From Burgers to Baghdad By William Bowles

3 July 2003

For over fifty years , the West has carried on a campaign that pushes the idea that the superiority of the ‘Western way of life’ based upon unlimited ‘choice’ and the ‘free market’ as opposed to the drab and conformist communist world, is the best of all possible worlds. They sold us the idea, that an ocean of ‘choice’ in clothes, cars, food, consumables and so on, was the only definition of ‘freedom’ worth pursuing. Moreover, we ‘freely’ made the choice to live in a world of unlimited consumption(and of course, production).

Addicted to capitalism

For millions, the drug of ‘choice’ is food, or for countless millions, it’s cars, clothes and gadgets. Trailing not far behind, the drugs of ‘choice’ are sleeping pills, ganja, cocaine, alcohol, tobacco and whatever other mind-altering substance will give us respite from a life of never-ending but ultimately unsatisfying consumption. Cathedrals of consumption dominate our landscapes. We pour into them in our millions from Johannesburg to St. Petersburg, paying with plastic for today’s fixes that our children will inherit as tomorrow’s debts.

Depression, suicide, murder, mental illness, abuse and just basic unhappiness and lack of fulfillment for millions, is the norm in many Western societies. Entire industries have arisen purporting to figure out why and find a ‘cure’ for what ails us. The pharmaceutical industry even produces drugs that supposedly adjust our minds so that they can fit an intolerable reality. We consume in order not to consume. There are fixes for our fixes, ad infinitum.

Obesity, even in the developing world, is an epidemic, so even the starving are fat. The transnational food industry is under increasing pressure to ‘mend its ways’. Antibiotics, pesticides, thousands of chemicals in the food, water and air, has one in five young people afflicted with asthma in the UK.

Collectively, we call it capitalism and it’s going pear-shaped in a big way. The UN report, which finally and irrevocably points to climate change and a massive instability in the world’s weather, was issued today. That unbridled industrialisation and the burning of the world’s supply of carbon is the cause of this global instability, is at last an unquestionable fact.

From Burgers to Baghdad – making the connection

Almost every day, I read yet another article in the media or see a programme on TV which asks the question, why? Yet no one in the mass media will make the connection between capitalism and the crisis we face. So for example, the UN has called on the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar used in food. The response? In the US, the sugar and soft drinks industry has lobbied government to stop funding the World Health Organisation. Kraft, suddenly aware of the fact that it might get sued for killing its customers, is reducing the size of its portions and cutting the amount of sugar and fat in its products and MacDonalds is producing ‘healthy’ foods after a couple of generations of feeding us fat and sugar.

Yet of course, the customers are all addicted to capitalism. Never-ending consumption can never be satisfied, it just leads to more consumption. Ultimately of course, it leads directly to Baghdad or Havana or anywhere in the world that either the West depends on to maintain our addiction, or which in some way, threatens capitalism’s ability to continue with ‘business as usual.’

For months now, the argument has raged about why the USUK invaded Iraq and why, with increasing hysteria, it attempts to pursuade us that we now need to ‘take out terrorism’ in Iran or North Korea or any other place that the ruling elite judges is a threat to business as usual. The entire propaganda machine is geared to keeping us all consuming, if anything at an accelerated rate. Our cars get bigger, the pace of ‘innovation’ increases. A diminishing and aging population in the developed world has to consume ever more in a race which apparently has no end. The idea of ever increasing production which uses less and less labour, remains unchallenged even though critics nibble at the edges of the central contradiction. They talk about changing our ‘lifestyle’, eating less, walking instead of driving, in fact a host of small things but the essential factor, a life addicted to consuming remains unchallenged.

But like lemmings, it may be that the fetish of consumption has already driven us over the edge of the cliff. The synergy of forces that industrial capitalism has unleashed may now be unstoppable. It’s taken us around 150 years to pump enough carbon dioxide into the world’s weather system to finally destabilise it. And like any finely tuned system which took millions of years to balance, putting it right may be beyond our capabilities once it enters increasing disequilibrium. Who knows what kind of planet we’ll have once the process reaches a new balance or how long it will take to achieve it.

Likewise, it’s taken around 50 years for perhaps 10-15% of the world’s population to consume sufficient quantities of fresh water to threaten the lives of millions, if not billions of people. It’s also taken around 50 years to flood our systems with antibiotics, pesticides, hormones and in all, around 30,000 industrial chemicals, that has led to the breakdown of our immune systems in a synergistic assault on evolution.

Of course, the overwhelming global opposition to the invasion of Iraq(estimates are that around 80% of the world’s adult population voiced their opposition in one way or another) is a positive sign. But the fear expressed of an uncontrolled American imperialist expansion has yet to find a constructive alternative. The poor of the world, led in large measure by ruling elites who have been bought, have no means of bringing pressure to bear on their rulers. The populations of the rich countries are, in spite of their unhappiness, too addicted to be able to voice opposition except in specific instances, for example, opposition to genetically modified foods.

Yet I have no choice but to remain optimistic and to continue to examine and expose a system that threatens the future of our species and possibly the biosphere that has nurtured and protected us for millions of years. Making the connection between the invasion of Iraq and sustaining an insane system of production and consumption which relies on us for its continuation, is the critical challenge that faces us. Making the connection between Bush and oil, oil and burgers, burgers and Brazil, the entire chain of capitalist relations that dominate the planet’s economy is the vital issue that confronts us.

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