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Relax: alternative hedonism and a new politics of pleasure

Kate Soper on re-imagining fulfllment

August 20, 2011
17 min read

A predictable consequence of the current recession has been a renewal of interest in the politics of welfare and community values. As they seek to patch up a fresh consensus amidst the fallout from the latest crisis of capitalism, both sides of the party political divide have come up with new narratives about wellbeing, communal belonging and social cohesion. On the right, in a warmed-over, chummier version of the Thatcherite politics of empowerment, David Cameron is pushing the idea of the ‘big society’, with its cost-cutting culture of voluntarism, philanthropy and social action. To the left, Blue Labour has rediscovered Aristotle on the ‘good life’ as a traditional (albeit long-neglected) component of Labour thinking, and is campaigning for the party to adopt the idea of a ‘good society’ based on reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity. Across the board, then, there is rather more acknowledgement than before the crash that neoliberalism is not quite the panacea it was held out to be, and that relentless commodification is bad for the soul both of the individual and of the community.

These moves suggest that there is now some awareness among mainstream politicians of the underlying contradictions between growth economics and social – and individual – wellbeing. But to date there has been no attempt seriously to challenge the definition of the ‘good life’ associated with affluent consumer culture. When launching his new ‘happiness index’, Cameron told us that economic growth isn’t everything and that there are aspects of life that ‘can’t be measured on a balance sheet’. But since then we have heard a great deal from him about the need to return to growth and very little about the good life conceived in any other terms.

Maurice Glasman, a key influence on Blue Labour, is critical of the unfettered market. Invoking an ‘organic community’ as the agent of opposition to commodification, he wants a return to skilled labour, co-operatives, mutual societies, local banks and the like. There is much to welcome in this. But he, too, appears still to see the nation state as locked in competition with others for economic advancement through ongoing production, and says rather little about the wider social and environmental consequences of national success conceived in those terms.

An alternative good life

This global dimension needs to be more widely acknowledged by those seriously committed to an alternative politics of community and the ‘good life’. For in the end there can be no successful promotion of happiness at home without attending to the misery caused elsewhere by our current consumerist lifestyle. This includes the millions injured or made homeless in recent decades through disasters triggered by global warming for which they are largely not responsible; the many more condemned to what Mike Davis has called ‘informal survivalism’ in the ever-expanding slums of the new mega-cities; the near slave conditions of workers locked overnight in Bangladeshi factories to meet the timelines of the fashion industry; the quasi-apartheid between those who enjoy and those who service the global playgrounds of the wealth-makers – and this is to name but a few examples.

It is, then, only by means of an altogether more equitable distribution of both resources and the burden of pollution that we can accommodate future ecological constraints and thus lay the foundations for an alternative ‘politics of prosperity’. This in turn means accepting the need to move beyond the ‘work and spend’ dynamic of a profit-oriented global economy and the time scarcity it generates for so many people. Just when we need it least from the point of view of human or environmental wellbeing, we are committed to an economic system that can only flourish if people keep spending – which means they must keep working, which means 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.

Instead of making use of enhanced productive efficiency to shorten the working week, so that we could enjoy growing and preparing more food for ourselves, companies profit from selling us ‘fast food’, ready-cooked meals, pre-washed salads and the like. Instead of giving us the leisure and facilities to walk or go by bike, we are co-opted into buying short, sharp exercise sessions in the gym. Instead of longer holidays in which we could travel more slowly and experience more genuine relaxation, the tourist and therapy industries profit hugely from their provision for mini‑breaks and stress-relieving services.

Now more than ever, the consumer society is dependent on a collective preparedness to spend the money we earn by working too hard and too long on provision to compensate for the more diverse, enriching and lasting satisfactions we have sacrificed through overwork and overproduction. Yet it is far from clear that this reflects some innate desire of people constantly to work and consume more. If it did, the billions spent on advertising, and on grooming children for a life of consumption, would hardly be necessary. Nor would the government pressure us to keep spending: the injunctions to ‘patriotic shopping’ in the aftermath of 9/11; the car scrappage schemes to keep the motor industry on track; the anxieties lest increased VAT reduces sales in the malls.

Opportunity in crisis

Everyone knows, in some sense, that the system is ultimately unsustainable. (Does anyone really believe the growth economy can continue for another hundred, let alone thousand, years?) It is in this context that I have argued that the present crisis, for all the pain it is causing, also provides an opportunity to question a way of living that is not just environmentally disastrous but in many respects unpleasurable and self-denying.

Our so-called good life is a major cause of stress and obesity. It subjects us to high levels of noise and stench, and generates vast amounts of junk. Its work routines and modes of commerce mean that many people, for most of their lives, begin their days in traffic jams or overcrowded trains and buses, and then spend much of the rest of them glued to the computer screen, often engaged in mind‑numbing tasks. A good part of its productive activity locks time into the creation of a material culture of ever-faster production turnovers and built-in obsolescence, which pre-empts more worthy, enduring or entrancing forms of human fulfilment.

Anyone who has spent hours trapped in motorway traffic, or who regularly commutes, or who lives in noisy and polluted and heavily industrialised environments will be well aware already of the dystopian aspects of modern life. As I have argued in various writings around the concept of ‘alternative hedonism’, many people, even in the more affluent areas, are now beginning to regret what has been sacrificed in the pursuit of the dominant model of the good life. Implicit in contemporary laments over lost spaces and communities, the commercial battening on children, the vocational dumbing-down of education, the ravages of ‘development’, the cloning of our cities, and so forth, is a hankering for a society no longer subordinate to the imperatives of growth and consumerist expansion. Diffuse and politically unfocused though this may be, it speaks to a widely felt sense of the opportunities squandered in recent decades to create a fairer, less harassed, less environmentally destructive and more enjoyable way of life.

To defend the progressive dimension of this kind of yearning (I have elsewhere termed it ‘avant-garde nostalgia’ ) against the exigencies of ‘progress’ is not to recommend a more ascetic existence. On the contrary, it is to highlight the puritanical, disquieting, and irrational aspects of contemporary consumer culture. It is to speak for the forms of pleasure and happiness that people might be able to enjoy were they to opt for an alternative economic order. It is to open up a new ‘political imaginary’: a seductive vision of alternatives to resource-intensive consumption, centred on a reduction of the working week and a slower pace of living.

By working and producing less we could improve health and wellbeing, and provide for forms of conviviality that our harried and insulated travel and work routines make impossible. A cultural revolution along these lines would challenge the advertisers’ monopoly on the depiction of prosperity and the good life. It would make the stuff that is now seriously messing up the planet – more cars, more planes, more roads, more throwaway commodities – look ugly because of the energy it squanders and the environmental damage it causes.

Such reconfiguring of the good life could alter conceptions of self-interest in affluent societies, highlighting the downsides of over-development and inviting reappraisal. If we have a cosmopolitan care for the wellbeing of the deprived people of the world and a concern about the quality of life of future generations, then we need to campaign for new attitudes to work, consumption, pleasure and self-realisation in the more affluent nations. Such a campaign would envisage forms of social transformation and personal epiphany analogous to those brought about through the feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonialist movements of recent history.

Hedonism and the left

Needless to say, the mainstream parties have offered no encouragement to think in such terms. In the case of the Conservatives, this is hardly surprising. They have traditionally represented those who depend for their power and wealth on maintaining the status quo – which today means keeping consumer culture on course. The parliamentary left, however, might have done more to advance alternative conceptions of the good life and provide a more hedonist frame in support of a new political agenda.

The Marxist left has always been associated with a critique of commodification. Yet despite Marx’s own insistence on the free time that socialism could release, its main concern has not been with the ways the market has pre-empted other structures and forms of consumption, but with the constraints it has placed on fairer access to an already existing range of goods. Production was seen as the sole site of mobilisation against the capitalist order. Resistance, it was argued, was a matter of worker militancy prompted by the exploitations of the workplace. Consumption was problematic only because it tended to reconcile people to the existing order rather than firing them to oppose it.

In its dominant and orthodox form, this politics was directed primarily at transforming the relationships of ownership and control of industrial production rather than at the content and nature of production as such. It was about equalising access to consumption, rather than questioning the consumer society. In this situation, trade union activity in the west became confined to protection of employees’ income and rights within the existing structures of globalised capital, and did little to challenge, let alone transform, the ‘work and spend’ dynamic of affluent cultures. Communist regimes in the USSR and eastern Europe, meanwhile, aspired to ‘catch up and overtake’ the form of industrial development associated with capitalism rather than promote a different kind of prosperity.

Even when the left has in the past addressed issues of need and consumption more directly, it has often veered towards asceticism and paternalism (suggesting baldly that people are ideologically manipulated into thinking they need more than they really do), or proved divided and confused on issues of consumer autonomy and accountability (both endorsing popular choice and exposing its false forms of construction by the market). Too often the discourse of the left on consumption has confined itself to an argument on needs, defining those as rather minimal and fixed by a statically conceived human nature. In its critique of consumerism, attention has been paid to the ‘excesses’ of the market rather than to the forms of indulgence, sensual pleasure and spiritual enhancement that could come from escaping its control.

In other words, reductive and ‘simple life’ versions of human need and fulfilment have tended to preclude more complex imaginative reflection on the potentialities of human pleasure, and the rich and subtle forms of their possible realisation in a post-capitalist society. The left has also found it hard to openly acknowledge the complexities of a social formation in which consumers are neither complete dupes of the system nor able readily to escape its forms of conditioning or to extricate themselves from dependency on what it provides.

Today, however, there is every reason for the left to reconsider its reluctance to address the politics of pleasure, and to associate itself with the promotion of a steady state economy and ‘alternative hedonist’ political imaginary. This would be consistent with the Blue Labour critique of commodification and allow it to connect with and give voice to the political desires implicit in the forms of disaffection with consumerism outlined above. It would also be consistent with much recent empirical research, which has undermined the presumption that increased wealth leads to increased happiness and indicated that there is something inherently self-defeating in the pursuit of ever more consumption.

Estimating happiness

It is true that the lack of a simple correlation between higher income and increased reported life satisfaction does not in itself indicate that increased consumption has not improved wellbeing. The standards used by people in assessing their level of satisfaction may themselves become more stringent as their life experience changes with increased income. Nor are feelings of satisfaction always the best guide to how well people may be faring. Education has often exposed alienation and served the cause of personal emancipation precisely by generating discontent. The learning of skills may lead to increased dissatisfaction and demands on the self as one makes progress in their acquisition.

All this indicates that happiness is an elusive concept, and it is difficult to pronounce on its quality or the extent to which it (and its associated states of pleasure, wellbeing or satisfaction), has been achieved. What should count in the estimation of the ‘good life’? The intensity of its isolated moments of pleasure, or its overall level of contentment ? The avoidance of pain and difficulty or their successful overcoming? And who, finally, is best placed to decide on whether personal wellbeing has increased: is this entirely a matter of subjective report, or is it open to objective appraisal?

Questions of this kind, about what counts as the good life, how it can be measured, and who is best placed to do the measuring, have long been at the centre of debates between utilitarianism and Aristotelianism. Where the former has looked to a ‘hedonic calculus’ of subjectively experienced pleasure or avoidance of pain in assessing life satisfaction, the more objectively oriented Aristotelian focus has been on capacities, functions and achievements (with what one has been enabled to do with one’s life) rather than with its more immediate feelings of gratification. Where the utilitarians calculate a person’s happiness as an aggregate of pleasurable sensations (or avoidance of pain), the Aristotelian concern is with the overall fulfilment and happiness (what Aristotle called eudaimonia) of a life taken as a whole.

In defence of this stance, Aristotelians will argue that if we disallow any objective knowledge of another person’s wellbeing or of what makes for a life well spent, we shall also be deprived of grounds to criticise personally self-destructive or selfish and environmentally vandalising forms of pleasure-seeking. It has also been claimed, relatedly, that a ‘happiness’ conceived or measured in terms of subjective feeling discourages the development of the republican sentiment and inter-generational solidarity essential to social and environmental wellbeing.

On the other hand, the ‘hedonic calculus’ for its part need not rule out the more civically oriented forms of felt pleasure, or the subjective gratifications of consuming in socially and environmentally responsible ways. The pleasure of many activities, after all – riding a bike, for example – includes both immediately personal sensual enjoyments and those which come from not contributing to social harms – in this case, the danger and damage of car driving. Moreover, it is difficult in the last analysis to legitimate claims about wellbeing without some element of subjective endorsement on the part of those about whom they are being made.

There is, then, a tension in discussions of hedonism and the good life between the utilitarian privileging of experienced pleasure and the objective bias of the eudaimonic tradition (objective because more sceptical about accepting people’s self-reporting on their level of happiness). The focus on good feelings risks overlooking the more objective constituents of the good life and the good society; the Aristotelian emphasis does justice to those constituents but runs the risk of patronage and condoning the superior knowingness of experts over individuals themselves.

But to accept the complexity involved in gauging claims about the quality of life and personal satisfaction is one thing. To deny that there is any evidence of the self-defeating nature of ever-expanding consumption would be quite another. Both sides to the hedonist debate are in fact in general agreement that happiness does not lie in the endless accumulation of more stuff. And although it cannot – and does not – aspire finally to resolve the philosophical issues in this area, the alternative hedonist perspective, by highlighting the narratives about pleasure and wellbeing that are implicit in the emerging forms of disaffection with affluent culture, seeks to open up a post-consumerist optic on the good life while still respecting felt experience.

Another way of living

‘Alternative hedonism’ is not a theory about what ought to be needed, or desired, or actually consumed. It is a theory about what some consumers, in their experience of the stress, overwork, ill-health, congestion, noise and pollution that accompany affluence, are themselves beginning to discover about the ‘anti’ or ‘counter’ consumerist aspects of their own needs and preferences. Its main interest is thus in an emerging ‘structure of feeling’, to invoke Raymond Williams’ concept, that is at once troubled by forms of consumption (such as car use or air flight) that were previously taken much more for granted, aware of former pleasures gone missing and sensing for the first time the summons of another way of living.

The alternative hedonist argument thus moves from an experienced ambivalence regarding existing patterns of consumption towards the alternative structure of satisfactions that are arguably latent within it, rather than presupposing the existence of needs for which there is no evidence in the conscious responses of people.

Nor does it presume that the ‘excesses’ of modern consumption can be corrected through a return to a simpler, objectively knowable, and supposedly more ‘natural’ or traditional way of being. It does not deny the sophistication of human desires, nor the need to accommodate the distinctively human quests for novelty, excitement, distraction, self-expression and the gratifications of what Rousseau termed amour propre – the need to be esteemed by others. It can even allow that the ‘fureur de se distinguer’ – the zeal for self-distinction which Rousseau associated with amour propre – is most easily supplied through material acquisition (at least if you have the money for it).

But what comes easiest, of course, is not necessarily the most rewarding or fulfilling, and the alternative hedonist case is that in deflecting more ‘spiritual’ demands on to materialist forms of display and competition, consumerism offers a reductive, limited and partial rein to desire. It offers too little rather than too much, reconciliation rather than transcendence. To invoke Adorno’s metaphor, it offers a society in which ‘everyone lives in aeroplanes’ but remains obedient to the edict ‘Thou shalt not fly.’

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