Occupy Central: Hong Kong’s fight against neoliberalism

Also published at CounterPunch, ZNet and GlobalResearch.ca.

As protesters flood the streets of Hong Kong demanding free elections in 2017, the international media puts on its usual spin, characterizing the struggle as one between an authoritarian state and citizens who want to be free. The left, meanwhile, has remained notably silent on the issue. It’s not immediately clear if that goes down to an inability to understand the situation, to an unwillingness to stand for supposedly liberal values, or to a reluctance to criticize China. As stories on Occupy Central flood the front pages of the mainstream news media, both the BBC and CNN have published handy “explainers” that confuse more than they explain, making no real effort to dig into the economic roots of discontent. The “Beeb” went as far as to ask whether “Hong Kong’s future as a financial centre” was “threatened” – giving us some insight into where the global establishment’s priorities lie.

But regardless of what the BBC wants the world to believe, Occupy Central isn’t so much a fight for democracy as a fight for social justice. It’s true that Hong Kongers are angry over Beijing’s interference in domestic affairs, whether these be immigration from China, encroachments on the freedom of the press, or the nationalistic-propagandistic “moral and national education” program. These issues, while serious, pale in comparison to the increasingly difficult realities of everyday life in Hong Kong. As City University of Hong Kong professor Toby Carroll points out, one in five Hong Kongers live below the poverty line, while inequality has risen to levels among the highest in the world. Wages haven’t increased in line with inflation – meaning they’ve fallen in real terms. The minimum wage, only introduced in 2010, is set at HK$28 (US$3.60) an hour – less than half of that even in the United States. There are no collective bargaining rights, no unemployment benefits and no pension. The average workweek is 49 hours – in case you thought 40 was rough. Housing prices are among the highest in the world. Even the neoliberal Economist placed Hong Kong top of its crony capitalism index by some distance.

The list of people who have spoken out against Occupy Central is particularly revealing – oligarch Li Ka-shing, HSBC, the world’s four largest accounting firms, among others in business circles. The main issue with CY Leung’s administration isn’t the fact that it wasn’t democratically elected, but that it serves two main groups: Beijing on one hand, and local elites on the other – in other words, far from democratic in its representation. It’s not hard to see why big business and the oligarchs are terrified of Occupy Central: any movement towards real democracy would see them losing power and losing their grip over the territory. The status quo, on the other hand, serves them well.

Hong Kongers are not an ideological bunch. We’ve never had a vote – not under 17 years of Chinese colonial rule, nor under a century of British colonial rule before that – yet we were good colonial subjects and we stayed quiet because we were making a living just fine. But as the middle and working classes start to feel the crunch, the ruling class is starting to realize that it cannot simply let them eat cake. The battle for democracy isn’t a battle for the vote, but a battle for real democracy: for the right of the people to govern themselves. The vote is merely the starting point to a long process of reform that takes the power out of the hands of Hong Kong and Chinese elites and, for the first time, into those of ordinary people.

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Dismantling our right-wing world

Originally published at Media Roots. An adaptation of “Rethinking the left-right spectrum“.

It’s been an eventful few weeks for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), also known as the Zapatistas, midway through their 20th anniversary year. First, Jose Luis Solís López, also known as “Compañero Galeano”, was murdered by a paramilitary group with ties to the Mexican government, which also injured fifteen other Zapatistas and destroyed a school, clinic and water system in the same attack. The attack then prompted the Zapatistas to change strategies, with well-known spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos stepping down.

These developments serve to remind us of the EZLN’s status as, in the words of Chris Hedges, “the most important resistance movement of the last two decades” – important enough to warrant the rather violent attention of the Mexican government and its paramilitary associates. The EZLN, a group based in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, launched an armed rebellion against the Mexican government on January 1, 1994 as an act of protest against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which entered into effect on the same day. Instead of attacking the Mexican state and society and causing endless bloodshed, however, the Zapatistas set up a system of self-governance in the territory it controlled, creating autonomous communities each with its own health clinic and schools to fill the void that the Mexican government had actively sought to widen in the interests of US and Canadian multinational corporations.

What the Zapatistas demonstrate is a vision of the notion well articulated in the motto of the World Social Forum: another world is possible. They provide evidence that contradicts the belief that the status quo under neoliberal capitalism, in which the haves have it all and the have-nots are left to fend for themselves, is not only the best system but indeed the only viable system. The Zapatistas certainly represent a victory for the oppressed peoples of the world over the powerful political and economic interests that rule over them. But more importantly, they represent a victory for the valuesof egalitarianism, compassion and solidarity – what I call the left-wing ethos. A victory over theidea that those who rule have the divine right to further their own interests, regardless of the consequences for the rest of humanity – an attitude that epitomizes what it means to be “right-wing”.

Marko Attila Hoare boils down the left-right spectrum to a simple distinction: that “the left supports the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor while the right opposes it”. But we can remove the entire spectrum from politics entirely to expose the values that underlie them: lefties value social equality, whereas righties value social hierarchy. Why, though? The answer lies in our individual worldview. As a self-identified lefty, I consider it more than possible for all of us to peacefully coexist in the world and have all of our common needs met, if (and only if) that’s the goal that we all work together to try to achieve. In a left-wing worldview, it’s therefore neither necessary nor ethical for us to undermine others in order to benefit ourselves. In other words: compassion, not competition. Without claiming complete objectivity, a right-wing worldview revolves around the idea that we live in a dog-eat-dog world in which the best we can do is fend for ourselves and get our share before someone else takes it.

Human history has been almost entirely dominated by the right-wing worldview. It’s been an endless cycle in which privileged groups have taken turns dominating each other in a seemingly eternal battle between the powerful and the powerless, between the rich and the poor, and, of course, between those fighting each other for a share of the spoils. From the imperial conquests of the ancient world through European colonialism, the two World Wars and Soviet communism to modern neoliberal capitalism, it’s always been the same story repeated over and over again, flowing through different chapters but reaching the same inevitable conclusion. The story of oligarchy. It’s a story familiar to the Zapatistas and to many in the Middle East, the United States, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Brazil, China, the Canadian First Nations and countless other sites of confrontation between the haves and the have-nots in recent years. The hierarchical, conflict-ridden relationship today between those who rule the world and those who are ruled, between corporate bosses and workers, between autocrats and their citizens, between the rich and the poor, is a continuation of this cycle of domination.

The right-wingers among us will assert that history simply reflects human nature, that it is in our nature to be maliciously selfish rather than compassionate, that this is the best we can do, or even that there’s nothing wrong with the world we’ve created. But their argument fails to acknowledge that the dominant worldview of the past has createdthe world we know today. As an example, the domination of the indigenous populations of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania by European invaders and colonizers was not an inevitable result of human nature, but rather a product of widespread extreme right-wing beliefs such as Manifest Destinyand the white man’s burden. Similarly, the dominant worldview of the present will determine the world of tomorrow. A child raised in a society that values getting ahead at all costs is encouraged is far more likely to act accordingly than one raised in a society that values empathy and compassion. The dominant worldview in a society is therefore not inherent in human nature but in fact reinforces itself.

Right-wing theorists have a crucial role to play in promoting their worldview, too. “Realist” international relations scholars, capitalist economists, or simply those at the top of the social hierarchy love to tell us how it’s in our nature to always act in self-interest. They tell us that “greed is goodand that we all collectively benefit from constantly undermining each other, as ludicrous as that may sound. Yet, for the most part, even despite their contempt for those below them in the social hierarchy, even right-wingers behave in an incredibly left-wing manner towards those closest to them. And that’s because humans organized themselves into what we nowadays call “societies” precisely so that we could allbenefit from being interdependent. That interdependence required us to develop compassion to allow us to survive in a society. The “savage” who undermines and betrays everyone he or she comes into contact with doesn’t survive for very long and, sociopaths aside, doesn’t find much happiness either. Surely we as a species are capable of applying that same logic to our everyday actions in today’s world so that we can all thrive at the same time instead of striving to be the “last man standing”?

Roman Krznaric couldn’t have put it any better: we need an empathy revolution. We need to turn the right-wing world that we live in into a left-wing one in which we recognize our fellow human beings as worthy of a livelihood and worthy of happiness and, in return, receive the same recognition. As the economic crisis in Greece goes to show, humans are capable of compassion even in the most desperate of situations: rather than stealing from each other, many Greeks are stepping into provide the services that their government has failed to deliver and those that some of their compatriots can no longer afford, from food to medical services to street lighting – all for free. Similar systems have been devised in Serbia as well as in Macedonia, where numerous bakeries have introduced “solidarity basketsto allow customers to buy an extra bun or piece of bread to leave to those who can’t afford to eat. And many customers indeed comply.

But showing empathy on our part only does half the job. While it spares those around us from our own potential malice, what it doesn’t do is liberate ourselves from those who have their hands around ournecks. That involves critically examining and rethinking the false ideologies and pseudo-theories invoked by the powerful for the sole purposes of justifying their own dominating behaviour. After all, ideologies are all too often used as pretenses to mask the hidden agendas of those who assert them rather than a reflection of the values that they truly believe – in other words, purposeful bullshit. We mustn’t forget how the left-wing idea of communism was employed by self-described revolutionaries to justify right-wing oligarchic tyranny. Similarly, we can’t afford to look away when libertarians cite the dogma of limited government to justify enriching big businesses at the cost of everyone else, or when rich countries proclaim free trade to justify infiltrating the economies of developing countries. We’ve been raised to regard Soviet-style communism as tyranny and Western capitalism as freedom, but we need to recognize both for what they are: systems of oppression backed up by pseudo-theories that have no empirical basis and only serve those who preach them.

The empathy revolution needs a theoretical and social component. Neither pacifism nor confrontation can do the job alone. We need to channel our discontent into action by adopting the autonomist ethos of the Zapatistas to build the society we want. We need to form cooperatives and make use of cryptocurrencies, local currencies, open source, open knowledge, peer-to-peer practices, the sharing economy and countless other methods of grassroots social and economic organization that the oligarchs haven’t given a chance and that the mainstream media doesn’t want us to hear a word about. What these methods all have in common is that they’re all built on the basis of cooperation and collaboration rather than malice and treachery – exactly what society needs and what the oligarchs don’t want.

Modern society is diseased and needs treatment. It’s only when we renounce one-upmanship in favour of cooperation and collaboration that we’ll be able to construct a society not for the few at the top, but for all of us. After all, isn’t fulfilling our mutual needs the whole point of even living in a society? It’ll require a good deal of empathy and creativity, as well as plenty of critical thinking to distinguish truth from pseudo-theory and other purposeful bullshit. Left-wing and right-wing are no longer a question of politics, but a question of social values and social justice. The right-wing worldview has failed us, and as the Zapatistas have shown, another world is certainly possible. It’s time to recognize that, for the purposes of redeeming ourselves from perpetual oligarchy, left is right.

Rethinking the left-right spectrum

Centrist, centre-left, centre-right, far-left, far-right. These are all political terms that get constantly thrown around and that bear different definitions depending on the national context in which they’re used. They get thrown around so often that it’s easy to forget what they even fundamentally mean, and so it was refreshing to have Marko Attila Hoare remind us last October that, simply put, “the left supports the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor while the right opposes it”. Hoare is quite right, but I’d argue that we can simplify it even further by removing the left-right spectrum from the realm of politics and taking a closer look at the values behind them. After all, you don’t simply support or oppose the redistribution of wealth for arbitrary reasons – you do so on the basis of the values that you hold.

 

We know that lefties value social equality, whereas righties value social hierarchy. But why? Our values can ultimately be traced to our worldview. We care about certain things more than others because the way we see the world around us causes us to view them as important, whether ethically or practically. As a self-identified lefty, I see a world in which it’s more than possible for all of us to peacefully coexist and have all of our common needs met, if (and that’s a big if) that’s the goal that we all work together to try to achieve. In my left-wing worldview, it’s therefore neither necessary nor ethical for us to undermine others in order to benefit ourselves. In other words: compassion, not competition. Obviously, I can’t claim complete impartiality here, but my understanding of a right-wing worldview is that it generally revolves around the idea that we live in a dog-eat-dog world in which the best we can do is fend for ourselves and get our share before someone else takes it. The reasons why people adopt a left-wing or right-wing worldview, or something in between – family influence, cultural values, socioeconomic status, and so on – are too numerous to list. But there we are.

 

Why does the left-right worldview spectrum matter? Our worldview and the values we derive from it serve as the moral compass (or, arguably in many cases, lack thereof) that guide our actions and therefore produce the reality that we see. That reality then feeds straight back into our worldview. We behave in a way that we consider appropriate to the world we live in, and we react to the actions of others that affect us. Compassion breeds more compassion, whereas one-upmanship breeds more one-upmanship. Both are contagious. Collectively, we make or break our own reality.

 

That’s exactly why human society has always struck me as extremely right-wing. Human history has been an endless cycle in which privileged groups have taken turns dominating each other in a seemingly eternal battle between the powerful and the powerless, between the rich and the poor, and, of course, between those fighting each other for a share of the spoils. From the imperial conquests of the ancient world through European colonialism, the two World Wars and Soviet communism to modern neoliberal capitalism, it’s always been the same story repeated over and over again, flowing through different chapters but reaching the same inevitable conclusion. The story of oligarchy. It’s a story familiar to many in the Middle East, the United States, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Brazil, China, the Canadian First Nations and countless other sites of confrontation between the haves and the have-nots in recent years. As a species, we’ve produced a right-wing world by adopting a right-wing worldview and reinforcing it through our actions. Some will argue that this is the best we can do or even assert that there’s nothing wrong with the world we’ve created. I disagree.

Right-wing theorists, be they “realist” international relations scholars, capitalist economists, or simply those at the top of the social hierarchy, love to tell us how it’s in our nature to always act in self-interest. They tell us that “greed is good” and that we all benefit from constantly undermining each other, as ludicrous as that may sound. Even Marxists are convinced that class conflict is inevitable and that the liberation of the masses has to come at the cost of the elites. Yet, for the most part, even the right-wingers among us behave in an incredibly left-wing manner towards those closest to us. And that’s because humans organized themselves into what we nowadays call “societies” precisely so that we could all benefit from being interdependent. The “savage” who undermines and betrays everyone he or she comes into contact with doesn’t survive for very long and, sociopaths aside, doesn’t find much happiness either. Surely we as a species are capable of applying that same logic to all of our everyday actions so that we can all thrive at the same time instead of striving to be the “last man standing”?

 

Roman Krznaric couldn’t have put it any better: we need an empathy revolution. We need to replace the right-wing world that we live in with a left-wing one in which we recognize our fellow human beings as worthy of a livelihood and worthy of happiness and, in return, receive the same recognition. But showing empathy on our part only does half the job. While it spares those around us from our own potential malice, what it doesn’t do is liberate ourselves from those who have their hands around our necks. That involves critically examining the ideologies invoked by the powerful for the sole purposes of justifying their own dominating behaviour and rethinking a lot of the theories contained in them. After all, ideologies are all too often used as pretenses to mask the hidden agendas of those who assert them rather than a reflection of the values that they truly believe – in other words, purposeful bullshit. We mustn’t forget how the idea of communism was employed by self-described revolutionaries to justify right-wing oligarchic tyranny. Similarly, we can’t afford to look away when libertarians invoke the principles of limited government to justify enriching big businesses at the cost of everyone else, or when rich countries invoke free trade to justify infiltrating the economies of developing countries.

 

The empathy revolution needs a theoretical and social component. Neither pacifism nor confrontation can do the job alone. We need to channel our discontent into action by adopting a DIY ethic to build the society we want. We need to form cooperatives and make use of cryptocurrencies, open source, open knowledge, peer-to-peer practices, the sharing economy and countless other methods of grassroots social and economic organization that the oligarchs haven’t given a chance and that the mainstream media doesn’t want us to hear a word about. What these methods all have in common is that they’re all built on the basis of cooperation and collaboration rather than malice and treachery – exactly what society needs and what the oligarchs don’t want.

 

It’s only when we renounce one-upmanship in favour of cooperation and collaboration that we’ll be able to construct a society not for the few at the top, but for all of us. After all, isn’t fulfilling our mutual needs the whole point of even living in a society? It’ll require a good deal of empathy and creativity, as well as plenty of critical thinking to distinguish truth from purposeful bullshit. Left-wing and right-wing are no longer a question of politics, but a question of social values and social justice. The right-wing worldview has failed us. It’s time to recognize that, for the purposes of redeeming ourselves from perpetual oligarchy, left is right.

It’s not okay if the NSA spies on us, but it’s okay when Google does…

Also published at GlobalResearch.ca.

One of the defining stories of 2013 was, without doubt, Edward Snowden’s revelations of the mass spying conducted by the NSA, GCHQ and various other government intelligence agencies from around the world. Aside from justifiable outrage, the revelations very rightly sparked intense debate over the appropriate role of government in the lives of everyday citizens, certainly at least in the United States, if not to the same extent in Britain. A large part of the issue surrounded the interception of personal data held by internet companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook by the American NSA and British GCHQ agencies both overtly through PRISM and covertly from fibre-optic cables, and the logic behind the indiscriminate collection of personal data under the alibi of “national security” and “counter-terrorism” is flimsy at best. Yet the key question that we have failed to ask ourselves, and indeed that government spying itself has distracted us from, is how we handed over our own data to the internet companies whose services we use in the first place.

The search engine DuckDuckGo (which I use and strongly recommend) describes the process more succinctly than I could, but I’ll put it into words anyway: Google records your searches and sends your search term, browser and computer information to any site whose link you click on, allowing them to identify you and track you. This data is then used to build a profile of you for the purpose of targeted ads, which can also be used to charge you higher prices. That, in a nutshell, is what the NSA and GCHQ have been obtaining from Google. Facebook operates in a similar way and, incidentally, is facing a class action lawsuit as a result: it tracks the links you click on, the posts you “like” and even the contents of your private messages to profile you, before selling this data to data aggregators and advertisers.

ImageAs I’m writing this piece on WordPress, Abine’s DoNotTrackMe Firefox add-on (which I also use and recommend) indicates that there are seven trackers on the “new post” page I have open, all of which it’s blocked: Optimizely, Quantcast, WordPress stats, Gravity, Qualaroo, Kiss Metrics and Google Analytics. A shocking twelve trackers are blocked on the home page of The Guardian, and Google Analytics is even operating on the home page of my college, Hamilton College. Clearly, Google and Facebook, while certainly the best-known and the most visible, aren’t the only companies “mining” our data, and the obscurity of these tracking companies (how many of them have we honestly heard of?!) makes their covert activities all the more concerning.

Mind you, DuckDuckGo was launched in 2008, five years before we learned all about government spying. The tracking and profiling carried out by internet companies such as Google and Facebook have been known since these websites were first launched, yet it was only when we learned from Edward Snowden that our governments were using this information to spy on us that we became upset. Why the double standard that we hold corporations and governments to? What gives corporations the divine right to collect and sell our data in the interests of profit while governments have no such right? Such is the absurdity of our concept of liberty: only government can pose any conceivable threat to our freedoms, we think, and so we quietly accept the terms and conditions that allow Google and Facebook to spam us with targeted ads and subject us to price discrimination, but we squeal whenever the government gets its hands on our data, whatever it does with it. Or is it because the NSA never gave us a list of “terms and conditions”?

It’s important that we remember in the age of mass government online surveillance that it is not simply the NSA and GCHQ, but also Google, Facebook and the various other companies that track and profile us and mine and sell our data that have brought about “the end of online privacy”. The sad reality we have today is that the business model of the websites many of us use today is such that, while providing their services without charging us a fee (I refrain here from using the word “free”), they mine and sell our information to maximize revenue and hence profits. Corporations like Google are, in the words of Yasha Levine, specialists in “for-profit intelligence“. As a recent Observer editorial summed it up:

Lured by “free” services on the internet, we click through to a digital emporium where we sacrifice our privacy. Every click, message and electronic trail is mined for profit. Every digital stroke makes money for them. The more time that you spend, the more money they make. There is little they don’t know, almost nowhere they can’t follow and nothing they can’t tell about your digital life.

Let’s not allow the spectre of government surveillance to distract us from that fact.

On a closing note, DuckDuckGo offers a toolkit for blocking trackers. Whether it’s Google, the tracking companies or the NSA we’re concerned about, it might be just what we need.

Reader-owned media? Lessons from football

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ takeover of the Washington Post in October set off alarm bells in the minds of media critics and readers of independent media alike, myself included. This was the fate of one of the world’s most reputed political newspapers thrown into corporate hands – the same hands that controlled the world’s largest internet company by revenue. All this in an age of what appears to be terminal decline as far as newspapers are concerned: circulation has fallen by 13% in North America and around twice that in Europe in the last five years. Bezos’ takeover is symptomatic of an increasing reliance of the mainstream media on handouts from either corporations or governments – those who can afford to subsidize their losses. As Le Monde diplomatique‘s Serge Halimi succinctly puts it: “Publications aligned with the dominant worldview or the decrees of advertisers rake in the money, everything else struggles.” Amazon’s recent $600 million deal with the CIA ought to set a few more alarm bells off.

All of this is perfectly familiar to football fans, who have seen wealthy benefactors with seemingly bottomless pockets propel once humble clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain to the top of their respective leagues through funnelling an endless stream of subsidies into their coffers. What is really worrying is that the benefactor model has become the norm: of the 20 clubs that competed in the 2011-12 English Premier League season, only Norwich City, Swansea City and Wolverhampton Wanderers finished the season without incurring debt. Clubs run on the principles of strict financial responsibility can no longer compete with the billions flowing into the accounts of their subsidized rivals, and this fact largely accounts for the contagiousness of the benefactor model.

The benefactor model has an Achilles heel, however. What happens when the benefactor decides he or she has poured enough money down the drain and pulls out? Or if the benefactor goes bankrupt? No fewer than 38 English clubs have entered administration (essentially bankruptcy) since the turn of the millennium, four of which went out of business altogether. An alternative business model for football on the rise today is that of fan ownership – a model that not only prevents this type of financial instability but also ensures that decisions are made according to those whom it ultimately serves: the fans.

My club, AFC Wimbledon, is one example. Founded in 2002 by former fans of Wimbledon FC when its owners decided to relocate the club to Milton Keynes, where it remains today under the “MK Dons” moniker, the club is fully owned by The Dons Trust, a supporters’ group that pledges to retain at least 75% ownership of the club to ensure nothing of the sort of the fate that befell its predecessor ever occurs again. Members join the trust for an annual fee of £25, an amount that supplements gate receipts and season tickets, which make up most of the club’s turnover. Last season, fans established the We Are Wimbledon Fund, a crowdfunding initiative to boost the playing budget that ultimately provided the finances for the estimated £25,000 transfer fee of Harry Pell from Hereford United (not a trivial sum for a fourth-division team). Fan ownership isn’t limited to clubs starting from scratch, either. Former Premier League club Portsmouth FC, now playing in the fourth tier, became the largest fan-owned club in England when its fans bought it out of administration in April.

What lessons can the likes of the Washington Post pick up from the likes of Wimbledon and Portsmouth? If fan ownership of a football club is not only conceivable but also doable in a league system dominated by subsidized clubs, who’s to say the same couldn’t be done in the media? After all, both football and the news are, in today’s world, inherently unprofitable sectors that rely, if not on corporate or taxpayer dollars (or pounds), on trust membership fees and crowdfunding for revenue to keep them afloat. I propose that the next time the owners of a major newspaper or news magazine offer it up for sale, its readers should pool together a sum of money to make a bid for it. Then, once in ownership of it, they can decide on coverage on a democratic basis and keep it running financially on an annual subscription fee. After all, plenty of media sources are charging subscription fees without giving readers a share or even a voice. $20 or $30 a year to have a say in what stories your newspaper covers and to ensure that it stays well away from corporate and government interference. Not a bad deal, is it?

Finally… it’s already been done before.

Artificial fragility

Back in June, the power jack on my four-year-old Sony Vaio laptop fell apart, leaving the outdated but nonetheless functional machine a mere 30 minutes (the lifespan of its degraded battery) from a perpetual shutdown. Sony computers once shipped with a three-year warranty, meaning the manufacturer would cover the cost of all repairs within three years of purchase, but now offer just one year. I decided that I would turn my computer over to Sony anyway and let them bring me the news. They charged me HK$500 ($65) to have it inspected, taking a week to do so, before demanding a further HK$2850 (US$368) to have the necessary repairs carried out.

That’s right. $368 to have a simple power jack replaced. I searched up a few listings for Sony Vaio power jacks on eBay:

Image

A $368 repair bill for a component that costs no more than a dollar. Plus a bit of labour. Okay, maybe a good deal of labour. But paying half the cost of the computer when it was new just to replace a 99-cent power jack? Something didn’t add up. So I brought the brought the laptop to a small repair shop in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong. The process took three days and cost me a mere HK$350 (US$45) – less than what Sony charged me to have its repair crew take its time mulling over it without actually carrying out any repairs.

It’s clear that the amount Sony was about to charge me was less a reflection of the true cost of repairing the computer than a penalty for sending it in for repairs on an expired warranty – essentially a slap on the wrist followed by a stern “The warranty expired last year, you idiot.” This was a clear case of planned obsolescence: tech companies like Sony not only sabotage its own products to increase their proneness to failure (I’d turned the same computer in for repairs on at least four previous occasions) but also charge extortionate prices for repairs beyond an unacceptably short and even declining warranty period. The aim? To create the artificial need, or “demand”, as economists like to call it, for us to replace our products that have failed, and, in the process, boost their profits through our consumption.

Planned obsolescence is an inevitable consequence of the profit motive. Tech companies aiming to maximize profits seek to maximize revenues by creating artificial demand through compromising the durability of their products and imposing “repair penalties”, as well as to minimize costs by evading their responsibility to provide support for them. And it’s important to note that the costs that firms try to “minimize” don’t simply go away – it’s merely the cost to the firm that’s “minimized”, which leaves the rest of us to bear them. Those of us who don’t have access to independent repair shops, as I had the privilege of resorting to, have no real option but to throw our misfiring devices out and buy new ones. That costs our wallets, the planet and the health of other people: our precious dollars are spent on new devices that will likely later suffer the same fate, and the toxic heavy metals in our electronic waste ends up either in landfills where they are assimilated into the earth or in developing countries such as Bangladesh, India and China, where everyday citizens are forced to live among them.

Economists write off the costs evaded by businesses as mere “externalities”. Dismissing them as such amounts to denying a simple truth: that the profit motive is the driving force behind the capitalist system, and, as profit maximization leads ultimately to the evasion of costs by companies, capitalism is the underlying cause of planned obsolescence and its devastating social and environmental consequences. As long as companies are allowed and encouraged to maximize profits with zero concern for the repercussions of doing so, they will enjoy an “incentive”, as economists refer to it, to sabotage their own products as a means of coercing us into consuming beyond our needs. After all, more new computers and smartphones for us means more dollars for them.

Government regulations that force firms to pay the full costs of their activities, or as much of it as possible, are welcome. We could certainly do with far more extensive extended product responsibility schemes to force tech companies to meet predetermined durability criteria and to offer substantial warranty periods. Massive citizen mobilization will be needed to counter the power of lobbyists and corporate dollars and make these demands clear to governments across the industrialized world. But the heavy hand of the state isn’t enough on its own, nor can it be relied upon in capitalist societies where governments are often complicit in the abuses of their corporations. The nature of business itself needs to change, moving away from the capitalist ethos of maximizing profits to an ethos under which profits are generated such that the business can be sustained, but without externalizing social and environmental costs.

On this note, I’d like to reserve a bit of praise for the technicians at the repair shop that spared my laptop from the greed of its mercenary manufacturer. They certainly had both the skills and the negotiating power (particularly given the exorbitant prices Sony were prepared to charge) to charge me far more than they did, but chose not to, and filled a void in providing an oft-needed service at a reasonable and affordable price. Any movement against a capitalist ethos in business will need instruments with which to resist the abuses of cost-evading corporations, and this leaves an important role for independent repair shops and repair cafes, not only of electronic devices but of all of the various “consumer goods” that we consume far too much of. Repair skills are few and far between in the post-industrial society we live in, and those who possess them could do the world a great service both by offering these skills reasonably and affordably and by passing them on to others. It’s only by offering and carrying out repair as an alternative to the cycle of consumption and disposal that we can not only overcome planned obsolescence but also move away from the profit-maximizing capitalist ethos that has dominated modern society for far too long.

When shopping less costs people their jobs…

There is a certain irony in the fact that the most recent dispute over working hours in France has seen many French employees side with their employers rather than with the unions representing them. In the interests of maintaining the work-life balance that the French are very well known for, unions have successfully pushed for retailer Monoprix and cosmetics chain Sephora to close their stores by 9 PM and for DIY chains in the Paris region to remain closed on Sundays. Employees, though, aren’t happy: many of them argue that the elimination of late-night and weekend shifts will cost them their jobs. Here’s the dilemma: employees can’t make a living wage without working at times they really should be taking off, but working late and on weekends is good for neither family life nor health. And keeping shops open for longer hours inevitably encourages a consumer culture that, as I’ve mentioned before, isn’t good for us as consumers and simply can’t be sustained with the resources we have. The problem, clearly, is systemic.

So what do we do? Work sharing is an easy way to tackle the twin problems of overwork and unemployment: instead of having some workers work long hours while others can’t find a job, workers could simply work shorter hours for the same amount of pay or more – whatever amount can be deemed a living wage. The results on their part would be a far less stressful lifestyle and more time to actually live their lives without having to constantly worry about their finances. And what’s in it for the employers? Unlike what mainstream economists would like us to believe, employees working shorter hours tend to be more productive than those working longer hours and require less sick leave. And firms won’t simply end up passing their costs on to the consumer. McDonald’s employees in the United States, on average, make just over the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The company’s Australian employees, on the other hand, make around the country’s minimum wage of $14.50 per hour (the US dollar and Australian dollar are roughly equal in value at the time of writing). You’d think McDonald’s would be a hell of a lot more expensive in Australia than in the US. Indeed, a Big Mac costs a whopping six cents more! Not sure how I’ll ever afford to eat at McDonald’s in Australia…