Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thoughts On Buying Nothing

Of course I'm late on making comments on a campaign that happened a few weeks ago. Of course, I am. I'm a student; can't expect much in terms of keeping up with me.

However, I did recieve an email last week from AdBusters' Culture Jammers Network about a wrap-up on Buy Nothing Day. In it, they express Buy Nothing Day as a success that garnered media attention, and asked for people's experiences related to that day. Though I am NOT sending it to their blog, I am here offering my thoughts.

Here's the thing; I love Adbusters and their often spot-on critiques of capitalist consumer-based degradation of culture. I appreciate their work, and will continue to support the magazine (ironically, when I can afford to again). However, I really can't get behind "Buy Nothing Day." It's too flawed a campaign.

I appreciate its sentiment. In theory, buying nothing should disrupt the capital flow of consumerism, hopefully highlighting a message of the need for a more sustainable economy that closes the gaps between the haves and the havenots. It should also pose a threat to the fat cats on top who play the capitalist strings to the tunes of their own greedy hearts. I agree, we need to spotlight consumer waste; we treat this planet like the pigs depicted in the ad for Buy Nothing rejected by MTV.


The problem with this campaign is that it doesn't really address the structures of economy nor the pyramid scheme of power that is capitalism. Buy Nothing is far too simplistic an approach to thoroughly analyse the issues of consumer waste that define its economic concerns.

When I was invited to participate in "Buy Nothing Day" on my facebook, I was ambivalent about it. Initially, I said "maybe attending." Eventually, I declined all together. Buy Nothing Day is not a campaign I can support.

Let me illustrate the issues for you.

For one thing, when big capitalists lose money in their ventures, it is not their bank accounts that suffer, or any of the CEOs that lose their jobs. Rather, the first people affected by an economic slump are the people at the bottom, the people whose backs that money is made off. Let's look at the film "The Take" (Avi Lewis, Naomi Klein) for example. In it, we start with a prosperous Peron-era Argentina, enjoying the spoils of capitalism in all its consumer-happy glory, backed over the continuing years by IMF and World Bank, conditional of course to Argentina's adherence to their policies. Then fast-forward to Argentina's current economy. Here we see total collapse, wherein capitalism is forced to break its own rules. The economy can no longer sustain itself at the consumerist pace it was going. Of course it couldn't for other issues I am not even touching upon here, and the Buy Nothing campaign is right to highlight this. But again, going back to the documentary, let's see who suffers the fallout of such a collapse. The wealthy in Argentina suffered minimally, because they had invested in true capitalist fashion in offshore accounts keeping their money safe and free. Rather it was the middle and working classes that suffered, since they had no such backups, and had all their accounts frozen and made inaccessible. Factory owners shut down thier production sites without warning or severence pay, safeguarding their own money while devasting the country's economy. Working class Argentinians were forced to rethink their strategies and build a new type of power that was collective and horizontal in order to reclaim the deserted factories. Its not like when this capitalist collapse happened, that the rich were forced to give up their wealth and re-distribute it equally amongst everyone. And that's ultimately the problem with Buy Nothing. I'm not suggesting this campaign would have the fallout effect that Argentina suffered. What I am saying is that when capitalism fails and we are not careful about how it happens, its the bottom that gets knocked out, not the top. We have to be really thoughtful about the way we imagine a revolution of economy. And Buy Nothing doesn't address the structural distribution of capital resources.

Case in point: Why I Can't Participate.

I work in a restaurant. As a server, I am paid less then minimum wage because it is expected in this industry that my wages will be supplimented by tips (15% standard, thank you very much). I am also a part-time worker, due to not only being a student, but often also to overstaffing that seems to occur when restaurants decide to hire a lot of students. That means the amount of tips I can make is directly related to the amount of time I can work. If I am only able to work a couple of days a week as a result of these circumstances, and Buy Nothing Day falls on one of those days, to put it brashly, I am totally screwed. If no one comes into the restaurants, and buys nothing nor tips, it is I who suffers. If the restaurant is having a slow day, it is my shift that gets cut, at an already meagre wage. If my higher level managers have a short day, their pay is not compromised like mine is since they work on salary. And the CEOs of the company certainly don't see a hit, since they save money lost by cutting my labour. In the end, its a slow day for the people on top. For me, it means I have to wait til my next shift til I can buy groceries. I already live on the benevolence of the tipping system, which is often fickle. My chances of doing well are shortened by such campaigns to end consumerism. In an economy that is in fact so consumer driven, it is the people at the bottom of the chain like me who get cut first.

And it is people like me who Buy Nothing days hurts before it challenges the big business structures. Do you think Buy Nothing day makes any sort of real threat to the disgusting, unadulterated capitalists like Kevin O'Leary on Dragon's Den?

I'm sorry if I am coming across as being selfish here, but I do have to survive in this world. Too many of my days are already Buy Nothing days by economic default.

I think, too, that Buy Nothing Day does not ask its participants to question their own every-day spending habits enough. As the boy pointed out when we discussed this at home, most people who participate in buy nothing not only probably have enough things like food and transportation to get themselves through the day, they probably bought everything the day before, thus invalidating any claims that the actual event day is trying to make. It also means that it is mainly those who are already comfortable who can really do the significant part of protesting for this day.

We need a better campaign. I don't necessarily have a better answer; I just know we need to really do more thinking about how to dismantle this particular machine. Especially when we are up against cringe-worthy folks like Kevin O'Leary and company.

I don't think Adbuster's attempts are without its worth. I will continue to be intrigued and grateful for the alternatives this magazine/organization attempts to offer. Buy Nothing Christmas, with its return focus on the spirit of the holiday rather interests me. Though I might ask them to dump the Christmas part of it and remove its religious strings so that becomes a more open holiday idea for those of us who do not follow Christianity.

Everyone: Let's keep working on this.

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