What Was Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism?
January 26, 2023 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Adherence to TINECUC ["there is no ethical consumption under capitalism"] allows organizers to focus on building solidarity between workers or community members rather than buyers, whose common interests may be superficial. It is also, in a world system of production based on exploitation, a factually true statement, insofar as no purchase of anything made with exploited labor has any business branding itself “ethical.” But the unexamined phrase isn’t worth using; before people start attributing TINECUC to Marx or Lenin, we should figure out how Sandinista beans turned into Starbucks — and how anti-consumerist politics fell out of fashion on the American left.
posted by jshttnbm (44 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Enjoying this piece. A couple things jumped out at me.

First, the mention of boycotts. The big failure of attempts at "ethical consumerism" is that they're highly individualized. Boycotts aren't about your choice - they're about organizing a mass action to have a concrete economic effect on your opponent to force your hand. They're about building political power - not establishing your identity as a consumer.

Second, the invocation of TINECUC "to mean its inverse: there is also no particularly unethical consumption under capitalism." I've definitely heard "there's no ethical capitalism" used to dismiss concerns in an almost nihilistic support for the status quo. Big no to that!
posted by entropone at 7:13 AM on January 26 [18 favorites]

That phrase has been coming up a lot on my Twitter feed around the fast fashion debate.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:16 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

Just because there’s no ethical consumption doesn’t mean that all consumer choices are equally unethical. Just like with elections, we are often faced with a choice between bad and dire evil, and choosing bad is much better, even if it doesn’t feel good. It’s most important to work for systemic change, but avoiding the worst personal choices (like getting into crypto) is hardly an impossible task.

I was talking about this with folks earlier this week: having advertising wade into “wokeness” can feel kind of gross, but I’d rather see interracial families in Cheerios commercials than all white people. I’d rather see Dove cynically promoting positive body images than cynically promoting washing your vagina with bleach. Yes, it’s all bad, but some flavors of bad are worse than others.
posted by rikschell at 7:38 AM on January 26 [73 favorites]

I'm old enough to have lived through all that Starbucks stuff and yet I totally missed it because I don't drink coffee (not claiming a virtue, just don't like the stuff and get my caffeine fix other ways).
posted by gentlyepigrams at 7:57 AM on January 26

but avoiding the worst personal choices (like getting into crypto) is hardly an impossible task

Yes. The lesser evil IS the greater good
posted by kneecapped at 8:00 AM on January 26 [5 favorites]

but what about accelerationism surely if the proles are crushed beneath even more hideousness it will awaken a glorious revolution gotta go off to my bitcoin farm
posted by lalochezia at 8:19 AM on January 26 [9 favorites]

There are exceptions and complications, but as a first principle, consuming less is ethical consumption. And again with exceptions and complications, the amount you spend correlates very well to your real consumption.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:57 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

The RSA used to do these squeaky dry erase animations over edited lectures that helped me keep focus on topics I struggle to understand.

One of my favs was about this topic: First As Tragedy, Then as Farce.

Thank you for more reading material on the topic.
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 9:09 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

I wish I had the guts to be an anarchist.
posted by slogger at 9:54 AM on January 26

This was great. Thank you for linking. Really contextualizes how thinking has evolved on this basically during my life on the left. Unfortunately the conclusion was... deeply unsatisfying. But that's because this shit is hard. If we had a solution we would all be doing that. Capitalism adapts to our strategies.. as outlined in this article's explanation of the subsequent cooptation of Fair Trade.
posted by latkes at 9:57 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

Anyone can be an anarchist slogger! We welcome the brave and the timid (:
posted by latkes at 9:57 AM on January 26 [8 favorites]

man, that was a lot of words to get through (I cannot tell a lie -- I skimmed a bunch of them) to arrive at a conclusion (mine not the author's) that I'd already at arrived at long ago.

Simply put, I just don't think we're going to politics our way out of the various messes we're in. Not as a primary driver anyway. If there's a future worth building/fighting for, it's one whose foundations are at least as complex as humanity itself (and lets not forget the rest of creation).

Or (as the most successful strategy we have for realistically taking on drug addiction works it) -- it's going to take multiple pillars to build the thing* we need (political, ethical, scientific, philosophical, bureaucratic, artistic, you name it) with none of them being any more essential than the others, because then you just end up with a wobbly table (he said, getting overly reductive with the metaphor).

Power to the people (but not the Peoples Central Committee).

* "thing" is obviously the wrong word here; a thing is a noun and whatever we're hopefully building, it's got to have more dynamism and resilience and compassion than any noun I've ever encountered.
posted by philip-random at 10:15 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

OK I am reading TFA and I just have to stop and ask, did anyone else slam to a halt at
... leftists aren’t a cult of weirdos who will force you to learn a litany of inscrutable restrictions — something like the way a Unitarian minister might casually reference the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
and wonder "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 10:18 AM on January 26 [14 favorites]

I kind of tripped over "...the search dead-ended at the howling vortex of Tumblr" since it sounded like exactly the sort of thought terminating cliche the author was trying to tell people to avoid, but I just finished reading two books that went out of their way to shit on Tumblr so maybe I was looking for it.

If you're too lazy to follow a conversation on a platform just say so without declaring the platform to be gibbering madness.
posted by The Monster at the End of this Thread at 10:31 AM on January 26 [5 favorites]

While on one hand I’ve seen how criticisms of consumerism can disproportionately come down on, for instance femme people and leave them feeling like they will always be insufficiently leftist, I’ve also seen reflexive pushback on the idea of changing purchasing habits because someone else somewhere cannot based on their marginalized status which is very new.
posted by Selena777 at 10:39 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

One of the reasons for TINECUC is that there's a snowball effect of offshoring and real estate prices. From WWII up through the nineties, there was a material radical infrastructure that has almost totally eroded. If you were determined enough, you could often live your life almost entirely within radical structures, and if you were not quite determined enough you could still spend a lot of your time in that kind of milieu.

So back in the day, I used to know tons of people who, eg, lived in the city core, biked instead of having cars, worked at the radical [coffee shop, bookstore, co-op] or worked part time or worked for a small arts org or smaller more radical nonprofit and could still afford a room in a pleasant house or a large apartment. And of course, you could easily get good clothes at thrift stores. Dumpters weren't locked so in a pinch you could dumpster day-olds from the co-op or a fancy grocery store.

Now, I barely know any younger radicals who can live this way, because real estate prices and globalization mean that the small businesses that employed them are mostly gone and the only affordable housing is well out of bike range. Financialization and optimization techniques have spread and spread due to the internet and business culture, so the dumpsters are all locked now - that sounds silly, but it's symptomatic. It makes sense for businesses to make absolutely sure that there's no free, easily accessible food - they may donate at the end of the day to shelters (or they may not!) but the idea that you can just live on your own on the pickings of society is gone.

I'm sure there's some complex feedback loop with arms manufacturing and globalization that has led to the hypermilitarization of the police, too, and once you have hypermilitarized police you have to do something with them. Pair that with intensifying poverty and you get cleared homeless camps, crackdowns on fare evasion, intense policing of shoplifting, etc.

When I was coming up, it was fairly conventional that a little bit of shoplifting does you good. New technology means that a little bit of shoplifting can land you with a felony, and national databases mean that everything follows you all your life.

Overall, while of course some of that "no ethical consumption under capitalism" handwaving really is relatively well-off people justifying dropping $200 at Shein or on rip-offs of small artists or whatever, a lot of the force of the argument comes from the materially changed circumstances. It meant something in 1995 that you knew that with sufficient effort you could have a life fairly low on the food chain. You might not be able to or want to make those compromises, but the fact that they existed provided a metric.

This had its downside, of course ("I don't even watch television"; "oh, you have a car and you say it's because you're disabled, well, it's probably because you use a microwave and eat food whose nutrition has been destroyed, I bet you'd be biking everywhere f you were a raw food vegan"). But then, people being snobs and ableist assholes hasn't exactly gone away since 2000.

But the fact that this old culture is gone tells us a lot about the limits on our lives now - it was a LOT easier to try to consume ethically under capitalism in 1995.

In retrospect, obviously the nineties were just a time that has passed, but history is long, it's easy to feel that something is stable when it's not.
posted by Frowner at 10:44 AM on January 26 [66 favorites]

And because of lower housing costs and fewer credit checks, it was a lot easier to up sticks and move to the city. Try saving up and moving to the bay area or New York for the queer culture now, for instance - people still do it, but you have to be baseline richer and more connected.
posted by Frowner at 10:46 AM on January 26 [11 favorites]

My read of the author's conclusion:

We should consume as ethically as possible even now in a reality where that is much harder and brands have coopted the language of ethical consumption because buyers and workers must act in concert to win political demands and reduce harm, and also (less convincingly to me) because ethical choices taste better or are healthier.

If I were to elaborate this further I would argue that for buying choices to have power, ethical consumption projects must be intentional, planned, and linked with organizing projects, and those organizing projects must be linked internationally. So Starbucks Workers United, coffee growers around the world, and first world coffee consumers must collaborate with intention to win specific gains. When I write this out I see this as both true for achieving limited but important and potentially reproducible improvements for specific actors and totally useless for addressing the totality of harm from consumer culture.

Like, what this article doesn't talk about (which is fine, it's just one article!) is scale. Like even an immaculate and successful international solidarity project is essentially useless for meeting the moment of mass extinction and climate apocalypse to say nothing of human rights abuses, unless it could be reproduced at mass scale.

So my priors and this article lead me to keep thinking: If you're a liberal/progressive, your energy should go into policy changes that make 'consumer choice' happen at the mass scale (make more trains, make them cheap and electric, make gas very expensive, make good things cheap and easy and bad things heavily taxed, make companies that produce consumer goods pay the cost of their disposal, etc). Basically, make the government use it's levers to shift what consumer choices are possible.

And if you're a radical you should be blowing up pipelines or organizing workers to shut down production at harmful factories. Basically, we need interventions that scale.
posted by latkes at 11:02 AM on January 26 [9 favorites]

Upton Sinclair: The Jungle Two: Urban Bugaloo
posted by Jacen at 11:27 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

It's interesting to me that TINECUC could have been a rallying cry. TINECUC! but instead became a nihilistic way to excuse convenient behavior.

My pull quote would be this: "If we are engaged in a collective liberation project, then we can end the debates about the individual ethics of consumption and instead begin to develop a strategic, shared analysis of our movement’s needs."

I'm glad i read this and thanks for posting, though I'm not sure I would have if I had known how much ink was going to be wasted on talking about Zizek.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:27 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]

man, that was a lot of words to get through

It needed an editor to fix the unintended confusion or ambiguity in too many sentences. But he addresses a lot of stuff and that is enough to recommend it. Also, his conclusion to not drink Starbucks because it is bad coffee or a bad setting is a long way to read for his opinion on coffee. All we need to make better choices is reliable information which can inform the purchaser of the worst and least harm they may be doing by spending money on a product. That's difficult to do, because it's not subjective, but the internet makes it possible. The race to the bottom is real, but purchasing power by informed means can offset mind-numbing advertising.
posted by Brian B. at 11:42 AM on January 26

America loves this formulation, where the bad choice is the easy choice and the good choice is the hard choice, and any failure to enact good things on a mass scale are due to individual failings to be good enough. I see it in healthcare and prisons and schools and stores. It makes me so tired.
posted by q*ben at 11:43 AM on January 26 [5 favorites]

Also, his conclusion to not drink Starbucks because it is bad coffee or a bad setting

I don't even agree with this conclusion. Certainly in my town, the arrival of Starbucks actually raised the game of "good coffee" and good atmosphere. Suddenly, there was a franchise in the neighbourhood that was offering at least consistently okay coffee in an environment where the music wasn't awful, the washrooms got cleaned every now and then etc ...

I know the official narrative here on the (so-called) left is that Starbucks stomped in and undermined all manner of wonderful mom and pop outfits in the name of shareholder greed (which is not all untrue). But in my actual experience, I noticed some fairly dodgy outfits go down and others, like I said, getting serious about offering a better overall situation.

I do remain bemused by all the anti-Starbucks actions of the past few decades (the late 90s, early 00s in particular). A lot of it just felt like satire at the time.
posted by philip-random at 12:17 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]

I'd have to dig around to find the link, but I'm reminded of an insightful comment here some years back talking about interviews with labor activist sweatshop workers who were rallying for better conditions. They were wearing Nike shoes (or whichever company it was), & the interviewer asked them about it, basically repeating the above. "If you're against the conditions that made those shoes, why are you still giving money to the company putting you in those conditions?" (paraphrased)

Their answer was to the effect of seeing "personal purchasing decisions as manifestation of politics" as a very Western sort of thing, & that if collective effort was what was required to make changes why should individuals deprive themselves if that's not what's going to make things happen?

I'm sure I'm misremembering & overparaphrasing, but that stuck with me. I think we latch on to the idea of personal virtue since it's what's within our reach, & what we can exhort others to do, & there's so much messaging emphasizing it. Look at the historical push to make recycling an individual responsibility to avoid regulatory constraints on companies. It can be hard to uproot that sort of thing within you, even if it's not at the surface anymore.

As noted above, it's also reflected in the shift in the concept of "Boycott" from "we will shun you, we won't work your fields, we won't deliver your mail, we won't sell you food, we won't trade with you" to "we will collectively not use your geographically-restricted service for months on end, setting up community carpools & fundraising for alternatives for the duration of the collective action" to "We'll sign up on a list saying we aren't buying your thing, whether or not we were buying it before that". Now it's diffused to a general personal-ethics sort of thing, like fair-trade chocolate.

I'm also reminded of the sort of fuzziness that happens when people see labor actions & immediately jump to "ok, stop using the service indefinitely, but not on a specific date or anything" even when the labor org in question is going "Wait, hold on, you're not doing us any favors here & in fact are making it harder to negotiate with management *before* we get to the point of a strike". People want to do something, this is something, QED...

I'm not sure what my conclusion is, I think it's good to be mindful of what you're doing & how you're interacting with the world in the way it expects (commerce, finance, transactions); but I'm skeptical that individually changing behavior without collective action is a way forward, and I'm wary of the social & mental costs that come with that course. How many people keep on with everything they ought-to not be buying, vs. people burning out & going "fuck it, if climate change is coming for us & the GOP is pushing for autocracy, I might as well enjoy what I can on my way down"?
posted by CrystalDave at 1:01 PM on January 26 [5 favorites]

The article makes clear that there's a difference between saying "don't buy Unacceptable Thing on general moral principles" and "buy Acceptable Thing because it makes life better for the people who make Acceptable Thing".

Around here, for a long time, there was a distributor for coffee grown and processed by a Zapatista collective. The coffee was competitive with premium brands, so not exactly Folger's but if you were buying nicer coffee you might as well buy that kind and literally support the Zapatistas. Furthermore, you could actually meet the local distributor and occasionally hear a talk from one of the people from the coop. Saying to someone "why buy expensive but not fair trade coffee when you could buy expensive fair trade coffee" is different from saying "why are you buying shoes at Target, don't you know how those are made?" (Currently you can buy locally roasted Peace Coffee which is ethical on a variety of valances and a chronic employer of young radical types.)

With the incredibly intense financialization/globalization of production, there are fewer options and they are less competitive. Used clothing prices have gone way, way up because of the professionalization and media presence of picking, for instance. You can of course still find some decent thrifted clothes locally and cheaply, but often you're not saying to people "you can get all kinds of great clothes secondhand locally", you're saying "you can get last seasons' modal blend Target castoffs secondhand locally, you can buy a secondhand shirt that's $30 when you include shipping or you can pay $19.99 for a new shirt at Target" and it's no surprise that "new shirt at Target" is the preferred option.

Similarly when "buy less buy better" may mean literally spending a year's clothing budget on just a couple of "better" items - in a society where, unlike the world of 1900, you are expected to have a large, multipurpose wardrobe.

That said, I think that the TINECUC-ization of the discourse dulls people's moral sense. "I know for a fact that small children work fifteen hour shifts to make these things and I am buying them anyway because everything is foul and corrupt" is a sentiment that sort of eats away at your moral fiber over time. It's a bit better, IMO, to say "I try to avoid buying the most exploitative products wherever possible even though it costs somewhat more and even though I can't always shell out for the $150 shirt because exploitation is wrong and I am not going to reward it when I don't have to".

Getting used to the nauseating injustices of the world is bad. Social media tends to dull the feeling in this way IME because it's just a barrage of horrors.

And one more thought: Symbols and imagined communities have value.

And one more: There's always something risible and/or inconsistent in any movement. If you look back at past social movements, you can take the worm's eye view - ridiculous seventies vegetarians! uptight feminists who didn't like porn! weird Russian 19th century communes with ridiculous assumptions about the future and weird clothes! - but it's difficult not to look back and say that those people were better than the people who believed that misogyny, animal torture and labor exploitation were the natural order of things. All other things being equal, who do you think is the better person, the eighties CISPES volunteer or the eighties wall street trader?

"There are no standards, never judge, the world is totally corrupt" is an okay standard to apply outward to keep from being an asshole to someone who is just trying to get by, but it's a poor standard to apply inward to yourself and your close friends.

We need to maintain disgust and horror at what is disgusting and horrifying, not just sink under its weight and try to ignore it. That's how we develop a sense of ourselves as a community of people with values that mean something, not just isolated individuals doing whatever we have to do to get by.
posted by Frowner at 1:33 PM on January 26 [32 favorites]

This reminds me of The Good Place, where everyone living in the last 200 years ends up in The Bad Place because no one can lead a purely ethical life.
posted by SPrintF at 1:36 PM on January 26 [8 favorites]

I remember asking a much-smarter-and-more-well-read-than-me friend of mine, whilst we shared a joint, "is there any ethical consumption under capitalism though?" (we ran a company together at the time).

She came back with a line that has bounced around in my head ever since :
"The real question is whether there is any consent under capitalism"

And, yeah, I feel like THAT should be talked about a lot more. So many millions of people are spending (wasting?) most of their lives doing things they absolutely despise doing, making someone higher up the rung richer, and just barely surviving, and it's not like they're given a bevy of choices in the matter.
posted by revmitcz at 1:55 PM on January 26 [26 favorites]

If nothing else it is nice to see the nostalgic tales of a better, purer, political time being shifted up to the 90s instead of the 60s for once.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:10 PM on January 26 [14 favorites]

Case in point: I was talking to my old manager about the sunscreen I was using, and said that I wouldn't buy it again because I'd found out that basically any skin product advertised with the words 'shine', 'sheen' or 'glow' probably contains mica, which is mined in horrendously exploitative conditions, often by children. She said, more than a little condescendingly, "Oh happyfrog, there's no ethical consumption under capitalism". I mean, OK, I know that one person not buying those products isn't going to change anything, but I can't knowingly, daily, lather myself in the pain and hunger of Indian child miners, thanks.
posted by happyfrog at 2:29 PM on January 26 [12 favorites]

If nothing else it is nice to see the nostalgic tales of a better, purer, political time being shifted up to the 90s instead of the 60s for once.

But I think there is a real rupture! I have been in the same activist/activism-adjacent circles since the mid nineties, and I work with people who are in their late teens/early twenties just as I was when I started being, you know, around.

I started noticing, first, that almost everyone has a shitty car and no one bikes and second that a lot of people live in the near suburbs. I know the same kind of people from the same range of backgrounds, and they can no longer afford the life that I could afford at that age. I don't think they're all constantly having car emergencies and asking for money for repairs on the internet while living in shitty 1980s apartments in the middle of stroads and strip malls because they think it's phony and annoying to live in a walkable/bikeable urban core in a nicely maintained 1930s bungalow with wood built-ins.

I am one of the oldest people in a particular project and I am the only one who lives close enough to bike. Ten years ago, when I'd show up to similar projects in similar locations I could always tell if a lot of people were there because there'd be a bunch of bikes. Now there are no bikes but mine. A bike-only lifestyle is a luxury now. And when you consider that Minneapolis is consistently one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US, it is very surprising that in a traditionally bike-friendly radical culture, bike use has fallen off.

In the mid-nineties, when I moved here, it was conventional to get one's start by temping. Call up the temp agency and be a little persistent, and you'd start getting jobs immediately. You could specify bus-able jobs, and I know this because I did. You could temp to perm fairly easily. I had friends who temped for years out of choice because they could save up money for travel by working half the year. Temp agencies don't work the same way at all now, because the nature of work has changed - it's more precarious, more exploitative, worse in every way.

Rents go up and radical community spaces die, arts spaces die. Small shops may persist, but hang out spots decline. That changes community, changes permeability - you can't just walk in the door because there is no door.

These were (some of) the material conditions for living a certain kind of life. The conditions have changed, the life - which was not a bad one at all, actually - has gone away.

Sarah Schulman made some similar observations* about radical life in New York.

*I know that she has proved to be a moral disappointment but her eighties/nineties novels are good.
posted by Frowner at 2:30 PM on January 26 [23 favorites]

Oh no please don't tell me anything bad about Sarah Shulman [covering my ears]... which I think actually gets at the problem, also gestured at in this article, about why psychologically we may feel the pull of the cop-out version of TINECUC..
posted by latkes at 3:01 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

"The real question is whether there is any consent under capitalism"

revmitcz, maybe I'm slow on the uptake and I'm sure woefully under-read on the subject, but this is one of the most mind-expanding comments I've seen here.
posted by mollweide at 4:09 PM on January 26 [5 favorites]

mollweide as it turns out, she got it from a book she had recently read, where that is the subtitle : Docile by KM Szpara. But I thank you for the validation that it's not just me who went all *brain explody*.

I also haven't read up on it much at all (or even read that book, though it's on the list). However, I will say it's fun to drop at intellectual gatherings, if your social circle is the least bit interested in having lively discussions about late stage capitalism. Once you drop that line in a room, people immediately reflect on times capitalism has forced them to do one or more things they'd really have rather not done (or still be doing).
posted by revmitcz at 4:43 PM on January 26 [8 favorites]

It's true that ethical versions of many essentials for daily life are not available, or are only available at a price that no one can afford. (For example, many people can't afford the price premium for spray-free fruit and vegetables or for minimal-spray fruit and vegetables.)

But there is still value in saying "Engineered stone kitchen benchtops cause men in their 20s and 30s and 40s who make/install these benchtops to die horribly and painfully from lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust, I'm going to get a different kind of kitchen bench top that doesn't kill someone."

There is also value in advocating that government ban kitchen bench tops that cause worker deaths...
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 6:54 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]

In 2013 you could still live cheaply in (for instance) Austin - I know bc met a guy who bartended on the weekends and made enough money doing that to not have to work the other five days of the week. Not sure if that's still possible though.
posted by subdee at 4:51 AM on January 27

Aardvark Cheeselog, I can't claim to know what that sentence means, but I might be able to provide a little context. Robert Fulghum, the Unitarian Universalist minister probably best known for All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten wrote a bunch of books like that one. Folksy wisdom, humorously delivered, in short essays/stories/vignettes. Somewhere in one of those books (it's been a long time, but I read a bunch of them back in the day) he tells a story about how he (a minister) has a subscription to Playboy. He feeds a story to his kids (and wife, maybe?) about how the subscription was a gift, but gentle reader, that was a fib.

So maybe "saucier content than you might expect a minister to cop to knowing about" came from somewhere like that. At least, those are the neurons that fired for me.
posted by adekllny at 7:47 AM on January 27

But I think there is a real rupture!

When I graduated from college in the 90s, it was still just-sort-of-possible for people in certain parts of the country to live a "gently broke" lifestyle. Work at Borders to pay rent on your crummy-yet-not-quite-slummy apartment, live for your band or your novel. This seems nigh-impossible for most people these days. Of course the lifestyle didn't just vanish; the bases for it were extracted away by capitalism and the most recent generation in charge, which cracked open the bones of America and sucked out the marrow, leaving nothing for the rest of us. An important side feature of this process was kneecapping young people's ability to be politically radical. Though, interestingly, it seems like that ability may be rebounding a little, as young people raised on the margins of privilege are going from "must put my head down and just struggle to hang onto my little piece" to "it's impossible to hang onto my little piece under this system, better unionize the Starbucks where I'm working, what are they gonna do, fire me from this job whose salary I can't live on anyway?"

I spent most of my childhood yearning for Nestle Quik because my parents' church was boycotting it. Which, in the end, didn't accomplish much. Nonetheless, I continue to believe that there's value in leading your life so that it reflects your principles--even if you must recognize that there are limits to what you can do as a single flawed and limited human being. My parents moved into the inner city when every white person in the vicinity had fled to join a church that did local housing rehab. They sent us to a public system in complete chaos. All because they thought segregation was a sin. Looking back at the documents from those days, of course there are things that are embarrassing to modern sensibilities, and things they could have done better by their own standards, and certainly mine. And the educational question is truly challenging. But they helped provide decent housing run by the low- and middle-income tenants themselves in a half-demolished neighborhood for a couple of generations now, and also all their kids did well professionally and found ways to be useful to humankind. It's probably the single most important decision they ever made in terms of its impact on my own life, which I feel even now, decades later. I find "TINECUC" to often serve as a lazy excuse for not thinking about what you can do better. (Which, don't get me wrong, is hard! But that's all the more reason not to lean on thought-terminating cliches, especially when it comes to relatively minor issues of consumption instead of decisions about whether to send your kids to less-safe schools.)

I’ve also seen reflexive pushback on the idea of changing purchasing habits because someone else somewhere cannot based on their marginalized status which is very new.

This rhetorical phenomenon seems to flourish amongst those new to the left. Take any proposed change, try to imagine even the most hypothetical marginalized group that might be disadvantaged under it, oppose it on those grounds. This works especially well on Twitter, where unless you want every post to be an eight-post thread, you're unlikely to be able to cover all the exceptions and limitations of any proposal. It's an unintentional and well-intentioned perversion of an important principle (under the influence of the dumbfuck "contrarianism" of the oughts that still hasn't quite washed out of the system), but, boy, is it exhausting, and conveniently serves to torpedo any change. (We see a form of it sometimes on AskMe, where people asking about how to help some other group just reflexively get discouraged in favor of some imagined "community alternative" that may or may not exist...regardless of whether the suggestion would be an improvement on the current situation or not.)
posted by praemunire at 9:33 AM on January 27 [9 favorites]

TINECUC assumes that "consumption" involves payment for goods or services rendered. It's unethical to reward someone else (with profit) for doing an unethical thing (in the process of rendering a good or service).

Therefore, ethical consumption under capitalism means denying profit to the unethical parties and making whole those wronged by the unethical practices of those parties.

Steal all you can, and give the stuff you don't want to the poor, is I guess what I'm saying.
Or better yet, organize and make trouble.
posted by Rev. Irreverent Revenant at 10:23 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]

Man, Frowner's comments are hitting the nail on the head for me in terms of just how much has changed, and not for the better. I feel terrible for young folks graduating high school, eager to live on their own, and begin their adult lives because with rent prices being what they are, and jobs being what they are, they often have to live at home with their families for an indefinite period of time because they can't afford to strike out and have that experience.

And this part of Frowner's comment hit me right in the feels:

And because of lower housing costs and fewer credit checks, it was a lot easier to up sticks and move to the city. Try saving up and moving to the bay area or New York for the queer culture now, for instance - people still do it, but you have to be baseline richer and more connected.

I did this when I was younger and it wasn't easy then but it was easier. I moved all my shit to NOLA and then Atlanta, found apartments for $600/month (which, at the time, felt REALLY expensive), managed to have a life on barista wages, have a junker car to get me to and fro, and all my friends were also retail workers who played in bands or made art, and we all lived okayish. And now? Holy shit. Everything is so different. I mean, yeah there were rich kids playing pauper back then, but now they don't need to play pauper anymore. Money means they have status and can afford to do the basic things like move out and get a place with much more ease.
posted by Kitteh at 10:29 AM on January 27 [6 favorites]

Thinking about the decline of infrastructure for alternative living... The younger radicals I know here in Vancouver all seem to be either students or employed by nonprofits. A few are getting by on low-wage service jobs. I'm not sure about housing but a lot of them seem to live in shared apartments and collective houses; it's not as cheap as it used to be, and collective houses in particular are harder to come by, but they're still out there. Bike culture isn't as prominent as it used to be; on the other hand, nobody has a car (we have public transit here). I don't know about what things were like in the 90s, but what I see now doesn't seem qualitatively all that different from the early-mid 2000s, just sparser and more fragile. The biggest change I see is the lack of public community spaces: it's basically impossible to sustain a music venue or hangout spot now unless you make it a serious profit-making venture, just because the rents are so high. (I've heard queer friends talk about the impact this has had on the radical queer community.)

That said, I wonder how many people I'm not seeing because they're not there -- whether because they're too busy struggling to get by to be involved in radical community stuff in the first place, or because they had to find some less expensive city to live in. I also wonder if Vancouver (a notoriously expensive city) went through these changes a decade or two earlier, and other places like Minneapolis are sort of catching up now as real estate values skyrocket everywhere.

I was talking to a 16-year-old the other day and they were saying that all their high school classmates have bought into hustle culture, this idea that you've got to prioritize making money over everything else. That feels like a post-2008 attitude to me, although these are mostly low-income children of immigrants so there are other factors at play. Certainly the idea of "dropping out"/being "gently broke"/alternative living doesn't seem to be on anyone's mind as a possibility anymore.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 10:35 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]

...interviews with labor activist sweatshop workers who were rallying for better conditions. They were wearing Nike shoes (or whichever company it was), & the interviewer asked them about it. —CrystalDave

Perhaps this quote? From Naomi Klein, The Nation, 2015:
So one thing I found slightly jarring was that some of these same workers wore clothing festooned with knockoff trademarks of the very multinationals that were responsible for these conditions: Disney characters or Nike check marks. At one point, I asked a local labor organizer about this. Wasn’t it strange—a contradiction?

It took a very long time for him to understand the question. When he finally did, he looked at me like I was nuts. You see, for him and his colleagues, individual consumption wasn’t considered to be in the realm of politics at all. Power rested not in what you did as one person, but what you did as many people, as one part of a large, organized, and focused movement. For him, this meant organizing workers to go on strike for better conditions, and eventually it meant winning the right to unionize. What you ate for lunch or happened to be wearing was of absolutely no concern whatsoever.
posted by What is E. T. short for? at 10:46 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]

knockoff trademarks of the very multinationals that were responsible for these conditions: Disney characters or Nike check marks.

It's a useful perspective, but at the same time, buying a knockoff of a Disney character t-shirt doesn't actually put any money in Disney's pockets, at least not directly.
posted by praemunire at 11:11 AM on January 27

It's a bit better, IMO, to say "I try to avoid buying the most exploitative products wherever possible even though it costs somewhat more and even though I can't always shell out for the $150 shirt because exploitation is wrong and I am not going to reward it when I don't have to".

This, basically. I couldn't say it better. This is a tiny part of the existential struggle we all go through: if we're going to die one day, what's the point of living in the first place, especially when life seems to be so full of pain? Why buy ethical products at all, when everything else on sale right now has passed through the hands of an underpaid child worker at some point? It's not going to make a meaningful difference... but you should do it anyway. Why? Because it's meaningful. Because it's ethical. This is the rebellion Camus talks about.

I was talking to a 16-year-old the other day and they were saying that all their high school classmates have bought into hustle culture, this idea that you've got to prioritize making money over everything else.

I believe a lot of this fear comes from the fact we (Gen Zs) have seen our parents struggle through 2008, and have been exposed online to the struggles of Millenials in that time period, so we know, for example, if buying a house was a struggle for them then, it's impossible for us now.

Meanwhile, there are people who have built successful online careers using their talents - through platforms like Patreon and YouTube - who we've been watching since we were ten or eleven. It's ingrained into us that getting popular online will get you rich when traditional jobs are becoming less and less effective at doing that.

Pretty much everyone I knew at school who had a talent - whether it was arts or sport - had some kind of online presence which "monetised" it or at least aimed to.
posted by wandering zinnia at 1:21 PM on January 29 [4 favorites]

I've been thinking about this article several times a day.. it was really provocative for me.

One thing it doesn't linger on is the impact that causing harm does on us as people. Like, most of us know that our actions contribute to extreme harms to the environment, yet feel trapped or hopeless and without choice, or just disassociated and disconnected from our impact on the world and from much else including our bodies, our emotions. There are personal benefits to ethical choices, but these benefits have been largely captured and coopted by consumer culture (buy your way to an ethical life) or grind culture - itself a survival strategy in capitalism (mindfulness and raw foods so you can kick ass at your 3 side hassles or whatever).

Another thing not explored in the article but which this makes me think about, is the difference between the choices we make and how we think about the choices other people make. In the internet age, left energies have been largely captured by internet signaling and frankly being assholes. So there is rarely material value to shitting on other people's choices online, while there is real value in making ethical choices, or even better, system change that bakes in more environmentally sound and sustainable policies, more just policies, etc. Even IRL, holier than though behavior doesn't inspire change in others, and often is just a cover for our own failings.

So where I've been landing on this after thinking about it so much is, we should attempt to make ethical choices. We know we will fail because we live in the world, but we should aim to do what we can to reduce harm. And then, when we look outward, our ire should not be focused on individuals making 'bad' choices, but on changing the conditions to make it easer for people to make better ones.
posted by latkes at 7:46 PM on January 29 [4 favorites]

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