Now with the recent protests in Hamburg organised by the left wing youth and the occasional violent escalation spurred by anarchists, a certain meme is doing the rounds again on social media. The meme appears in various forms and depictions, but always comes down to the same concept.
Pick a photo of a radical socialist or otherwise left wing supporter in a frame where they allegedly benefit from a capitalist achievement. A woman with a Che Guevara shirt at the McDonald’s, a guy taking a selfie with an iPhone of an ongoing riot or someone standing on top of a barricade wearing brand new Nike shoes. All of those to point out the apparent hypocrisy of it. The images are suited with scathing text to point out how shortsighted and naive the person in the photo is. The same thing happens a lot on Twitter and similar social networks, whenever a person calls out capitalism or says something supportive of socialism, you can bet on it someone will sarcastically respond with: “You wrote that from your Macbook sitting in a Starbucks.”
Labour and Capital
But aren’t these observations correct? Isn’t it highly ironic that a person who identifies themselves with collective ownership and equal wages, uses products that were made under capitalist exploits and with little regard for people’s welfare or the environment? Hardly. Let me explain why this point is completely irrelevant and silly and has nothing to do with the actual radical notion of socialism.
A telephone, a sportshoe or a hamburger and fries are produced and sold through a process of labour. There’s nothing anti-socialist about acquiring raw materials, make a product out of it and sell it to a consumer. Underpaying the people who obtain the materials and make the product and overcharge the consumer to buy it, is. Socialism is not about not wanting to have luxury products. Socialism says the people making the products should be paid fairly. And the means of production should not be privately owned by a single person in order to force others to work for and buy from you. So, a socialist doesn’t disagree with the concept of an iPhone or the process of making it, they disagree with the way the people along the production chain are paid.
Luxury and Overproduction
“But in a socialist system we wouldn’t have the means to make such expensive products!” I hear a lot of people say. Which is nonsense. In a socialist system people’s desire for things doesn’t change. Without capitalists at the buttons, the need to overproduce and flood the market with products would disappear. Instead of ten different iPhone models and dozens of other brands, we would have just a few sound, well made phones. A good example are East German photo cameras. Till today, a lot of professional photographers still remove the lens from a new camera and put an old German lens in it. Why? Made under socialism with only one sole purpose: quality. Newer lenses are made cheap and quick for maximal profit. If we had socialism today, quantity of production would drop and the production of many products would be depended on the people that actually need them. That way, you remove the necessity to artificially create product-demand with advertising and such, and simply let genuine need for a product fuel a person’s initiative to contribute in making it.
“But if you disagree with the way people are paid for their labour in the way these products are made, shouldn’t you boycott them?” That’s a fair question, and one that will not be answered the same by every socialist out there. Of course, there’s a certain sense of self pride and downright taste of each person. A lot of socialists will tell you they simply aren’t that keen on lots of luxury products. Others might indicate it indeed feels wrong to stand firmly against a system but at the same type reap the benefits from it. In a lot of cases it’s simply their extended knowledge of production, labour and economic systems that makes them reluctant in buying a lot of products that hardly represent the value of their price tag. A boycott as a way of political pressure or protest is virtually useless, as a pointed out in an earlier article. Removing yourself from the equation is a useless form of protest and might often even have the opposite effect.
Not buying a thing because it was made by capitalism is a pretty much a non-issue. If we wouldn’t want to buy anything that’s made by capitalism, we wouldn’t be able to buy anything. No food, no housing, no clothing, nothing. Protests like the one in Hamburg are the same that happened in the antiquity against slavery, during the middle ages against serfdom and during the industrial revolution against worker exploitation. Slaves still slept in the houses and ate the food that were provided to them, serfs still enjoyed the protection and land the received from their masters, a factory worker in London would still buy things for a meagre wage they received.
In a Nutshell
Socialists demand a system where people are in control over their own labour and where everybody works together to create a society where everybody gets what they need. Capitalism is but a phase in the development of society, and it creates the conditions for its own downfall. Socialism doesn’t mean an aversion against material goods, fun things or luxury and not participating in a system that exploits people does not make it go away. Joking and making light of people that use products made in a system that they are against, is severely missing the point and counterproductive to making society better.