Start with Yourself!?

Change the world!?

There are some perennial discussions among political friends and flatmates, among them the question of how far your individual behaviour is able to change social relations. Was Michael Jackson right when he sang: “I am starting with the man in the mirror”? Debaters on both sides seem to have a point.

A lot of people who have found their way to the political left actually started their political awareness by questioning their own behaviour, more precisely their own consumption behaviour. Whether it is boycotting McDonald’s restaurants, H&M clothes or Coke, the refusal of animal products, avoiding specific travel destination and certain means of transportation or buying TransFair products, they all have one thing in common: They all attempt to change bad conditions through the means of one's personal behaviour.

Against that stands a form of criticism which could be paraphrased as: “It’s the system, stupid!” Whoever wants to change his or her behaviour individually is under an illusion because this can only be a drop in the ocean, and therefore is senseless. Eventually the sentence (which the communist thinker Theodor W. Adorno actually meant somewhat differently) is brought up: “There is no right life in the wrong.” Attempts to alleviate suffering in the here and now are defamed as being mere charity.

But as much as we share the opinion that suffering is mostly produced by social means, and therefore can only be replaced via a radical programme of abolition, we also share the opinion such a critique is often too simple.

Changing what we can, where
 we can

The area in which a reflected and potentially altered behaviour may reduce suffering already takes an enormous place in our own lives. We are talking about gender relations. On the one hand, it can be seen that some changes in gender relations perfectly adapt to current demands of capital and the state. For example, the current ideal in western countries that women are supposed to be able to combine childcare and a job is based on the fact that modern states cannot afford to exclude half its citizens from being used by capital.

On the other hand, there are no objective bounds which deter anyone from breaking out of the silly conceptions of how one has to be and how to present oneself. In other words: If a lot of people refuse the idea that girls and women are soooo sweet and need to be protected or have the world explained to them even by progressive men, and that boys and men are soooo strong and smart that even emancipated women can only be trophies to them, a change within your circle of friends or your political group is likely to occur in the end.

This dynamic is quite similar for racist stereotypes. Besides a critique of the content of such stereotypical images, which stand against every form of human emancipation, this demands reflection about the images in one's own head, as well as a change of personal thoughts, feelings and actions. Whereas oftentimes individual action is attached to a certain form of abstinence, in this case it is different: To free oneself from these kinds of images creates a win-win situation for everyone.

Another field where people can start with themselves is communication. Even in left circles communication is often riddled with authority. A result of this, apart from the direct suffering this can cause, is the emergence of status hierarchies. But if the next revolution should really be about liberation it needs people who don’t just want to follow anymore and who believe that everyone has something important to say. An analysis and change of one’s own communication style is necessary so that this doesn't result in individual fights between people who want to become authority figures.

The privilege of being poor in rich countries

As the examples above have emphasised the importance of individual action in order to make change, the following examples will show its limitations. Most notably, in the following examples the call for different behaviour is actually proof of a misleading criticique of capitalist production.

To start off: When some of the editors of our magazine “Routes sucrées” made a plan to escape the cold winter and fly to Morocco, they tried to convince a friend who had little money: “Bungalows there are just two Euros.” The friend, however, was shocked. He complained about our joy, because supposedly cheap prices are based on people’s poverty there. “But,” we replied, “We can't afford expensive trips. Is staying at home the answer?”

Generally speaking, changing personal behaviour is extremely limited when it comes to economic relations. This is because of the way in which stuff is produced for people to live, and the reasons why. It is not done based on people’s needs and how to fulfil them. Instead, companies speculate that a product increases consumer demand. Therefore they buy the labour of people who need to earn a living. This relation is therefore founded on the exploitation of people living in misery who have nothing to offer but their ability to work.

Those people – more or less all of us – are confronted with a “silent constraint.” It is not forbidden not to work, but if you don't sooner or later you won't be able to pay your rent. Former German chancellor Schröder made that clear by saying that laziness was okay, as long as lazy people did not claim state benefits. Very funny. This makes it sounds as though having no money is your own fault. But it’s exactly the other way around! If companies assume they can make money with a certain product, you are allowed to produce it for them.

How much money you can earn mainly depends on one thing: how many competitors there are. If there are a lot of people who can do what you can, you have to give away labour and time without earning a lot. Mostly people have to handle their money carefully because it is hard enough to buy the necessary things and to fulfil some of those small dreams that have not vanished already.

When the winter is unbearable, an expensive vacation is not affordable for most people – and besides, the reason why luxurious hotels are expensive is certainly not because wages are any higher there. But what is the result of not going on vacation at all? A lot of people in Morocco live from tourism. This is not meant to make tourism seem purely beneficial for the people living there. But it is no help to them if you spend your holiday in your home country instead. In this example, individual behaviour is tangled up in the capitalist economy and its implicit laws.

In a similar vein, no one would label it an act of emancipation to forgo a job after an interview in order to leave it to another applicant. This would be a form of charity which certainly not everyone can afford, and therefore is not a form of behaviour that can be universalized. So do we instead demand that at least rich people buy organic food and TransFair products? No, they should rather imitate a capitalist named Friedrich Engels, who financed the studies of his buddy Karl Marx. This would help to find a solution which is able to help everyone.

Change your burger and your pants?

No one can proclaim that not buying H&M clothes or renouncing Burger King and McDonald’s is something one has to be able to afford. Different forms of boycott have been organised against all those products. They have focused on collective action to make companies change their behaviour.

Boycott movements actually have succeeded with certain initiatives. The fear of bad press has pushed some companies to change their form of production. Moreover, an awareness of important topics – like worker's rights, the environment, or repressive regimes – can be achieved as well.

However, the practise of boycotting is not able to achieve anything beyond that and remains symbolism limited to a small number of companies or products. The production practises of the competitor companies often work in similar ways, which is ignored by boycotters. Moreover, a success in boycotting a company usually brings across the idea that the terrible effects of the markets are only caused by single companies. The possibility is evoked that misery might disappear if bad intentions are just exchanged with good ones. Such an assumption might explain the popularity of this kind of criticism: Hunting for the guilty protagonists earns more “likes” than questioning markets and states which are assumed to beneficial. But should one therefore abstain from boycotting?

For a few years there has been a McDonald’s in Kreuzberg, an “alternative” neighbourhood of Berlin, which for a long time was guarded by ten cops every night. Obviously, opinions on the company differ within left structures.

A grassroots initiative in Kreuzberg targeted the company's working conditions. At first sight, working conditions in a traditional snack bar might be more comfortable, but usually the workers in these small businesses have to work seven days a week. It remains unclear whether it would be better for them to work at McDonald’s, where they are actually covered by social security. Furthermore, at a large company there are formal criteria for hierarchies, as opposed to working conditions influenced by family structures which often are dominant in snack bars. Is this a recommendation on what to eat? No, it’s simply too expensive at McDonald’s, chips are wishy-washy and the McChicken is too small.

But criticism of big companies is often superficial and overlooks or idealises equally problematic things occurring within smaller companies. It often ignores why the salaries are kept low. H&M and other clothing companies are also often criticised, typically aimed at child labor. Even people who criticise the general conditions which workers have to deal with in countries with low labour costs cannot deny the special nastiness of child labour.

Indeed, several local changes can be achieved via boycott and public campaigns, but making child labor illegal oftentimes is not helpful for the children concerned. Due to several reasons children are cheap workers and have to contribute to their family’s income. Even though international companies ostracise child labor, working children are a part of capitalism. Moreover there are children who organise themselves in order to enforce their rights. There have been, for example, protests of working children against the abolition of child labor. In this case, abolition would actually make how they make a living illegal. They would suffer even more from the dependency on their bosses and constantly fear the cops. In some cases, children’s protests (and the protests of those who exploit them) were successful, causing changes in laws and constitutions. Child labor is a tragic example of making things worse by having good intentions.

What remains?

So how does all this differ from the opinion that there is no possibility to change anything, already criticised above?

It differs because we look at the claims of people who believe in changing things via certain behaviour. We don’t disparage certain behaviour in an abstract way. And we don’t ridicule or look down upon ameliorative actions, for example helping refugees by protesting against deportation, even though they may only be a drop in the ocean. Such actions are desperate attempts to reduce misery and to stay human under the current conditions. And it is therefore understandable that some kind of change needs to happen instantly when one cannot bear this horror any longer.

But just because of this fact, we should avoid focusing on scandal without considering systematic conditions. Naming and explaining those conditions to others could be an important element of personal behaviour. Future insurrections have to be organised as well.

Those who claim to have all those systematic conditions in the back of their head, but sees an ultimate need for very concrete actions doesn’t share our criticism. This person denies the fact that the very ruling principles of this economic system are responsible for the situations where one sees the need to reduce misery by altering individual behaviour to remain endless and immeasurable. You could go to the cinema or give your money to a person who is begging at the station instead. You could go on holiday or support a project like this magazine. The capitalist economy is responsible for an endless occurrence of such situations.

And therefore there can be no satisfying answer to the question whether you should change your consumption habits or not. Everyone has to decide that for her- or himself. Learning names of bad companies by heart instead of using that energy for reflecting one's own racist or sexist behaviour to avoid concrete misery seems to miss the point. And those who believe that changes in consumptive behaviour might cause fundamental changes if only a lot of people took part, harbour under an illusion. And it is those people who in the end stand in the way of real change.


Read more:

Slavoj Zizek's thoughts on consumption, ethics and charity watch this animated clip on Youtube: type in “RSA” and “Zizek”

Seven Left Myths about Capitalism:

Audio: Consumption and Consumerism in Capitalism – Myths and Reality: