Greetings, internet land! As usual I have picked the absolute perfect time to return to my ranting ways – just as uni goes back for the year. Go me! I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I wasn’t trying to do sixty-five million things more than I have time for. But who needs sleep, right?
I thought I’d start with something light and fluffy, since it’s been so long since we last… spoke…? Since I last lectured you…? Well, whatever, I’m starting with neo-liberal capitalism, I know you’ll totally love it.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I absolutely hate being offered those reward program cards in literally Every Single Shop these days. No, dear shop assistant, I don’t want to give my personal details to more people and get more emails about shit I don’t need and spend the next ten minutes listening to you explain why this is such a big deal. I just want to buy this one thing, that I only buy every six months or so, and get out of this shop before any more people want to talk to me. It’ll save me money, you say?
IF YOU CAN GIVE AWAY CARDS THAT SAVE ME MONEY, WHY CAN’T YOU JUST CHARGE ME LESS IN THE FIRST PLACE?!?!
Okay, so obviously this is a pet peeve of mine. But more than being a minor annoyance, these reward programs are really a symptom of a deeper problem with the capitalist system we live under – neo-liberal capitalism. Yay, technical terms! If you already know this term, feel free to skip this paragraph. For those who don’t know the term, neo-liberal capitalism is a system that believes in a free, unregulated market, minimal government intervention, and has a strong focus on the individual as responsible for their own fate. In other words, neo-liberalism is really shit at supporting vulnerable people via social welfare (since it wants individuals to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and take care of themselves, regardless of their circumstances), and really really shit at addressing inequality in any way, shape or form.
In fact, neo-liberal capitalism relies on the persistence of inequality to maintain itself. For this capitalist system to work, someone has to get royally screwed. Well, several someones. The aim of a capitalist is to get rich. The attraction of capitalism is the myth that anyone can get rich, anyone can ‘succeed’ if they ‘try hard enough’. Just not everyone. Because if everyone was equally mega-rich, mega-richness would be meaningless, and the whole system would collapse. So this system needs a bunch of people to ‘fail’ – if by ‘fail’, you mean not be a money-grubbing arsehole who’d sell out their own grandmother for a dollar, since that’s usually the kind of attitude it takes to ‘make it’ in a neo-liberal capitalist society. For every rich person, capitalism needs to create hundreds of un-rich people in order for it to mean anything. This is the system we live in, every day.
So that’s neo-liberal capitalism in a nutshell. What do reward programs have to do with it, you ask? Well, a key feature of neo-liberal capitalism is consumption. To maintain a system built on financial markets, we need a constant exchange of money rolling back and forth. To increase the profits of the corporations in which ‘successful’ capitalists hold shares, we need to get people to spend more, to buy more, to consume more. I recently read Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, and on section is about a potential future human society where people are required by law to spend a certain amount of money every week. It sounds ridiculous when you describe it so literally, but the scary part is that we’re actually not that far away from this kind of society. If all of us decided we had enough stuff, the world would collapse. Thousands of people would be out of work, whole countries would go bankrupt. This is how fragile our system is. It relies on the blind consumption of goods at an ever-increasing rate, a rate that is simply unsustainable, and yet we accept it as the norm.
At the moment, our governments are not passing legislation to force us to spend money. That would be ridiculous (give it twenty or thirty years, though…). The coercion we experience is far more subtle, but just as harmful. Rather than making consumption a legal requirement, we have made it into a moral virtue. We judge people on their Stuff – I know, nothing new there, people have always been spaffbiscuits like that, but we are increasingly forming whole identities around what we own instead of who we are. Oh, on the surface, we admire people who choose to consume less, to grow their own food, for example, or harvest their own water, or sew their own clothes. But we also think they’re a little bit weird, so there’s not a whole lot of reward there. On a social level and a purely practical level, we are literally rewarded for consuming. And the more we consume, the more we are rewarded, to the point where we now expect to be rewarded. Well, what’s wrong with that, I hear you ask?
You’re obviously new here.
Firstly, if you’re rewarding people for consuming, then the rewards are obviously going to be felt most by those who can consume the most. In other words, the people who least need the rewards. The people who can afford to spend more money, get more discounts, more ‘special gifts’, earn more ‘points’ and whatever else these companies come up with. These are the people who can already afford MORE than they need. For the rest of us, the rewards are pretty thin on the ground. Instead, we get lumped with the price increase that these companies have stuck onto every single product in order to pay for their ‘rewards program’. Yup, that’s right. These companies aren’t just doing this to be nice. They’re doing it to get you to buy more stuff, at a higher price, and buy it from them instead of their competitors. And they’re doing it so they can make a profit. Company profits in Australia have increased over 20% in the last few years (while wages have actually decreased by half a percent), so they’re clearly not suffering from these attacks of generosity.
Meanwhile, those without a lot of money are paying more for the goods we actually need, while being judged for not having the Right Stuff, or for not having Enough Stuff. Not only do we miss out on the social capital that comes with buying Cool Things, it’s harder for us to feed and clothe ourselves with the absolute basics, because supermarkets love their reward programs, and prices have to go up to meet those costs. And because things are more expensive, we buy less, and get even fewer rewards, and… Yeah, you see where this is going. Being poor = not goodness. Neo-liberal capitalism = shitty. Glad we’re on the same page here.
Secondly, and I don’t think I need to go into detail about this: overconsumption is really shit for the environment. Like, really shit. We gotta stop before we start choking on our own refuse.
Thirdly, all this Stuff we’re consuming has to come from somewhere. And since we’re all about buying things cheaper, mass production and shitty slave labour is becoming even more of a thing. You remember when I said whole countries would go bankrupt if we stopped buying Stuff? I wasn’t kidding. There are small nations that rely on the presence of corporations to prop up their governments. Don’t think this means the corporations are paying their workers well, or even taking care of them – they pay the people in charge for the privilege of taking advantage of the citizens. You know that cute top you bought the other day? Those awesome shoes? Yeah… I have some bad news for you.
Yes, I do like to suck the joy out of everything, thank you for noticing.
Basically, neo-liberal capitalism is imperialist and racist as fuck. It runs on the slave labour of people of colour. It relies on creating an underclass of people in our own country who are so desperate for money they’ll work for less, and accept continuing encroachments on pay and conditions, conditions that we fought for and used to pride ourselves on. And because our country is also racist as fuck, people of colour are affected more than white people, simply because a higher percentage of poc live at the lower end of the wealth scale. Just as a higher percentage of queer and trans people suffer the same effects. Marginalised people bear the brunt of all this virtuous consumerism – and are then judged – and punished – by society for not participating in the consumption.
Now, all this isn’t really a consciously formed system. I’m not saying that Satan’s out there somewhere, sitting on a throne made of the skulls of sweat-shop workers, figuring out how he’ll force us all to mindlessly buy more stuff. This system was created by rich people who wanted to get richer and gave zero fucks about other human beings, and it is maintained by the same people. This system is run on myths – myths that most of us believe without thinking about it – and self-interest. The only way to combat it is to open our eyes to those myths – and to stop participating in them.
Next time someone offers you a reward card, ask yourself: what am I really saving? And what does it really cost?
All Rights Reserved to Cambery Payne 2017. Acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.
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