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Argumentative Essay: Can Capitalist Dominance Be Challenged

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The state of ‘post-politics’, whereby society is characterised by political apathy and a lack of substantial political change, is often portrayed as having transpired concurrently with the trend of rising global consumerism. Indeed, many academics argue that capitalist domination has been irreversibly strengthened through a culture of excessive consumption that intrinsically reinforces hegemonic power (Briggs, 2012; Dean, 2009; Rushkoff and Griffith, 1999). While forms of traditional political participation such as voting or party membership have steadily declined, these conventional types have been replaced by new methods of challenging capitalist ideology. Most notably, an increase in the number and membership of social movements has demonstrated how citizen-consumers seek alternative tactics for resisting hegemony that operate outside of the formal political system. In contemporary capitalist societies, social movements have exercised political consumerism and ethical consumption in protest, expanding the bounds of consumerism. The concept of empowered consumers further allows for the reconceptualisation of consumerism as a new opportunity for political resistance as post-politics has replaced citizen’s political power with consumer power. This essay will examine two case studies of social movements, Extinction Rebellion in the UK and Estadillo Social in Chile, identifying how political consumerism has been used to challenge capitalist dominance in both cities.

The idea that capitalist dominance can no longer be challenged originates from a wider notion of the post-political society. Led primarily by political philosophers in the late twentieth century, the concept of post-politics emerged following the fall of the Berlin wall and subsequent dissolution of the USSR which prescribed a new politics of consensus, a post-ideological state of agreement between nations and within political landscapes. Post-political theorists are highly critical of this state, arguing that it is highly exclusionary of minority groups, unproductive and narrows the political agenda (Rancière, 1998). Post-politics is fundamentally conceptualised as a platform for hegemonic power and can be best operationalised through four defining characteristics.

(1) In a post-political nation, capitalist liberal democracy is depicted as the culmination of all previous ideological discourse, debate and conflict; it is mutually understood that all previous modes of governance have ubiquitously failed and thus capitalism prevails as the solely feasible system. Fukuyama (1989: 3) famously asserted that we have reached “the end of history” after the twentieth-century defeats of fascism, communism and Marxism largely by Western capitalist nations dictated the barefaced victory of liberalism. The post-political society has thus unequivocally concluded that free-market capitalism, under the jurisdiction of liberal democracy, is the pre-eminent political mode of governance (Millington, 2016). This consensus disempowers democratic proposals that seek alternative political realities, strengthening capitalist domination.

(2) Post-politics notably requires left-wing politicians and mainstream political thinkers to have surrendered to capitalism as the optimal economic system, discrediting communist or socialist conceptualisations that suggest an alternative distribution of wealth (Badiou, 2012; Dean, 2009). This is essential to sustaining the false consciousness of the post-political society which portrays wage inequality and extreme economic disparity as meritocratic and natural.

(3) Post-politics is claimed to represent the end of ‘real’ politics through avoiding productive debate or substantive decisions. Discourse is deliberately shaped to lack obligation or political salience, ensuring that consequential division is circumvented (Millington, 2016). Participatory governance maintains the illusion of plurality, while any significant change is suppressed through bureaucratic administration that blocks definitive, irrevocable decisions (Swyngedouw 2009).

(4) Political apathy is a central characteristic of the post-political, that is, declining engagement with traditional institutions of collective political participation such as elections and party politics. DeLuca’s (1995: 134) conceptualisation of “political subordination” is important here, denoting the creation of apathy whereby the policy agenda is so narrow that politics is reduced to self-sustaining mechanisms of bureaucracy. The rigidity of post-political modes of governance blurs the distinctions between political parties, discouraging citizens from engaging with electoral democracy due to a belief that parties are unrepresentative, unproductive and largely homogeneous (Sloam, 2007). Thus, in post-politics, capitalist dominance remains unchallenged within formal polity structures.

Concurrently with theories of the post-political, several academics argue that political participation has been largely replaced by wider engagement with mass consumerism (Sklair, 2002; Swyngedouw, 2014). While consumerism can be neutrally operationalised as a global trend denoting the increased purchasing of non-essential items and adoption of shopping as a leisure activity, consumerism is often understood in social theory as an ideology fundamentally based in embedding transaction between capitalist hegemons and citizen-consumers in normative social relations (Gilbert, 2008). Consumerism has only developed in a modern context of globalisation as its dominance requires internationally imported materials, creating a surplus of products which can exclusively be accessed by an inequitably small fraction of the global population. Commodification and commercialisation are present in every aspect of social life, thus creating a societal paradigm which dictates that we must continuously consume to be truly alive.

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The displacement of political participation through consumerism works to strengthen capitalist dominance as limitless consumption reinforces capitalist ideological control. The economic rhetoric of capitalism is reliant on the consumerist rationalisation of capitalist accumulation as the demand for rapid consumption stimulates the expeditious manufacture of goods to meet this demand, and the subsequent profiteering by those who own the means of production (Sklair, 2002). Consumerism is thus not simply descriptive of the state of economic affairs as is often presented in business literature; rather a method of social control specifically targeted at the working and middle classes to ensure that a state of passivity is maintained and capitalism is not questioned (Briggs, 2012; Winlow and Hall, 2011). Further studies exemplify how coercion through marketing is used to remove the ability to make rational decisions, while political or revolutionary imagery is appropriated in advertising as another method of encouraging consumption and neutralising the challenge to capitalism this imagery poses (Rushkoff and Griffith, 1999; Frank, 1997).

Consumerism has come to be understood as a fundamental feature of post-politics, conceptualising political apathy as a deliberate product of consumerism. The objective of politics is to ensure that the conditions for consuming are maintained, often through political inactivity or “non-decision making”, denoting how politicians and policymakers tactically limit the scope of the policy agenda to largely anodyne issues, avoiding debates on the issues of inequality that arise from capitalism (Bachrach and Baratz, 1962; 1963). Even elections are repurposed under consumerist post-politics, as voting is reduced to another consumer decision aimed at naming citizens’ elected executives of capitalist inevitability (Swyngedouw, 2014). Through these understandings of the post-political, consumerist society, the statement that capitalist dominance cannot be challenged seems veracious, and ruling class hegemony appears uncontested.

Although the global trend of decreasing engagement with electoral systems appears to support the post-political state of apathy (Ferrini, 2012), it is actually exemplary of an increase in new arenas of political resistance, namely social movements. As traditional political engagement has decreased, the “mobilisation potential” (Klandermans and Oegema, 1987: 519) of social movements has been driven by a growing public disposition to participate in alternative methods of ideological contest (Barnes and Kaase, 1979). Across the past decade, social movements have demonstrated the significant power of non-traditional political engagement, in particular, Turkey’s Gezi Park movement in 2013 which saw the participation of around 12% of the country’s population (Della Porta, 2020: 557); various movements of the 2011-12 Arab Spring, notably Egypt and the resulting overthrow of Mubarak’s regime (Oh, Eom. and Rao, 2015); Movimiento 15-M, where millions protested against Spanish austerity measures (Castañeda, 2012), and the more recent Black Lives Matter movement, one of the largest movements in US history in which an estimated 15-26 million Americans have joined country-wide protests against police brutality and racism (Buchanan, Bui and Patel, 2020). Social movements act as a response to the increasing mistrust of political institutions in the post-political sphere, providing an alternative avenue for opposition to capitalism. These movements have specific objectives and motivation to achieve substantive change, a stark contrast from the perceived homogeneity of political parties and lack of commitment in traditional methods of participation that characterise post-politics. The effective mobilisation and mass participation in social movements thus demonstrate that the authority of post-politics is not categorically definitive, and that capitalist dominance can indeed be challenged outside of formal polity structures.

Similarly, the popularisation of political consumerism has arrived in response to the power of consumerism in the post-political society. New forms of political resistance and thinking have been developed that extend the boundaries of consumerism, repurposing consumer power to challenge capitalist dominance. Millington (2016: 713) contends that “immersion in consumer society does not preclude the development of politicised forms of consciousness”, pointing out how citizens can simultaneously exist as consumers and also engage with anti-capitalist ideology. Ethical consumerism serves as an example of consumer activism, advocating the consumption of goods which are manufactured in line with political and environmental objectives such as sustainable sourcing of materials (McMurtry, 1998). While the rise of consumerism has reduced conventional forms of political power for many citizens, the use of political consumerism demonstrates the reappropriation of consumer power as political power by citizen-consumers. As consumerism has created a new arena of capitalist resistance based in purchaser power, political consumerism can be understood as a method of political engagement that transfers political agency from conventional polity structures to the consumer market (Monticelli and Della Porta, 2018). Social movements have increasingly utilised consumer-based protest in activism and lobbying (Barnett, Clarke and Cloke, 2005), using tactics of boycotting and buycotting (Copeland, 2014: 173) as a deliberate exercise of consumer power to challenge capitalist dominance. In the last 20 years, ethical consumption has increased fourfold, signifying the power of political consumerism as a persistent movement in consumer behaviour (Smithers, 2019). The creation of “empowered consumers” (Kyroglou and Henn, 2017: 1) through the reappropriation of consumer power as political power has acted as an effective response to the post-political society and depoliticising nature of free-market capitalism.

The increase in expansive social movements and their use of political consumerism demonstrates an evolution of strategic opposition to the dominance of post-political capitalism. To demonstrate how social movements have challenged capitalist dominance in contemporary societies, we shall examine two case studies of social movements: Extinction Rebellion in the UK, and ES in Chile.

With voter turnout falling from an average of 79% in the 1950s to 58% in the 2000s (Ferrini, 2012), the UK is an exemplary post-political society. The Hansard Society’s (2019: 6) recent audit on political engagement found that 47% of respondents felt that they had no influence over national decision-making, the highest figure the Audit has recorded, while party membership between 1950 and 2015 has fallen from 3 million to 150,000 for the Conservative Party, and from 1 million to 270,000 for the Labour Party (Democratic Audit, 2015). Consumerism is also prevalent in the country, as the 1980s saw a sharp increase in consumption expenditure (Attanasio and Weber, 1994), a figure which has since increased by 115% between 1985 and 2015 (Harari, 2016). The UK, however, serves as an apt example of a contemporary society where anti-capitalist resistance has maintained a strong presence through alternative methods of engagement such as social movements and political consumerism. Extinction Rebellion, an environmentalist social movement of 650 groups spanning 45 countries (Gunningham, 2019: 198), has used nonviolent civil disobedience to take control of infrastructure, occupying several areas of major cities and blocking access to environmentally destructive retailers to draw government attention to climate issues. Taylor and Gayle (2018) described Extinction Rebellion’s actions in 2018 as ‘one of the biggest acts of peaceful civil disobedience in the UK in decades’, highlighting the popularity of the modern tactics of the movement in place of traditional political participation. XR is known to promote ethical consumption as part of their climate agenda and have further engaged in political consumerism through boycotts of Black Friday and fast fashion (Extinction Rebellion, 2019; 2020). The work of Extinction Rebellion in London thus demonstrates how conventional political participation remains capitalist-dominated, yet the forms of consumer interaction which have replaced this type of participation are aimed at reducing capitalist power and achieving political targets. Empowered consumers collectively mobilised to employ their political agency through purchaser power and subsequently sanction capitalist manufacturers who fail to ascribe to their ideological objectives, thus challenging capitalist dominance in the political economy.

Chile is equally understood to embody the post-political society; with a high level of political apathy, the 2017 election saw a turnout of only 46.7%. (Electoral Service, 2017). Propagated on a national scale, political apathy in the country has begotten a generation of politicians that are increasingly alienated from their constituents (Heiss, 2017). The rising political disinterest in Chile has coincided with the country’s subjugation to consumerism observed by a myriad of academics (Moulian, 1998; Tironi, 2002; Halpern, 2002), owing largely to an increase in the availability of credit for Chilean citizens (UNDP, 1998; van Bavel and Sell-Trujillo, 2003). Silva (2004) contends that the arrival of consumerism in Chile has pacified the population and diminished the disposition of citizens to engage with formal democratic processes and political parties. Although Chilean citizens have neglected to engage with traditional polity structures, the Santiago-based social movement Estadillo Social has demonstrated the power of citizens to form alternative forms of collective opposition to capitalist dominance. Protests began as a fare evasion campaign by students in response to a price increase for the Santiago Metro’s subway, however, developed further into issues around the extreme cost of living, privatisation and inequality in a country with the third-highest income inequality in the 30 OECD nations (OECD, 2020). The contrast between Chile’s strong economic performance (Paredes, Iturra and Lufin, 2016) and status as “one of the most unequal countries in Latin America” (McGowan, 2019) prompted mass protests across Santiago and eventually across the country. Although not in the same direct sense as Extinction Rebellion, Estadillo Social utilised its own form of political consumerism through the looting of shops. Millington (2016) argues that looting is not committed out of impetuous consumer greed; rather, looting can be conceptualised as the self-actualisation of struggle. Although consumerism is often understood as exploitative, our engagement with it commands an expressive function by providing vessels through which to express political aspiration. Discontent is embodied within such commodities as those looted by Estadillo Social which are assumed to provide an improved standard of living yet are largely unaffordable. The mass looting of these commodities serves as a visual representation of marginalised individuals’ hopes for an improved political system where such items are universally accessible. When retailers were looted, protestors both accentuated the absence of the egalitarian system they desire and symbolically reached for these aspirations. The looting observed in Chile can thus be understood as a way in which protestors appropriated consumerism to highlight inequality, seizing with force what they could never afford under capitalist dominance. The Estadillo Social protests resulted in a referendum vote passing to rewrite the constitution of Chile later in 2021, demonstrating the power of social movements and empowered consumers in catalysing significant political change.

In many contemporary societies, capitalist dominance has remained unchallenged in the traditional realm of elections and party politics, however, it is clear that resistance is still present in the form of social movements. Further, consumerism isn’t always necessarily to the advantage of capitalist hegemony, as the use of political consumerism to pressure political institutions and draw attention to inequality has demonstrated how the removal of citizens’ political power has been retaliated to with the reappropriation of consumer power to achieve political goals. The question that arises, however, is whether these new forms of contest are adequate for meaningful change. The progress of environmental social movements such as Extinction Rebellion is largely dictated by the willingness of governments to enforce significant legislation (Gunningham, 2019), and it is unlikely that the new Chilean constitution will adopt an alternative governing ideology as citizens have predominantly demanded improved citizen rights, education and healthcare, rather than the abolition of capitalism (Mander, 2020). This calls attention to the need for ‘hope movements’ that aim to transcend the status quo (Dinerstein and Deneulin, 2012). Instead of operating within capitalist hegemony, a shift to a strategy of prefiguration could be required to surpass the boundaries of capitalism (Sen ed., 2018). As stated by Dinerstein and Deneulin (2012: 599), we need movements which highlight that “another world is indeed possible”. Although social movements and the use of political consumerism both demonstrate the ability to challenge capitalist dominance, a more revolutionary strategy could be necessary to break away from capitalist power entirely.

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