Responsible consumption and the moral-industrial complex

The World Economic Forum and other elite think-tanks lobby behind closed doors to change global institutional frameworks in ways that shift responsibility for poverty, global warming and chronic illness from corporations and governments to individual consumers.

Markus Giesler
26 August 2014

Police snipers on the rooftop of a Davos hotel during the 2013 World Economic Forum. Demotix/Erik Tham. All rights reserved.

“I just loved the meeting we had yesterday where we gathered a group of creatives together, people from a wide variety of backgrounds, to really think through how can we encourage people to think about their health as a sustainable resource in the same way that we think about our ecological environment as a sustainable resource. So can we really engage people in appreciating that health is a treasure, that it’s something that we can’t take for granted and that if we invest in it properly it will grow and become more and more valuable throughout our lifespan. We also talked about health not just as a personal resource but as a community resource and one that we might be able to connect through gaming or through electronic measurement or through other ways that people can come together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.” - Julie Gerberding, President of Merck Vaccines, World Economic Forum 2012.

Julie Gerberding’s statement captures a fairly recent phenomenon. In the 1950s, the idea of health as a “sustainable resource” that “we can’t take for granted” would have been a very strange idea. People were firmly embedded in the welfare state and the New Deal - political arrangements that approached them as citizens with universal rights. The idea that listening to music on red iPods is a way to fight HIV/AIDS, that wearing fitness wristbands is a way to combat diabetes, or that gearing up in a special brand of gym wear is a way to end breast cancer, would have been utterly foreign to the spirit of the time.

How is the responsible consumer created?

There are at least two ways to answer this question. From a conventional perspective, responsible consumption is a liberatory identity project based around an increased awareness of the impact of our consumption decisions on the environment, on consumer health, and on society in general. Community-supported agriculture consumers, for instance, do not tolerate corporate food. Rather, they care for their communities and passionately tailor their food choices in relation to a broader palette of concerns, such as ecological sustainability, biodiversity, energy conservation, worker safety, living wages, and, most important, the preservation of small farms and a rural way of life.

The second, more troubling perspective on responsible consumption understands the responsible consumer not as a 'natural' of the capitalist market but as functional to its development and stability. In order for capitalism to operate effectively, its constraints must be reflected in the moral capacity of individuals, who must then adhere to norms that reinforce the structures upon which it is built.

From this perspective, Gerberding’s urge to “encourage people to think about their health as a sustainable resource” is not on the outside of governmental control, at its limits, but rather presents an integral part of its strategy to morally reshape the choice sets that mediate individual consumer behavior in relation to changing historical conditions.

Responsible consumption indicates a significant shift in the political economy. Social problems are no longer the exclusive affair of democratic institutions but are increasingly handled by a globally operating moral-industrial complex. No organization renders this global government of competence and ethics more visible than the World Economic Forum. Every January, CEOs, politicians, social entrepreneurs, celebrities, and scientific experts gather in the exclusive Swiss skiing resort of Davos to “improve the state of the world” by building communities, creating partnerships, and cultivating morals.

These men and women do not simply discuss problems. They view themselves as members of an enlightened elite guided by ethical considerations who must preserve the common good from populist temptations by reaching a consensus behind closed doors. In the government of competence and ethics, institutions traditionally mandated to protect citizens with universal rights such as parliaments, unions, and political parties are not rendered obsolete. Rather they are placed on a par with non-governmental organizations, charities, and corporations in nurturing responsible consumption.

The moral-industrial complex is not interested in expanding democracy or protecting universal human rights. Rather it seeks to create a new kind of human being – a subject that views the shocks of neoliberal capitalism as creative inspirations to shape its own destiny. For this ideal subject, the absence of healthy food, formal healthcare, or public education is not evidence of out-of-control capitalism but rather exemplifies the freedom of having transcended constraining, corrupt, and inefficient welfare state regimes.

And so, when longtime WEF delegate Al Gore argues that global warming is “really not a political issue, so much as a moral one” and that we need a passionate commitment from all involved stakeholders to become a society in which “each one of us is a cause of global warming, but each of us can make choices to change that with the things we buy, with the electricity we use, the cars we drive,” Gore not only promotes new markets. He also invariably promotes a particular society that renders all demands for environmental protection as evidence for inherent moral pathologies such as entitlement, laziness, passivity, and a lack of solidarity.

The WEF’s neoliberal emphasis on morality, values, and public-private partnerships effectively downplays the fact that the problems on the agenda - poverty, chronic illness, global warming or debt - are structural inequities produced by neoliberal capitalism. Emotional pleas by WEF ambassadors like Angelina Jolie, Al Gore, or Bono may create the image of a global village that connects Nest thermostat users in New York, organic vegetable shoppers in Berlin, and bottom-of-the-pyramid entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. Ultimately, they highlight subjects needed by the neoliberal economy: not citizens who stand to gain something from democratic participation, collective organization, and solidarity with others but consumers who draw on individual market choices to invest in their own human capital.

Nurturing responsible consumption is not a way to improve the state of the world. By teaching citizens that social problems are never a reason to demand substantive change in the economic or social order but to demand more ethical consumption alternatives that help showcase one’s own consumerist resilience, flexibility, creativity, and independence, the moral-industrial complex is pivotal in reshaping the world in ways that improve the state of the market while, at the same time, intensifying the discrepancy between rich and poor, healthy and ill, and old and young.

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