It's Not Consumerism, It's Capitalism / by Jennifer Chan


I write a lot about the antidote to mindless consumerism – frugality.

But I haven't yet discussed the important connection between consumerism and capitalism. In fact, rejecting consumerism is a very anti-capitalist notion.

In the personal finance blogosphere, we constantly advocate saving more, consuming less and striving towards financial independence.

We can’t wait to free ourselves from the chains of our office cubicle. We exclaim how amazing it will feel to survive without a salary. We find excitement in discussing how one day we'll wake up and design our own day. We'll no longer work because we're forced to – we’ll work because we want to. Complete control of our lives.

Don’t get me wrong – I completely agree with this sentiment. I also dream of financial independence.

That’s why I have no problem in discussing the one thing that's preventing me from achieving this freedom right now – the capitalist labour market. Ugh!

But yes, the sad reality is that the capitalist labour market is the reason we are all still working a 9-5 job, diligently squirrelling money away into our high-interest piggy banks, and dreaming about the future to come.

Why do I detest the capitalist political economy so much? As I previously mentioned, the idea that we can voluntarily leave our jobs is a false choice. Yes, we can technically quit. Our employers aren't locking us in a room and forcing us to stay. But that doesn’t change the reality that food, shelter, and other basic necessities of life, require money. And unless you are a farmer, carpenter, and an overall bad-ass life engineer – you won't be able to sustain you and your family all by your lonesome.

The nature of a capitalist economy is that employers profit when there is a steady supply of labour-power. Workers offer labour-power to employers, in exchange for money that they desperately need to survive. Because workers rely more on their employer than visa-versa, workers are less inclined to assert themselves when their employer takes advantage of them. Even if an employer is perfectly pleasant to his/her workers, the power imbalance that exists between the two remains constant, and always favours the employer.

When we (as workers) rely less on employers for our survival, we gain strength to stand up against low wages and poor working conditions. Imagine being able to politely raise your hand and say, “Thanks, but no thanks. You need me more than I need you. Offer me something better or I'm walking out the door.” I don't even think an employer would know how to react - their jaw being permanently glued to the floor.

Don't forget, in a capitalist economy it's the employers that need labour-power in order to generate profits. Without a workforce, their stuck in the mud.

Now, what can be done to reduce the power inequality between worker and employer? Expanding the coverage of the welfare state is a good place to start. Having robust universal health care, for example. Maybe it's the Canadian in me, but I believe workers should be able to leave terrible jobs and still get access to critical health services. Another suggestion is introducing a universal basic income program. Employers would have a much more difficult time exploiting workers if workers didn't depend solely on wages offered by employers.

“This all sounds great, but won’t these programs make workers lazy?” you ask. Good question! I really don't believe so. We need to give up this antiquated notion that being busy is the same as being productive. We also need to eliminate the idea that increasing work hours - and correspondingly, decreasing leisure time -  is healthy for workers. Tons of studies have concluded that happier and healthier workers perform much better in the workplace. And when workers are given the dignity of a living wage and decent working conditions, the results are even more astounding.

Note: Happy workers = Higher profits

Finally, we need to desperately refute the position that people who don’t have the capacity or opportunity to work are somehow unworthy of the basic necessities of life.

Generating labour is not a necessity to earning money. There is no better example than earning passive income through stock dividends – which require zero output of labour from the investor.

I have no problem with wanting to highlight the perils of consumerism, but let’s not dance around the root of the problem: laissez-form capitalism. Once we start talking openly and honestly about the shortcomings of our economic structure, the sooner we can start crafting workable solutions to reduce them.