At the risk of sounding polemic or creating antagonism, I shall state this.
Firstly, as many of might know, I have a leftist streak. Secondly, I have an anarchist streak, but I am satisfied with less-than-perfect versions of it, such as the political side of libertarianism. I am what you would call a libertarian socialist
. Oh yes, some are thinking, it's yet another
naive idealist leftist youth, guided by his heart with no sense. But let me digress.
I do not get why often so many laissez-faire and libertarian capitalists abhor the idea of trade unions, or any type of unionisation for that matter. If anything, I think unionisation is one of the saving graces of a market economy, because it empowers the individual against the influence of corporations and the government, institutions with organisational superiority. Unionisation levels the playing field. Over history, I think it is hard to deny that better working conditions and wages have arisen because of the trade unions' ability to bargain with these institutions.
However, it seems that consumer organisation is being ignored. It is not merely about passing laws for the welfare of the consumer. such as anti-fraud laws, laws requiring health certification or licencing laws, or having consumer activist organisations. These are important, but I think they are still lacking. Rather, there must be organisation of consumers which actively involves consumers to directly participate in conscious objectives.
Just as there are strikes, there can be boycotts. Both the consumer's money and the worker's productivity are sources of power for the gentry. Yet often consumer's ability to organise is overlooked, while trade unions are well known. It also seems that all too often, unions are looked down upon as being socialistic, while strikes are seen as damaging, Bolshevik and radical, especially in anticommunist Singapore. But one of the reasons why people argue for laissez-faire is that of competition, and that naturally the superior company wins, and the consumer benefits. As a side note, I will put forth the idea that mutual benefit is more productive than mutual strife. Yet, it seems to be all too hypocritical: does not unionisation and voluntary
collectivisation add justified increased pressure for companies to create better products and offer superior services?
Note, that I oppose compulsory participation in strikes (although there is a difference between not working because all your other colleagues are not working), and especially unions which force individuals to pay dues, since I would think donations would be more worthy of a grassroots organisation. Unionisation of the consumer should be voluntary. In fact, they may be part of several organisations, to achieve several different objectives, because they may have diverse values. For example, someone may decide to participate in a consumer union to gain lower prices in a certain commodity, another union composed of perhaps of fans of computer games, pushing to see features implemented that may otherwise be overlooked, while someone may join a union for environmental reasons, and seeks to pressure companies to be more environmental. A more hostile consumer union may be formed to drive what they see as undesireable elements that would prevail in an non-consumer-organised economy, ie. to stamp out the tobacco industry.
Consumer unions are needed because of the difficulty of organising boycotts as a standalone movement. For example, if someone started a boycott on a certain company because it uses sweatshop labour, it might be very hard to disseminate the idea. Firstly, I am unsure that my not buying anything from this company (which I may well buy from often) will have any effect, and in the end it might not make a difference at the expense of my own hardship. Yet because the first individuals find it hard to do, the boycott finds it hard to gain any momentum for additional people to join. People won't join because it has too little people. Catch-22.
But a consumer union can organise multiple boycotts to achieve an objective. It does not have to ask that its members immediately stop buying from a certain company, rather it waits for the right moment to organise its buying power, ie. when it has enough momentum, when things are agreed on, or when it has made a declaration, or when another event has occurred. It does not necessarily even have to seek its downfall, or see it hurt: it might be along the lines of, "we refuse to buy anything from you unless you lower prices", similar to a strike, and sustain this boycott for a conscious period of time. Contrast this to the rather ineffective "don't buy gasoline/petrol for a day" boycott in response to higher oil prices, which is ineffective (as many have already pointed out) because it merely delays the buying time (people will merely buy the gasoline later), while it hurts the small gas pumps, who generally have no control over the prices.
It doesn't even have to be along the lines of a boycott: rather, it seeks to organise its consumers' purchases to seek a certain objective, or to pursue an alternative. Such objectives sound vague, but I will come to that later.
In this post
I challenged the institution of extreme private property. This is because of externalities, and the private doings of one individual can have public or environmental effects, likewise as we see with pollution. I believe immediate property rights
are important; one should have the ability to control what he or she creates, because property is security, as John Locke would tell us. If we make a chair, or grow our own food, no one should be able to take them away without our permission. Yet, the individual private economic decisions we make can have collective effects. We may be conservatively hoarding resources, perhaps not consciously, but too protective of them to release them to have them circulate and stimulate the economy. Yet if we were to apply coercion, it would be a violation of rights.
I should clarify I am not a huge fan of utilitarianism, because changing one's rights to fit the situation seems woefully inconsistent. This one of the reasons why I dislike the command economy in the first place, as well as because of its economic failures. Being the idealist
that I am, I believe in following a paradigm of rights. In the case of a famine, it is not ideal if the the state were to make an exceptional decision and decide it will seize some farmers' crops to distribute to the people. Rather, some sort of systemic mechanism should be in place.
Ultimately, the source of all government power is popular sovereignty. Even in a dictatorship or a totalitarian state, popular sovereignty is still the source of all political power, which is exactly why the state resorts to propaganda and secret police. The people in the society effectively is the source of the power of any government, because the government would become powerless if the majority of the population decided to suddenly stop cooperating with the government, not pay taxes, nor work for anything which would benefit it.
The difference between the totalitarian world of Orwell's 1984 and a democratic society is organisation. In 1984, one of the major themes is indeed organisation. There may well be millions of dissenters, enough to be an influential political force, but the Thought Police keeps them under tab, away from each other, and makes sure that an organisation never arises by eliminating key individuals.
The majority of people may well have dissenting thoughts, but they do not rebel because they can't find a strong organisation to rebel with. And without a visible sentiment of rebellion, it is for such a strong organisation to be created in the first place. The catch-22 is underscored with the line in 1984:Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.
(Part 1, ch. 7)
The state does not need to instantly crack down on any dissenter that arises; this may well undermine its economic power, especially if dissenters are widespread. Rather, they only need to crack down at the right strategic moments on the right people. (Does this not sound like the strategy employed by the PAP when they cracked down on Mr. Brown?)
Thus, the underground of the Brotherhood is a desperate last-ditch attempt to organise individuals to actualise the power of popular sovereignty, so they can effectively cast off the regime. However, the process is slow, the organisation seeing the overthrow of the regime as a distant goal, and it uses cell-structure. The entire organisation is shrouded in secrecy, so that no one member of the organisation has the ability to know much of the other individuals in the organisation. It is decentralised. Decentralisation is one of the major features of anarchism, but the difference here is that even the information is decentralised. In the end, Winston is unable to know whether it is a real organisation or not. Such last resorts are a warning to show what will happen if individuals do not organise early enough.
This is why freedom of peaceful assembly is important, so that popular sentiment has a chance to organise itself, in order for the advantages of popular sovereignty to exhibit itself. However, one of the advantages grassroots organisation has today is internet technology; blogging, as an example. Orwell would well be amazed at what consequences the internet will have on grassroots democracy - remember, blogging is a relatively new practice, and will probably become as influential as other forms of media invented in the 20th century (radio; television).
In the same way that organisation is the difference between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, organisation may well be the difference between corporate tyranny and economic freedom in a monetary economy. I think a monetary economy has its limitations, and ultimately a gift economy
is more flexible, especially as the difficulties of maintaining copyright and intellectual property rights progress in this day and age. However, if consumer organisation exists in the framework of existing economies of today, such as Singapore's, it will provide lots of content. If 1984 gives any warning, organisation should take place before circumstances prohibit organisation altogether.
I favour the idea of social contract
theory, because it provides a ground-up paradigm and a grassroots approach to society, government and economics. As I have said, the consumer and the worker are the basic units of an economy. Consumers have the right to withdraw their support for any company they choose, or to drive a company out of business through boycott if they see it as undesireable to society, perhaps only sustained by a minority of society. For example, consider the tobacco industry, narcotics trade, spammers, or other stigmatised trades which the majority of people may dislike.
The tobacco industry is effectively maintained because a significant minority of society happens to rely on it. The majority of society is probably in fact, hostile to it. Yet the supermarkets, the quicky marts, the various other retailers sell it because it's another way to make a profit. These retailers rely on the majority of society. In effect, the majority of society contribute to the sustenance of the tobacco industry even though they do not wish to contribute to what they may see as an evil. But without organisation, their purchases may well end up supporting something they loathe. This is why organisation is important. If determined enough, unions can organise boycotts to pressure retailers not to sell tobacco, or face boycott. The key feature of unions is that they can wait until enough people agree to have critical mass, then begin it.
Of course, the tobacco industry may very well stop relying on retailers and open their own outlets, but at a significant cost. Such a war may be waged further: ie. refusing to hire smokers, refusing to buy anything from smokers, or sell anything to them , or anyone who involve themselves with tobacco. Of course, this brings concern of majoritarianism. Don't people have a right to pursue their own pet smoking habits, because it's their health and their choice? But the difference is that they still have the right to smoke tobacco if they eventually want, or sell it, at the cost at lots of social stigma. They still have the final right. However, society also has a right to respond, because individuals have a right to withdraw their support for an institution, because in this case, the tobacco industry also relies a lot on a society of people who don't smoke: the retailers, their non-smoking customers, the other-non smokers who run the society, they live in. Ultimately by social contract, they have a right to withdraw their support - a boycott.
This is helps resolve some issues of private rights and the greater good of society, such as externalities, that supply and demand cannot resolve. Economic laws of competition, supply and demand under the principles of laissez-faire will not curtail pollution, because these principles rely on unorchestrated purchasing power. Pollution has no immediate detrimental effect, and curtailing it has no immediate competitive advantage. However, add consumer organisation into the picture, and suddenly cutting down on pollution becomes more attractive than it already is - because of public backlash, and because the public is the reason because a company has the money to maintain a factory which pumps pollutants into the air in the first place.
Consumer organisation is also grassroots in nature - a voluntary association. Individuals choose whether they want to participate in such an association or not. An organisation depending directly on consumer cooperation will be highly dependent on consensus-decision making, and as a result consumer unions will be part of the missing component of democracy that is lacking in most market economies.
In contrast, top-down governments which regulate economies, even popularly elected ones, are less advantegeous for two reasons. A representative government which holds great power such as economic regulation can eventually become corrupt, bit by bit, because with the power it holds it can use it to prevent the opposition from organising against them, in the most subtle ways. (Consider how the PAP came to power in the first place; also consider how powerful the PAP-dominated yet elected Parliament of Singapore is, with its ability to pass major constitutional amendments like the Parliamentary Elections Act
without so much as a regard to the consent of the governed.)
Secondly, elected governments may implement bans on tobacco for public health and public good reasons, but without grassroots support, grassroots organisation and grassroots action, it will likely fail, just like any command economy, or any price controls. Like Prohibition for alcohol, the smoker will be able to obtain his goods in the black market, and society is too unconcerned and unorganised to make any matter out of it. However, because the source of the power of consumer organisation is getting individuals to consent to something, in this case, consent to a wipeout of a certain industry like tobacco, a measure implemented by consumer organisation is likely to be more effective. A measure implemented this way targets a commodity like narcotics at its economic source: the consumer and the supplier, as well as being able to instigate stigma against anyone associated with it.
Narcotics and tobacco is only an example, and targetting an "undesireable commodity" is only a minor part of the possible scope of what consumer unions can do. Thus, individual private rights are maintained, a right to keep that chair, keep the food one grows, keep the house one has built, and no one has a right to seize it without one's permission. However, if one's fertiliser starts contaminating the runoff with no measures being taken, then the consumers have the ability to adjust their patronage based on the knowledge of this fact because they are organised. Government environmental regulations only becomes a last resort; the economy has just taken care of the environmental issues itself.
In contrast, without organisation, consumers are less able to pressure a producer at fault effectively.
Googling the concept of "consumer union" reveals that such a concept does exist (118,000 results), but it does not seem to be too widespread. Existing unions seem to be advisory, rather than something in which consumers consciously organise their buying power to wield influence on the market. In this regard, I am very interested in the formation of such organisations, but I myself am unsure of where to start.
This post was initially inspired by another post by the Singapore Economist
, and is one of the reasons I decided to write this, is because I feel the need to present my view of economic freedom. If laissez-faire supporters champion economic freedom and the ability of people to form corporations, then the ability of workers to form unions should similarly be championed - it would be hypocrisy not to do so.
My objective of writing this post is to instil this desire to organise in others, so that one day such organisations may arise, for the greater benefit of us all.