Group 4

How “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” lost its meaning online

Anti-capitalist phrases are trending, but creators are concerned that what began as a critique of the system has been co-opted as an aesthetic


Text: Laura Pitcher

Illustration: Oriane Jeanselme

In the back and forth that a TikTok haul comment section can become — in amongst the “what size did you get?” questions, comparative compliments, and unwarranted insults — there is usually one singular comment that can end all discourse around Shein’s human rights violations or the environmental impact of fast fashion: “There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism anyway”. The saying, common among anti-capitalist and communist groups, originated with the intention of turning our attention away from poking the finger at low-income single mothers buying baby food on Amazon or using a plastic bag. Instead, it called us to look at the people up top (the ruling class), not get too caught up in “perfectly ethical” individual consumption, and organise for fairer systems. That was before, like many other anti-capitalist phrases, it became a watered-down buzzy slogan online.

Today, Gen Z has been declared an anti-capitalist generation. With 67% percent of young people in Britain wanting to live under a socialist economic system, hit shows like Squid Game and recent movie releases like The Menu reflect the general sentiment of “eating the rich”. Unfortunately, however, with billionaires like Jeff Bezos posting tweets praising such media, it’s clear the content itself isn’t a threat to capitalist systems once it’s been mashed up and turned into a trendy aesthetic (or even tonight’s Netflix special), made into buzzwords and then sold back to us. There are even t-shirts and mugs with the phrase “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” printed on them.

Like multiple other politically-charged movements throughout recent history — including the black square-ification of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 — here’s where social media has served the watering-down agenda. By turning anti-capitalist ideals into often aestheticised and mood-boardable content, we can remove both the message and nuance from the conversation while being able to “try on” anti-capitalist ideals, like putting on a prairie dress allows you to take part in “cottagecore” or wearing pink to channel “Barbiecore”. It’s similar to the rising social media genre “corecore” becoming detached from its original political and social meanings and becoming simply a new emotive editing style. Or Grimes getting papped walking down the street reading The Communist Manifesto. There are even American girls on TikTok wearing a red star, the symbol of the Soviet Union, on ushankas to channel the “Russian girl aesthetic” or  romanticise the communism of the USSR.

Content creator Shanna Battle recently stitched a video promoting over-consumption on TikTok after seeing a comment mentioning the phrase “sent her over the edge”. “That phrase was meant for low-income communities to lessen the guilt about them having to make an eco-friendly choice or a choice that means literal survival,” she says in the video. Battle believes that the use of the phrase on haul videos is weaponisation. “We understand that there’s no ethical consumption but that doesn’t mean that we consume just for the sake of it,” she tells the Digiverse. “We’ve lost the original plot of the movie.” 

Rather than ‘eat the rich’ we need to ask ‘what it is about rich people that needs to be done away with?'

Rhamier Balagoon

Battle isn’t the only creator trying to inject back the original message into the now trending online phrase. Lily (@imperfectidealist) posted a viral video explaining that “not everything is equally unethical”. Writer Malcolm Harris also tweeted that the phrase "is not an excuse for particular consumption decisions, it is an attack on ‘ethical consumption’ advertising” and fashion historian Cora Harrington said that “there are absolutely degrees of ethical behaviour because not everything is ethically compromised to the same extent/inflicts the same degree of harm”. After all, a TikTok phrase giving a nod to the flaws of living under a capitalist system won’t do anything for the 85% of garment workers who currently do not earn the minimum wage.

Harrington called the aestheticised and trending approach to anti-capitalism “moral nihilism”, perhaps reflecting young people’s (understandable) feelings of hopelessness when it comes to the future of climate change, political unrest, and late-stage capitalism. This, says anti-imperialist organiser Rhamier Balagoon for the Black Alliance for Peace, is preventing us from true class solidarity. “We have to move as a collective and increase class awareness”, they say. “That’s the only way that any sort of mass change is going to be implicated.” This, they explain, could look like taking over factories to run ourselves and split resources according to people’s needs.

Balagoon says that, while social media seems to be stuck on “eat the rich” slogans, we have to move beyond that. “We have to be very specific and serious with what we mean by that and specify what kind of action that necessarily needs to be taken”, they say. “Rather than ‘eat the rich’ we need to ask ‘what it is about rich people that needs to be done away with?’” Balagoon says that the phrase “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism anyway” has similarly become something for people to hide behind. Of course, there are a number of people promoting anti-capitalist ideas and actually educating and mobilising people through social media, including “Martha Stewart for socialists” @BettyImages and Art and Labor, a podcast for “art workers trying to understand their place in the brutal capitalist systems of power”.

It’s clear who’s truly benefitting from selling anti-capitalism back to us (streaming services make money from “revolutionary” movies after all).

While anti-capitalist messaging has clearly lost its original meaning in the age of “eat the rich” TikTok, pointing the finger at those (often unknowingly) participating in the aestheticisation of anti-capitalist messages is also a further distraction from pointing the finger at corporations for exploitative practices. No, commenting “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism anyway” isn’t moving the needle in any way but it’s also hard to blame young people for feeling nihilistic and clinging to catchy phrases that help them cope. It’s also clear who’s truly benefitting from selling anti-capitalism back to us (streaming services make money from “revolutionary” movies after all).

While we fight in TikTok haul comments, billionaires are only increasing their net worth. And by helping them turn large-scale ideas and political movements into meme-ified phrases, “dystopian” themes for movies, or trending aesthetics that only encourage more consumption, we’re ensuring any actual critique of the systems at play will be lost in amongst the noise. Just like how posting about cottagecore doesn’t mean we’re all about to actually go live on farms, it’s been well-established that social media is often a place for performance when it comes to politics. To avoid performativity then, we must take the organising offline also.

For every “eat the rich” tweet that you like, consider asking your elderly neighbour if they needs a hand with their groceries. When you come across a Jeff Bezos meme, look up the community groups in your area. And when you see a comment on TikTok telling you that “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism”, know that doesn’t mean that we should ever stop advocating for the thousands of underpaid workers behind the latest Shein haul.