Confessions of a self-loathing capitalist
By Kevin Michels
I paused on the precipice of Emerson Suites and bent down to lace up my Adidas, my fingers trembling with excitement. As I stood back up, I quickly dusted off my Old Navy jeans, straightened my North Face jacket and took one last deep breath. Freshman year, fall semester: Today was the day I redefined myself. I had entered the Campus Center a mere mortal; I would leave the student organization fair a legend, the greatest human being to walk the earth. Kevin Michels, world savior.
Now, I was no stranger to community service—hell, I’d even won a Humanitarian Award at my high school—but I had never dreamt so many opportunities existed to show everyone else how good of a person I was. I quickly scanned the sea of tri-folds until I found the volunteer section. Tentatively, I slinked up to the Habitat for Humanity table, grabbed a pen out of my Jansport and scrawled my name and email across the listserv, my hands twitching in anticipation.
“There’s one catch,” the cute girl behind the table announced. “Our builds are all day Saturday, which means you have to get up early on the weekends.”
“No problem,” I said. And I meant it. After all, I was going to solve all the world’s problems—sleep could wait. As I turned away from the table, a smug smile spread across my face. I could already feel myself becoming a better person.
With each listserv I signed, the more saintly I felt. Care about modern-day slavery? Of course I did! Sign me up. Want to stop rape? Who doesn’t? Here’s my email! Concerned with global issues? You bet I was, and I dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to prove it. I must admit I got a natural high from being such a concerned and involved individual. As I traded quotes from Ghandi and MLK Jr. with the Human Rights Club, I felt a surge of pride and self-righteousness. I strutted out of Emerson Suites with my head in a tizzy and a smile stapled to my face, thinking, “This must be how Mother Theresa felt every day.”
Spring semester rolled around, and somehow I had not managed to solve all the world’s problems. I had never been to half of the club’s meetings and never once attended a Habitat for Humanity build. But every Saturday morning when I threw off my Pottery Barn Teen covers and crawled out of my bed, I felt true remorse. Next time, I assured myself as I flipped on the XBOX.
Alas, a godsend! In Intro to Sociology, I was first introduced to Messieurs Marx and Engels. I had finally found the solution: Socialism would fix everything.
As it turned out, others had tried this and not had the greatest of results (see Stalin, Joseph). But I continued undeterred, standing tall on a soapbox of socialism, while wearing UGG moccasins. And that summer, I spent countless nights sneaking Jack & Cokes in friends’ basements, spurning capitalism and arguing in favor of the Nordic countries and their socialist-capitalist mixed economies with anyone who would listen to my drunken blather. Beer pong? Please, I was done with that overly competitive rat race. Let’s find a drinking game where we can all work together and prosper.
I returned to Ithaca the next year a hardened sophomore—ethical, scrupulous and unwilling to compromise. I had to change the world, and I had to change it right then and there. I poured myself into my classes and started attending visiting lectures about healthcare reform, race relations and poverty reduction. I pored tirelessly through my textbooks and articles for my sociology course on poverty, trying to find the one thing that was causing all these problems. As I burned the midnight oil night after night, I knew I was getting close to a solution, and I told myself it would all be worth it as I reached for another bottled Starbucks Frappuccino.
That summer after sophomore year was a bitter one for me. I had deduced, from my semester of research, that poverty could not be blamed on one single thing I could campaign against, or at least make a scathing Facebook status about. Rather, I had learned that poverty was not an isolated phenomenon, but rather an inevitable consequence of the capitalist system. Naturally, I declared war on consumerism and blamed the media for hiding these truths from me.
Since I was going to start a revolution, I decided I had to dress the part, and I spent nights browsing various Internet retailers in search of the cheapest Che Guevara T-shirt I could find.
By junior year at Ithaca, I had started reading AdBusters, celebrated my first Buy Nothing Day and was busy scorning anything remotely corporate or hierarchically organized. I had only maintained active membership in one organization, Stop Wasting Ithaca’s Food Today (SWIFT), but I became very involved in that group. Every Friday, I rolled up the sleeves to my Banana Republic button-up and salvaged leftover food from the Towers dining hall, repackaging it into meals for the homeless and less fortunate. It was a small step, but a positive one with tangible results that tackled dual issues of sustainability and hunger. I couldn’t help but pat myself on the back with my American Eagle mittens.
The summer after junior year, my mother bought me a T-shirt that changed the way I looked at the world. It was from the Gap, and printed across the front were the words, “What we collectively choose to buy or not to buy can change the course of this planet.” That message actually stuck with me. My mother had bought it for me because it was from their (RED) line, and at this point I rarely accepted gifts that lacked a charitable angle. But this $19.95 piece of ironic cotton actually made me reflect on my previous angst and revolutionary dreams. Aside from my involvement in SWIFT, all my big plans and scrupulous principles had amounted to jack squat. Meanwhile, my purchases (yes, it’s a word find now!) had been fueling the corporate monster I had sought to destroy.
The Graffiti artist Banksy, in his published book of works, Wall and Piece, writes, “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime, we should all go shopping to console ourselves.”
While I don’t agree with the severity of measures Banksy calls for, I appreciate the sentiment. Often amidst the academic debates and readings in classes, the multiple speaker series, the multitude of student organizations and the constant calls from our elders to “be more political,” we lose sight of the fact that buying is the most political thing we do. Every time you swipe your Visa, you are saying that you approve of every single part of this company’s business practices, from the wages it pays its sales managers to the conditions of the sweat shops it runs in developing nations around the world.
Holding that Gap shirt, I had an epiphany. For once in my college career, I saw this not as another capitalist trap or an excuse to fight the system, but rather an opportunity to use the system to make a positive impact. While I still hold a soft spot for Sweden and Norway and start drooling every time I think of France’s healthcare system, I’m not exactly holding my breath. The success of the Tea Party political movement and subsequent McCarthy-esque slandering of anything containing the words “socialist,” “universal,” “health care” or “Obama” tells me that we might be pretty far away from living the socialist dream I still keep tucked deep in my heart, safe from the criticisms of econ majors and realistic individuals.
Rather than look for a club to join (the International Sociologist Organization charges at least $20 dues per month. Damn them and their progressive sliding scale!) or reading more Wikipedia articles on the subject, I decided to actually take positive steps and exercise some of my consumer power. I began wearing TOMS shoes, supporting local businesses, avoiding big bargain stores and buying organic food whenever I could afford it. However, I’m also realistic, as a college student on a budget. Although it kills me a little bit inside, I find it hard to resist the occasional bargain bag of frozen mozzarella sticks from Wal-Mart.
Maybe I’m just a jaded senior, but at this point in my college career, I’ve given up on big plans and miracle fixes. I don’t believe that buying organic radishes and using a refillable water bottle will directly solve malnutrition issues for the urban poor or save polar bears. But I do believe that my little iota of consumer power can help determine which businesses survive and which businesses are forced to change practices or fail. I’m not saying it’s easy to make all these decisions and sort through the propaganda—sustainability has become so vogue that panda poachers are now using biodegradable bullets—but there are resources out there. Websites such as GreenAmerica.org and CleanClothes.org have numerous charts and databases that rate businesses according to ethics, labor practices and commitments to sustainability.
I don’t expect anyone to consult a database before every purchase. I also understand that not everyone has the economic freedom to make these decisions—I myself get annoyed by the prestige and pretension surrounding sustainable alternatives, such as the $24 Pottery Barn reusable water bottles emblazoned with the slogan “do your part.” However, I do believe that those of us who have the economic power to do so should at least try to shop responsibly in the hopes that one day healthy, sustainable, fair-made, fair-trade goods become so normalized that they are affordable to all. Maybe that’s a bit hopeful, but it can’t hurt to give it a shot. I know these are all tough decisions, both ethically and financially, but the principle is simple: If you don’t agree with a company’s business practices, don’t buy into it.
Kevin Michels is a senior clinical health studies major who still loves his UGG moccasins. Email him at email@example.com.