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The turn to less: Corona and the consumption dilemma

by Albrecht von Lucke Thursday, Jul. 30, 2020 at 12:22 AM

The Corona crisis could be the beginning of a better normality. Corona could make a turning point in history. The global North has benefited from unequal trade relations. Global employment has lost its role as the center of life. We must get out of the old path dependencies.

The turn to less: Corona and the consumption dilemma

by Albrecht von Lucke

London: A buyer walks past a SALE sign in the middle of the corona crisis.

[This article published on 7/12/20 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have been asking about the collateral benefits of the crisis, even invoking it as an opportunity. But what this opportunity actually consists of and whether there will actually be a lasting change in values is still completely open.

In a first interim assessment, however, one thing can be stated: Without the virus, one of the greatest swindles of industrial modernity would still be going on undisturbed, namely the exploitation of humans and animals in the gigantic meat factories. What "normal times" could not manage, the virus did in a few weeks: Only when the meat industry became a superspreader did the focus finally turn to the untenable conditions at Tönnies and Co. 12-hour shifts at dumping wages, in addition to horrendous usurious rents from subcontractors: In fact, the factories are in a state of serfdom. For years, Germany's largest meat producer had promised improvement, but never kept its promises. This did not change his self-commitment to Sigmar Gabriel, then Minister of Economic Affairs, who at the height of the Corona crisis promptly let himself be committed by Tönnies, naturally at lucrative conditions.

How much the wind has shifted through Corona can be seen not only in the extent of the outrage, but also in the fact that the media situation was still completely different at the beginning of the year. At that time there was a heated debate about the indispensability of daily meat consumption. Against the debate, which was initiated by the Greens and environmental associations, the "Bild" newspaper made its usual populist mobilization: "Leave the neck steak eaters alone", was the accusation against the allegedly eco-dictatorial Greens.[1] In this context, the Green Party leader Robert Habeck, who is still suffering from veggie day trauma, had only taken the liberty of calling for an "animal protection center" on animal products. Union faction leader Ralph Brinkhaus then declared "neck steak eaters" to be the "backbone of our society" [2] Our daily schnitzel give us today, was the Christian Democratic leitmotif.

August 2020

But under the sign of Corona, even Julia Klöckner, who is by no means critical of the agricultural industry, is demanding tough cuts. Meat should not be junk goods, says the Federal Minister of Agriculture, and therefore she wants to take action against dumping prices - with an animal welfare levy of no less than 40 cents per kilo of meat. If the Greens had dared to demand such a thing before Corona, a storm of indignation would have swept over them.

However, it is highly doubtful whether a mere animal welfare levy would be suitable for bringing about the necessary system change in the meat industry. The real opportunity offered by Corona, on the other hand, is far more fundamental. At its core, the epidemic calls into question our entire consumption and living model. Or more precisely: our life as a consumption model. I consume - as much and as cheaply as possible - so I am, is the leitmotif of modern homo consumens. But Corona has effectively undermined the primacy of consumption - with considerable consequences: For the first time, German emissions are no longer twice as high as permitted, and our ecological footprint meets the requirements set by the Paris Climate Convention in 2015. In this way, global warming could still be stabilized at below two degrees. In this respect, the past few months - despite all the tragedy in view of the many deaths - really do represent a break from the fatal old "normality".

But this global state of emergency has by no means created a new normality. The basic question is therefore: can such a short-term change in consumer behavior caused by Corona be put into practice in the long term - and if so, how?

At this point at the latest, the dilemmas of the globally integrated world market become clear. At the same time, thanks to Corona, we are experiencing in all drama the fatal path dependencies in which the entire global economy is moving. If the rich North does not consume cheap clothing in abundance, the first to suffer are the (mostly female) producers in the southern low-wage countries, who lose their entire livelihood. And if the German travel world champions do not visit the most beautiful beaches in the world, the locals employed in the tourism industry will not receive the wages necessary to subsequently be able to purchase German industrial products. This is one of the reasons why the enormous economic consequences of Corona will catch up with us in autumn at the latest, when numerous German companies will have to file for bankruptcy.

At the same time, however, we must recognize that the global environment has long been threatened with "bankruptcy". The big difference is that once the climatic tipping points have been reached, the consequences - unlike in the economy - are irreversible; then the threatening hot spell will no longer be able to be fought successfully. Even a summer with a lot of snow and ice cannot change this situation, if at the same time the permafrost soil in Siberia thaws faster and faster.

This shows that the logic of externalizing industrial consequential damage, which has been practiced for centuries, has finally reached its ecological limits. Corona thus illustrates the double crisis of the global capitalist production and consumption model. Firstly, this applies to its functional crisis, namely that all participants as consumers and producers are closely interdependent and the failure of any one of them calls the entire system into question. Today, according to the perverse logic, we do not primarily work in order to consume, but we consume in order to be allowed to continue to work - namely, in order to keep globalized capitalism running through our consumption and thus also to guarantee our own jobs.

Secondly, the crisis of our own self-image is linked to this. Who are we and who do we want to be, beyond mere consumer existence? And against this background, what would be the right, sustainable answer to the crisis?

In any case, the Federal Government's answer is clear: it declares shopping to be the citizen's first duty. "Now people are spitting in their hands again, we are increasing the gross national product," Federal Finance Minister Olaf Scholz quotes the almost forty-year-old hit by the New German Wave band "Geier Sturzflug". The message is clear: we must consume the economy out of the crisis. By kick-starting the national and European consumption engine with the help of investments worth billions, the German economy should also get going again. The consumption argument is now even calling into question the obligation to wear a mask - because the mask dampens people's buying mood and acts as a "yaw brake", according to market researcher Stephan Grünewald [3].

In this way, we are pursuing a return to a normality that in fact is not. Instead, consumption as a way of life should be put to the test. Corona radically questions homo consumens and thus all of our self-image: What did we really have to give up in recent months by consuming less? What have we really been missing? With this, the old question, temporarily suspected of totalitarianism, is back on the agenda: What are true human needs - and what are merely commodity-shaped, false or artificially created?[4]

Committed to the global environment

If we want to see the crisis as an opportunity, we must not under any circumstances fall behind these questions raised by Corona. The "consumer citizen" - actually a contradiction in terms - is the epitome of selfish individualization. On the other hand, we must rediscover our social responsibility. And not, as is currently being massively promoted, as consumer patriotism towards our own country ("Travel in Germany!", "Buy German!"), but primarily towards a global environment that is radically endangered by the Western consumption model. But this is where the social-psychological dilemma becomes apparent: in surveys people regularly declare their willingness to act ecologically. At the same time, very few people are still prepared to change their own consumer behavior in a sustainable manner. This is the main reason why the share of organically produced pork is still only one percent [5].

At the beginning of the corona crisis, true to the requirements of epidemiologists, prevention was declared the first civic duty - the same must apply in the climate crisis. As is well known, the Basic Law states that property is an obligation. But this does not only apply to our private but also to our collective "property", the global environment. We have a primary obligation to it, since we are all dependent on its preservation. To achieve this, we must get out of the old path dependencies and take completely new paths. The opportunities of the corona crisis lie in the enhancement of care and the care concept, in greater regionalization and the discovery of the local area. But in the long term, what will happen if we no longer all have to go to the office at the same time in view of the enormous increase in home offices? Do we recognize the gain in time and space in inner cities freed of cars, which could then once again become places of social life instead of just working? For many people, at any rate, the second car with which one part of the family drove to work has become superfluous at present.

In the end, does the question even arise whether we still need individual transport at all? Or are we experiencing the opposite effect: will the inner cities become even busier because private transport is experiencing a new boom - for fear of corona in public transport?

So Corona could indeed mark a turning point in history. The crisis has shown: A turn for the less is possible. The practiced renunciation of consumption remains the most important experience so far. And a further dematerialization is conceivable: For the fact that at the same time gainful employment has lost its role as the centre of life and the separation of family and work has been lifted, has meant an enormous gain in quality of life for many, despite all the complications and efforts (especially for parents due to the closure of schools).

However, this experimentally tested new lifestyle alone does not provide a sufficient answer to the systemic question: how can an economy function without permanent growth? Here the answer to Corona as well as to the climate crisis must be to finally achieve fairer trade relations and to pay fair prices for the goods of the South, which at the same time speak the ecological truth. For this, too, we must move away from our old consumption model. Incidentally, this is also in our own interests: As long as our consumer behavior remains the global benchmark, we will never get the climate crisis under control.

Since colonial times, the global North has benefited from unequal international trade relations, the terms of trade: the South supplies cheap raw materials and buys expensive industrial products from the North. Recently - and this is the particularly bitter irony of history - cheap meat has been exported from the North to the South, destroying entire local trade markets. To finally do justice to the global South through fair prices and trade relations is therefore the real imperative of convincing decolonization.

In his most recent book "Is Today Tomorrow?", Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev argues that the pandemic - whether uneventful or not - will leave hardly any memory in the collective memory. His reference for this is the Spanish flu, which cost up to five times as many lives as the First World War and yet is relatively little known. However, Krastev fails to recognize the fundamental difference from the current situation: while Spanish flu followed World War II as the epitome of a state of emergency and a millionfold murder and therefore had to appear as an almost "normal" death, we experience - at least in rich Western Europe - Corona after the experience of 75 years of peace as the first radical break in the history of Western consumption and growth.

The crucial question is therefore to what extent such a break - as a period of standstill - can have a lasting effect on mentalities. The far-reaching events of the 20th century were those of radical acceleration, from the great wars to the ideological culture wars, from the 1930s to 1968. In the 21st century, however, mental and economic deceleration should be the goal, a new form of economic activity as a sustainable steady-state economy. Social responsibility today proves to be in staying at home and not in conquering the world, whether military or mass tourism. In other words, what we need today are Boring Twenties rather than Roaring Twenties.

The Corona crisis could be the beginning of a better normality. But for that, the time given must not become wasted time. For this we must counter the mechanisms of repression and the strong pull back to the old "normality" with a different, new guiding idea of living and consuming. But what answer we give to this is still open at present. Only one thing is certain: we will not be given such an opportunity again so soon.

Ralf Schuler, in: "Bild", January 26, 2020.

"Bild am Sonntag", January 25, 2020.

3] Johannes Pennekamp and Julia Löhr, May it be a little less consumption?, in: "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung", 8.7.2020.

[4] This is the distinction made by Erich Fromm, with recourse to early Marx.

5] Silvia Liebrich, Jan Schmidbauer and Josef Wirnshofer, Bon Appetit, in: "Süddeutsche Zeitung", 11.7.2020.

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