Explaining the Phrase "There's No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism."
We can't "ethically consume" our way out of a flawed economy.
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Recently, an acquaintance of mine who reads my writing asked what “There’s No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism” means. As I’m sure many others have the same question, it’s worth flushing out this cliche to understand why it is more than just an edgy phrase we Leftists can put in our Twitter bios.
“There’s no ethical consumption under Capitalism” is a common saying in Leftist spaces, where it carries both positive and negative effects. On one hand, it succinctly explains how it is the Capitalist system that needs changing and no amount of well-meaning consumer choices can fix our societal problems. But on the other hand, it is common for this phrase to be used as a “get-out-jail-free card” by those who want to avoid criticism for perpetuating Capitalist exploitation or choosing the worst possible consumer options.
Capitalism’s Original Sins
At a core level, “There’s no ethical consumption under Capitalism” means exactly as it sounds. You, the individual consumer, exist in a Capitalist society, in which natural resources and the means of production (the businesses/tools/software that produce goods and services) are the private property of individuals, who are called Capitalists.
These Capitalists have one goal: to make a profit. To achieve this goal, they employ workers who the means of production to produce goods and services that will be sold to consumers. In order to make a profit, the Capitalists must pay their workers less than the full value of what the workers produce. The difference between the full value of what the workers produced and what they are paid is taken by the Capitalist. This is where profit comes from. (If you’re curious to learn more about how profit is created, check out this full-length explainer.)
It is the view of Leftists that this process of production — in which one person (a worker) does the work only to have the value of their work (profit) taken by another person (the Capitalist) — is unethical, exploitative, and an improper way to structure society. Human labor is the paramount ingredient in any production process, as, unlike hammers and computers, it comes from the most precious and wonderful resource in the known universe — conscious life. Without the constant input of humanity into the production process, nothing happens. No sneakers are sewn, no PlayStations are shipped, and no cars are sold; the economy stops.
It’s crucial to note there are varying degrees of this worker exploitation. A recent expose from The New York Times detailed the horrific levels of child labor happening in the U.S., particularly among migrant children. It is undeniable children who are forced to pick crops in the sweltering heat for pennies are more exploited than white-collar tech workers. But nevertheless, as Capitalism requires all workers to be paid less than the full value of their labor, any form of Capitalist production involves some degree of exploitation.
Explaining “No Ethical Consumption”
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