There Really Is No Ethical (Individual) Consumption Under Capitalism

This piece is partially written as a rebuttal to “No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism” is a Thought-Stopping Cliche and Only Anarchists Are Pretty: An Anarchist Guide to Fashion

Anarchists, particularly AnComs, are fond of saying that ‘there is no ethical consumption under capitalism’ in response to any and all calls to change our consumption choices for ethical reasons. This has been much maligned, but I think that it’s worth understanding what that slogan means. 

Firstly, let’s examine a scenario: you, a principled and morally upstanding consumer, are presented with two products to fulfill the same need — GoodProduct and BadProduct. GoodProduct costs a dollar extra, but is manufactured in a way that is less immoral than the manufacturing of BadProduct. GoodProduct clearly advertises this, and your own research confirms their claims. Other than the price and morality, the two products are otherwise identical. Because buying that product lets you tell yourself that you’re a good person (certainly better than the people who bought BadProduct! Fuck those sociopaths!) you value it more than you would the extra dollar that you’re spending for it — so you buy GoodProduct. 

The issue here is that a bunch of other people are also principled and morally upstanding. This causes overall demand for GoodProduct to go up, and overall demand for BadProduct to go down. This means that the price of GoodProduct goes up, and the price of BadProduct goes down. Obviously, there are limits as to how low the price of BadProduct can fall — either the manufacturers make a profit, or they’ll go out of business. But, those same immoral production processes that the makers of BadProduct use probably make it cheaper to make — after all, why else would they be using them? Working child-slaves to death in a former uranium mine (or whatever) probably gives the makers of BadProduct a pretty low margin — so that price can keep going down for a while. 

If the price of BadProduct goes down far enough and/or the price of GoodProduct goes up enough, some people will start buying BadProduct instead of GoodProduct — people who might be moral enough to spend a dollar extra might not be moral enough to spend ten dollars extra, or twenty dollars, so on and so on.

This is pretty bad — after all, it seems like your individual, well-intentioned consumption choices didn’t actually push BadProduct out of the market. Not only this, but also: the net effect of this is that being a good person starts carrying a (metaphorical) ‘tax’ on it — whatever the difference between the costs of GoodProduct and BadProduct are. 

In “No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism” is a Thought-Stopping Cliche, Frank Miloslav said:

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 is, actually, exactly what I am saying — companies must ultimately compete, largely, on things other than our goodwill towards them. Where we spend our money doesn’t really matter in a broader moral sense, because markets are very big and we are very small parts of them. A product that fulfills needs will have consumers, and one that doesn’t won’t. GoodProduct is very unlikely to triumph over BadProduct. 

As an example, I should mention that in my hometown, there are two antifascist- and anarchist-friendly bars. I’ll call these CR and BW. Neither CR nor BW are cooperatives. They’re capitalist businesses who figured out that people like us are an exploitable business niche. CR is owned by a Jewish man, which perhaps influenced his decision to name his drinks things that neo-nazis find offensive. BW was a punk bar. Both attracted anarchists and have continued catering to them, not out of some particular grand political project, but because being ‘the place where anarchists can go for a drink, and maybe attend an anarchist centered event’ makes money. These businesses don’t make that money because we love supporting capitalists — they make that money because we like going to a place that seems safe for us and friendly to us. Within the market, businesses succeed not by doing the right thing but by doing the profitable thing — and it’s entirely up to wider, more structural, circumstances whether the right thing and the profitable thing coincide. 

There’s a further rub beyond that, though. The BadProduct v. GoodProduct situation I outlined earlier is actually an extremely ideal situation. The nature of these globalized supply chains (which rely on American imperialism to police shipping lanes and allow the easy travel for supercargo ships) and massively complicated webs of ownership of companies (a consequence of capitalism) means that you usually will have no idea whether something is GoodProduct or BadProduct. It’s not like BadProduct labels itself as such, and it’s not like companies can’t claim to be GoodProduct while actually lying. Plus, even if there really is a clearly GoodProduct and a BadProduct, they might be owned (directly or indirectly) by the same company. As a consumer, standing in the shopping center and perusing the shelves, you don’t know — and without hours or even days of research for every single purchase, you can’t know. There is no practical way to really be an ethical consumer within capitalism. 

Plus, every purchase is probably rewarding people who profit off of wage-labor, so it’s not like there are really moral choices — just less or more immoral ones. 

Markets aren’t reflective of our individual moral whims, and acting like they are is basically magical thinking. Markets are reflective of the institutions that they exist within — and right now, those institutions are mostly ‘the state’ and ‘private property’. If you want to actually drive unethical businesses and products out of the market, you have to engage in collective action of some sort — you have to help start unions and cooperatives, you have to organize massive and publicized boycotts rather than quiet individual ones, you have to sabotage their damn machines, you have to donate to charities that fight slavery, etc., etc.. Markets are big, and you have to team up with others if you want to change them.

The Anatomy of Escape
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
Free Markets & Capitalism?
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist