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How we became trapped by capitalism

B&w Overland hlineCHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE - Neo-liberal capitalism has taken over our lives by stealth.

I date its rise from the realisation that ordinary citizens could be offered easy access to credit, whereby the perceived actuarial risk involved was largely mitigated by the sheer numbers of people who used credit cards and similar facilities.

This single decision ushered in the Age of the Consumer, whereby people who had hitherto been citizens were understood to be and described as consumers, that is to say as economic units.

The role of the consumer is to purchase the endless supply of goods and services generated by an ever growing economy.

The economy is, in fact, a gigantic hamster wheel, which must be made to spin faster and faster in order to maintain the growth that generates the profits that allow the consumption of ever more goods and services and so on ad infinitum.

We consumers are, of course, the hamsters.

To encourage the hamsters, there is a vast advertising industry which is designed and operated by often very smart people whose sole task is to persuade us to purchase as much as possible as often as possible. They are very, very good at this task.

The fashion industry exemplifies consumerism, with its emphasis on incessant changes in the favoured "look", so that no amount of clothing in a wardrobe is actually sufficient to fulfil our desire to look and feel good.

Our ancestors overwhelmingly valued clothing for its utility and robustness. They could not afford fashion for its own sake. Only the truly wealthy could afford to value clothing purely for how it looked.

We all now are encouraged to value the look of clothing for its own sake. Neither utility or robustness figure prominently in advertising except for clothing aimed at those who do manual work for a living.

The same can be said for a vast array of stuff that no-one actually needs but which can be made to seem desirable or even necessary.

Thus neo-liberal capitalism may be in some sense efficient but the resultant consumerism is astonishingly wasteful, extravagant and, very often, adds no real or lasting satisfaction or value to our lives.

As consumers we are the servants of the economy, not vice versa. Our political class now consciously prioritises the economy over us as citizens.

Recently, at least one academic economist has seriously suggested that as Covid 19 primarily kills the elderly, we should allow it to do so, thus culling those economic units who are no longer productive plus creating herd immunity to the disease.

This is illustrative of the mindset that now informs some of the thinking about neo-liberal economics. It is reflective of the 19th century mindset whereby, for example, coal miners were sent down unsafe mines and it was accepted that the resultant deaths and disability, while unfortunate, were just a cost of doing business.

Of course, there is enormous hypocrisy with neo-liberal capitalism.

Ultra-competitive corporations and individuals ostensibly value creative destruction right until the moment when they look like becoming its victims.

They then immediately demand government help, so that the taxpayers are obliged to rescue them.

They always plead "special" circumstances, ignoring the fact that their ideology doesn't make any allowance for circumstances.

In a Papua New Guinea context, far too many international corporations are really only predatory rent seekers, good at spinning tales about how much government largesse they need to get "development" started.

They are adept at explaining the many reasons beyond their control whereby such development somehow never translates into much benefit for the hapless citizenry.

It is time that we all woke up to this nonsense and demanded major reforms to how capitalism works. It is entirely possible to do this.

The genius of capitalism is its ability to transform itself to meet changing circumstances.

I am quite sure that it can do so again but it will require forcing those who are the major beneficiaries of neo-liberalism to accept changes that will diminish both their wealth and their influence in favour of ordinary citizens.

This has been done before, notably in the post war period in the UK and Europe, and it can be done again.


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Stephanie Alois

I like this phrase: "As consumers we are the servants of the economy, not vice versa. Our political class now consciously prioritises the economy over us as citizens."

This is especially true in a developing nation like PNG. I also find this piece captivating due to the writer's use of the concept Neo-liberalism (which is a theory I am currently studying) in explaining capitalism.

Looking forward to more of this.

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