Banksy, Buying Fair-Trade at Walmart

Andrew Potter – the guy who wrote The Authenticity Hoax and The Rebel Sell – has a great post on the reaction to that Simpsons Banksy intro, one that puts forth what I think is actually a vital and necessary response to current North American leftism.

Writing about artistic rebellion against capitalism, Potter smartly and astutely points out that the kind of parodic, ironic critique exemplified by Banksy’s Simpsons intro relies on the idea that dissent ‘from within’ is important. But Potter argues that “dissent doesn’t threaten capitalism, because capitalism does not require the sort of conformity that the dissent purports to subvert”. To wit, contrarian reactions against capitalism are often assertions of individual freedom and intelligence more than anything else, and can easily be commodified: don’t buy this corrupted thing, but this organic, local, well-sourced thing instead.

But in something like Walmart’s recent announcement that it will start sourcing things from local farmers, anti-capitalists often respond by dismissing them out of hand because of a perception that moves perpetuated by market concerns cannot possibly be good. As Potter writes:

Capitalists absorb legitimate critiques in ways that actually make the world a better place. As I argue in this essay looking at No Logo ten years on, the mainstreaming of old critiques is a success story:
“From eco- to organic, fair trade to locally sourced, sweatshop safe to dolphin friendly, sales pitches that 10 years ago would have reeked of patchouli oil and set the red baiters on full alert are now thoroughly mainstream. Companies like Whole Foods (and its quarterly “5 Percent Day,” when each location donates 5 percent of its net sales to a nonprofit) or the Vermont-based Seventh Generation (a natural soap and detergent company devoted to all forms of sustainability, whose co-founder and executive chairman is known as the “inspired protagonist” of the firm) are massively successful operations.”

This is only a bad thing if you think that the point of dissent is not to change the system for the better, but to bring it down entirely.

That last line feels key to me, and is something that, until someone comes up with a better response than authoritarian socialism, needs to be repeated.

BUT – and it’s a big one – if Potter is arguing that capitalism’s capacity to absorb critique can make the world a better place (which I agree with) it is also that same capacity that simultaneously makes the world worse.

After all, if contemporary capitalism works by beckoning us to enjoy and feel good – whether that pleasure comes from fast food, a sex toy or ethical satisfaction at having bought fair trade – it means that capitalism’s capacity to ameliorate the world only works when those improvements have market value.

But the difficulty with capitalism is that issues or problems that cannot be incorporated into markets and have no to little cultural currency – say, the drudgery of factory work, health concerns of workers, the massive disparity between the ‘first world’ and the Global South, or the use of that disparity to fuel a manufacturing economy – then capitalism’s capacity to absorb critiques becomes a massive elision, this gaping hole into which the world’s misery is poured. To wit, the same capitalist process of enjoyment that allows for the useful incorporation of fair trade or local farming is the same process that allows for massive southern poverty, Western control of the IMF, or environmental abuses in places we’ve never heard of. The problem with relying on the market’s capacity to respond is that there is no necessary concordance between those ideas and issues with market value and those with ethical, environmental or cultural value.

So sure, celebrate when the markets react to make the world a better place. But also keep in mind that it’s the very same process that enables capitalism’s most egregious and aggressive moments of terror, suffering and deprivation.

Note: The animated Zizek video is so so so good.