Interview: The Wet One
Bad Boss: Like A Bastard
Unions: Demolition Derby
Corporate: The Bush Doctrine
Politics: American Jihad
Health: Secret Country
Review: Walking On Water
Poetry: The UQ Stonewall
Month In Review
The Locker Room
The Legacy of 11/9
The CFMEU Race Debate #2
Keeping it Clean
Sue the Leaders?
Wrong Way, Go Back
Shame on Murray
Use or Abuse of Long Term Casuals
Speaking in Tongues
The Bush Doctrine
President Bush puts it simply in his 'National Security Strategy': 'If you can make something that others value you should be able to sell it to them. If others make something that you value, you should be able to buy it. This is real freedom...'. Freedom is the freedom to buy and sell. Global consumers get the freedom to buy what global corporations want to sell them. For the US, defending this freedom is an issue of National Security. Bush makes the point clearly enough: 'Free markets and free trade are key priorities of our national security strategy.'
There are good reasons why Bush invokes National Security to support 'free markets'. The extension of consumerism across the globe, and into every facet of life, is a key foundation for wealth accumulation. Some argue it is the foundation. With corporate globalism, corporations can constantly threaten to relocate, and thus gain crucial leverage both over governments and workers. The difficulty for corporations now is not so much how to produce, but how to sell. With a downturn in the proportion of global income going to consumers, markets are disappearing. Corporations face a realization crisis: it is relatively easy to convert capital into commodities, it is much harder to find a market for those commodities, or at least one that yields a profit.
In this context, the scramble for market share becomes all-important, not just for the future of one company or the other, but for the future of the entire system. Finance capital is increasingly unproductive and the resulting financialisation of assets can be hugely destructive. Today, ninety per cent of international financial flows are speculative. The world is plagued with speculative booms and busts - destabilizing whole regions. Argentina is only the latest victim - the pendulum swings in the 'miracle' economies East Asia, volatility reigns on NASDAQ, self-proclaimed as the 'the world's first truly global' stock market.
In this context vast sums of money are spent, not on producing commodities, but on buying-up market share. Economists often point to the enormous growth in international investment - rising to ten per cent of global income in 2000, or US$3,500bln. But the bulk of this is merger and takeover activity, where mega-companies boost their share price by down-sizing their competitors, monopolising whole industrial sectors.
The result is dramatic concentration of market power in the hands of a few transnational corporations. Today two hundred TNCs account for a quarter of global sales. The extent of monopolization is sometimes astounding. Take agri-industry: five companies control seventy-five per cent of the grain market; ten companies control eighty per cent of pesticide sales; ten seed companies control a quarter of the world's seeds market. There are similar results in other sectors: five companies account for seventy per cent of computer sales; seven companies dominate the global media industry.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Vast resources are marshaled by these companies, acting together through various joint ventures, franchising, licencing and subcontracting arrangements. More than one third of international trade is trade within these companies, allowing them to manipulate markets and profiteer. Some indication of the power being exercised is in the field of innovation, where TNCs now control ninety per cent of all new patents, meaning they literally own the bulk of all new products.
The Bush doctrine offers more freedoms for corporations, backed up by the US military machine. But the hunt for market power, and the monopolization of society delivers us a strange kind of freedom. We are left with a choice between Macdonalds and Starbucks, Nike and Reebock, Gap and Levis, Coca-cola and Pepsi, Coles and Woolworths, Murdoch and Fairfax, Westpac and NAB, Qantas and ? In this context, Bush's consumerism offers us enslavement, not freedom. Many people recognize this, and mobilise against global consumerism. Instead of passively accepting what companies tell us, people are becoming increasingly skeptical. Here corporations become victims of their own success: the more visible they are, the more vulnerable they are. The yawning gulf between corporate claims and social reality is exploited, turning consumers against the corporations. How a product is produced and the company's impact on livelihood and living environments is fore-grounded. This is where consumerism ends and consumer activism begins.
Western countries, especially the US, are key sites for the new consumer activist. New connections are being forged between workers in Third World countries and consumers, creating new forms of 'conscientious' consumption. Trade unions are often at the forefront of these campaigns, forging new links with other social sectors, against the arbitrary exercise of corporate power. Campaigns for industry codes of conduct, often linked to labeling regimes are proliferating, from the garment trade to GM foods. These fair trade 'buycotts' have emerged as the flip side of consumer boycotts. At the same time, anti-consumerism is on the rise: the Italian 'slow food' movement, the US-based 'intentional simplicity' movement, the squatted 'social centres' that have spread across Europe, the 'Local Exchange' barter networks, the proclamation of 'buy nothing' or 'steal something' days, are all manifestations of the mounting revolt against consumerist values.
Counter-consumerism feeds off consumerism - the stronger the corporations, the more powerful the response. Monopolisation breeds contempt. But consumerism also feeds off its counters. Rebellious cultures are the stuff of advertising. Ironically, culture-jamming of corporate logos becomes the cutting edge of corporate advertising. Nike jams itself, and counter-consumerism becomes yet another branch of the corporate monolith. There is a an urgent debate to be had: how does counter-consumerism keep its momentum? How does it connect with the labour movement, and other movements, and maintain the rage?
A Public Lecture by the leading US critic of consumer culture, Thomas Frank, will be held at UTS Broadway on 9 October: for details call 9514 2714. James Goodman is editor of 'Protest and Globalisation: Prospects for Transnational Solidarity', Pluto Press, 2002.
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