A Buy-Democracy Independence Day
Editor’s Note: As the Bush-legacy recession savages more and more American jobs, the watered-down “bipartisan” responses of the Obama administration are proving to be too little and possibly too late.
Beyond the pain for individuals and families, the economic crisis – with its handful of high-end winners and its multitude of downwardly mobile citizens – is threatening the future of the American Republic and of democracy itself, as Graham Rankin argues in this guest essay:
The recession is making clearer every day, especially with the latest job loss figures of almost half a million in the US in June alone, how difficult rebuilding Western manufacturing industry is going to be. It would be bad enough in a boom, but in a bust when weaker sales can drive even big firms under, we need to look long and hard at consumerism itself.
We all know how the old ads had Dad in the wide-track car and Mom with the apple pies, but since consumerism absorbed globalisation everything has become very unclear, and deliberately so. If we're to rescue manufacturing we're going to have to drag a few of globalised consumerism's hidden sides into the open.
Globalisation has effectively downplayed country of origin as an issue for almost two decades, and a whole generation has grown up not thinking about it at all
A bizarre level of self-censorship now exists in all newspapers and magazines and on all billboards: "Don't mention country of origin! Don't show flags! Don't highlight Made In.. at all!"
Like the eccentric 70's British comedy hotel owner, Basil Fawlty, who couldn't mention "The War," people who do care about it are made out to be, by implication, well.... eccentric.
Worse, the success of consumerism means that most people now walk around with heads full of ideas in completely separate compartments. In one compartment they keep all the abstract things they care about, like the environment, CO2 emissions, shipping pollution and so on.
And then when they enter a store they switch to another compartment, where they keep all their thoughts on products, brands, design and specifications, and where every sales display buries country of origin information as trivial and insignificant and reinforces the restriction on thinking.
Then when they go back outside the store they switch back to the place that cares about the environment again, or the budget deficit.
The Internet could have joined up the compartments for people, but it's pushed things further apart as the digital age keeps things separate – separately filed, stored, located. Product forums could be about country of origin, conditions in factories and so on, but almost all are drowned in chat about specifications and the pettiest of rivalries between different brands that are often made by the same company in the same factory in the same country.
All this has been a disaster for Western manufacturing and, yes, Western democracy. Operating in a democracy means more costs because you are accountable. Outsourcing to totalitarian states reduces those costs dramatically and increases profits.
So it's essential that the Western manufacturers are allowed to compete in the marketplace fairly, and to be able to show country of origin.
Now of course, there are issues of component sourcing, and 'mere' assembly jobs. But if you have the assembly plant, you can source more components locally as things pick up.
You have to start somewhere, and an assembly job, even of imported components, is better than no job. Most people realize that cars, for example, aren't carved from a single block of steel in one place with a chisel.
If you ask people in the street if they'd be happy buying a cheaper product made in a ruthless anti-democratic dictatorship, they'd mostly say no. Then they go into the store, switch thinking compartments, and do exactly that. Because there's no clear labeling of product origins, and it's very successfully disguised as an issue.
To stay in those separated worlds is to live the life of a consumer. But to join them together is to become a citizen. To know you have the right to insist on country of origin, and to use it to choose products made in democratic countries, if you so choose, is to defend democracy itself.
Dictatorships don't want citizens. They want consumers. Consumers can't defend Western manufacturing industry, and they can't help rebuild it. But citizens can. They can demand clearer country of origin labeling everywhere – on products, in stores, in newspapers and magazines and on billboards, so they know where they're buying from, and what kind of government they're supporting by doing so.
And that would really be an Independence Day to celebrate.
Graham Rankin is a writer and a contributor to the Web site, Manufacturing Crunch, where this story first appeared.
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