Your consumer choices won’t save the planet

The climate catastrophe is capitalism.
The climate catastrophe is capitalism.

Surely if we were all more committed to buying green, fair trade, or ethically produced products, there would be less environmental and economic exploitation in the world, right?

The idea that our consumer choices are ‘votes’ for the kind of world we want to live in is a powerful one, but it is an idea that is gravely mistaken.

Our current economic system, capitalism, is eating away at the ecological basis of our existence, whilst exploiting and dominating the lives of billions of people. This destruction, domination and exploitation is driven not by consumer choices, but by the logic of capital accumulation.

All businesses are confronted by the need to remain profitable. Businesses that do not generate a healthy return on investment will soon go bankrupt and be replaced by those enterprises that are profitable. But it is not enough to simply be profitable, all businesses are in competition to achieve ever greater investment and profit. Capitalists invest their money in enterprises based on their understanding of what will deliver the highest return, whilst businesses seek bigger returns by achieving greater market share. They achieve greater market share by lowering prices, selling more, and driving their competition out of the market. It is this process that drives capitalist enterprises to consume larger and larger quantities of resources, in order to produce more, and sell more, whilst pay workers less.

The logic of ethical consumerism assumes that the destructive waste of capitalism is caused by the demands made by consumers (most of whom are in turn workers). The argument goes that it is our desire for more stuff that has pushed capitalist firms to produce in ever greater quantities, and at ever lower costs no matter the ecological or human impact. This assumption is incorrect.

Capitalism is driven towards expansion, irrespective of the level of demand that exists for the goods and services that capitalist enterprises produce. It is for this reason that capitalists first chased new markets for their goods (and new sources of raw materials) across the globe. Capitalism now embraces the entire world in what is, more or less, one capitalist economic system.

Despite the fact that capitalism now embraces the globe, the logic of capitalist expansion remains unchanged. Individual capitalist enterprises must strive to produce greater levels of profit, or they will be replaced by those that do. Whenever capitalism as a whole is not growing, it is in crisis. In order to continue clearing the market place of this over-abundance of production, capitalist enterprises engage in a continual process of inventing and manufacturing new needs and new wants among consumers. There is even a whole industry that specializes in this practice; it is called marketing.

The decision by a minority of people to buy this type of product over that type of product will not challenge the accumulative logic of capital. It is capitalism’s drive toward perpetual growth that is consuming the ecological basis of our continued existence.

But capitalists love the logic of ethical consumerism. When a concerned group or NGO calls for a boycott of this or that product or practice, capitalist enterprises can profit from selling us the greener, more ethical alternative at a higher price! The “more ethical alternative” is rarely better than a greenwash that serves to improve corporate image and assuage middle class guilt whilst doing little to change underlying practices in production. The wealthiest may have been sold the image of social good, but the bulk of us can do little other than put food on our tables and clothes on our backs at the cheapest possible prices.

A particularly pernicious strand of ethical consumerism is expressed in relation to climate change and energy consumption. Those wealthy enough to afford “green energy”, solar panels, or household lithium battery arrays gleefully finance wasteful new industries. The wealthy enough eco-warriors then turn their noses up at the destructive ‘choices’ of the great mass of people just struggling to maintain access to heating, cooking and light from any available energy source.

Even as larger numbers of the middle class in the developed world pour money into “clean energy”, they don’t somehow reduce the consumption of coal, oil or gas. Lower demand for non-renewable energy lowers the price of coal, gas and oil inputs, which is readily sucked up by industries that will always consume the cheapest available energy source, or be replaced by the manufacturer that does.

Ethical consumerism is worse than useless. The false choice of “ethical consumption” gives those firms most exposed to the risks of consumer backlash a ready source of green wash, and it provides new opportunities to sell “ethical” products at higher prices. Whilst doing this, “ethical consumerism” diverts attention away from the dynamic that is destroying our environment, exploiting workers, and wasting resources. Capitalism requires and is driven towards ceaseless, unending, economic growth. This requires ever an expanding consumption of the earth’s resources, the production and sale of ever more products, and the subordination of the mass of the world’s population.

I fully understand and accept why people with the ability to do so might wish to minimize the impact that their consumptive choices have of the planet, on the environment, or on working conditions. But we cannot simply end sweatshops, or the burning of fossil fuels, or destructive agricultural practices, by boycotting this or that product. If we are to save a planet worth living on, we have to end an economic system that is making our planet unlivable.

Living in a Monopoly

In 1903 Lizzie Magie patented the ‘Landlords Game’ – originally intended as an anti-capitalist critique of monopolistic corporate greed. “It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” Magie wrote in a political magazine. “It might well have been called the ‘Game of Life’, as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem[s] to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.”

The game was popular among left-wing progressives and at university campuses, until some thirty years later when Charles Darrow and his wife played it a dinner party. At the time the game wasn’t often bought in a box; rather, it was copied and shared between friends, known as ‘the monopoly game’. Darrow was taken with the game and asked his host to make him a set, along with a copy of the more advanced rules. In 1935, he copied and sold the game, now known as Monopoly, to Parker Brothers along with the myth of its creation.

Lizzy Magie, inventor of the Landlord’s Game, which we now know as Monopoly, in 1936. Photograph: Anspach Archives
Lizzy Magie, inventor of the Landlord’s Game, which we now know as Monopoly, in 1936. Photograph: Anspach Archives

The object is to become the wealthiest player through buying, renting and selling of a single commodity – property. The game of Monopoly is one of accumulation and power that enables each player the chance to compete. Magie invented the game to reveal the current economic system and the greed of those monopolising it; though it was over a hundred years ago and many alterations have been made, parallels between playing a game of Monopoly and life under capitalism still exist today.

When you begin a game of Monopoly players are given equal odds for success: you each receive $1500, the board is open, and everyone has the potential to expand an empire. You go around the board like this for a while, buying properties, building houses and hotels, and just having a good ol’ time accumulating wealth. Until all of a sudden the game gets really serious. You land on Park Lane, it has a red hotel perched upon it and you realise you’re fucked. You count out your paper money, mortgage half your properties and pay the astronomical fee for landing on this spot, but you know it’s all over. There’s a sickening feeling of anger in your gut as you paste a smile on your face and say, “It’s just a game!” But everyone knows what happens next. The leading player gets wealthier and wealthier, accumulating properties as the others are forced to retire – all the while remembering why they hate Monopoly.

The tendency towards monopoly is deeply rooted in the nature of the capitalist economic system, and unlike the game of Monopoly we don’t all start on an equal footing. Capitalism is characterised by gross inequalities in power, wealth and access to resources, and in our society these inequalities are only getting worse. The game of monopoly is well afoot in the Australian housing market, and those of us who weren’t born lucky enough to inherit the metaphorical $1500 are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain secure access to housing.

In 1982, the ABS Survey of Income and Housing revealed that 168,000 or 10% of home buyers spent more than 30% of their gross household income on housing costs. Nearly 30 years later in 2011 these numbers had soared to 640,000, equivalent to 21% of all home buyers. The trend in housing cost burdens reflect rising real house prices; property market booms escalate real house prices to higher levels than they peaked in the previous boom. But with each peak in house prices, household incomes fall continuously behind. According to the same ABS data source, households in 1990 on average valued their homes at four times their average household income, by 2011 this multiple had climbed to nearly six times average household income.

The problem is not one of a shortage of housing, but an inefficient and unequal distribution of the stock housing. There are an estimated 84,000 vacant residential properties in Melbourne, the majority owned by property investors and speculators. At the same time, the public housing waiting list has blown out to ten years as 34,000 people wait for a place to live. This is both obscene, and the logical consequence of an economic system in which housing is not a human right, but rather a commodity to be bought, sold and speculated on for private profit.

The Australian government has done everything it can to support the rampant cycle of property speculation which is driving housing inaffordability across Australia. The combination of “negative gearing” and a concessionary rates of capital gains tax on residential real estate have amounted to a massive transfer of capital to those wealthiest enough to engage in property speculation. Negative gearing means that individuals with high incomes can lower their income tax liabilities by borrowing to buy investment properties. When these speculators cash out, they avoid tax again, thanks to the Capital Gains Tax concessions. The result is that $11.7 billion dollars a year that might have been collected in tax revenue is instead funneled into the pockets of the wealthiest, and this occurs in a process that drives up property prices and rents, and progressively locks large sections of the working class out of the housing market.

Unfortunately for us, capitalism is an adaptable system, capable of evolving and transforming over time. Since Magie invented the ‘Landlords Game’ in 1903 we have seen a major merger movement for industry, greater concentration of capital, advanced selling power through advertising, and a mass expansion for the market through globalization and imperialism. Just like the outcome of the game, the monopolisation of capital results in the most powerful minorities dividing all the profits whilst the greater part of humanity suffers from ever increasing poverty. The standard of living for the wealthy is based on the extreme oppression of the working class.

So whilst there are clear parallels between a game of Monopoly and the conditions of life in a capitalist society, it is also clear that the conditions of our lives are unequal and the outcomes far worse for most. You don’t start on ‘GO’ at the same time as everyone else, you’re certainly not given the same amount of wealth to begin with, all of the properties, utilities and businesses are already owned, and it seems like your dice only roll ones and twos. It’s also really hard to find free parking. The truth is most of us go around the board year in and year out trying to pass ‘GO’ for our measly wage, hoping we can scrape together enough money to pay our rent and survive. If you can’t pay your rent you don’t get to stop playing, you have to keep rolling your shitty dice, trying to make it back to ‘GO’ or dying in the process. Meanwhile the minority who monopolise the board don’t ever really begin the game, certain players just pass their piece on, accompanied by their every-growing pile of notes, properties, and little red hotels.

Upcoming event – 23rd & 30th of April – Workplace Organising Skills 101



A two-day organiser training workshop, presented by two comrades from the anarcho-syndicalist union the FAU (Berlin section).

When: 11am-5pm on Saturday 23 April and Saturday 30 April. Persons wishing to participate need to be available for both dates.

Where: Activity Rooms 1 & 2, Kathleen Syme Library and Community Centre (251 Faraday St, Carlton).

As many bosses increasingly emphasise flexibility, adaptability and competition between workers as the values founding the modern workplace environment, precarity and abuse of power has become rife. As workers, many of us can easily identify the issues big and small within our workplaces which negatively impact on our received wages, the amount of hours we are expected to spend in our workplaces, our health and safety concerns and our right to be treated with dignity, equality and respect whilst at work. If you are experiencing violations within any of these aspects of your work life (or others) they do not have to be tolerated! There are always steps that can be taken for workers to level the playing field once we are armed with the right skills!

Anarchist Affinity is hosting Organiser Training 101 to help you build these skills. Based on Australian, British (Solidarity Federation), and North American (Industrial Workers of the World) experiences, the Organiser Training is an intensive, hands-on, two day workshop where participants learn basic tools needed to successfully organise and operate their workplaces democratically. OT 101 takes participants through the early development of an organising campaign. Over the weekend you will learn what exactly it means to be organised, why we do it, and techniques to carry out your own campaign.

FAU Berlin Foreigner’s Section comrades Madelaine and Carmen will take you through role plays, group facilitated discussion, and interactive lectures.

Topics include: gathering contact information, approaching co-workers, and building an organising committee relevant to workers who participate in workplace organising.

The training is for free and open to everyone who wishes to participate. We warmly encourage people to attend who have had no prior union experience or organising/activist experience. You don’t have to be working in an industry that is traditionally union-based, as long you have co-workers (in whatever capacity) we can devise a strategy to get you started! In fact if you know other colleagues in your workplace who want to see some change, bring them too. We especially encourage attendance from workers who experience disproportionate exploitation, including people of colour, first nation people, women, LGBTI workers and workers with disability.

Basic snacks and refreshments will be provided on both days, there are a variety of places to get lunch near the training venue.

If you are going to attend please send an RSVP to the Anarchist Affinity before 9 APRIL with the following information:

Phone #:
Occupation (Industry):
Other notes (i.e. dietary requirements):

But seriously, RSVP because knowing who’s coming helps us plan.

Facebook event here.

Interview with Kojo Barbah from South London Anti-Fascists and the Anti-Raids Network


Kojo Barbah is a London based activist and a founding member of South London Anti-Fascists. He is also a member of the direct action migrant solidarity organisation the Anti-Raids Network.

Maybe we can begin by discussing the origins of South London Anti-Fascists (SLAF). Though London is a city with a long, continuous and quite notorious history of anti-fascist organising, SLAF only came to my attention last year, in the wake of the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich on May 22nd. How and when did the group come together? Was the decision to reactivate the group out of mere necessity, in response to far-right attempts to capitalise on Rigby’s death, or were there other factors?

South London Anti-Fascists were originally formed by trade unionists in 2008, namely Battersea and Wandsworth Trade Union Council and Croydon Trade Union Council. It was in reaction to the London Mayor and Assembly elections, which returned the highest proportional vote for the fascist British National Party (5%) in London and guaranteed them a seat in the Assembly. The vote, though overall still small, was acutely concentrated in Barking and Dagenham, poor deindustrialised North East London suburbs where the BNP were made the official local council opposition with 12 elected councillors. In South London, Morden was also a flashpoint for far-right activity. In 2009, the BNP’s membership was leaked and though some people on it were never fully paid up fascists there was a sizeable number in this area, including a small scaffolding business run by a fascist which still operates today. Our view was that the far right were gaining ground in traditional working class areas and the privatisation agenda pursued by Labour had abandoned and alienated working class interests. We were lucky to have a paid organiser to support our efforts. The far-right needed to be tackled using a diversity of tactics and the divided efforts of Unite Against Fascism (UAF) (predominantly SWP) and Searchlight/Hope Not Hate (HNH) were clearly not working.

Antifa at this time was at a low point as the BNP had moved away (though never completely abandoned) from street confrontation to wearing suits and appearing like professional politicians. Also, there were stories of Antifa attempting to blow up cars belonging to the wrong people and getting sent down for it. SLAF worked initially as a collective where HNH, UAF and autonomous antifascists could work together to organise against local threats and support individuals and communities who were targeted or concerned about local activity. We dwindled in activity as the threat of the BNP receded after 2010. The EDL emerged as a new threat and the UK Independence Party, though marginal, were in the background. I was the chair and my political orientation was changing too. I moved from a democratic socialist orientation to a more social anarchist position. During our down period, I read a lot more!

Lee Rigby’s death definitely prompted a reactivation. I personally got a lot of calls asking what should be organised as the then leader of the EDL, Tommy Robinson, was coming to Woolwich. We were disorganised and too small in number to respond so initially we had to watch him on TV unopposed. A meeting was called by a prominent local anarchist a day later and I suggested using the SLAF banner as it happened in our patch. We made a callout to confront the EDL outside Downing Street and have started to hold regular meetings ever since.

Organised antifascists like Anti-Fascist Action (1985-1990’s) and the contemporary Anti-Fascist Network have stressed, alongside the necessity of counter mobilisation and confrontation on the streets, the importance of ‘filling the political vacuum’. This type of counter analysis generally consists of a class-struggle critique of capitalism, but often extends to critiques of the state, political liberalism and nationalism. SLAF seems to take this responsibility very seriously, and argues persuasively that struggles against all other forms of oppression (ubiquitous police harassment and violence inflicted upon communities of colour through policies like the Met Police’s ‘Stop and SEARCH’; the targeting of sex workers in Soho; ‘raids’ by the UK Border Force targeting migrant workers and asylum seekers to name but a few) are also antifascist activities. Can you elaborate on this connection?

There isn’t unanimity in our group on this, we have Trotskyists and some who avoid political labels but this is the majority view.

Anti-fascism, bluntly, is stopping fascists from growing either in number or in confidence at the very least. At the maximum it is dismantling their capacity to be effective. Liberal antifascists believe antifascists are bad because they are illiberal and pay only lip service to parliamentary democracy. We oppose fascists because they seek our complete domination by exterminating working class power.

When we reformed, we wanted to express our beliefs about the nature of fascism and the state. Fascism is the ultimate expression of capitalism’s need to control and subordinate human activity to its logic and authority. The state is its most effective tool. When societies are failed by capital, the preferred solution is state repression. However in liberal democracies, unlike military dictatorships, repression cannot be nakedly deployed, apologetics are utilised to explain the contradiction of affirming human rights and the exercising of sub-human treatment. The law is the crystallisation of this – the targeting of minorities, whether it is asylum seekers, cultural groups or sex workers is the State practicing and perfecting its power to oppress. The more we allow this to happen, the better the police get at wielding it, the more polished politicians are at arguing for dehumanisation, and the more efficient media outlets are in convincing the public. We oppose state repression because it is antithesis of our power, which is our solidarity. We want to bring together the full spectrum of our human expression against state oppression. Capital, through the state, wants to divide and categorise us into economic utilities and human resources.

Fascism is capitalism unrestrained by historical appeals to morality or universal rights. The popular appeal of this doesn’t happen overnight, but is a culture that can take decades, or in times of crisis, a few years to develop and become entrenched. If we do not resist state oppression then we allow the tools of our destruction to sharpen and be ready to put into fascist control.

In an excellent piece published on the SLAF blog in May, you identify the predominance of ‘populist’ anti-immigrant rhetoric in the run-up to the European elections as a reason ‘antifascism is necessary but insufficient’, adding ‘in our analysis, the state is a much bigger threat and generator of popular racism’ (than UKIP, BNP etc). This is an observation with great relevance in the Australian context, where social justice campaigns often ignore structural issues, instead focusing on appeals to politicians, commentators and the state to be nicer, more compassionate and less racist. Given Australia’s role as a global pioneer of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and the fact that much of this infrastructure was built by the Australian Labor Party, this too seems insufficient. How does SLAF identify the role of the state in creating, exploiting and perpetuating racism? Any thoughts about organising outside of borders and against the

Australia’s legacy of white supremacy is an outpost of British imperialism. The policy of White Australia may have been publicly restrained by the British but it was tacitly endorsed and clearly financed. In managing a global empire, Britain has learned to be less explicit about its racial hierarchy but it is clearly a deeply embedded part of British culture.

We as a group have not theorised how the state has created racism, but the works of Walter Rodney, Theodore W. Allen and bell hooks would illuminate here. I believe that racism was an imperialist construct invented to justify enslavement, genocide and subjugation of darker skinned peoples and their cultures. It is necessary for imperial capitalist accumulation to continue and allay moral qualms about inhuman treatment. If they are not human, went the theory, then it was justified.

It also helped and still does help the ruling elite manage class relations. Nationalism and whiteness create a powerful collective identity that politicians use to generate a sense of pride and superiority amongst the white working class. Invoking whiteness, however subtly, signals that to be white is to be associated with being the dominator not the dominated, to be part of the history of Kings and Queens not the enslaved and impoverished, and that they are heirs to the pioneers of democracy and modernity and not savagery and barbarism. This is a myth of course, but it is said or inferred so often that it is widely believed. Even if racial myths based on biology have waned, they have transferred seamlessly into cultural myths. These ideas underlie why immigration controls are popular. They refer to the mortal danger that their biology or now culture may be irreparably damaged by the contamination of foreign bodies.

These myths aid class relations for the ruling class in another way, as they can form powerful associations to aid labour discipline. The welfare scrounger is the class equivalent of the asylum seeker. In other words, a pariah, a human to legitimately loathed. The stereotypical connotations of being Black, that is to be lazy, unable to organise your own affairs, scheming, preferring base pleasures to self-improvement and lacking a “decent” disposition provides a basis for reducing state social subsidy and weakening the power of organised labour. Racism and class hatred are interrelated, it is difficult to deploy one without making reference to the other. In breaking down these myths, we require socialisation, solidarity and struggle. Racial myths have been largely destroyed by the act of racialised people fighting to be recognised as human and white working class people living and working with racialised people and accepting that reality.

South London Anti-Fascists is part of the UK wide Anti-Fascist Network and the London based Anti Raids Network.


Anti-Fascist Network

South London Anti-Fascists

Anti Raids Network

London Black Revolutionaries

Movement For Justice

Unity Centre Glasgow