the bitter aftertaste of sweet consumerism

Boy working in sugarcane field

I’ve written previously about the Cambodian government’s campaigns of land theft, extortion and violence in the name of selling off the country’s resources to our beloved High Street companies and supermarket retailers. Here’s the latest sorry example in the form of forced evictions and child labour by suppliers for the sugar company Tate & Lyle, facilitated by the European Union. It’s a beautifully-shot film by my good friend Chris Kelly for The Guardian with an excellent accompanying print piece by Kate Hodal, to which a boycott of Tate & Lyle’s products seems an appropriate response. The outsourcing of human misery continues at pace but rarely has it appeared so benign as in the age in which we live.

An interesting side-note is the high probability of Cambodian sugar, grown on stolen land and harvested by children, being marketed as Fairtrade here due to the opacity of the trade. Whilst not denigrating the many admirable Fairtrade projects around the world, it does foster a healthy degree of scepticism about the caring, sharing face of consumerism and what lies beneath its claims of emancipating the developing world. We might take a look at our own complicity in the process, the smug token benevolence involved and, particularly, the motives of its evangelists. The EU preferential trade scheme with Cambodia shows that the road to hell may be paved with good intentions but more acutely we might ask, for whose good are these intentions? Ours? Theirs? Or some third party? Here’s Slavoj Žižek, and Oscar Wilde, with some thoughts worth considering:

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8 Responses to the bitter aftertaste of sweet consumerism

  1. angela says:

    Slavoj Žižek is genius – thanks for this post. Not that I’m not a consumer, but glad that I don’t eat sugar or support major brands. That said – certain my fair-trade coffee is still dirty (ironically, SZ just started talking coffee as I write this…)

  2. erickuns says:

    Enjoyed both those videos. Didn’t know about RSA Animate, so thanks for the introduction. I’m downloading a bunch of them now! Having been to Cambodia, and seen lots of those tractors and other vehicles literally covered with people going off to toil for not enough to live on, I’m not surprised by what’s going on with Tate & Lyle. Not sure at all about Zizek.

    • yeah I’ve mixed thoughts on the RSA Animate series, in an ideal world it wouldn’t be necessary to take a really interesting full-length lecture and reduce and infantilise it into an advert for the terminally-distracted but that’s sadly a world we don’t live in. but then I’m an old tired lumbering whale amongst young freshfaced goldfish haha.
      Zizek’s an interesting one, you could make a quite convincing case of him being a charlatan. Noam Chomsky for one has recently said he’s nothing but empty posturing but I think that’s missing the point somewhat (and Chomsky himself isn’t immune from criticism, especially on Cambodia). Zizek says he’s a Marxist which he probably is but to me, he’s a Socratic bullshiter of the highest order, which is why he’s perfect for our times. you can never nail him down to a single position, he always evades and continually, I think deliberately, undermines his own arguments. but it’s not being contrary for the sake of it or being a fraud, instead it seems a sustained attempt to avoid dogma, to get people thinking and questioning rather than falling into familiar patterns and affiliations (politically and psychologically, which is why he keeps coming back to Freud and Lacan). at the very least, he’s demonstrated that ideology permeates everything, hence the pop culture references, and that the first step in the right direction is to be aware of this.

      • here’s a thought-provoking recent lecture by Zizek (he starts at 03:07), for those with time on their hands, where he talks about charity capitalism, Chavez, Marx and the class differences between vampires and zombies.

      • erickuns says:

        I rejected his idea that the worst slave owners were the ones who treated their slaves well, because to do so forestalled the abolishing slavery. This notion presupposes that we will only improve a situation when it is drastically bad. I see people all around me upgrading their cell phones, obsessively, for any new option, and not because there’s anything wrong with their old one. The worst part of his argument is that rhetorically transforms god actions into evil. The sadistic slave owner, under Zizek, was the one who propelled civilization forward. The more compassion or understanding a slaveholder was, the more he or she was the real problem. Bullocks.

      • that’s the mirror of an old paradox for the Left and part of the explanation of how you can start with a humane voice like Karl Marx and end up with the Bolshevik mindset. do you try incrementally to make life better for the poor or do you wait for things to get so bad that people become more radicalised and seek to overthrow the entire system that has caused the poverty? so you find yourself starting off from a position of compassion and ending up hoping things get worse. it strikes me that someone who makes such an argument has probably never been poor and their empathy is pretty shallow or entirely based on ulterior motives. it’s also not entirely convincing from the point of view that the desperately poor are rarely radical, given they have other more pressing matters to worry about.

        where I think Wilde and Zizek do have a point is to highlight how an evolutionary approach to some issues is fatally compromised. in the case of slavery in the United States, had an evolutionary charitable approach to change been taken, slavery would have lasted many decades longer. what was needed was a revolution (something John Brown and many abolitionists had recognised) and they essentially got it with the American Civil War and the deaths of almost a million people. the kind slave-trader would not just be a hypocritical contradiction in terms, he’d be an impediment to the removal of a system which was itself sadistic. Tolstoy said it best, “I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible… except by getting off his back.”

      • erickuns says:

        Slavery might not be the best example. I do know from recent accounts I’ve read, that one certainly wouldn’t want to be a slave to the more sadistic master, regardless of the inherently wrongful institution of slavery. As you say, it’s easier to wish drastic suffering on the poor in order to motivate them to revolution, if one isn’t poor oneself.

        I’m sure the theorists who espouse such extremes would have a problem if their logic were applied to different situations. For example, before women have equal rights in the more socially backwards countries, they should suffer more rape and mutilation until they rebel out of sheer desperation. Further, the kinder among the men are perpetuating the old paradigm, which is itself misogynistic. Somehow that doesn’t work, probably because nobody would wish more cruelty upon themselves until they rebelled out of sheer desperation.

        Another way of looking at it is that the people in the positions of greater power, who are empathetic and objective are not the bigger part of the problem, but possible bridges to a more cooperative and peaceful transition. The boss who treats workers well is not the bigger problem than the corrupt sweatshop owner, because he (or she) is more likely to be swayed to a more fair paradigm.

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