Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? (Part 5 of 5)

The Bigger Picture

Before bringing this series to a close, I want to place India’s move towards a consumer society in a larger framework. India, after all, represents a microcosm of the larger globalizing world. For within India exists the same tension permeating global society. The tension is between those individuals who have benefited from economic liberalization and who have become full-fledged citizens in the consumer society, and those individuals who struggle to provide for themselves and their families the basic essentials for survival, reaping little or no benefits of economic liberalization or the consumer society.

Let me elaborate on this tension by examining the way in which the current global arrangement allows citizens of the developed world to deny any personal responsibility for the consequences of consumption. In fact, not only do we deny any responsibility for the ways in which our consumer lifestyles lead to global problems like climate change or local problems like sick workers or communities contaminated by industrial wastes, we go so far as to propose that the solution to the problems of the developing world is even more consumerism.

To function, a consumer society depends on consumer blindness to the broader social, cultural, and environmental consequences of our marketplace decisions. American-style consumerism has done very well at keeping the American consumer from understanding the nature of the damage done by the production and distribution of our cheap goods. As a result, Americans think it makes perfect sense that we have a right to our big SUVs, to our cheap disposable goods, and to our cheap out-of-season produce shipped to us from around the world. We work hard, so the argument goes, these things are available to us in the marketplace, and therefore we have a right to spend our hard-earned money on them if we so desire.

photo by flickr member "jennie"

How do Americans fail to make connections between our consumer choices and matters of social justice for people elsewhere around the world? After all, we make connections between heroine or bootlegged DVDs and terrorism, and define it as our moral duty to abstain from purchasing any products that might aid terrorist activities. We also make the determination for others that the production and consumption of pornography, tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, can be dangerous for certain members of society. So we regulate the production and distribution of such goods and services. Yet we don't regulate our own companies when they operate overseas in ways that would clearly be in violation of U.S. standards, and we certainly don’t regulate our own consumer behavior even though our decisions in the marketplace may perpetuate global systems of injustice.

The U.S. grew economically wealthy as a country during the last half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. This growth was a result of visionary leaders, innovative entrepreneurs, and hard-working immigrants who came in search of the American dream. Many of them achieved it. But in the mid-20th century, when it began to become apparent that some of our growth was made possible through various forms of internal exploitation (e.g. child labor, the labor of illegal immigrants, and other forms of exploitation of labor, as well as through exploitation of the environment in the form of pollution for which corporations did not have to pay), we passed laws to put constraints on these forms of exploitation. Corporations determined that they could escape these constraints by moving to other parts of the world where, because of range of factors, regulations were either non-existent or unenforced and industry in any form was welcomed.

Today, these same corporations are able to provide Americans, as well as other developed societies, with the cheap goods to which we believe we have a right. At one time, Americans could make purchases in the marketplace and be somewhat assured—because most everything we purchased was made in the U.S. and therefore met American labor, environmental, and human rights standards—that our purchases were not harming people or the environments on which people depend for their livelihood. Today we live in a global marketplace and therefore do not have the luxury of being so presumptuous.

But the successful consumer society buffers its members from the material universe of consumerism. Consumers cannot be permitted to know the true costs of their consumer lifestyles for fear they would either reduce their consumption levels or demand goods manufactured to certain basic social and environmental standards. This has largely worked in the U.S. since we have been able to off-shore most of the uglier aspects of the material universe of consumerism. India is one among many of the destinations. Whether collection of our obsolete and hazardous electronic waste, destruction of the retired ships we used to transport our cheap goods, or exploitation of cheap labor to manufacture textiles, semiconductors, or other goods, Americans are largely isolated from the hazards involved in the production, distribution and disposal of our consumer goods.

Living amidst eWaste: photo by flickr member "Greenpeace India"

Can India similarly protect its privileged consumers from the harsh realities of producing, distributing, and disposing of cheap consumer goods? After all, not only are there are few places left to “off-shore” the ugly aspects of the material universe of consumerism, but most of the ugly aspects already coexist with among India’s malls, gated communities, and other trappings of developed world consumerism. If through the process of globalization Americans have managed to export not only our hazardous waste and dangerous jobs, but also our belief that in a consumer anyone who works hard has the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of her or his labor in the consumer marketplace, then maybe India can shield its full-fledged consumers from the knowledge that their consumerism sustains domestic and global inequality.

But perhaps Indians will find other motives for rejecting, or at least accepting on their own terms, American-style consumerism. Indians have always maintained a healthy suspicion of U.S. motives with respect to their country. Now should be no time to relinquish this skepticism. It may seem as if Americans want Indians, who make up a huge untapped market, to join us in our consumer lifestyles. But I doubt Americans wish for Indians to join us because we have some deep sense of compassion and justice that leads us to believe that Indians must be given access to the same quality of life as us. If we were motivated by a deep sense of compassion and justice, we’d call into question our own lifestyles, which are only sustainable to the extent that others around the world are denied some of the basic comforts—like clean drinking water—that we take for granted. Americans, or more specifically the American government, first and foremost support India’s transition to a consumer society because it is good for the American economy, not because of any concern for India’s millions of citizens living in poverty.

India: An Improvement on the Consumer Society or a Faustian Bargain?

With all this criticism, readers might be asking whether I have a solution. Suggesting an alternative approach to economic development has not been the purpose of this series, though I think a reasonable approach would combine a mix of large-scale development projects that are sensitive to local people and small-scale development projects that protect and nurture the very crafts, skills, and traditions that make India what it is today. Rather, my aim has been to point out that even if consumerism is the path India pursues, Indians should be asking some difficult questions. How will consumerism change India and Indians? Can India tailor its own uniquely Indian consumer society that avoids the pitfalls of western-style consumerism? If India embraces a patently western-style consumer society model, will it have "sold its soul" as the legendary Faust is purported to have done?

Indians don't seem to be asking these questions. Instead, what I hear many educated Indians say is this: “Sure India is changing rapidly and we have no idea what it will be like in 20 years. But we have no option, this is the only hope we have of taking care of our people.” Even if consumerism is the approach that India follows, which already seems to be the case, Indians ought to enter into it with a critical perspective that may help them avoid some of the negative outcomes, like those discussed in this series, that unquestioning American consumers now experience.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

India can look at the plight of their farmers to see where following a US example leads (ruinous, in a word).
Capalitalism/consumerism requires greed, and India is quite comfortable with the existence of their lower classes. They are doing very, very little to include these people in the countries growth. If they were concerned about them, they would teach them not to shit were others walk.