- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Capitalism's illusion of choice

Posted by: Samuel Day Fassbinder ( Citizens for Mustard Greens, USA ) on July 07, 1999 at 10:10:11:

Today you might be thinking that the personal choices available to the individual under capitalism are vast and glorious. Coke or Pepsi, Marlboro or Camel, Sony or Maxell, Right Guard or Degree, the capitalist world presents the consumer with what appears to be an incredible world of choices, all available at your local 7-11, Wal-Mart, Target, or K-mart. 31 flavors of ice cream, thousands of fashion styles, in all colors, shapes, and sizes.

But, when we choose to consume, we make only one choice, for only one world. We choose global warming. We choose the continued domination of a energy shortfall and dieoff. When we make consumer choices under capitalism, we choose short-term satisfaction or dissatisfaction while also choosing social alienation and long-term ecological risk.

It should also be seen that the choice of a consumer society is a choice that has been prepared in advance. Whole armies of people work day and night to prepare the ground for the "choice" you feel while strolling through your local shopping mall, and furthermore they work to make sure that that "choice" is the choice you choose. You didn't choose to be born, you didn't choose to be born to your parents, and you didn't choose to be born into your current social reality within capitalist society. Therefore, your choice of job, your choice of social clique, your choice of clothing at your local department store, these are all choices where the ground was prepared in advance by choices you didn't make. And therefore their basic direction, the direction of capitalist society, is a direction you didn't choose. Under capitalist society, your choices are basically one choice, therefore.

Now, at the beginning of Charles Darwin's THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, a fundamental law of population biology is mentioned. I have in mind the law regulating species that are too successful for their niches. People think of Charles Darwin as related to some cliché about "survival of the fittest," but, after all, that's really Thomas Henry Huxley, and Darwin really did consider what happens when a species is too fit to survive. (Regardless of Darwin's reputation, THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES is basically about niche theory, more specifically the theory that every species has its niche, its place of survival, within the overall ecology.) At any rate, a species that is too successful for its niche overpopulates its niche, and then proceeds to "eat out" its place in the food chain. Too many of a particular species will result in too few of the species that comprise its food supply., thus resulting in a reduction in species numbers as that species starves for lack of food. And some species have in fact adapted to this law of population biology. Lemmings suicide in great numbers as a species-survival mechanism, instinctively avoiding the above dilemma of population biology. Darwin mentioned. If they did not do so, they would create the conditions for their own mass-starvation: overpopulation. Darwin thus theorized that the most successful species would be species that would be successful, but not too successful at survival at their niches. Call it "survival of the above-average fit" if you will.

Darwin did not consider human beings to be part of his version of the drama of ecology. But what if human beings are in fact too successful for their niche? Already we read of rumblings about overpopulation. And it bears exploration to understand what "eating out our place in the food chain" means for humanity under late capitalism. Not only do people eat people-food (a rather diverse category of plants and animals, to be sure), we predate upon the ecology as a whole. When we choose to consume, we choose to appropriate something for ourselves, that was the niche of some other organism. Not only do we eat, though, we chop down forests for paper and wood and agricultural land, we alter the landscape for agricultural cultivation (while disturbing its animal balances with pesticides), we turn the land into a paved-over and built-up set of machines, the cities and suburbs and shopping malls, we mine the earth for oil and change the composition of the atmosphere with the resultant carbon dioxide created through its combustion. The very groundwork for capitalism is a human predation upon, and consumption of, the natural environment. Therefore, exploitation under capitalism is far beyond and above the sort of exploitation that, for instance, elephants do when they consume whole trees for food, because humanity exploits for more than mere food purposes.

And human beings are an extraordinarily successful species -- no other land animal species of such a size has ever created such numbers of its own kind, while altering the ecology to widen its niches so dramatically as people. So how has humanity so far avoided Darwin's dilemma of niche survival? Human beings are extraordinarily versatile in being able to live in a wide variety of niches. We're also rather versatile in our exploitation of "natural resources" -- when a resource is extinguished, we tend to move to the use of other resources. (When there are no other resources to be extinguished, however, this is when the lesson of Easter Island kicks in.) We have large brains and great technological capacity, and so far, this is how humanity has, so far, vastly increased its numbers while avoiding the dilemma of population biology.

But, in assuming that humanity will continue to exploit capitalistically forever, we play a high-stakes game against the forces of entropy. Natural resources become consumer items, which we throw away when they become trash. The natural processes of recycling do not "naturally" keep up with the aggregate pace of human consumption, and human recycling is itself merely another form of resource consmuption.. No amount of resource substitution will itself reduce the carbon dioxide content in the air, nor will resource substitution be fast enough or cheap enough (under capitalism) to end human dependency upon oil before the end of the era of cheap oil. Not all forms of society will survive in the world of the future as it is created by capitalism; they will fall prey to the laws of population biology. And human society will become less flexible when the oil prices rise for good -- it's time to act now.

So what remains of choice? When we vote Green, for instance, we choose more than a product, but in voting Green, we build upon the prior effort expended in creating a Green Party and supporting a Green candidate. We can choose the form of society we live in, but choosing consumeristically isn't going to choose anything other than the society we now have. To choose otherwise, we must work for social change.

In this regard, it hardly matters what ideological banner you work under. Ideological banners come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, and might as well be on sale in the banner section of your local Wal-Mart anyway. It does matter what you do, what choices you create for others, and it does matter how you do it, what relations you create for others, though it doesn't matter what you say, talk is a cheap commodity these days. Remember my discussion of capitalist society, that people worked over a long period of time to establish it as the society they chose. To be allowed to choose other forms of society, we must build the ground for those other choices to happen.

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