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Moral Holiday Shopping Is Harder Than You Think

Do any of us really control our purchasing choices and their implications these days?

Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Back in 2012, Julie Keith was pulling out decorations for a Halloween-themed birthday party in Damascus, Oregon, when a handwritten letter dropped out of the box containing a fake tomb stone kit. It read: “Sir, If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly send this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persicution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.” The letter contained details of how inmates were treated at the Masanjia labour camp in Shenyang, China, where the Halloween decorations were made. Inmates had to work for 15 hours a day, seven days a week for less than $2.00 a month. Refusal to comply would result in torture and beatings.

The story captured the imagination of Canadian filmmaker Leon Lee, who managed to track down the author of the letter, Sun Yi, leading to a much-discussed film this fall telling the story of the treatment of the inmates of the Masanjia labour camp, many of them unjustly imprisoned for their participation in the outlawed religious group Falung Gong. This doesn’t seem to be an anomaly: There are also reports of more such letters finding their way into consumer goods sold in the US and the UK. Technically, exporting goods produced by prison labour is illegal. Yet complicated supply chains make it difficult to ensure that the law is followed.

Both liberals and conservatives champion the idea of free markets, not just for efficiency, but as a matter of morality, of ideology. A free market is portrayed as the mark of an open and fair society. What supposedly makes a free market free is not just the absence of central government planning, but also the freedom of the agents who operate within them. Within a free market, the story goes, individuals act in their own self-interest, driven by their needs and desires, purchasing the best available goods at the best available prices. What happens, though, when someone discovers that acting on the simple desire to put up holiday decorations renders them complicit in forced labour in a far-away country? 

The question of ethical consumption frequently pops up in public discourse as purchasing ramps up from Black Friday through the winter holidays. Some argue for more ethically conscious purchases from brands that claim not to use morally objectionable supply chains, whereas others simply want to ban Black Friday altogether, as a way of preventing the excessive consumerist behavior it brings out. But all of these proposals are attempts to sidestep a problem that, as the Halloween decoration incident showed, is increasingly inescapable in the global market.

German critical theorist Theodor Adorno argued in the early twentieth century that true freedom in an unjust world is an impossibility. At the time, the global economy he and his contemporaries were critiquing was less developed than it would become. Today, the complex, globally interconnected nature of modern capitalist markets means that even mundane, everyday purchases can make us involuntary participants in the oppression of others.

Theodor Adorno would not have seen the letter from Masanjia, implicating a mother putting up decorations in slave labor, as an anomaly. He and his contemporaries in the so-called Frankfurt School of interdisciplinary intellectuals in the 1930s saw such phenomena as fundamental to the very character of a modern, capitalist market. As individuals puzzled by the absence of a revolution within capitalist societies that Marx had predicted, and, later, by the establishment of death camps in a supposedly “enlightened” society, one of their fundamental interests was human agency and responsibility. Struggling to explain both phenomena, they started to focus not on individuals as the locus of responsibility for such events (or their absence), but on the ways in which institutional and societal structures condition and curtail human agency.

Those raised long after Auschwitz might, at first glance, struggle to share the excessive pessimism about the limits of human agency of a critic personally targeted by the German police and forced to flee his homeland. Surely today, we might think, in Western liberal democracies, people do have genuine agency. But for Adorno, the kind of freedom we enjoy today is merely of a formal kind, one that leaves us feeling powerless. Free-market ideology, for instance, suggests we can act on our own self-interests and buy what we want (as long as we can afford it) without anyone getting in our way. And yet advertising and innovation play a huge role in determining what our desires and needs are in the first place. I never wanted to own a smart phone before they were invented, but now owning one seems almost a necessity for functioning in contemporary urban life. If you have little control over what your desires and needs are, can you really be said to be free?

There is also a second way in which Adorno thought that having formal freedom does not amount to being truly free. Being free implies having moral responsibility, Adorno mused. But if you can’t be reasonably held morally responsible for your actions, he argued, then you weren’t really free in the first place. And according to Adorno “[w]e can only think of ourselves as responsible in so far as we are able to influence matters in the areas where we have responsibility.”

Thinking back to the letter from Masanjia case, it seems clear that one could not reasonably be held responsible for purchasing goods that were the product of forced labor, because there is no way in which, under ordinary circumstances, a consumer could have known the precise conditions under which the goods were produced. Worse, perhaps, even when we do know that the products we buy might be the result of morally objectionable practices, it seems there is little we can do about it. It’s certainly unclear whether we can really have any influence over the unjust incarceration of a religious minority in a far-away country, or the practice of enforced labor in Chinese prisons. And as Adorno recognized, according to the logic of a capitalist free market, it is in our interest to buy the best goods at the cheapest prices, which often means at the expense of those who produced the goods. If we are part of a market system that incentivizes us to purchase goods whose origins we can’t be sure of, that might be morally dubious, and over which we have no real influence, then, according to Adorno, we are not truly free. In an unjust world, it is not always possible to do the right thing.                              

Adorno’s analysis can often come across as excessively defeatist. It’s true that as individuals we have very little power over changing unjust structures that we involuntarily, or even without our knowledge, participate in every day. But it is also true that sometimes, people can mobilize and help change unjust practices.

Either way, however, Adorno’s critique exposes the shallowness of the concept of freedom given to us by the free market. The freedom to choose what to consume conceals the fact that our agency and autonomy are compromised by innovation and marketing, and by objectionable production practices that are beyond our control. The idea of humans as isolated individuals, each pursuing their own interests, is a myth. We are far more socially interconnected to one another than this picture suggests, and our actions can have far-reaching consequences.

The usual solution offered to the moral problems created by our participation in the global free market is to pursue a more ethically informed consumerism. But this solution suffers from the same false presuppositions that the idea of a free market does. It suggests that it is up to the individual to solve this problem, and that it’s simply our free choice to refuse to participate in production lines that rely on exploitation. What Adorno shows is that the structure of the capitalist market place we live in makes this nearly impossible. Instead of moralizing and shifting the blame onto the consumer, Adorno’s critique recognizes that the incredible moral burden we might feel in the face of stories like the letter from Masanjia is hugely disproportional both to our level of responsibility in all this, and to our power to make a difference as individuals. Instead of merely buying Fair Trade Certified goods, to truly change the system we’d have to discard the false promise of freedom and unrealistic individualism that the free market promotes, and work towards developing a future morally engaged market and economic ideology that recognizes our interdependence in a globalized economy. Only then, perhaps, will being a consumer not amount to the morally fraught affair that it is today.