Modern capitalism and victimisation
Various aspects of culture are interwoven into a complex web of connections. The meshing of science with the capitalism ethos has been fundamental in shaping all democratic western societies. It has involved the wholesale adoption of science as “progress” to the heightened status of “blind faith”.
We have come to accept that “progress” involves the application of science to solve problems or to create “new” products. The sheer weight of evidence for this is to be found in the historical impacts of scientific innovation and has led to a shared belief that science will promise to fix the mistakes we’ve made, usher in new opportunities and improve our quality of life.
In short it offers salvation. This combination of “progress” with its inherent “faith in progress” is the underlying driving force of modern capitalism. It has been effective in shaping our culture into a culture of consumption, which has undermined tradition while indoctrinating us into materialism. But in today’s milieu, this “idea of progress” is also being undermined by “breaches of trust”, which threaten to send us down a path towards wholesale “victimisation”.
Progress and the individual
“Progress” is not only scientific advancement, it is also linked to personal advancement. We are subjected to a constant bombardment that we need some new product or service to improve our lives, and that if we don’t have it we are somehow inadequate.
From an early age, the idea of replacing the old with the new and improved has been inculcated in us. This amounts to a consistent “undermining” of tradition. Old things as well as old ideas are viewed as backward or obsolete, and need to be replaced or updated.
Over time this dual bombardment of “acquisition of the new” and “undermining of the old” has led to a state where the individual — consciously and subconsciously — views the world through the lens of “progress” in terms of his status. And since wealth is the primary indicator of social status, for the individual there is a constant urge to adjust one’s status through acquisition.
This merging of the idea that acquiring products, especially those that symbolise wealth, conveys success or the “appearance of success” for the individual is a reflection of our adoption of American cultural values that link acquisition and fulfilment to an ongoing “status” struggle.
Instant gratification emerges and undermines the traditional long-term view of status improvement. One must get those things which will advance their status level now or, at the very least, maintain it. But progress means change, so even maintaining one’s status as it is means continual acquisition.
Acquisition may have another role for the individual. Continuous consumption may be a subtle attempt to negate the effects of our shared trauma caused by the “level of victimisation” that we perceive we fall under. Tradition has been negated by progress. Progress is the nature of our existence. We have no control over its direction. Acquisition, then, is our vain attempt to nullify our helplessness.
When I constantly purchase, especially those items that relate to status, it conveys that I am acquiring status, but it also implies that I’m no longer a victim. I’m not affected. I’m charting my own course and in control of my destiny.
When one is overwhelmingly socialised as a consumer, the culture of consumption takes hold and gains momentum as relative disposable incomes increase. Now that we can afford to keep up, no one wants to be left behind, and so over time we have become participants in a culture of consumption that has cumulatively escalated the level of consumption to the point where we become materialistic.
We buy stuff we don’t need. We replace stuff that still works.
Our blind faith and corporation manipulation
We trust that the capitalist system we’re part of is on an upward trend for improving our quality of life. But for all our trust, we have actually become the “victims” of capitalism’s transformation. Surely, we are aware of the historically exploitative aspects of early capitalism. In fact, the years of conflict with unions, in particular, gave groups of exploited workers “voice” and helped to positively modify capitalism.
Lower-class, blue-collar workers were to all intents and purposes “victims” of the system. Labour unions were instrumental in helping to force businesses to acknowledge and reduce the levels of extreme exploitation on the worker.
The positive outcome of these conflicts was workers received sick compensation, health insurance, pension benefits and stricter guidelines on the way workers should be treated. The negative outcome was that it left us with a nagging question — one we’re having to constantly grapple with: are we becoming, like those blue-collar workers of old, “victims” of the system, too?
The modern business model
The capitalist business model is simple and effective. It works to sell you something. The more of that something it sells, the more profit can be made. Profit is the motive and efficiency is the key catalyst.
Faced with new limitations on their operations from labour, capitalists have had to find new avenues to increase profits. If a product can be designed at lower cost or with cheaper materials and still maintain its integrity, then this will be sought out as an option.
Considering that it is very difficult to make new products, and since there will be inevitably competition from other similar products, if a minor aspect on an existing product can be changed, this would be a selling point.
Scientific research, then, is very important in the creation of new products, but also important so that modifications can be made on existing ones. This means that many products undergo largely aesthetic changes. Capitalism’s merger with science creates new products, but it also perpetuates the “illusion” of progress until such time as it genuinely occurs.
Our “faith” in progress has been carefully exploited by businesses without us being fully aware of the scale of manipulation involved. To be clear, manipulation does occur in the products themselves because some are designed for their obsolescence. The sooner you have to repurchase another; the better it is for the company’s profits. But, it is through advertising that widespread manipulation occurs.
Companies invest heavily to create demand from dedicated, repeat customers. They spend billions of dollars to find ways to encourage us to spend our money. Advertisements try to convince us to feel the need to buy a new product or service. But advertisements are not merely hopeful attempts at persuasion with pretty pictures and catchy phrases. No, they are about influencing behaviour and are based on real science.
From several fields of behavioural science come effective strategies to influence peoples’ purchasing decisions. But adverts are not limited to the short segments we see in between TV dramas or hear on radios. They exist as news. They appear as promising discoveries being reported.
We learn about the latest product or service trends. The sheer weight of this relentless “advertising” has helped to indoctrinate us into a “culture of consumption” for improvement. Nowadays, companies not only know your purchase history, but they also collect data to discover your interests and preferences.
There is a fine line between appealing to you and manipulating you. When you are manipulated you are no longer free. The link between advertising and manipulation based on science represents a level of “victimisation”. It is a breach of “trust”.
An awareness that capitalist exploitation was not limited to the “worker” emerged with the discovery of the “dangers” of products themselves. Advocate groups forced businesses to disclose information about the products they were selling, especially the negative aspects of those products.
If our modern world is full of information, how does one access truth? How does one know what to believe when information is conflicting or confusing? Consumer advocates have made us more aware that corporations have played a huge role in this confusion benefiting from the manipulation of information.
In fact, advocates have called for a complete paradigm shift in how technology is created, developed and delivered. Today, the large multinational corporations are the major players of technological innovation. The landmark ruling of Salomon v Salomon established the doctrine of separate legal personality for the company, which meant that they are viewed as separate legal entities, but shareholders and directors are exempt from personal responsibility.
This allows companies to operate like living entities creating their own paths. The billion-dollar companies adhere “primarily” to the capitalist directive to increase profits. The executives who work in these corporations merely fulfil their specialised occupational roles. If they are good at their job, it means more corporate influence. If they are not, they are replaced by someone who will.
These billion-dollar companies are undeterred by obstacles — political, legal, ethical or otherwise — and their research and developments will be co-opted to their biases of product perpetuation and corporate self-preservation. In fact, science is paying the price for their huge “funding of science” capacity. They have played a huge role in the direction of science as well as its transformation from “valid and objective” into science that purports to be so.
Many scientific studies appear to be objective but are subtly skewed towards “corporate” bias. Even peer-reviewed scientific studies have been called into question. On the other side of the equation is the plethora of “scientific information” that is produced.
Overwhelmed by lots of information and much of it contradicting, creates a milieu of expert-induced “confusion” within and across scientific disciplines. But for the layman, the consumer who is outside of the field of expertise, this amounts to information overload and “paralysis” in decision-making.
Corporations operate by deciding what is in their best interests within the overall context of trade-offs. Herein lies a breach of trust. The company decides on the course of action it will take based on legal rationalisations that are in its best interests with little regard for the mass of people, except to seduce them into further consumption.
What are these trade-offs? They represent levels of risk. What is important from the business standpoint is to get out, as quickly as possible, before the competition a product that “works” after complying with an acceptable “safety” standard — presumably one that objectively takes account of its risk. And our world, today’s modern, capitalist world, is characterised by this idea of risk.
Inclusive of the need for a product’s quick roll-out, from the company’s perspective, risk is defined as the balance of a product doing what it’s supposed to do with what it wasn’t. But for the consumer, risk is a balance of perceived benefit (convenience) with that of consequence (an unknown element).
Most all products created from the application of science, despite the illusion of their benefits, are embedded with risk — some acceptable and known and others unknown and, usually in retrospect, quite unacceptable. This inherent bad side means that at the point of purchase we become the willing recipients of corporate experimentation. This experimentation represents another “breach in trust” because it allows for the possibility of our “victimisation”.
Fortunately, some advocate groups have removed the veil of “blind faith” in progress and have made us more aware of the risks for us, the consumer, especially, in relation to our health. There are some risks we are willing to ignore, while others we can’t and still others we don’t even know exist until much later.
Take the case of how asbestos was considered such a useful and wonderful fire retardant that it was placed in all sorts of things, including schools and people’s homes. Our “blind faith” in progress has led us to be harmed by our all-too-trusting lull of the benefits and convenience of things.
How about the “case of smoking” and its links to cancer? Or what about the case of lead in gasoline … is it a harmful or just a useful gasoline additive? In fact, there is a substantiated theory that correlates increased lead exposure to increased levels of violence.
These issues are far clearer now, but there was much confusion about the “truth of the matter” when these were first challenged. The corporations that were linked to these controversies used the weight of their huge finances and scientific “studies” to protect their interests.
There are a host of present-day concerns that have yet to be sorted out. What is the status on the aluminium dental fillings in our mouths? What about Teflon frying pans? What about plastics and microplastic pollution?
There are even problems being raised with the most basic of items — food. Companies have attempted to manipulate us by employing the science of “taste” and have used it to their advantage. Look at the back label of any packaged food and it will tell how far removed we are from the natural. There are chemicals that are FDA-approved additives or preservatives and there are brand-specific combinations we know very little about. And there are chemicals that mimic for our taste buds the salt or the sugar we so crave.
Even staple foods such as grains are not exempt. Modern industrialisation has provided the ability to produce and process lots of food efficiently. The problem arises when we explore what that entails. Grains are produced efficiently, but without the requisite respect for us or respect for nature.
The whole point of food is that it should be healthy and not merely efficient to produce or convenient or tasty! But we go into the grocery store and believe we are selecting natural and safe foods. Unfortunately, we later learn about the levels of toxicity in both natural foods and processed foods. We learn about antibiotics overuse or unsanitary conditions that help to create, grow and transfer new pathogens — especially in the case of animals — to us. Or we learn about the copious overuse of herbicides or pesticides in the case of plants.
Do we remember the rise and fall of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane? But that was in the past. Traces of DDT persist today. But what about other present-day issues? What about present-day, genetic manipulations? What are the ramifications of eating plants that farmers have herbicide-sprayed because they have been engineered to be specific herbicide spray-resistant?
The list gets longer the deeper we look. So, in our “blind faith” innocence or ignorance, we inadvertently consume processed and unprocessed poisons touted as natural this or healthy that. But we become victims of an accumulation of chemicals in our bodies, which may alter our behaviour or manifest as disease, ie, like diabetes.
So, what about the status of things like hard tech? What is the status on the risk of mobile phones or laptops that are such a huge part of our modern-day life? How about issues now being raised with 5G? What is the status on these? Nevertheless, we can thank our large-scale multinational corporations for conducting multiple, large-scale experiments on us that we did not sign up for.
The idea that modern-day capitalism creates “victims” through breaches of “trust” is made all the more salient when we consider that there is little to no consideration given for humanism. Nor is there consideration for the negative outcomes that progress inevitably brings; nor are there solutions offered to avert them.
The victimisation of humanity marches onward.
• Anthony Crichlow has been an educator for 30 years and is keenly interested in the cultural transformations taking place in Bermuda and globally
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