Has consumerism milked democracy dry? On ABC Radio National

21/05/2016 by

Yanis Varoufakis and Scott Stephens

This conversation, on ABC RN’s ‘Minefield’, with Scott Stevens and Waleed Aly, was broadcast on 19th May 2016 – click here for the ABC’s website. Or…

Despite dairy producers being battered by market forces, a ‘milk tax’ has reportedly been deemed unpalatable in the lead-up to the election. Waleed Aly, Scott Stephens and Yanis Varoufakis discuss whether the solidarity required for democracy can survive the forces of capitalism.

Waleed Aly: When we are talking about a market operating in this way to the detriment to producers, there are alternatives that exist before involving politicians to help deal with this.

We can have a big argument about exactly what measures they might be, but one of the ones mentioned by farmers is the idea of introducing a milk levy, at least until the milk market changes in a way that makes it more organically profitable.

Why would that not be a politically palatable option? Why would that not be something people would be willing to sign up to? It’s a question of solidarity.

If capitalism is training us to think of ourselves as competitive entrepreneurs then we become less and less inclined towards feeling that kind of solidarity—on which democracy depends—and giving up even the smallest element of our financial wellbeing for the sake of other people.

Yet democracy cannot survive without solidarity, because it requires us to give rights to one another, to people that we may not like. We have to have solidarity to each other and to some grander social and political system in order for it to work.

We seem to have manoeuvred ourselves into a corner where the citizen as consumer is not prepared to give up a red cent for somebody else.

Is the price of milk the canary in the coalmine that tells us the strains that capitalism places on solidarity might in the long run make democracy much more difficult to sustain?

Subscribe to The Minefield on iTunesABC Radio or your favourite podcasting app to hear more from Waleed.

Scott Stephens: I don’t think the problem is that we’ve all been turned into entrepreneurs. I think the problem is that we’ve all been turned into consumers.

We’ve gone from being political citizens—with the sense of political vocation and social solidarity that demands—to being consumers of political products.

Why do we need a milk tax, for instance, when there could be a principled decision on the part of consumers to pay a little bit more for something that registers their values?

That value isn’t in the taste of the milk or increased calcium, that value is the knowledge that by paying more for this milk, I’m expressing a vital form of citizenly solidarity for a someone who will otherwise be traumatised by the fact they are being massively underpaid for the milk they produce.

Why is it that we always fall back on state solutions? When civic bonds erode, when we no longer feel that affective connection to one another and we no longer recognise that our consumption has actual effects on the lives of real people, the only thing that we have left to fall back on is the state making do.

This week we’ve witnessed a graphic illustration of the sheer human cost of the dogma of profit maximisation at the expense of producers.

Subscribe to The Minefield on iTunesABC Radio or your favourite podcasting app to hear more from Scott.

Yanis Varoufakis: This is just corporates exercising anti-competitive monopoly power over producers.

Walmart is the company who began the drive for squashing the living daylights out of primary producers.

The stagnation of wages and diminution of the wage share in the United States was the incentive for companies like Walmart to create the ideology of cheapness.

I have a very unsubstantiated fear, developed when I was walking through the aisles of Walmart, that the exploited, the downbeat, depressed American blue-collar worker, when they get their hands on jar of one gallon of pickles, even if they have no room for it in their fridge, and no use for it on their plates either or their dinner table, they still feel that they managed to expropriate part of somebody else’s labour, some other blue-collar worker.

This is the working class being turned against itself through the power of consumerism.

Subscribe to The Minefield on iTunesABC Radio or your favourite podcasting app to hear more from Yanis.

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