«Kate Soper ‘The Fulfilments of Postconsumerism and the Politics of Renewal’. In the midst of deepening ecological and financial crisis, the ...»
Kate Soper ‘The Fulfilments of Postconsumerism and the Politics of Renewal’.
In the midst of deepening ecological and financial crisis, the growth model of
the economy remains almost unchallenged. Yet the longer we continue with it, the
more intense the competition for dwindling resources will become, and the more
uncivil the methods to which societies of affluence are likely to have recourse in
defending their advantage. These could include measures that most of us would
currently regard as deeply repugnant, indeed they would spell an end to rights-based humanitarian morality as we know it, (the quite blatant and cynical manipulation of poverty, disease and famine to control global population; the coercion of Third World economies into an almost exclusive servicing of First World needs for bio-fuels and other energy substitutes; ever more fascistic policies on immigration in privileged regions such as the EU to check the flow of eco-refugees from the more devastated areas of the globe). These measures are likely to encourage increasingly desperate forms of terrorist activity and could very well end in genocidal and even terminal forms of global warfare.
That’s for the future. As for the more immediate present, things already look bad enough. Even the more modest, and probably insufficient, targets on carbon emissions are unlikely to be met. Around the world, two billion have been injured or made homeless in recent decades through disasters triggered by global warming, which have more have more than doubled since the 1970s.1 Over the same period, the disparity between rich and poor has grown ever greater, and is now gaping.
Yet mainstream thinking remains in denial about the role of capitalism and its ‘work and spend’ dynamic in generating the crisis. Even those most concerned about : World Disasters Report, International Federation of Red Crescent and Red Cross Societies, 2002.
global warming believe – or hope - that new technologies will solve the problem, thus ensuring continued economic growth with very little alteration in our life-style.
Provided we make the investment now, the ‘pain’, as these optimists like to think, can be kept to a minimum. Their common presumption is that the consumerist model of the ‘good life’ is the one we want to hold on to as far as we can and that any curb on that will necessarily prove unwelcome and distressing. We hear little or nothing of what might be gained by moving away from our current obsession with consumerist gratifications and pursuing a less work driven and acquisitive way of life.
There is an obvious reason for this. Since the immediate mission of the market economy is not human or environmental well-being but the multiplication and diversification of ‘satisfiers’ that can realise profit, counter-consumerism would prove very bad for business. Companies, therefore, with little restraint from government, continue to pressurise us into ever more self-destructive and environmentally vandalising forms of consumption, and they are constantly expanding the outlets for their merchandising activities. The infiltration of the child’s world by branding gurus and marketing experts is highly ingenious and particularly blatant.2 [IMAGES 2-5] Indeed, it would be regarded as sinisterly totalitarian were it to occur in any other context but that of the market. Dependent as it is on the revenue from commercials, the media has done little to stem the flow of this advertising activity. All this has meant that very little expression has been given to any countering ethic and aesthetic imaginary within mainstream politics, where, with the exception of the Green Parties, the same consumerist mantras on the importance of expanding markets and boosting high street sales are sounded to the exclusion of all other visions and conceptions of how to live and prosper.
Yet despite this virtual repression of alternatives, there are signs that the contradictions between capitalist and ecological pressures, and between what the economy demands and what is humanly most valued, will not be contained indefinitely. Certainly, the lure of the shopping malls remains very powerful and it would be very mistaken to assume anything much in the way of explicit support for an alternative way of life to that of present consumer culture. Yet we can now detect a more implicit disenchantment with consumerism, both in the sense that other conceptions of the ‘good life’ are gaining more of a hold among some, and in the sense that the affluent lifestyle is now more commonly seen as compromised by the stress, time-scarcity, air pollution, traffic congestion, obesity and general ill health that go together with it. [IMAGE 6] In other words, this is a lifestyle that is today being questioned not only because of its environmental consequences (although these are also deplored), but because of its negative impact on people themselves, and the ways it distrains on both sensual pleasure and more spiritual forms of well being. We can take note in this connection of the many laments for what has gone missing from our lives under the relentless pressure from neo-liberal economic policies, and the frequently expressed interests in less tangible goods such as more free time, more personal contacts, and a slower pace of life. Whether it be distress (to take Britain as the example here) about the closures of the local Post Offices, or the nostalgia for a nationalised rail service (for a time as a fellow traveller said to me the other day ‘when we were passengers, not customers’), or the dejection over an educational system so tailored to the needs of industry rather than the intrinsic rewards of learning, or alarm over the commercialisation of children and the evidence of depression among the young, 2 in all such cases, what is voiced is a sense of sadness Cf. Z. Williams, “The Commercialisation of Childhood”, Compass, February 2008.
that none other than monetary values can make any headway in our culture, that little in public life will be guaranteed survival if it cannot make profit. These voicings of discontent are still low-key, diffuse, and politically unfocussed. They are the frustrated murmurings of those who are aware of their impotence to take on the corporate giants, and have little coherent idea of what to put in place of the existing order. But the regrets and disquiet are real enough, and they feed into a now quite widely felt sense of the opportunities we have squandered in recent decades for enjoying more relaxed and less narrowly reductive ways of living. [IMAGE 7] This has its counterpart at a more official level in the anxieties of the experts and policy makers about the consequences of the high-stress, fast-food life-style on the upcoming generation. It also chimes with recent researches indicating that there is no direct correlation between increased wealth and increased happiness. 3 [IMAGES 8,9, 10] On the ‘Happy Planet’ Index compiled by the New Economics Foundation, which measures the ecological efficiency with which nations provide for well-being, the more affluent Western nations come way down the list (the UK is 108th, France 129th, the USA 150th).4 An International Labour Office report of 2004, records that work-related stress and ill health is on the increase around the world, and even in areas where job satisfaction in the past has to some extent compensated for relative lack of earnings, stress and insecurity have now begun to take their toll.5 A www.compassonline.org/publications. Cf. Juliet Schor, Born to Buy, the Commericalised Child and the New Consumer Culture, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2004.
For evidence on this, see, for example, A.T.Durning, How Much is Enough ? Earthscan, London, 1992; R.A. Easterlin, “Income and Happiness: towards a unified theory”, Economic Journal, no. 111, 2001, p. 465-494; R. Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Allen Lane, London, 2005; R.
Levett, A Better Choice of Choice: Quality of Life, consumption and economic growth, Fabian Society, London, 2003.
New Economic Foundation, “Happy Planet Index”, www.happyplanetindex.org/index.htm Cp.
Richarch Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level, Penguin 2009, on the links between equality and well-being.
International Labour Office, Fact Sheet no. 77 on Work-Related Ill health, 2004.
recent study, for example has found an increase in depression, strain, sleep loss and unhappiness during the 1990s among Britain’s six million public service workers, whose job satisfaction has now fallen dramatically.6 And despite a near doubling of economic output in the last 30 years, there has been a rise in depression and mental illness, and feelings of trust in others have fallen dramatically (whereas in Britain some 60 per cent in the 1960s answered affirmatively to the question ‘do you think most other people can be trusted’, this has now fallen to around 30 per cent). 7 These developments are indicative of the paradox at the heart of the growth economy, - an economic system that can only flourish if people keep spending, which means that they must keep working, which means that they have less time to do things for themselves, which means they have to buy more goods and services to make up for the time deficit. This is a dynamic that tends to the elimination of straightforward and inexpensive forms of gratification, only then for companies to profit further through the provision of more expensive compensatory modes of consumption for those who can afford them. The leisure and tourist industry has increasingly tailored its offerings to the overworked, with holiday breaks that promise to make good the
loss in ‘quality’ time (this is from the brochure for one such provider):
For those of us with huge overdrafts at the Bank of Hours-in-the-Day, the real luxury is time. Time with the kids, phone switched off. Or time for yourself, to read and relax in peace. Luxury is a long lunch recovering the person you love, or a gourmet dinner with friends, cooked to order and served by your M.Bunting, Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling our Lives, Harper Collins, London, 2004; study from A. Oswald and J. Gardner reported in the Guardian March 22, 2001 (“Job Satisfaction falls for Public Workers”). Cf. the responses to the BBC programme “Do We Work Too Hard ?” news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/talking_point/626333.stm New Economic Foundation “Manifesto on Well-Being”, September 28th 2004, www.neweconomics.org own private pool. It’s me-time. Family time. The elusive holy grail of modern life. (Coastline holidays at: www.coastline.co.uk) [IMAGE 11]).
Then there is the extra you often now have to pay for dealing with a person rather than a machine; the speed dating and Wife Selecting agencies that promise to make up for your loss of the arts of loving and relating; the multiplication of gyms to which people drive in order to do treadmill running in cities where, because there are so many cars on the street, they no longer find it pleasant or safe to walk or run. (In Los Angeles, as dusk falls, the multi-storey gyms are packed, the streets ominously empty). [IMAGES 12,] [IMAGE 13 ]The consumer society, one may therefore argue, is now becoming increasingly dependent for its continued flourishing on our collective preparedness to spend the money we earn by working too hard and too long on the goods which help to satisfy the goods we have increasingly sacrificed through overwork and over-production. What is more, it would appear very likely that if we are incapable of springing this trap, and reverting to a more rational order, we are destined for ecological collapse and all the social horrors that will entail.
Alternative Hedonism It is in this context that I have been pressing for what I have termed the ‘alternative hedonist’ approach to winning support for sustainable lifestyles and for forms of governance promoting them. This responds to the current situation not only as a crisis, and by no means only as presaging future gloom and doom, but as offering an opportunity to advance beyond a mode of life that is not just environmentally disastrous but also in many respects unpleasurable and self-denying. Alternative hedonism is premised, in fact, on the idea that even if the consumerist lifestyle were indefinitely sustainable it would not enhance human happiness and well-being (or not beyond a certain point that has already past). [IMAGE 14] And it claims that it is new forms of desire rather than fears of ecological disaster that are likely to have most impact in any move towards more sustainable modes of consuming. [IMAGE 15] The seductive depiction of alternatives to resource-intensive, polluting and unhealthy consumerist life-styles is therefore critical not only to the meeting of current commitments on climate change, waste management and environmental regulation, but also to building any more substantial opposition in the future to the economic governance of our times.
In sum, a counter-consumerist ethic and politics should appeal, not only to altruistic compassion and environmental concern, but also to the self-regarding gratifications of consuming differently. And it should seek its democratic anchorage and legitimation for these claims, and for its projections of the attractions of a postconsumerist lifestyle, in the already existing forms of ambivalence about consumer culture that I have outlined.
[IMAGE 16] By focussing on these new developments and shifts of feeling in constituting an immanent critique of consumer culture, the ‘alternative hedonism’ perspective aims to avoid the moralising about ‘real’ needs that has often characterised earlier critiques of consumer culture.8 It engages with ambivalence or disaffection towards consumerism as this comes to the surface and finds expression in the sensibility or behaviour of consumers themselves. [IMAGE 17] The concern is not to prove that consumers ‘really’ need something quite other than what they profess to need (or want) – a procedure which is paternalistic and undemocratic – but to reflect on the hedonist aspirations prompting changes in experienced or imagined need, and their implications for the development of a new electoral mandate for the Cf. Daniel Miller, ‘The Poverty of Morality’, Journal of Consumer Culture, Vol.1, no. 2, 2001, pp.