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Global Capitalism with a Human Face?


(Pete Suechting)— Why are charity and environmental conscientiousness so widespread, even fashionable, in today’s society? Back in the 1960’s and even earlier than that, these attitudes were anomalies, only practiced by societal outliers. Before Rachel Carson’s landmark work, Silent Spring, most Americans were unaware that humans could have an adverse and discernible impact on the environment. So, how and why have these attitudes become so prevalent today? Slavoj Zizek, along with the excellent whiteboard animations of the RSAnimate team, attacks the source of this societal transformation with his usual critical, yet deeply perceptive, approach. He arrives at an answer that is surprising: we feel that awareness of our basic societal problems is enough.

Zizek characterizes today’s form of capitalism as “global capitalism with a human face”, or more generally, cultural capitalism. Cultural capitalism sells an attitude, or lifestyle, as the direct result of its products.For example, think of Nike, which advertises a culture of physical achievement (“Just do it”), or the clothing line Northface, which sells clothing under the slogan “never stop exploring”. Starbucks was a leader in this field, promoting “fair-trade” coffee as more than just coffee: “You are buying into something bigger than yourself. You are buying into coffee ethics….It’s good coffee karma,” says one of their campaigns. This is cultural capitalism at its purest, where consumers buy their own “redemption” from being only consumers. They become environmentalists, social activists, and philanthropists, a whole “culture”, all expressed in one consumerist act.

Zizek points to Toms as the most “absurd example” of cultural capitalism. Toms is famous for its “one-for-one” business model, in which the company will donate one pair of Toms to a third-world farmer for every pair of Toms bought. In this model, one consumerist act literally equals one charitable act. Consumers can buy a pair of shoes for themselves, and feel morally and ethically satisfied while doing it because they have fulfilled their “ethical duties” of charity, kindness, etc.

Learning of inequality or injustice in the world causes an emotional response. Whether its sadness or anger, the emotional response prompts us to donate money and/or effort to ending those injustices. If you remove the emotional response, however, you remove people’s desire to act. This is what Zizek believes cultural capitalism does; it “short-circuits” the emotional process by including the charitable act in the price of the consumerist act.

Now, this short-circuit would not be a problem if the charitable act that companies include within their products were real, effective programs. In fact, it could even be an effective and efficient way to aid people. However, the current manifestation of cultural capitalism is actually detrimental to the people they claim to support. It only holds the symptoms of poverty at bay, and does not seek to address the original cause of poverty. No real, viable solutions are ever offered, but are, in fact, discouraged by the belief that one is already in place. In this way, the first-world countries can feel morally satisfied and continue to exploit the cheap labor and products of undeveloped third-world countries; “The worst slave owners were the ones who were kind to their slaves”, Zizek says.

So, how do we address this problem? The proper action begins with thinking. And it is important to realize that thinking is, in itself, an action. Too often, when confronted with inequality and injustice, blind, immediate action is applauded, while thinking is condemned as cold, calculating or unfeeling. But it is blind action, not thinking, that is the problem here. We don’t think about the real implications of our actions when we buy Starbucks or Toms, we just short-circuit from buying, directly to charity. The thinking is what needs to be restored to our system. We need to move from cultural capitalism to conscious capitalism. This is not “capitalism with a human face”, but “capitalism with a human mind”. From the basis of thought and nowhere else can we move into a truly just and sustainable capitalist society.

I think it is important to confess that I am just as guilty as every other consumer participating in the cultural capitalist lifestyle. Denying my involvement in this farce would be just as destructive, and even more immoral, than the short-circuit itself. No; If you, the reader (assuming you are persuaded by my argument), and I, accept our guilt, it will be the first step to ending our involvement. And our involvement in cultural capitalism is, in fact, the most maddening of all its injustices: It involves every one of us in its immorality, making every one of us guilty, without our knowledge or explicit approval, just through naive participation.

Now, let us think about some more concrete solutions. The next time you go shopping, ask yourself what the product is selling beyond itself. When you buy that Northface jacket, are you also trying to buy into the outdoorsy, independent explorer persona? Do you even need Northface to sell you that persona, or could you create it yourself, through personal means? Or, when you next go to buy a coffee, from Starbucks or anywhere else, take the passion that you used to satisfy with their fair-trade coffee and do something real with it.

8 comments on “Global Capitalism with a Human Face?

  1. Garden Walk Garden Talk
    December 2, 2012

    Very good post, one that unlike many read today. It has substance.

  2. Kyle Ferendo
    December 3, 2012

    This is an enjoyable article, but it diverges to a surprising extent from the message of of the clip. It is interesting that the author winds up calling for “a truly just and sustainable capitalist society” – something Zizek would undoubtedly call an oxymoron. It is true that modern consumerism has co-opted the ethical obligations people feel to atone for the destruction their acts of consumerism cause, and larger condemnations of the psychological manipulation inherent to consumerism – “When you buy that Northface jacket, are you also trying to buy into the outdoorsy, independent explorer persona?” for instance – is certainly appropriate, but Zizek’s message is not one of anti-consumerism, but rather of anti-capitalism. Zizek is emphatically not calling on us to redesign our charities embedded in capitalism so that they will be more efficient or more effective. No, Zizek is against exactly this sort of undertaking because it treats the symptoms rather the disease. What is necessary instead is the dismantling of global capitalism and its replacement with something else – exactly what is debatable: libertarian socialism? communism? There are many ideologies to which Zizek’s argument lends itself, but capitalism is certainly not among them.

  3. chrisrusso96
    December 3, 2012

    Your point is good, but aren’t people going to buy coffee anyway, whether they buy from Starbucks or say, Costa? As somebody who can’t make a direct impact, is it not worth buying the Starbucks to make a very small, indirect impact? Though I agree with your point, capitalism is simply finding new ways to pull us in.

  4. Peter Suechting
    December 3, 2012

    Kyle: I agree with you that I do diverge from Zizek’s argument considerably, calling for conscious capitalism rather than the destruction of capitalism altogether. However, I am not totally convinced of the need to leave capitalism behind completely, or the existence of a viable alternative. It is only the acknowledgement of the short-circuit between consumerism and charity, that I am advocating. People may still buy Starbucks if they want, just as long as they don’t believe they are benefitting the world by doing so. Maybe through a restoration of the emotional response, people might be motivated once again to take real, meaningful action. In terms of viable alternatives to capitalism, there are many, but the left has yet to offer anything substantial enough to completely replace it. Zizek does support communism, from my understanding, although his opinions on this are sometimes hard to pin down.

    Chris: That’s a great point. It probably better to buy from businesses with sustainable practices. If you buy from these businesses and believe you are positively changing the world, though, you need to think again. Do not, in other words, satisfy your ethical duties through consumption, but consume and then fulfill your ethical duties (through real charity, volunteer work, etc.).
    Also, I disagree that you cannot make a direct impact. As one who has worked for the Forest Service, an environmental non-profit, and various volunteer trail crews, I have come to understand that anyone can make a direct impact. Its just a matter of devoting time and energy.

    • Kyle Ferendo
      December 4, 2012

      Peter, I very much agree. How viable or substantial certain proposed alternatives to capitalism are is very open for debate, and my comment on your deviation from Zizek’s wasn’t meant as a criticism but simply an observation. I agree that Zizek is a communist, and I certainly am not. Ultimately, I think you put it very well: “Do not, in other words, satisfy your ethical duties through consumption, but consume and then fulfill your ethical duties.” And ideally, I think, one should minimize consumption. As Vandana Shiva put it, “Whenever we engage in consumption or production patterns which take more than we need, we are engaging in violence.” But I also think that it’s true that it’s better to consume responsibly, to the extent that that’s possible, than to consume without any regard for its impact on the world. The problem you and Zizek describe is when consumption replaces legitimate ethical activity, or else diminishes the urgency of the causes of environmental and social justice. But I think that as long as we maintain a high consciousness of this urgency, then consuming responsibly is the best way to consume. The important thing is to acknowledge that this is in no way a substitute for our obligation to diminish the volume of our consumption and to engage in other ethical activities.

  5. evolvESustain
    December 4, 2012

    Reblogged this on evolvESustain.

  6. Pingback: The New Parisian Café Culture « AC VOICE

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This entry was posted on December 2, 2012 by in Academic, Politics and tagged , , , , , , .

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