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Jacques Attali Headshot

Has the Consumer Finally Defeated the Worker?

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WALMART STRIKE
Scott Olson via Getty Images

PARIS -- The tide of the battle that has been playing out for nearly two centuries between the economy and politics, between market forces and democracy, between capitalism and the state, is now turning decisively in favor of the market. That is because the economy is global while democracy is locked within borders.

A global economy without the rule of law is taking hold. It leads seemingly to the victory of consumers and producers -- market participants -- over voters and political actors.

But the situation is more complex than it looks. All voters are consumers, but not all voters are workers (financiers, bankers, entrepreneurs, retired, etc.). So there is a domination of the worker-voter by the consumer-voter.

Consumers and voters team up to some extent against workers. As a result, in every choice to be made, in a moment of decision, politics, no matter which party, favors the consumer to the detriment of the worker.

Thus the person elected chooses to encourage the lowering of product prices because that appeals to the consumer, even though this decrease favors imports and hurts local workers. Thus the elected official chooses to increase taxes on work and to lower taxes on consumption: more income tax and less value added tax. Our elected representatives would rather upset those who come back from the office or the factory than those returning from the supermarket.

This explains why less efforts are made in keeping unemployment in check than controlling inflation. It explains why technical progress is directed at improving the situation for consumers much more than towards the improvement on the condition of working men and women. This also explains why there are many more accidents occurring at the workplace than poisonings at home, why vocational training is less highly valued than the entertainment industry. If this situation continues, workers will be paid increasingly less to produce products that will become less expensive so as to increase more demand from consumers.

Until now, the role of the state has been to balance this deflationary spiral by public consumption. But with globalization, the state is no longer credible in this role. Also, we will slowly see consumers take power over their allies, the voters. Citizens will be transformed into consumers of politics who will simply choose or abandon politicians, as if they were disposable products, blaming them for their actions without thinking about acting on their own or replacing them.

This will contribute to the development of the vision that everything in the world's garden is coming up roses, where everything is easy, plentiful and funny -- in short, an illusory world very different from the reality of work, where everything is difficult, scarce and serious.

A world so far removed from reality will be ultimately prove intolerable; consumer-voters will then hate manufacturers of products and policy makers, forcing them both into making more promises and piling on debt to meet their needs. They will also hate work and will bear with it only to the extent that the work period is kept to a minimum, or failing that, by using miscellaneous stimulants. The consumer-voter will favor the extreme parties with unrealistic programs that make no unpopular demands. In short, the emergent dictatorship of consumers will deny the reality, refusing to recognize the fundamental limits of scarcity.

Forgetting the real world is never a good omen, but a portent of disaster ahead. It is therefore urgent for our democracies to reconnect with reality. It is even what we should first teach to children: commodity consumption should no longer be the ultimate goal of our societies, and all work should be an art of creation. We are far from that today.