Consumerism is not just a feature of our modern society. For decades, those in power have been using consumerism as a means to fragment and control those without power. From slaves to communists and feminists, consumerism alongside a tactic to hijack and divide revolutionary groups, has been the strategy of choice to quash any rebellion, writes Jorge Majfud.
Translated by Andy Barton, Tlaxcala
Strategy and dogma
While declaring the abolition of traditional slavery in the Caribbean, the British envisioned a new type of enslavement that the new slaves would themselves desire. On 10th June 1833, Rigby Watson, a member of parliament, clearly summarised this idea: “To make them labour, and give them a taste for luxuries and comforts, they must be gradually taught to desire those objects which could be attained by human labour. There was a regular progress from the possession of necessaries to the desire of luxuries; and what once were luxuries, gradually came, among all classes and conditions of men, to be necessaries. This was the sort of progress the Negroes had to go through, and this was the sort of education to which they ought to be subject in their period of probation”.
In 1885, Henry Dawes, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts recognised as an expert in indigenous matters, gave a report on his most recent visit to the Cherokee territories that remained. According to this report, “there was not a family in that whole nation that had not a home of its own. There was not a pauper in that nation, and the nation did not own a dollar. It built its own capitol, and it built its schools and its hospitals. Yet the defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go because they own their land in common … There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilisation. Til this people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much more progress…”.
Naturally, the opinions of people like Dawes would prevail, in other words, those who manage others’ success, and the Cherokee territories would be divided up and generously offered back to their inhabitants as private property. The Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz would impose the same exact privatisation programme on the communal production system as a way to emulate the success of the United States, achieving the feat of leaving 80% of the rural population without any land of their own, something which would culminate in the Mexican Revolution many years later.
While declaring the abolition of traditional slavery in the Caribbean, the British envisioned a new type of enslavement that the new slaves would themselves desire.
In 1929, Samuel Crowther, the journalist and prized asset of the United Fruit Company (and Henry Ford’s friend), reported that in Central America “people only work when they are forced to. They are not used to it because the land gives them what little they need… However, the desire for material things is something that must be cultivated… Our advertising is slowly having the same effect as in the United States —and it is reaching the mozos. For when a periodical is discarded, it is grabbed up, and its advertising pages turn up as wallpaper in the thatched huts. I have seen the insides of huts completely covered with American magazine pages and with the timetables and folders issued by our railroads… All of this is having its effect in awakening desires”. Samuel Crowther viewed the Caribbean as the lake of the U.S. empire, which protected and guided the destiny of its constituent countries towards glory and universal development.
The political defeat of the pro-slavery Confederacy around this time was avenged by various cultural and ideological victories. All passed by unnoticed. In record timing, hundreds of monuments to the defeated ‘heroes’ were erected, films were made idealising the proponents of slavery and the theories about a superior race in danger of extinction flooded the desks of politicians and army generals.
One of these secret victories consisted in idealising the masters and demonising the slaves. In modern terms: the owners and the salaried workers. For that reason, in the many generations that were to follow, the United States would celebrate “Memorial Day” (in memory of the casualties of war) and “Veterans Day” (in honour of the former soldiers in these imperialist wars), all in the name of defence and of freedom, a carbon copy of the rhetoric of the Southern slaveowners who forayed into indigenous, Mexican and overseas territories and created the new American empire.
One of these secret victories consisted in idealising the masters and demonising the slaves. In modern terms: the owners and the salaried workers.
“Memorial Day” is an abstract title; “Veterans Day” is overtly literal. For the workers, there would be no “Worker’s Day”. Even less likely was the 1st May, the day on which the whole world would remember the massacre of those workers in Chicago, who demanded their right to an eight-hour workday just like the rest of the country. To forget this inconvenient detail, President Grover Cleveland would formalise “Labor Day” in September, nearly the polar opposite of May, as if there were work without workers. This would mean yet another hidden victory for the slaveowners defeated in the American Civil War. Not only are Black Americans, the poor, those below, and those that work all idle, inferior, and in the words of future American President Theodore Roosevelt, “perfectly stupid”; they are also the perfect threat. Especially on account of their numbers. Especially for their habit of proposing unions.
The masters (white Americans), those above, those sacrificed at the champagne altar, they are the ones who create employment with their investments. They are the ones who, every so often, must be protected by who they protect: churches and soldiers (in the U.S., with the cult of the veteran who “protects our liberty”, and in South America, with the soldiers who fix democracies’ mistakes with bloody dictatorships). In the eyes of the old slave-owning tradition, the masters of what was gone with the wind yet always returns, those who are really responsible for progress, stability, peace and civilisation are the plantation owners and the industry businessmen. In short, all those who control and immediately benefit from the hegemonic system. They are the chosen elite of the people, and they represent everything that the dirty and illiterate slaves (and then the salaried white workers from the poorer parts of Europe) want to destroy.
Until the middle of the 19th century, slaveholders had managed to convince a majority (including slaves) that slavery was the best regime for expanding freedom and civilization. When democracy became inevitable, they hijacked it with similar ideas: the wealth of the rich is the best way to expand the well-being and freedom of the workers. The Trickle-Down Theory is just one of the latest elaborations of the same heritage.
The origins of consumerism as an alternative expression of slavery were rapidly hidden by apparent defeats, such as in the American Civil War. After the trauma of the Nazis in the admired Germany of Adolf Hitler, the colonial powers of the North West (the rear-guard and the guarantors of such transnationals as the United Fruit Company, Standard Oil, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, Nestlé, ITT, Ford, Pepsi, etc.) abandoned the old rhetoric justifying their invasions and interventions for the racial inferiority of the different Black and mestizo countries. While the colonial powers were distracted by war, a handful of South American countries, from Argentina to Guatemala, restored their democracies.
That was, until the new ‘help’ from Washington would end up imposing a new wave of dictatorships and the carrot of consumerism would impose itself upon every other dimension of human life as an act of faith, an incontrovertible dogma.