This article is a response to Trey Taylor’s “Another Hedonism is Possible.”
In my previous review of Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Thea Riofrancos’s A Planet to Win, I noted the persistence with which the authors implore us to “imagine” a green future, and I took that feature of the book to be evidence of their conflicting investments in an empowered working class, on the one hand, and in laying out ahead of time what that empowered working class can and can’t enjoy, on the other. I have not read the book of which Trey Taylor’s “Another Hedonism is Possible” is a review, but from Taylor’s portrayal I take its central thrust to be something like, “No, but really imagine.”
Taylor’s review is nonetheless interesting in its justification of this project with reference to a story about the decline of the working class as a mobilizable entity, and the rise of a new consumer subject that, it’s wagered, is a potential political subject. This narrative, borrowed from Stuart Hall, rightly sees new modes of identification and subjectification emerging with what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called the “culture industry.” The new type of human being produced by this industry is flat and uncritical in one sense, but it’s also bored, alienated, and exhausted. This is, in Taylor’s view, ripe territory for a left intervention that promises to replace “time-scarcity,” “pollution,” and “stress and ill-health” with “slow-living” and “downshifting,” “circular” and “collaborative” economies—in short, with the “alternative hedonism” proposed in Kate Soper’s Post-Growth Living.
Where this narrative goes wrong is in thinking that a perfectly good theory of consumer subjectification since the post-war period also necessarily furnishes a theory of political change. It needn’t. The Frankfurt School, for one, is extremely helpful at outlining the barbed contours of contemporary capitalist culture and subjectivity, but no new agent of history is necessarily implied in their work. They might point to the conditions under which a sober subject might actually recognize its real conditions of existence, but the work of actually changing those conditions is still best theorized by Marx.
As Vivek Chibber so clearly and concisely lays out here, the reason to invest in the political subject of the working class is not because it suffers greater indignities than other kinds of political subjects (women, immigrants, etc.), nor because it is peculiarly ripe for the “nurturing” vision of the Left. The reason socialists invest in the working class is because the working class is structurally positioned to extract concessions from the people who hold the power—if, of course, it’s organized.
The working class has this power… to overcome the resistance of the capitalist class and its political functionaries… for a simple reason—capitalists can only make their profits if workers show up to work every day, and if they refuse to play along, the profits dry up overnight…. Actions like strikes don’t just have the potential to bring particular capitalists to their knees, they can have an impact far beyond, on layer after layer of other institutions that directly or indirectly depend on them—including the government. This ability to crash the entire system, just by refusing to work, gives workers a kind of leverage that no other group in society has, except capitalists themselves. This is why, if progressive social change requires overcoming capitalist opposition—and we have learned over three centuries that it does—then it is of central importance to organize workers so that they can use that power.
Appealing to the disaffections of contemporary consumers might win you a particular audience (most likely, a middle-class audience), but once that audience is engaged, they don’t find their hands on the levers of power. If anything, they’re forced to confront their true political impotence. Provided they have money to do so, they have plenty of power to mold their apartments into eco-friendly sanctuaries, or for that matter to yell at customer service representatives for the slowness with which the products required to turn their apartments into eco-friendly sanctuaries are arriving in the mail. But when it comes to altering the structural conditions that prevent us, say, from avoiding climate disasters, the consumer subject, even when their desires are “re-articulated into a red-green concern for nature, community, and non-market forms of social activity,” bears no leverage.
From what I can tell, Soper invokes all of the worst soixante-huitardism to compensate for this lack of leverage: “guerilla art as aesthetic struggle,” “subvertising,” “experiments in alternative production and consumption circuits.” I’m baffled, frankly, at Taylor’s suggestion that “the Left doesn’t seem particularly interested” in these things, when this kind of stunt activist dominates the contemporary Left.
Needless to say, I believe this kind of politics is a dead-end that must be overcome today, rather than a new path that must be cleared. But it’s even worse than that. Faced with the unresponsiveness of political reality to their guerilla aesthetics, the radical consumer subject inevitably grows more frustrated: their intricately-laid plans are not coming to fruition, their social media posts advocating such plans are not changing the world! This frustration in turn leads to resentment and lashing out, and in turn a doubling down on unstrategic political activism.
At one point, Taylor faults Soper for
a particularly egregious call to chastise 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. But such moralization would only undercut support from the constituencies most needed….
Whereas Taylor sees a departure from Soper’s otherwise positive vision, I see continuity: this kind of moralism is inevitable in the claustrophobic activist-istic world Soper occupies. It’s the impotence of the consumer subject rebounding back as frustrated, moralistic criticism.
Taylor sees my own critique as short-sighted: “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.” But of course working people want better living standards. The question is whether they want the “alternative hedonism” articulated in the guerilla art of radical environmentalists. They don’t, and that’s ultimately the sad fate of the emboldened consumer subject Taylor and Soper envision. They’ve painted a beautiful painting, and for some reason, no one wants to buy it.
Anselm McGovern is Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Culture & Cuisine at Walden University Online. He is the author of We Could All Probably Be Better at Oral Sex Than We Are Now: Haiku for Life (Forthcoming).