces. Corruption and the particularly harmful practices of specific companies are symptoms, not causes, of the crisis of capitalism.

The other problem for anti-capitalists today, however, is the turn within capitalism to charity-loving, tree-hugging, fair trade branded corporate practice. Businesses today cannot survive without some ethical category contained within all of their products. So, what to do? We can’t consume outside of capitalism – something Mensch obviously didn’t understand – so the path to follow is to minimise your harmful consumption. Buy ethically from cooperatives, environmentally conscious companies, and so on. But, does this not encourage precisely the idea that capitalism can be ethical and just, the very idea that must be aggressively rebuked? Indeed, one of the earliest and most prominent supporters of Fair Trade and ethically sourced coffee was Starbucks. The same company which pays virtually no tax on profits in the UK, whilst more and more families in Britain sink to dehumanizing levels of impoverishment, based on the ideological notion that the government ‘has no money’.

Capitalism can become ‘more’ ethical, but it can contradict those ethics in the same motion. Indeed, perhaps it’s because of Starbucks’ reputation as ethical-corporation in chief that it took us so long to realise it didn’t bother to pay tax. It would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.

The obvious choice, which causes the least amount of harm in the short term, is the one we inevitably take, yet it is precisely in so doing that we prolong the root of the problem itself. We do so because, I think, we expect capitalism to keep us alive in fairly miserable circumstances, but with a guarantee that because of capitalism we will avoid an apocalypse or total social catastrophe.

I don’t pretend to have an answer to the question ‘how can an anti-capitalist live ethically’, other than to say the obvious: consume with a conscience and engage in meaningful activism. Here, I merely wanted to point out how absurd the liberal, mainstream framing of anti-capitalism is, and to point to the problems in thinking about how you can actually “be the change you want to see”, and to not be content with buying that quote on a bag of coffee beans.

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4 comments
  1. limit_less said:

    It sounds like your not anti-capitalist at all. It sounds like your quiet happy with capitalism as long as it does not involve people getting murdered, poisoned or fu**ed over in general. I think those feelings would be echoed by any capitalist.

    Your issue seems to be with the population in general and not the companies themselves. The problem is the population does not care which companies bend the rules as long as they get what they want and the cheapest possible price.

    These businesses reflect the values of us and not the other way around.

    What is really bizarre about the whole situation is that there can be such widespread mainstream media coverage of Amazon & Starbucks doing nothing illegal and yet when it comes to oil companies who support murderous regimes and cause massive environmental destruction the coverage in the media is sadly lacking and in any case considerably less than the coverage of Amazon & Starbucks.

  2. Eamon said:

    “It sounds like your quiet happy with capitalism as long as it does not involve people getting murdered, poisoned or fu**ed over in general”

    See the comment I made in the article – “Its not paying people very little, in poor conditions, that is the source of capitalism’s illegitimacy. The very process of extracting a profit through the exploitation of labour, sourced out of a forced disparity in incomes between people, is unethical.

    Conditions can be better, pay can be good, but that doesn’t justify class and inequality, two things that capitalism cannot exist without, and therefore actively reproduces. Corruption and the particularly harmful practices of specific companies are symptoms, not causes, of the crisis of capitalism.”

    My point is precisely that if people DON’T “get murdered, poisoned, or fucked over in general”, that still WOULDN’T make capitalism ethical. So, the exact opposite of what you claim.

    And to address your other point, that people don’t care so long as they get what they want, I’d disagree, since fair trade etc was the result of NGO activism, supported and paid for by the general population.

    Do people buy the cheapest thing, and are they willing to forgive unethical capitalism to do so? Sure, the same way someone who is starving sells their labour to whoever is willing to pay, and will do any number of unethical things for money. The point is they are faced with such a ridiculously limited options because of class and manufactured inequality, caused ultimately by capitalism.

  3. Dave Hollings said:

    Or you could make an effort to spend more of your money in non-capitalist enterprises.

    How hard would it to be to do some of your shopping in the Co-op or Waitrose, part of John Lewis? For financial services you are spoilt for choice – the Co-op Bank, Unity trust bank, nearly 40 building societies, 100s of Credit Unions or Friendly Societies. Looking for a day out – would it be so hard to visit a zoo (almost all charities) or any of the national trust of English/Scottish/Welsh Heritage properties? Then there are the thousands of other small to medium sized co-operatives, social enterprises or charities who would welcome your custom.

    Next week I’m in Belfast overnight. I’ll eat and drink in The Crown (owned by the National Trust) and the John Hewitt (owned by the Belfast Unemployed Workers Centre). Level of hardship – a 6 or 7 minutes walk between the two. Level of non-capitalist spend – high.

    Or just pop into your local Starbucks for a skinny latte if its too much hastle to try to put your money where your mouth is.

  4. Larry Wendlandt said:

    Good words, Eamon. Capitalism is a SYSTEMic problem, not a people problem. The people are just role-players and are caught-up-in, or more often… FORCED INTO the system out of lack of choices. In the USA, there’s only one type of survival coupon (money) and 18 year olds are forced to join the competer’s church (capitalism) via GET A JOB (join the free marketeers)… OR STARVE/OR ELSE/OR DIE. And once the kids are in the “take orders” environment, they are forced to fulfill those orders, OR ELSE. That’s felony extortion and forced religion into a competer’s church. Are they offered a choice to NOT use greenbacks and/or join a cooperator’s church, or no church/org at all? NO. So much for freedom here in the land of the free. Capitalism is a pyramid scheme… a disgusting uncivilized anti-Christian rat-racing system, and it needs to go… and lets hurry. Not a single other living creature on the entire planet uses economies (money, ownership, price tag survival supply blockading). Why do capitalists? Look at the USA military society. it uses resource repositories and custodianship instead of ownership, just like the USA public library system. The USA military has a policy that if you hurt ONE member of “team”, you hurt ALL of “team”, and that has proven to be accurate. Why hasn’t the civilian side of things… realized that yet?

    Just like every get-a-leg-up childhood playground pyramid, capitalism’s pyramid will get top-heavy and collapse, and crush the team-loving stalwart bottom layer kids. Apparently the capitalism promoters and condoners have completely forgotten about those early childhood people-stacking lessons. Thanks again, Eamon, and socialjusticefirst.com .

    Best regards!
    Larry “Wingnut” Wendlandt
    MaStars – Mothers Against Stuff That Ain’t Right
    (anti-capitalism-ists) (anti-economy usage)
    Bessemer MI USA

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