Workers Consumed by Consumerism

Why is there so much attention paid to people as consumers, but so little to people as workers?

Is it because the mere mention of our rights as workers brings up all kinds of uncomfortable truths that threaten the very ideological foundations of the current economic system?

The vast majority of us are wageworkers. Wages are our primary source of income. Or we collect a pension because we and/or our spouse were once workers. Or we are dependents of workers.

In fact, a huge proportion of the money spent by consumers in our economy comes directly or indirectly from our wages as workers.

Despite this obvious reality, while the media is jam-packed with material about consumer rights, consumer choice, ads claiming the best price for consumers, stories about politicians claiming “to do what’s best for consumers” and much more focused on consumption, there is almost nothing about work or workers’ rights. Typically what little there is concerns  strikes or other “disruptions” to the economy. It’s as if workers are just cogs in a giant machine, only worth discussing when a breakdown occurs. There’s certainly no money to be made promoting workers’ rights; in fact, we are seen primarily as a cost that reduces profit.

Yes, there is some lip service given to workers as a resource; words to the effect that “we’re all in this together” might be spoken, but real examples of workplace democracy are few and very far between. If workers were truly valued as people “all in this together”, wouldn’t there be at least some semblance of democracy at work?

Instead, under our current economic system, the master-servant relationship is the legal framework that dominates workplaces.

Reality for most workers, which means most people, is a fundamental lack of respect at work. That’s why “the system” prefers to focus on us as consumers rather than as workers.

So what, one might ask? What’s the big deal if we must give up being treated as an equal human being at work, so long as we are well paid? The object of work is to make enough money so that we can consume what we want and enjoy the good life, nothing more.

Aside from the fact many of us are not well paid, the answer to the question “so what?” is that work is an essential element of human identity. When asked at a party, “what do you do?” not many of us answer: “I shop.” And if we did, what would that say about us?

What we do — work — is what defines us, what makes us human. We want a job that is a source of lasting satisfaction, not simply consumption. When the system does not provide that sense of satisfaction at work alienation is the result. This leads to stress, addictions and other forms of ill health.

Even unions become complicit in this alienation, focusing exclusively on getting more money, which is another way of agreeing with right wing supporters of the existing system that its members are just consumers.

These right wingers want us to only care about more money. They want us to consume more. Smart capitalists are Keynesians. They want workers to demand more and to spend more. But we’ve reached the limit of Keynesianism in two senses: Capitalists have abandoned it en masse so appeals for them to return to some golden era of Keynes is a pathetic dead end. And even if the capitalists were willing to give us more, more has become an environmental dead end.

Instead workers and their unions must learn to dream bigger.

We must learn to demand more than simply more.

Gary Engler is a Canadian journalist, novelist (The Year We Became Us) and co-author of the recently released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite. He is currently working on the first great hockey novel tentatively titled Puck Hog. Read other articles by Gary.