Another Hedonism is Possible
A Review of Kate Soper’s Post-Growth Living.
Damage does not typically print articles articulating a politics that run counter to those of the magazine, but in this particular case, Trey Taylor helpfully lays out the justificatory narrative of a certain kind of climate politics, offering a foil for someone like our own Anselm McGovern. Read McGovern’s response to Taylor’s article here.
Review of Kate Soper, Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism (Verso, 2020).
Stuart Hall’s essay “A Sense of Classlessness” published in 1958, remains an astute stock-taking of the class realignment provoked by capitalism’s postwar boom. Tracking the transformations of subjectivity through the suburbanization, commercialization, and technologization characteristic of a burgeoning post-war capitalism, he observes that the “the brutal struggle of the period of primary accumulation—a Morgan against a Rockefeller—has been decisively replaced with the “blander, more inner, nervous inconspicuous struggle of a period of public consumption—a Smith against a Jones.” Through the internalization of alienation in corporate HR and “personnel management,” the incorporation of the proletariat through a broad linkage of productivity to remuneration, and the proliferation of mass consumption via the advertising apparatus, the old antagonisms appear to have dissolved into a culture of individualized status competition.
One of the central consequences of this, Hall observed carefully, is that “capitalism as a social system is now based upon consumption.” Self-realization occurs through the purchasing of once “alien objects,” the products of labor reintegrated into the self as a gambit to outshine one’s neighbor. Consciousness becomes stratified according to a social ladder of material goods; mediated reflections, of course, of one’s envious place in production. Hall wrote from within capitalism’s Golden Age, and despite some obvious anachronisms—glowing reference to the increase in purchasing power, for instance, does not sit comfortably with today’s wage stagnation—his analysis largely holds firm. “The worker knows himself much more as consumer than as producer,” Hall provokes; “prices now appear a cleaner form of exploitation than wages.”
Contemporary trends have only tightened this identification. Neoliberalism’s subsumption of citizenship by the “consumer” role, and its attendant deconstruction of union solidarity, have elevated the commodity even further as the orienting principle of our lives. Marketization inculcates a return-on-investment personality, life decisions calculated through the prism of annual returns. And social media prompts self-commodification, wherein we’re expected to preen our personal brand image at all times, as well as being a powerful channel for advertisers and their influencer plants; the “para-sociality” of the new media platforms—the asymmetric friendships between content-producers and their adoring fans, the latter absorbed entirely in the former’s most intimate moments in a concern that is not reciprocated—representing an advancement of the emotional predation intrinsic to advertising.
At the same time, however, this strengthening of commodity fetishism is conjoined to a palpable sense of spiritual vacuity. There is quite a widespread proto-critical innervation felt towards the materialist way of life: “fast-fashion” capitalists seem to be the folk-devil of the moment; “The Minimalists”—a couple of ex-investment bankers turned secular gurus—proselytize of the existential cleanliness to be had from decluttering one’s life; and various attempts to “ethically consume” from zero-waste to vintage-only, are accelerating in popularity. One could lump in here too the trendy simplicity offered by Marie Kondo and the resurgence of Eastern practices in a sanitized, Westernized form—corporate mindfulness programs, group yoga, etc.—as well as the emergence of the “experience economy” with discerning buyers trading possessions for trips and sensations. (The transience is, no doubt, undercut by the logic of the spectacle underlying it: if you go scuba-diving with a Groupon discount, and it doesn’t appear in anyone’s Instagram feed, did it really happen?)
The problem, however, is that the Left doesn’t seem particularly interested in these trends. If subjects of capitalism are integrated into the system in two core roles—consumer and producer—it is in the position of the latter that socialists primarily address them. Despite notable attempts by the Frankfurt School and the Situationists to theorize mass culture, and the 68ers experiments in alternate ways of living, dominant norms of consumption largely remain uncontested. And under the rule of a particularly effective, post-Fordist regime of accumulation—whose deft integration of the counterculture’s “artistic critique” generated a potent ideology of spontaneity and creativity—a reticence to confront neoliberalism’s idealized mode of living is a refusal to engage properly with the demands of the conjuncture.
This aporia, then, is one of the many targets of the philosopher Kate Soper’s Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism (Verso, 2020). It is a slight yet punchy book, intervening forcefully in various intra-left debates on the interlocking dynamics of work, consumerism, and the collapse of our earth systems. Soper takes her orientation not from any objectivist notion of the good life, but from the “disenchantment of consumers themselves”; an emergent “structure of feeling” against the “time-scarcity,” “pollution,” “stress and ill-health” of rabid consumerism (44), of which the above examples attest to. In her hands, this “emerging immanent critique of consumerism” (68)—practically visible in “slow-living” and “downshifting,” “circular” and “collaborative” economies—becomes an “alternative hedonist” politicization of consumption, the pertinence of which she distinguishes in two respects.
First, alternative hedonism avoids the twin-evils of asceticism, where eco-austerians preach the moral necessity of collective sacrifice, and the reification of capitalist consumption norms in “technological utopianism.” While Soper commends the problematization of work common to arguments of the FALC (Fully Automated Luxury Communism) variety, she rejects their insistence that the machines should “deliver an abundance of goods of the kind we already consume” (86), the utopian’s imaginations failing as they leave the gates of the workplace. Her point is precisely that such sacrifices are not, in fact, sacrifices, and that such luxury is not, in fact, luxury. Excessive consumption serves a compensatory function for “ontological insecurity,” inflames status-anxiety, and comes at the cost of ecological and individual health, pathologies which Soper does well to draw out. To leave these behind in favor of a richer, stabler, more sensuous and less arduous existence provides its own ethical imperative, independent of the material limits of the biosphere.
Second, alternative hedonism is methodologically distinct from other approaches in consumption studies, seeing market actors as neither “heroes nor dupes” (58). Charting a course between liberal individualist and critical structuralist conceptions—the former defined by an unwarranted sanguinity, never second-guessing the putatively rational choices of autonomous agents; the latter defined by a paternalist pessimism, the masses interpellated fully by the advertising apparatus—consumers are instead theorized “as reflecting and responsible agents who can come to assume accountability to the world beyond their immediate practical concerns” (63). If, as above, we can consider neoliberalism as an attempt to absorb politics into consumption, Soper seeks to embed consumption in politics; to latch onto and nurture the fracturing of commodity fetshism present in an “affluent disaffected” who “problematize routine forms of consumption (of food, transport, and so on) previously more taken for granted” (65). Such a methodology is of course what underlines her decision to avoid imputing a set of supposedly objective needs to ground her critique, appealing instead to the elements of discontent already apparent.
Her argument should not be misunderstood, however. Soper does want to emphasize “the structural role of the capitalist economy in individualising consumption” (63), the imperatives of capital accumulation requiring a sprawling apparatus of psychological manipulation to augment demand. She is eminently aware of the “systematic curbs on the exercise of alternative choices” (73) and the relative exclusivity of her audience, the new patterns largely localized to a disenchanted middle-class or youthful avant-garde. Her theory of change is, moreover, not an aggregative individual one, alternative hedonism emerging in lock-step from synchronized consumer adaptations. It rather presupposes a dialectical relation between the emerging “structure of feeling” and “proactive policy initiatives” (74), each of which expand the space for the other to grow. Soper is at her best here, highlighting a number of important policy initiatives—the four-day week, to dampen the cycle of overwork and overconsumption; improved urban design and public land management to develop greener transport systems and food production—and experimental practices like “time-banking,” “collective housing,” “land sharing,” and “repair cafes” as exemplars of ‘“collaborative… consumption networks dedicated to creating a not-for-profit parallel economy” (137). The core point is that emergent tendencies will remain so unless they are systematically disarticulated from individualist self-realization, and re-articulated into a red-green concern for nature, community, and non-market forms of social activity.
Nevertheless, her attempt to thread the needle between individualist and structuralist accounts is not always convincing. Her conception of consumers as potentially reflexive and partially autonomous is, I think, correct, and the intention to radicalize the energies present in this is necessary and strategically shrewd. But the conclusion sees a particularly egregious call to chastize people for their “politically incorrect” consumption habits that is tactically tone-deaf, and reveals some of the risks of Soper’s argumentative line. “It is not clear why wasteful and polluting forms of personal consumption should remain exempt from the kinds of criticism that we now expect to be brought against racist, sexist, or blatantly undemocratic attitudes and behaviour” (185), she writes. Such moralization would only undercut support from the constituencies most needed, devolving a radical political project into an exercise in snobbery: the “affluent disaffected,” looking down on those for whom “idling” and “slow food” are not practical options; the “dull compulsion of economic forces” giving little latitude to experiment. The tension present in Soper’s theoretical iconoclasm is visible here, its centre of gravity slipping too close to the individualist pole and too far from the “more diverse and democratically functioning forms of ownership and control” (178) that she acknowledges will need to underpin the cultural transformation envisaged.
This echoes a concern Anselm McGovern advanced in these pages in relation to Aronoff et al’s., A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. Reflecting on their adjacent call for an “eco-friendly hedonism,” he objects that “I can only see this vision appealing to some of the people some of the time”—namely, those who share the habitus of the authors—“and its approval ratings plummeting when you make it clear that this also means no more NASCAR or vacations on airplanes.” I think this is a real concern. But I also think McGovern underestimates the potency of a carefully articulated alternative hedonism, and risks indulging an exoticism of the working classes: many would also like cleaner air, abundant free time, efficient transport, green space, and so on.
In any case, if Soper is correct that “the privileging of working class political values and agency has gone together on the left with an almost exclusive focus on production as the locus of any political agitation against capitalism” (172), and if Hall is right in arguing that the predominance of consumerism as an integrative mechanism in late capitalism forces a different approach to popular subjectivity, then a properly materialist account must explore what forms of organization are adequate to the task. We know more or less how to turn the worker-in-itself into the worker-for-itself; we are still somewhat unclear how to practically activate a similar consumer-class-consciousness. Soper considers some guerilla art as aesthetic struggle, hinting towards—but never addressing—the “subvertising” and “detournement” that derives from the aforementioned Situationist International and the famous graffiti of the soixante-huitards; and as for more mediated options, her discussion of institutional experiments in alternative production and consumption circuits provides crucial orientation.
When she’s on these grounds, then, Soper provides the most advanced attempt to think through the problematic which the late Mark Fisher centered in his final lectures: how “the libidinal attractions of consumer capitalism” might be “met with a counterlibido, not simply an anti-libidinal dampening” (10) (emphasis mine). A counter-hegemonic bloc combining elements of the “affluent disaffected,” the socially conscious youth, and the poor and racialized communities who suffer the violences of the churn of commodities (poor air quality; no public space; environmental disasters), should be primed to realize this end.
Read the response from Anselm McGovern to this article here.
Trey Taylor is an MA student at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University, London