Whether or not you consider yourself anti-capitalist, you’ve probably heard that tired retort that socialists regularly encounter: “If you hate capitalism so much, why do you have a smartphone? If you were really against capitalism, you’d become an off-the-grid caveman instead of participating in the capitalist system.” The spirit of this argument has prevailed among critics who speculate about the allegedly expensive tastes of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one among a recent wave of democratic socialists to hold political office.
As a case in point, consider how she was ridiculed by one Fox News reader for making the modest suggestion that profit shouldn’t be prioritized at the expense of human lives and the planet:
Never mind that AOC worked as a bartender prior to her election to Congress, and has disclosed that she is struggling, like many other D.C. residents, to afford the cost of rent in the city. Let us assume that this reader’s questionable claims about her lifestyle are true: would that make her – or any other self-proclaimed socialist who pays for a nice phone, car or apartment— a hypocrite?
There’s no doubt that the cumulative effect of individuals’ choices about how to spend their money can have a tangible and significant impact on conditions of production. Our smartphones wouldn’t continue being produced, for instance, by the exploited labor of factory workers in poor countries if there weren’t any demand for them. However, the scope of our freedom to avoid fueling that demand, and whether it can be articulated alongside demands for global progress in workers’ rights, are perhaps the real questions at stake here.
Many pro-capitalists like to perpetuate the myth that consumer choices tend to be voluntary and informed in a free market economy. For one, this perspective overlooks the role of a multibillion-dollar advertising industry whose primary aim is to convince people to spend money. It accomplishes this aim not by way of objectively informing the public about the benefits and drawbacks of various goods and services, but by promoting a particular good or service through any means possible.
It’s easy enough to resist the pressure of this industry by becoming a “conscious consumer,” right? But how easy is it to get by without items that employers expect practically every job-seeker and worker to own today (personal computers, smartphones, and professional attire, to name a few)? In a society where many people’s survival is contingent on whether they’re able to maintain a steady job, one could argue that your smartphone would be more appropriately classed as a necessity than a luxury item. That smartphone is a “gift of capitalism” only insofar as you conceive of someone else’s underpaid labor as a gift, and insofar as you view your decision to own it as fully voluntary. It is possible, on the one hand, to appreciate the social value that smartphones bring us, while on the other hand, arguing that more of the surplus value (i.e., profit) they yield should end up in the hands that produce them.
Being a socialist doesn’t mean believing that people shouldn’t be free to make choices about how to spend their income, or that they shouldn’t enjoy any of the comforts that technological advancements have afforded some of us. Many of those advancements, by the way, owe greater thanks to public research funding than to market competition. Being a socialist can mean, instead, precisely the opposite: empowering more individuals with the personal freedom that follows from having housing, food, and healthcare guaranteed as a right.
I do not mean to discount valid criticisms of wealthy “socialists” who funnel their wealth primarily toward personally fulfilling aims, while agreeing to chip in for Medicare for all one day, if and when it is actually realized. For some, being a socialist means recognizing that we have immediate responsibilities to others, and to the world, that cannot wait for the next election cycle. And yes: maybe politicians who wish to take this responsibility seriously should really ditch the private jets.