History books usually study social movements of the second half of the nineteenth century from the point of view of the split between anarchists and Marxists. Both theories played an important role in debates of the great workers’ movements of the following century, and for a long time, no one seemed to question the root they shared: the idea that the origin of the “social problem” was in the way in which the production of things was organized.
It’s normal for that powerful idea to occupy, almost without question, the center of historical stories: from the First International to the fall of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, the story of European reforms and revolutions was written in terms of work stoppages, general strikes, “wildcat” strikes and factory occupations. In the world of alternatives in the same days, not much was different. For two centuries, to say “cooperative” in continental Europe or in South America automatically meant “worker cooperative,” and it was the most powerful community movement of the time. Israeli “kibbutzim” (communities) were founded to create a productive base in the wastelands of Jewish migration in Asia. Even when the Catholic Church started to develop its “social doctrine” with the encyclical Rerum Novarum, its focus was on the same starting point as the theoreticians of the IWA: the drama of proletarianization of the artisan and the peasant, the transition from the workshop and its culture to the factory and alienation.
But the Anglo-Saxon world was going the other direction. In Great Britain, a strong philanthropical tradition existed, linking both liberals and conservative social Christianity, which was afraid that unions would be “contaminated” by the radical ideas of the continent. At the end of the nineteenth century, this tendency had little influence on unions, but had a strong relationship with different experiments of workers’ stores and little mutuals, often linked to the social outreach of Anglican parishes. Little by little, from this effort there emerged a “friendly cooperativism.” The worker cooperative showed the possibility of a world where capitalists were not the owners of the businesses; however, a consumer cooperative can put in question the need for a shopkeeper-owner, but not owners as a group, so it didn’t question the social order.
These are the cooperatives that met in the “First British Co-operative Congress” in 1869. Wanting to create an “alternative” to the dominant workers’ movements, they will rewrite the history of cooperativism as it was then commonly understood, placing its origins in Robert Owens, a liberal philanthropist–rather than in Fourier–and will date the birth of cooperativism to “the Rochdale Pioneers,” an English consumer cooperative, ignoring the fishing, agrarian and artisan commons that had been modernizing and becoming modern [worker] cooperatives for at least sixty years prior.
For a long time, this reductionist interpretation was almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon. In 1895, when the first assembly of the “International Cooperative Alliance” took place, the delegates belonged almost exclusively to the British Empire: England, Australia, India, and Ireland. The Anglo-Saxon homogeneity was only broken by the participation of German Christian cooperativism, born of the Lutheran Church, a minority in an environment of overwhelming development of social democracy.
After the Second World War, “consumerism” took off in the United States. US unions spread consumer and housing cooperativism across the country as a way to protect their members from the economic crisis following the Japanese recovery. The idea that “conscious consumption” can not only relieve crises but transform the very international economic structure is made manifest in 1946, when the Committee Central Mennonite creates “Ten Thousand Villages,” the first “fair trade” association.
Meanwhile, society is stunned to discover the proportions of the Jewish genocide, and the media have to explain how “Hitler’s madness” could have led to electoral success and social consensus in enlightened Germany.
The attention of academics and creators of opinion turns to techniques of mass manipulation. There is a growing distrust of the power of the media and the effects of the then nascent television. The publicists of Madison Avenue (“Mad Men”) will soon become the epitome of the new industrialist fascism, which is able to use Goebbels’ mass techniques in a new way, to make us consume what we don’t need. Alternative consumption and what soon will be called the “counterculture” are then defined as a new form of resistance. And in ’59, when the Cuban Revolution demands an ideological response from the Kennedy administration, the model to export will be the consumer cooperativism of conservative unions, so that in the ’60s, the ground was already prepared in all possible places for the idea that “the system” would be renewed not by politics or the redefinition of forms of work, but by organized consumers.
In Europe, during the ’70s, a good number of college kids–then much less numerous than today–discovered the radical Left. After failing again and again to convince the workers that they needed a revolutionary party, they wonder the same thing that, years before, Bordieu and Castoriadis had asked in the magazine Socialism or Barbarism: “Why is the proletariat no longer revolutionary?” Castoriadis’ answer, and above all, Bordieu’s, later followed by his Situationist disciple Guy Debord, will be very well developed intellectually. According to these authors, capitalism had entered a new phase, where the determining factor of the social order, including the control and the generation of identities, was carried out not in the direct relationship between capital and labor, in production, but rather in the system of reproduction of the labor force, consumption, where the new contradictions of the system were concentrated. More than capitalism, we would have to call the new mode of social production/reproduction “consumerism.”
The discourse is soon taken up by the non-parliamentarian German and Dutch Left: the fundamental contradiction of capitalism is no longer between capital and labor, as Marx described, but between capital, culture and natural resources. The enemy was no longer capitalism, but consumerism and industrialism. The discourse recovers the priority and urgency of an alternative: the dream of a world revolution–something that the people make, and would have to make–will gradually be substituted with a global ecological catastrophe, something that would be beyond people’s control if they don’t change their lifestyles and consumption habits. In that ideological framework, die Grünen, the Greens, are born, the first European political party to systematically organize campaigns of alternative consumption.
The fall of the Communist regimes of eastern Europe, with the consequent loss of influence of the parties of Marxist inspiration, gave even more relevance to anti-consumerism–and therefore to “consumerism”–in alternative discourse in a wide variety of forms and topical associations: from catastrophism and radical ecologism to the discourse of movements against climate change and a good part of the “sharing economy.”
And in fact, it has been the development of a whole series of movements born in the English-speaking world over the two latest decades that has ended up establishing the argument of the “centrality of consumption” among new social sectors in Europe and Latin America. Alternative discourse has gone from the productive kibbutz, still a major point of reference in the ’70s, to “ecovillages” that only share ownership of common services, from cooperatives with houses to “co-living,” and even from consumer co-ops themselves to “collaborative consumption” platforms listed on the stock market. And if there is no belief that production is the center of social organization, it is difficult to understand the nature and distribution of property as the determinant institution of an era.
The “consumerist” discourse, the idea that consumption patterns can modify the social structure through the market, has gained extraordinary strength. Paradoxically, it has fed and given legitimacy to a certain sense of “guilt” about consuming and enjoying doing so, a certain ascetic and degrowthist ideal, closer to Christian millenarianism than to the dream of abundance of the utopian and revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century. A new social consensus about how to change the world seems to have formed.
And yet, we realize that something substantial is diluted when we ignore production. Maybe it’s because our empowerment as consumers, by definition, has a ceiling. Perhaps because we realize that unemployment and poverty can’t be addressed by changing only our purchases, or only distributing production another way. Perhaps because consuming “less,” or “even less,” is the immediate result of the crisis (economic “degrowth”), and we see that it means nothing but poverty. Or simply because, inside, we know that, for as valuable and important as sharing culture is, our sovereignty and that of our communities continues to depend on our ability to satisfy the needs of our loved ones, and that that, beyond cultural change, in the end has to do with capacity and the mode of production of goods, both material and cultural, that satisfy them.