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Why 'Alternative Hedonism'? Why Now?

Kate Soper on the case for building a world beyond consumerism. 

Kate Soper30 September 2020

Why 'Alternative Hedonism'? Why Now?

The following is an extract from Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism by Kate Soper. 

The trouble with consumption

Injustice and inequality, impending environmental collapse, the crisis of work: the coincidence of these factors, all integral to the economies of affluent nations, is beginning to unsettle our relationship to a consumer culture that has long been taken more or less for granted. Consumption is emerging as an area of contention, a site where new forms of democratic concern, political engagement, economic activity and cultural representation might begin to have significant impact. Even commentators who are doubtful whether the necessary level of resistance can be mounted view the cultural politics of consumption as critical to any possible turn around. Wolfgang Streeck writes that in an era of crisis and systemic disruption of the kind we are now entering, capitalism will

depend on individuals-as- consumers adhering to a culture of competitive hedonism, one that makes a virtue out of the necessity of having to struggle with adversity and uncertainty on one’s own … That culture must make hoping and dreaming obligatory, mobilizing hopes and dreams to sustain production and fuel consumption in spite of low growth, rising inequality and growing indebtedness. [This will require] … a labour market and labour process capable of sustaining a neo-Protestant work ethic alongside socially obligatory hedonistic consumerism. … For hedonism not to undermine productive discipline … the attractions of consumerism must be complemented with fear of social descent, while non-consumerist gratifications available outside of the money economy must be discounted and discredited.

As Streeck implies, this is an increasingly fragile political consensus to keep intact. [...]

One of the earliest (and more benign) of these signs has been the establishment and growth of the market for organic, fair trade, and locally and ethically produced goods. This is to be welcomed in that it reflects and encourages concern about the pollutants, food miles and exploited labour that. go into articles of daily consumption. The motivations of ethical shoppers also overlap in some respects with those of a more radical anti-consumerism. One may assume that at least some of those committed to more responsible buying and investment are resistant to the shopping-mall culture and are seeking to move beyond a society of over-consumption.

Ethical shopping, it is true, is not an affordable option for everyone, and it can readily figure as ‘greenwash’ for producers and retailers. Being associated with dutiful buying rather than pleasure or self-interest it may not greatly alter our conceptions of our own well-being and the role of consumption in securing it. Nonetheless ethical purchase and investment reflect a more globally accountable way of thinking about one’s supposedly private interests, and therefore challenge the conventional (rational choice) view of the consumer as obedient only to the most limited conceptions of self-interest and hedonism, and hence incapable of acting in the sphere of consumption on the basis of the reflexivity and democratic concern they bring to their lives as citizens. In fact, political theorists and sociologists of consumption have for some time acknowledged the significance of the more reflexive and self-consciously political constituencies behind the growth of ‘virtuous shopping’. The influential thinker Daniel Miller wrote more than twenty years ago:

On the one hand, consumption appears as the key contemporary ‘problem’ responsible for massive suffering and inequality. At the same time it is the locus of any future ‘solution’ as a progressive movement in the world, by making the alimentary institutions of trade and government finally responsible to humanity for the consequences of their actions. … From the legacy of Ralph Nader in the United States, through consumer movements in Malaysia, to the consumer cooperatives of Japan, to the green movements of Western Europe, the politicized form of consumption concern has become increasingly fundamental to the formation of many branches of alternative politics.

He goes on to suggest that the green movement has now tempered its mystical relationship to a reified notion of nature with a more rationalistic concern with the defetishisation of goods, and is showing increasing awareness of the real price of commodities for people as well as for the planet’s natural resources. These arguments chime with those voiced in Michele Micheletti’s study of consumer campaigns, which show, she argues,

that there is a political connection between our daily consumer choices and important global issues of environmentalism, labour rights, human rights, and sustainable development. There is, in other words, a politics of consumer products which for growing numbers of people implies the need to think politically privately.

Ethical shopping, then, is one aspect of the more ‘citizenly’ approach to consumption in our time. Another is associated with disenchantment with the consumer lifestyle itself: other conceptions of the ‘good life’ are gaining more of a hold, and affluence is now commonly seen as compromised by the stress, time-scarcity, air pollution, traffic congestion, obesity and general ill health that go together with it. In other words, consumerism is today being questioned not only because of its ethical and environmental consequences, but because of its negative impact on affluent consumers themselves, and the ways it distrains on both sensual pleasure and more spiritual forms of well-being. This questioning lies behind the many laments for what has gone missing from our lives under the pressure of neo-liberal economic policies, and the frequent expressions of interest in less tangible goods such as more free time, better personal relationships and a slower pace of life. Whether in 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 in dejection over an educational system tailored to the needs of industry rather than the intrinsic rewards of learning, or in alarm over the commercialisation of childhood and the evidence of depression among the young, what is voiced is a sense of sadness that only monetary values can make headway in our culture, and that public goods cannot be expected to survive unless they make a profit. These voicings of discontent are not particularly class-based and remain low-key, diffuse and politically unfocussed. They are the frustrated murmurings of people aware of their impotence to take on the corporate giants and lacking a coherent idea of what to put in place of the existing order. But the regrets and disquiet are real enough, and feed into a widely felt sense of the opportunities we have squandered in recent decades for enjoying more relaxed and less narrowly reduced ways of living.

This is reflected, too, in the concerns of medical professionals, welfare workers and academic researchers about the economic and social effects of the high-stress, fast-food lifestyle. Recent studies have indicated that buying more does not bring greater happiness and that economic growth has no direct correlation with improved levels of well-being. As the UK’s independent watchdog on sustainable development (set up by the Labour Party in 2000 and abolished by the Coalition government in 2011) noted some while ago in its report on ‘Redefining Prosperity’,

ever since the ground-breaking work of Abraham Maslow and Manfred Max Neef, psychologists and alternative economists have set out to demonstrate that, far from there being any automatic increase in wellbeing for every increase in levels of consumption, much of our current consumption is turning out to be a very inadequate surrogate for meeting human needs in a more satisfying, durable way.

More recently, recognition that a time-scarce, work-dominated society is bad for the physical and the mental health of workers has led to many calls for GDP (sometimes dubbed the ‘Grossly Distorting Picture’) to be displaced in favour of other indices of social wealth. While the huge contribution of unpaid activity such as household and voluntary work is discounted, GDP includes profits made from dealing with the consequences of mishaps and disasters such as air pollution, plane crashes and car accidents. A number of alternatives have been proposed, including the Human Development Index, which now recognises, alongside living standards measured by income, the role of life expectancy and knowledge in advancing well-being.

The Genuine Progress Indicator (developed by Herman Daly and John Cobb in the late 1980s) also adds in the value created by domestic and voluntary work while subtracting the costs of crime and pollution. More recently, the Ecological Footprint, measures how much land and water a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its waste under prevailing technologies. The Happy Planet Index uses the Ecological Footprint along with life expectancy and reported experience of happiness to calculate national levels of happiness. It thus includes ecological efficiency in providing for well-being as a key criterion of its achievement. Nations score well on the index if they achieve high levels of satisfaction and health with low levels of damage to the environment. To date many of the most industrialised nations, including the UK and USA, have scored pretty poorly on the index.

[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]

There is, then, a climate of concern about the impact of unchecked consumption on ourselves and on the environment, which is reflected in an extensive body of research. But not much of this new thinking has entered into mainstream political argument, which still entertains only the most orthodox (and outdated) economic models and conceptions of prosperity. Even as it is progressively undermining the basic conditions of existence for millions alive today and for all future generations, the Western affluent lifestyle continues to be upheld as the model to which all societies should aspire. Mainstream political parties and corporate elites certainly profess concern about global warming, and have supported (often under some duress) measures to reduce emissions. Governments have also implemented schemes to reduce the collateral environmental damage of domestic consumption: encouraging and enforcing recycling, taxing plastic carrier bags and so on. But those in power have certainly not invited the electorate to think more radically and expansively about ideas of progress and prosperity. Little or nothing is heard about the purpose of all our wealth production, and whether it really enhances well-being; little or nothing is said about what might be gained by pursuing a less work-driven and acquisitive way of life. On the contrary, governments and mainstream opposition parties have been happy to allow consumer culture to retain its hegemony over the imagery and representation of our well-being, and they continue to encourage us to spend more on it. We heard this in the post 9/11 calls to commit to ‘patriotic shopping’ as a way of showing our support for the Western way of life (which said much about the dependency of corporate power on our continued loyalty to consumerism). The message is repeated in a never-ending barrage of advertisements and in the many incentive schemes to keep us spending. So culturally entrenched is the idea that our health and happiness as a nation is conditional on how much shopping we do that it seems eccentric to even question it.

To encourage ever-expanding consumption while professing concern about its inevitable environmental consequences is contradictory. There is, of course, a very obvious reason why acknowledgement of eco-crisis is not matched by action, a reason summed up in Paul Mason’s terse remark: ‘If climate change is real, capitalism is finished.’ Since the global market thrives not on human or environmental well-being but on the multiplication and diversification of ‘satisfiers’ that can realise profit, counter-consumerism would prove disastrous for business. Ever fearful of what they term ‘need saturation’, corporations devote a great deal of ingenuity and money to encouraging new consumer whims. Since a constant flow of future buyers is required, massive budgets are expended on grooming children for a life of consumption. The average child in the US, UK and Australia sees between 20,000 and 40,000 TV ads a year, and marketers are also adept at camouflaging their messages by means of product placement that goes beneath the radar of most children and often deceives even their parents. The Internet also provides continuous exposure to on-screen and pop-up ads, with many brands offering games quizzes, and other entertainment on their own commercial sites. According to research by the National Consumer Council in the UK, the average ten-year- old has internalised 300 to 400 brands – perhaps twenty times the number of birds in the wild that they could name. Seventy per cent of three-year- olds recognise the McDonald’s symbol but only half of them know their own surname. Dependent as it is on the revenue from commercials, the media can hardly stem the flow of advertising. In consequence, representations of need, desire and pleasure not focused on consumption are marginalised. As Justin Lewis puts it in his study of the highly political role played by advertising in promoting consumerism (a role, as he notes, almost wholly outside the jurisdiction of the regulatory authorities):

Since advertising carries no right of reply, its voluminous presence has created a lop-sided political landscape. Imagine, instead, what the world might be like if all that creative energy were spent encouraging us to think beyond consumer capitalism. It would represent nothing less than a seismic shift in our cultural environment.

Left-wing critics of capitalism have been more bothered hitherto about the inequalities of access and distribution that a consumer society creates than about how it confines us to market-driven ways of thinking and acting. Employment is almost always prioritised over other goals. Labour militancy and trade union activity in the West have been largely confined to protection of income and employees’ rights within the existing structures of globalised capital and have done little to challenge, let alone transform, the ‘work and spend’ dynamic of affluent cultures. In the past, socialists such as William Morris and Edward Carpenter offered imaginative and radical thinking on alternative consumption and ways of living, and dated though their argument now is in certain respects, it remains an important resource. But there has also been a tendency on the left to opt for patronising and simple-life accounts of fulfilment, rather than a more expansive way of thinking about the complexities and potentialities of human pleasure, and how it might be made richer and stranger in a post-capitalist society. Nowadays, the more influential left-wing commentaries on future consumption put their faith in technology to deliver material abundance, and in some cases adopt a rather conventional hi-tech toys-for- the-boys approach to it. ‘Rather than settling for marginal improvements in battery life and computer power’, write Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, ‘the left should mobilise dreams of decarbonising the economy, space travel, robot economies – all the traditional touchstones of science fiction …’.

Alternative hedonism

Despite the paucity (and repression) of alternative visions among politicians and business communities, the contradictions between capitalist priorities and ecological imperatives and between what the economy demands and what is humanly valued are becoming widely noted and discussed. The sense that we must find another way is also expressed in a wide, if still marginal, array of projects, lifestyle choices and commitments. It is in this context that I have been pressing for what I call the ‘alternative hedonist’ approach to winning support for sustainable lifestyles and for forms of governance to promote them.

Unlike the more alarmist responses to climate change, alternative hedonism dwells on the pleasures to be gained by adopting a less high-speed, consumption-oriented way of living. Instead of presaging gloom and doom for the future, it points to the ugly, puritanical and self-denying aspects of the high-carbon lifestyle in the present. Climate change may threaten existing habits, but it can also encourage us to envisage and adopt more environmentally benign and personally gratifying ways of living.

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 beyond a certain point already reached by many. Its advocates believe that new forms of desire – rather than fears of ecological disaster – are more likely to encourage sustainable modes of consuming. By supplying a broader cultural dimension to the existing arguments and outlook of the political wing of anti-systemic forces, it can help to build a more diverse and substantial opposition to prevailing economic orthodoxy. It can also provide an overarching ‘imaginary’ for the various initiatives seeking to bypass mainstream market provision via alternative networks of sharing, recycling, exchange of goods and services and expertise (the Slow City, Slow Food movements, Buen Vivir, the New American Dream and now, most recently, and possibly most ambitiously, at least for the US, the Next System project).

In sum, a counter-consumerist ethic and politics should appeal not only to altruistic compassion and environmental why ‘alternative hedonism’? why now? concern (as in the case of Fair Trade and ethical shopping), but also to the self-regarding gratifications of living and consuming differently. It can seek democratic anchorage and legitimation for its claims about the attractions of a post-consumerist lifestyle in already existing ambivalence about and resistance to consumer culture. At a time when some economic theorists predict a terminal decline in capitalism’s powers of accumulation, and when the environmental obstacles to growth appear insuperable, it becomes urgent to renew an earlier tradition of positive thinking on the liberation from work, and to associate that with an alternative hedonist defence of the pleasures of a less harried and acquisitive way of living. The reduction in work needs, in other words, to be seen as an essential condition for relieving stress both on nature and on ourselves. If the circulation of people, goods and information were to slow down, then the rate of resource attrition and carbon emissions can be cut, and time freed up for the arts of living and personal relating currently being sacrificed in the ‘work and spend’ economy. Parents and children would then more readily reap the benefits of co-parenting, and personal fulfilment would become less dependent on the quick fixes of consumerism.

Today, then, critics of the existing political-economic system need to connect with and give voice to the political desires implicit in disenchantment with consumerism.

Post-Growth Living
The reality of runaway climate change is inextricably linked with the mass consumerist, capitalist society in which we live. And the cult of endless growth, and endless consumption of cheap disposa...