“No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism” is a Thought-Stopping Cliche

The meme of “no ethical consumption” under capitalism is, on first impression, entirely correct. Anyone with a systemic analysis of capitalism knows that the big structural problems are the result of entrenched interests that maintain their status through the use of violence. Problems like climate change, planned obsolescence, poor working conditions, and factory farming are not going to magically go away because you individually buy better products.

However, just because the vast majority of ethical consumption cases make relatively little difference, not all do. Being more conscious about how we shop won’t be able to fix the big problems we face, but that does not mean that where we put our money under capitalism makes zero difference. To believe as such is a textbook example of the motte and bailey fallacy whereby the obviously indefensible position of trying to reform capitalism through purchasing correctly suddenly invalidates any discussion of how to achieve social change through market forces. This doesn’t mean retreating to consuming to feel-good “ethically produced” products but instead engaging with the system as it is, trying to find points of weakness, and attempting to exploit them. Correctly recognizing the absurdity of liberal calls to “shop ethically” does not then give you the go-ahead to throw out the need for strategic analysis. If, every time a liberal does something hypocritical and counterproductive, we stop thinking critically about that area, well, we might as well just ditch symbolic thought altogether since being hypocritical and counterproductive is what defines modern liberalism.

For one to actually believe that consumer choices bear no weight, they must admit that there is zero difference between going to a fascist bar or a leftist bar (in the obvious hypothetical where all else is equal). That even attempting to support people in trying to get stuff like open source hardware off the ground is a folly. That there is no difference between institutions that make changes like instituting gender-neutral bathrooms and those that don’t. That the burgeoning realm of novel ways of funding individuals or groups, that in a pre-digital era would have languished in obscurity, through sites like Patreon or Kickstarter should be written off. That there is no difference between supporting the burgeoning artificial meat industry and the utterly reprehensible animal agriculture industry. That boycotts like BDS which have seen significant pushback are ultimately fruitless.

But more importantly, they must discount the possibility of planning for long-term economic intervention. Even the most vulgar Marxist who believes in a total revolutionary break between our current system and the next must admit that the task of building a better world is a decades-long project at best. Sure, where we spend our dollars today might make little difference, but what needs to change for that to not to be the case? The world we live in is not that of simple linear processes operating on one another but rather one of a multitude of hypercomplex systems all intermeshed and feedbacking off each other. For instrumental reasons alone, economics are worth investigating simply to see how the machine works so you might figure out how to exploit it.

However, even such investigation is utterly at odds with the typical leftist response.  Phases like “economics is just astrology for white dudes” signal one’s position within a broader culture war in which the majority of parties have glommed onto the positions they hold because of the people around them. Whatever momentary value you might get from a cheap chuckle at economics is clearly outweighed by unconsciously placing it as an intellectual space compromised to the core by capitalism. The epistemic closure that comes with writing off a field of study as large and diverse as economics is incredibly dangerous.

The field is not some capitalist scheme to brainwash individuals (most American economists are in favor of redistribution, safety regulations, and public schools). Likewise, while complaints about it being a discipline of groundless theorizing — with no basis in reality — may have been true in the past, economics as a discipline is increasingly moving in the direction of being predictive of real-world behavior. Economics is compromised, but what isn’t in our fallen world?

But more importantly, in rejecting economics entirely, the left has let liberals, libertarians, and conservatives get lazy. The actual story of neoclassical economics is one of them trying to twist intellectual weapons towards their own ends. The ideological weaknesses that were brushed aside in building the justifications for the privilege they have today still remain, these structural flaws still remain in their arguments, just waiting to be rediscovered. What they currently perceive as the fortress they can retreat to when all else is lost, is in fact a discursive deathtrap riddled with countless defects that not only let us move through fluidly, but is also double as a well-stocked arsenal of insights to bolster our arguments on other fronts. Oh and that’s not even getting into the problem of talking about computational complexity in the age of ubiquitous computing without touching on the economic calculation problem.

Contrast all this with a leftism grounded in the reactionary notion of somehow being untouched and pure from contact with economics, something that can only put forward moralistic injunctions or emotional appeals to reach others and has to awkwardly exist with cognitive dissonance around the most important technology of our era. To give up any hope of strategic analysis of how the systems we seek to take to pieces work because doing so makes us uncomfortable.

I know which one I want to be a part of.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory