November 19, 2013

Re-thinking Buy Nothing Day

Fred Vorhees,
Special to Rebel Youth

Who said individualist uncoordinated consumer boycotts don't work? I just heard Buy Nothing Day was a great success. Hooray, the revolution has arrived!

In case you haven't heard, Buy Nothing Day is an international day of protest against consumerism held on Black Friday, usually at the end of November.  According to Wikipedia, "Buy Nothing Day was founded in Vancouver by artist Ted Dave and subsequently promoted by Adbusters magazine [...] as a day for society to examine the issue of over-consumption."

It strikes me that there is a weird parallel between Buy Nothing Day and the ideology of Neoliberals.  Now there's a wild idea. But consider the following.

1. Capitalism is a democracy where everyone votes with their dollar.

It seems like a weird disconnect to say on one hand: "80% of people have only 20% of wealth and 1% have 30% of the wealth" and then in the next breath say "As consumers we can shape the world we live in with the money we spend"

This is reminiscent of right-wing neo-liberal economist Ludwig von Mises, who famously wrote:

"When we call a capitalist society a consumers’ democracy we mean that the power to dispose of the means of production, which belongs to the entrepreneurs and capitalists, can only be acquired by means of the consumers’ ballot, held daily in the marketplace."

2. Anger into consumer profile

Buy Nothing Day also seems to buy into the marketing of corporations. After all, BND turns outrage into a market segment. "Tired of having us poisoning you with water bottles that containing Bisphenol A (BPA)? Try purchasing our premium eco friendly BPA free water bottles."

3. We've got all the facts

The individual personal boycotters also seem to share the ideology of neo-liberalism in that they assume we all have perfect information on the labour standards of every factory, environmental standards etc.  By picking the "right" factory overseas to buy from, we can change the world.

Of course, this basically treats the entire economy as if government spending, or business to business spending, or investment spending doesn't exist. How can I impact the labour standards of a ball bearing factory with my purchasing decisions?

And there's another problem with BND that needs to be considered from an economic standpoint: income.

Income can be spent or saved.

I assume the BND folks don't put the money they saved on 'buy nothing day' under their bed. They probably put it in a bank. But the bank doesn't keep money in the vault, they lend it out to people who are going to spend it.

So the extra money sitting in the bank accounts of people participating in Buy Nothing Day is literally loaned out to other people who are borrowing money to buy things... on Black Friday.

Of course, if the money left in a checking account couldn't be lent out this would be a different story, but there is currently no 100% reserve requirement banking system anywhere in the world.

Let's say I only buy the necessities of life and save the rest. Savings is just delayed consumption. You can't take it with you. It gets spent eventually assuming you aren't burning it.

Necessities of life

I'd also suggest that "too much consumption" is not actually a problem we face.

It's true that you don't need to go out and buy the latest thing, and I'd agree anyone who says that demand is largely manufactured.

Many Canadians have money in excess of my expenditures. But that isn't the case for the majority of people in the world -- nor everyone living in this country.

Try telling a racialized mother in Canada that we can solve our problems if she just bought less stuff and focused only on buying necessities.

This is why I think it is ineffective for the 99% to try to change the system as consumers because the nature of inequality means we don't actually have much discretionary spending after rent, debt servicing, food, etc. compared to the total size of the economy.

Relative under-consumption

The most common economic crisis we face is that there is a relative over-production of things compared to the amount of stuff we can actually afford to buy on our wages.

Capitalist countries routinely need to burn food, dump goods on countries in the globlal south and destroy produced goods because people don't have money to buy it. When people can't buy the goods, the economy crashes.

This happens fairly regularly under capitalism.

Analysis also shows that most climate-change causing pollution in the world is caused by big energy and resource extraction companies -- not working people.

But boycotts aren't bad.

All this isn't to oppose the concept of a mass organized boycott. That's a serious tactic that should be approached in an organized way so that it means something when someone calls for a boycott.

The purpose of an 'action' is to get a 'reaction' out of your opposition. Individualist, uncoordinated boycotts aren't likely to get a reaction out of anyone.

Boycotts should only been seen as a tactic to achieve a goal instead of being the goal in itself. Ultimately, a consumerism approach takes class out of the equation and actually weakens the tactical value of an organized boycott.

My alternative is that we organize as people who work for a living rather than trying to organize around how we spend whatever we have left over at the end of the day -- since most working people don't actually have much left over at the end of the day.

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