This article represents the views of its author, E.G., not necessarily those of the C.C.S.
Published: October 2013

Quality and consumerism

We are continually warned that the commodities we buy may be of poor quality. Occasionally these warnings flare up into a specific scandal (horsemeat in the burgers, salmonella in the eggs), but most of the time they continue as a steady background rumble of unease. And people are quite right to be uneasy: we all know full well, in fact, that many of the things we buy—especially when we have to buy cheap, as most of us do—are fairly dubious, and a few may be actually unsafe. So it's no surprise that bourgeois politics has brought forth a whole galaxy of consumer groups, lobbying us to be vigilant, querulous, careful, to ask questions, to read the label, to complain, to take things back, and lobbying the state to impose minimum standards and enforce them. Neither of these approaches is quite useless. But neither can be more than a palliative, because quality isn't actually a consumer problem—it's a problem of production.

After all, the reason why horsemeat ends up in the hamburgers is very simple. It's because they're being made by a demoralized and exploited workforce, under persistent pressure to do the job as cheaply and quickly as possible. Inexorable laws of the capitalist mode of production oblige management to cut corners, skimp on quality, and drive down costs: that's where the profit comes from. The product will inevitably be as bad as it can be, and still sell. And there is only so much that the efforts of the consumer lobbies can do. Perhaps they can encourage some consumers to raise their standards, meaning that the very worst products will no longer sell: but most of us don't have the time, the energy, or the money to be the informed and active consumers we're told to be. Perhaps the bourgeois state will set a minimum standard: but that standard is bound to be low, and may still be disregarded.

All this is bad for the consumer—but it's disastrous for the worker. One of the most pervasive and dispiriting results of the alienation of labour under modern capitalism is the compulsion to work badly. This does not just affect the food industry: across the economy, workers are pushed to do their jobs fast and cheaply rather than well. Workers in the electronics sector have to cobble together gadgets with ‘built-in obsolescence’. Rail workers are made to economize on safety. Teachers have to limit themselves to the simplifications and half-truths that the state-monopoly exam board industry dictates. Garment workers have to turn out inferior clothes, made with shoddy materials, so the multimillionaire shareholders don’t see a dip in their dividend payments. Capitalism is built on a colossal edifice of enforced mediocrity.

And the problem is compounded by the fact that most people are doing jobs they have little interest in or aptitude for. The threat of mass unemployment and the desperate shortage of jobs force people into the first job they can find: and they are usually then compelled to do substandard and socially pernicious work in that job. There can be very few jobs that somebody wouldn't take active pleasure and pride in doing, provided they were allowed to do them well—and they didn’t necessarily have to do them 48 hours a week, 337 days a year until they were made redundant. One person fidgets behind an office desk, and lives for the allotment at weekends; another, worn out with fruit-picking, takes some comfort from keeping all their papers meticulously filed and docketed. Shy people end up in customer service; their more outgoing neighbours are closeted in the back office. For every hobbyist who can spend happy hours tinkering with an engine, there’s a car worker who’d rather be doing something else. People who want to lift weights have to go to a gym and pay to lift weights that don’t need lifting—while, on a building site up the road, people who already get plenty of exercise are paid to lift weights that do need lifting but that they’d otherwise have no desire to lift. This systematic, inept squandering of human energy and potential is one of the outrages of modern bourgeois civilization.

The obvious, straightforward, easy solution is the communist solution. Abolish the profit motive; transfer control over production to the workers themselves; and allow everyone to work in any job they’re qualified for, for as long or as short a period as they like. It would be trivial, with modern communications technology, to arrange a system where everybody could easily find out all the opportunities for skilled and unskilled work that were available in their district. Some people would probably still want to do the same thing every day; others might try out a lot of industries and then settle on one or two; some would simply follow their inclinations from one day to the next; and there would perhaps be quite a lot who’d look for what they thought needed doing, and put in, say, a few days’ navvying because they agreed the area needed a railway, and then a week as a hospital porter because there seemed to be a shortfall. Some would just fish in the afternoon and criticize after dinner. And it really wouldn’t matter if there were people who chose to spend all day lying on their backs and watching the clouds. Maybe one or two of them would eventually produce a great poem, or an earth-shattering scientific hypothesis; but, even if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to compel armies of workers to wait on them and attend to their luxuries the way the idle bourgeoisie can under capitalism.

But it’s unlikely that very many people would choose to stay permanently idle. Even today, you can just about live on the dole—and yet there are tens or hundreds of people applying for the most menial, ill-paid, and insecure job. Under communist conditions, it seems overwhelmingly likely that most people would want to do good, honest work in the industry or industries they’d chosen. (This principle of free choice does not contradict the principle of economic planning: it completes it. Planning would naturally be carried out on the basis of statistical averages—you wouldn’t necessarily know exactly who would turn up at a given workplace on a given day, but you’d have a good idea how many were likely to.) The result would be a committed and productive body of free workers—and also, of course, an automatic solution to the problem of quality. People who had freely chosen to do a particular job, who were under no management pressure to do it badly, would naturally prefer to do work they could be proud of.

Bourgeois consumerism is unable to conceptualize this solution, just because it remains consumerist: like all bourgeois thought, it tries to understand the economy from the standpoint of the consumer rather than that of the worker. And the same confusion afflicts bourgeois thinking wherever it tries to come to grips with anything related to quality. The debates around gutter journalism in the wake of the Leveson report largely missed the point, because they never went into the way the monopoly press obliges journalists to neglect quality and produce a stream of cheap, degrading celebrity tittle-tattle. Under communism, free workers who had taken up journalism because they were passionate about uncovering the truth and informing and educating their readers wouldn’t need state regulation to stop them transcribing D-listers’ phone messages: it would never occur to them to do anything so sordid or so inane.

The same basic bourgeois misunderstanding underpins the ruling class’s big lie in the sphere of culture: the claim that there is no such thing as objective quality. Consumerism, the philosophy of exchange value, cannot even ask Is it good?; it can only ask Will it sell? And so workers in the arts and entertainment are bullied into conforming to what publishers, film studios, and record labels have trained the public to consume. Serious creative workers, by contrast, have always wanted to do not ‘what the public wants’ (if it does want it), but the best work they can: they have always known the danger of ‘ruining a fine tenor voice for effects that will bring down the house’. Under communism, they will no longer be forced to do just that.

It should be pointed out that quality is not always the same thing as sophistication. People under communism wouldn’t necessarily live on lobster Thermidor and the works of Schoenberg—although they’d have more chance than under capitalism to make the acquaintance of both. But a hamburger and a simple three-minute song can also be made honestly and well; and there is no reason why the free producers of a communist society couldn’t take pride in making these things too.

But the main point is simply this: bourgeois consumerism will never succeed in extracting uniformly high-quality products from exploited and alienated workers. The problem can only be resolved if we approach it not as consumers, but as class-conscious proletarians: it is communism, not consumerism, that will guarantee quality.


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