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.