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<html>
<head>
<title>B.5 Is capitalism empowering and based on human action?</title>
</head>
<body>
<h1>B.5 Is capitalism empowering and based on human action?</h1>
<p>
A key element of the social vision propounded by capitalism, particularly
"libertarian" capitalism, is that of "voting" by the "customer," which 
is compared to political voting by the "citizen." According to Milton
Friedman, <i>"when you vote in the supermarket, you get precisely what you
voted for and so does everyone else."</i> Such "voting" with one's pocket
is then claimed to be an example of the wonderful "freedom" people enjoy
under capitalism (as opposed to "socialism," always equated by 
right-wingers with <b>state</b> socialism, which will be discussed in 
<a href="secHcon.html">section H</a>). However, in evaluating this claim, the difference between 
customers and citizens is critical.
<p>
The customer chooses between products on the shelf that have been designed
and built by others for the purpose of profit. The consumer is the
end-user, essentially a spectator rather than an actor, merely choosing
between options created elsewhere by others. Market decision making is
therefore fundamentally <b>passive</b> and <b>reactionary,</b> i.e. based on reacting
to developments initiated by others. In contrast, the "citizen" is
actively involved, at least ideally, in all stages of the decision making
process, either directly or through elected delegates. Therefore, given
decentralised and participatory-democratic organisations, decision making
by citizens can be <b>pro-active,</b> based on human <b>action</b> in which one
takes the initiative and sets the agenda oneself. Indeed, most supporters
of the "citizen" model support it precisely <b>because</b> it actively involves
individuals in participating in social decision making, so creating an
educational aspect the process and developing the abilities and powers 
of those involved.
<p>
In addition, the power of the consumer is not evenly distributed across
society. Thus the expression "voting" when used in a market context expresses
a radically different idea than the one usually associated with it. In
political voting everyone gets one vote, in the market it is one vote per
dollar. What sort of "democracy" is it that gives one person more votes
than tens of thousands of others combined?
<p>
Therefore the "consumer" idea fails to take into account the differences
in power that exist on the market as well as assigning an essentially
passive role to the individual. At best they can act on the market as
isolated individuals through their purchasing power. However, such a
position is part of the problem for, as E.F. Schumacher argues, the 
<i>"buyer is essentially a bargain hunter; he is not concerned with the 
origin of the goods or the conditions under which they have been 
produced. His sole concern is to obtain the best value for money."</i> 
He goes on to note that the market <i>"therefore respects only the surface
of society and its significance relates to the momentary situation 
as it exists there and then. There is no probing into the depths of 
things, into the natural or social facts that lie behind them."</i> 
[<b>Small is Beautiful</b>, p. 29]
<p>
Indeed, the "customer" model actually works <b>against</b> any attempt to 
"probe" the facts of things. Firstly, consumers rarely know the significance 
or implications of the goods they are offered because the price mechanism 
withholds such information from them.  Secondly, because the atomistic 
nature of the market makes discussion about the "why" and "how" of 
production difficult -- we get to choose between various "whats". 
Instead of critically evaluating the pros and cons of certain economic 
practices, all we are offered is the option of choosing between things 
already produced. We can only <b>re</b>-act when the damage is already done 
by picking the option which does least damage (often we do not have even 
that choice). And to discover a given products social and ecological 
impact we have to take a pro-active role by joining groups which provide 
this sort of information (information which, while essential for a 
rational decision, the market does not and cannot provide).
<p>
Moreover, the "consumer" model fails to recognise that the decisions we
make on the market to satisfy our "wants" are determined by social and
market forces. What we are capable of wanting is relative to the forms of
social organisation we live in. For example, people choose to buy cars
because General Motors bought up and destroyed the tram network in the
1930s and people buy "fast food" because they have no time to cook 
because of increasing working hours. This means that our decisions within 
the market are often restricted by economic pressures. For example, the 
market forces firms, on pain of bankruptcy, to do whatever possible
to be cost-effective. Firms that pollute, have bad working conditions 
and so on often gain competitive advantage in so doing and other firms
either have to follow suit or go out of business. A "race to the bottom"
ensures, with individuals making "decisions of desperation" just to 
survive. Individual commitments to certain values, in other words, may
become irrelevant simply because the countervailing economic pressures 
are simply too intense (little wonder Robert Owen argued that the profit 
motive was <i>"a principle entirely unfavourable to individual and public 
happiness"</i>). 
<p>
And, of course, the market also does not, and cannot, come up with goods that 
we do not want in our capacity as consumers but desire to protect for future 
generations or because of ecological reasons. By making the protection of
the planet, eco-systems and other such "goods" dependent on the market,
capitalism ensures that unless we put our money where our mouth is we can 
have no say in the protection of such goods as eco-systems, historical sites,
and so on. The need to protect such "resources" in the long term is ignored
in favour of short-termism -- indeed, if we do not "consume" such products
today they will not be there tomorrow. Placed within a society that the
vast majority of people often face difficulties making ends meet, this 
means that capitalism can never provide us with goods which we would like
to see available as <b>people</b> (either for others or for future generations or
just to protect the planet) but cannot afford or desire as <b>consumers.</b>
<p>
It is clearly a sign of the increasing dominance of capitalist ideology
that the "customer" model is being transferred to the political arena. 
This reflects the fact that the increasing scale of political institutions
has reinforced the tendency noted earlier for voters to become passive
spectators, placing their "support" behind one or another "product" (i.e.
party or leader). As Murray Bookchin comments, <i>"educated, knowledgeable
citizens become reduced to mere taxpayers who exchange money for
'services.'"</i> [<b>Remaking Society</b>, p. 71] In practice, due to state
centralism, this turns the political process into an extension of the
market, with "citizens" being reduced to "consumers." Or, in Erich Fromm's
apt analysis, <i>"The functioning of the political machinery in a democratic
country is not essentially different from the procedure on the commodity
market. The political parties are not too different from big commercial
enterprises, and the professional politicians try to sell their wares to
the public."</i> [<b>The Sane Society</b>, pp. 186-187]
<p>
But does it matter? Friedman suggests that being a customer is <b>better</b>
than being a citizen as you get "precisely" what you, and everyone else,
wants.
<p>
The key questions here are whether people always get what they want when
they shop. Do consumers who buy bleached newsprint and toilet paper
<b>really</b> want tons of dioxins and other organochlorides in rivers, lakes
and coastal waters? Do customers who buy cars <b>really</b> want traffic jams,
air pollution, motorways carving up the landscape and the greenhouse effect? 
And what of those who do not buy these things? They are also affected by the 
decisions of others. The notion that only the consumer is affected by his 
or her decision is nonsense -- as is the childish desire to get "precisely" 
what you want, regardless of the social impact. 
<p>
Perhaps Friedman could claim that when we consume we also approve of its
impact. But when we "vote" on the market we cannot say that we approved of 
the resulting pollution (or distribution of income or power) because that 
was not a choice on offer. Such changes are <b>pre-defined</b> or an aggregate 
outcome and can only be chosen by a collective decision. In this way we 
can modify outcomes we could bring about individually but which harm us 
collectively. And unlike the market, in politics we can <b>change our 
minds</b> and revert back to a former state, undue the mistakes made. No 
such option is available on the market.
<p>
So Friedman's claims that in elections <i>"you end up with something different 
from what you voted for"</i> is equally applicable to the market place.
<p>
These considerations indicate that the "consumer" model of human action is 
somewhat limited (to say the least!). Instead we need to recognise the 
importance of the "citizen" model, which we should point out includes the
"consumer" model within it. Taking part as an active member of the
community does not imply that we stop making individual consumption 
choices between those available, all it does is potentially enrich our 
available options by removing lousy choices (such as ecology or profit,
cheap goods or labour rights, family or career).  
<p>
In addition we must stress its role in developing those who practice
the "citizen" model and how it can enrich our social and personal life. 
Being active within participatory institutions fosters and develops 
an active, "public-spirited" type of character. Citizens, because they 
are making <b>collective</b> decisions have to weight other interests <b>as 
well as</b> their own and so consider the impact on themselves, others, 
society and the environment of possible decisions. It is, by its very 
nature, an educative process by which all benefit by developing their 
critical abilities and expanding their definition of self-interest to 
take into account themselves as part of a society and eco-system 
<b>as well as</b> as an individual. The "consumer" model, with its passive 
and exclusively private/money orientation develops few of people's 
faculties and narrows their self-interest to such a degree that 
their "rational" actions can actually (indirectly) them.
<p>
As Noam Chomsky argues, it is <i>"now widely realised that the economists 
'externalities' can no longer be consigned to footnotes. No one who gives 
a moment's thought to the problems of contemporary society can fail to be 
aware of the social costs of consumption and production, the progressive 
destruction of the environment, the utter irrationality of the utilisation 
of contemporary technology, the inability of a system based on profit or 
growth maximisation to deal with needs that can only be expressed 
collectively, and the enormous bias this system imposes towards 
maximisation of commodities for personal use in place of the general 
improvement of the quality of life..."</i> [<b>Radical Priorities</b>, p. 223]
<p>
Thus "citizen" model takes on board the fact that the sum of rational 
individual decisions may not yield a rational collective outcome (which, 
we must add, harms the individuals involved and so works against their 
self-interest). Social standards, created and enriched by a process of 
discussion and dialogue can be effective in realms where the atomised 
"consumer" model is essentially powerless to achieve constructive social 
change, nevermind protect the individual from "agreeing" to "decisions of 
desperation" that leave them and society as a whole worse off (see also
sections <a href="secE4.html">E.4</a> and <a href="secE5.html">E.5</a>). 
<p>
This is <b>not</b> to suggest that anarchists desire to eliminate individual
decision making, far from it. An anarchist society will be based upon
individual's making decisions on what they want to consume, where they
want to work, what kind of work they want to do and so on. So the aim 
of the "citizen" model is not to "replace" the "consumer" model,
but only to improve the social environment within which we make our 
individual consumption decisions. What the "citizen" model of human 
action desires is to place such decisions within a social framework, 
one that allows to take an active part in improving the quality of 
life for us all by removing "Hobson choices" as far as possible. 
<p>
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