iPhone broken

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things Under Capitalism

Planned obsolescence. It’s something not everyone has heard of, yet everyone has experienced it and is inconvenienced by it every single day. Perhaps the most widely known example of this involves the iPhone. Ever notice how the battery of the old model doesn’t last as long as it used to as soon as a new model is released? That’s planned obsolescence—the purposeful production of commodities designed to wear out earlier than is technologically necessary, in order to boost sales of replacements.

Capitalism’s never-ending thirst for profits leads to products being made as cheaply as possible. But even more sinister are the intentional flaws baked into many products which could last much longer for the same price. This is to keep people constantly consuming and buying more commodities over and over again, because if a product breaks, they have to buy a new one. Now, theoretically the user of the product could just get it fixed, but that’s often even more costly. So, they buy a new one. The supposed “innovations of capitalism” are really just ways to screw people over even more.

The first well-documented example of planned obsolescence took place in 1924, when a consortium of lightbulb manufacturers, the “Phoebus Cartel,” agreed to limit the lifespan of lightbulbs to a mere 1,000 hours—around half as much as the previous standard. Their motivation was unsurprising: the desire to maximize profits.

Another early example of planned obsolescence was also in the 1920s, when the CEO of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan, came up with the brilliant idea to convince people that one car was not enough to last a lifetime, and that purchasing more would be essential to stay socially relevant. The idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” also ties in nicely with Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism, but that’s a whole other matter. Planned obsolescence is not only a physical phenomenon, but is socially reinforced as well.

More examples of planned obsolescence I’m sure many can relate to include printers, lighters, pens, refrigerators, stockings, and more. The planned obsolescence used in printers is called “programmed obsolescence,” which is executed via smart chips installed in the ink cartridges, to prevent the usage of the printer after a certain amount of time or pages are printed, regardless of whether or not the printer could still function. Many people choose to just buy a new printer, as the ink cartridges are so expensive, it would be cheaper and more convenient to do so.

Planned obsolescence not only inconveniences people for the sake of profit, but also is another aspect of capitalism’s destruction of our planet. More “burner” products means more waste. Some regulations have been implemented in some places to help decrease the destruction planned obsolescence creates, but as all communists know, reforming capitalism is not a viable alternative to socialist revolution. Until world capitalism has been replaced with world socialism, the frustrating and destructive practice of planned obsolescence is here to stay.

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