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Jacques Attali Headshot

The Dictatorship of Consumption

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The tide of the battle that is being played out for nearly two centuries between the economy and politics, between market forces and democracy, between capitalism and the state, is now turning in favor of the market, because it is global, to the detriment of democracy, 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, political actors. It causes, as can be seen, relocations and deregulation. But the situation is more complex than it looks. Because all voters are consumers; while only half of them are workers. So there is a domination of the worker-voter by the consumer-voter. In each and everyone of us and in society. Consumers and voters team up to some extent against workers. As a result, in every choice to be made, in a moment of decision, whenever it retains an embryo of influence, politics, no matter which party, favors the consumer to the detriment of the worker, so that the consumer may influence the elector's vote. Thus the person elected chooses to encourage the lowering of product prices, that appeal to the consumer, even though this decrease favors imports and hurts local workers. Thus he chooses to increase taxes on work and to lower taxes on consumption: more income tax and less VAT. Rather upset those who come back from the office or the factory than those returning from the supermarket.

This explains why fewer efforts are made in keeping unemployment in check than controlling inflation, why technical progress is directed at improving the situation for consumers, much more than towards the improvement in 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, in order to produce products that will become less expensive, to increasingly more demanding consumers.

The role of the State has been, until now, to balance this deflationary spiral by public consumption. But with globalization, the state is no longer credible in this role. Also, consumers will slowly take power over their allies, the voters. They will transform citizens into consumers of politics that would 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, very different from the reality of work, where everything is difficult, scarce and serious...

A world so far removed from reality that it will be intolerable; consumer-voters will then hate manufacturers of products and policy makers, forcing them both into making more promises and more debt to meet their needs. They will also hate work and will bear with it to the extent that the work period is kept to a minimum, or failing that, by using miscellaneous drugs. They will go to extreme parties, with unrealistic programs. To deny the reality of the situation, to refuse scarcity, as prescribed by the dictatorship of consumption.

Forgetting the real world is never a good omen. It always come to mind. It is therefore urgent to reconnect with it. 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 it.