Giving Up Capitalism Doesn’t Mean Giving Up Pleasure
Kate Soper Talks to Kate Aronoff About an "Alternative Hedonism"
As it happens, the things making so many of us unhappy are also making the planet uninhabitable. While surging concern about climate crisis has put fossil fuel production under pressure in the US and UK, an older concern among environmental campaigners—consumption—has drifted into the background. While talk of plastic straws and biking to work has long distracted from the systemic drivers of rising temperatures, that shouldn’t mean accepting capitalism’s definition of what constitutes a good life.
Philosopher Kate Soper’s Post-Growth Living: For An Alternative Hedonism recommends an holistic politics of consumption rooted in both ecological reality and earthly pleasures. Reckoning with unsustainable resource use and rising temperatures needn’t mean hairshirted austerity so much as recognizing how distinctly miserable capitalist consumerism is already making so many in the Global North. As disaffected, affluent consumers there drift apolitically toward local food and handmade jewelry, Soper urges movements that emphasize the need to break with capitalism, and articulate visions of the more fulfilling kinds of work and play that can emerge on the other side.
I spoke with Soper recently about growth, the role of technology in a warming world, the need for shorter work weeks, and the mixed bag of lessons of the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Kate Aronoff: Why do you think the left, including parts of the eco-socialist left, have been reluctant to talk about consumption?
Kate Soper: The left has been very good on the whole on focusing on production, and the ways that it is disastrous environmentally and in terms of social exploitation. And they’ve done a very good job as well exposing the claims that it’s inevitable: that there’s something natural about fossil fuels. In a way, quite a lot of the left, too—and this includes parts of the left advocating for more automation, and a tech utopian alternative—have fairly conventional ideas about what needs to be delivered in the way of consumption. Consumption is the one that has to be kept going, even by less exploitative means. I want to resist that way of thinking and argue that capitalism itself has generated a consumer culture that isn’t necessarily in our interest and that’s also environmentally disastrous.
One reason goes back to the way the left has tended to treat consumption, as if it were a precipitate of production. The left sees consumption as informed by production, and often in a highly manipulative way. Consumers became victims, or manipulated dupes of a consumer culture they don’t have any real agency to be gratified by. That picture of consumption has held a lot of power on the left. But I also think the left has generally been nervous about shifting attention to consumption, because they think in doing so that we’re moving away from thinking about systemic features to a focus on individuals. I think they think the next move is to begin to blame individuals for a system.
I am in some sense saying we do need to take more account of the way people are caught up and formed by a certain order of consumption. Consumers do hold a certain kind of power to effect the system. People need to be part of the process of change through their awareness of the role that consumption plays. They have a certain responsibility here.
KA: What is alternative hedonism?
KS: The advocacy of an alternative hedonist approach to work and consumption comes in response to a number of overlapping and dominant concerns of our time, namely the gravity of the current environmental situation. And then there’s the work crisis and its complexities, where the gig economy and automation threatens to undermine social policy. Affluent European and American lifestyles are still held up as the model to which other societies should aspire, and it’s in that context that I’m arguing for a position that shares the view of many environmentalists: namely, that we need to do something about changing our ways, and secondarily, that a primary condition of that is going to be much greater equality, both nationally and internationally. I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere in moving toward a sustainable economy globally without much greater equality.
The alternative consumption we need to commit to is not necessarily a form of belt tightening or a loss of pleasure. On the contrary, it actually proves more pleasurable. I’m suggesting that there are a lot of downsides to the affluent “good life.” We’re all caught up in the work and spend cycle and the insecurity it generates, which is often lifelong. And it causes a great deal of stress and other forms of ill health, from pollution, congestion, loss of community. All these aspects are negative spin-offs of the so-called ideal, which is consumer culture’s way of living and working. So my emphasis is on the potential for greater pleasure and well-being.
And in that context I’m also pointing to what seems—at least among some people—to be an emerging disaffection with those negative aspects of the so-called good life. I appeal to that not-fully-articulated disenchantment with consumerism to legitimate some of the claims I’m making—that there are other ways of living and maybe it would be better to move toward them, especially in view of the catastrophic impact they’re having on climate, the sixth mass extinction and all the other aspects of environmental damage. I think It’s far more likely that we will create more of a movement for serious change in our consumption habits if we are enticed by a seductive vision of the alternative rather than simply panicked about climate change and the destruction of nature.
KA: You seem to slot this vision between two poles: a more ascetic focus on hyper-local forms of consumption and production, and what some have called full luxury automated communism.
KS: I’m trying to draw a bit from both. I’m not a Luddite about technology at all, and I do think that it’s going to be essential to have a Green New Deal. We need to make use of smart technology, particularly for energy provision—provided it’s democratically organized—and some parts of agriculture and so. But I don’t go all the way with the tech utopians in thinking that it’s ideal for us to have all our work displaced by robots and forms of automation. I present work as something that is still likely to be wanted by people and is still probably going to be essential in all sorts of way. Some of it’s not going to be very pleasant.
But we could produce a society in which people didn’t have to do the most unpleasant jobs all the time, and in which we have a great deal more free time. It would need some kind of provision of funding, some kind of basic income. But the release of free time would be very important in taking the stress off nature. Instead of being committed to serving the economy, we would be serving ourselves and have more pleasurable ways of living. I think again that would mean a rethinking of education. Education is at the moment very focused on vocational skills and training. It’s a preparation for work, not preparation for life. That would have to change.“We’re not going to have any movement for the climate that we need toward an alternative prosperity without addressing capitalism and the need to break with it.”
I don’t want to disparage what’s sometimes called “folk politics” too much. Sometimes that’s dismissed because it’s not addressing sufficiently systemic features. People ask, “Why protest about fracking if you’re going to lose the battle anyway?” I want to support a more localist approach. I do think ultimately that we do need to be quite willing to face the fact that we’re not going to have any movement for the climate that we need toward an alternative prosperity without addressing capitalism and the need to break with it, or at least the need to have a very radically revised economic system. And if that is not something that is properly taken up by a more folk politics, then I think in the end we’re not going to have a sufficiently radical change to ways of living and working.
It would be good to avoid a chronocentric way of thinking about our forms of wealth production and provisioning and work. By that I mean avoiding the sense that we couldn’t draw on the successes of the past, as well as those that are going to be provided by technology now and in the future. You could have hybrid modes of doing and producing things. If we were able to go beyond the law of value—needing to constantly make as much as we can in as little time as possible—then we can take more time producing things. And if we take more time to produce things, we can also look at more satisfying ways of working. Craft methods could come back in alongside state of the art technology in other areas.
The tech utopian wing still retains quite conventional views about consumption. The dream seems to be of endless electric cars and everyone doing space travel. I just find that implausible at all sorts of levels. It’s difficult given the massive increase in energy use or electricity that would be involved, even if it were desirable in other ways. And I’m saying it wouldn’t necessarily be desirable. Do we want that form of abundance? Do we want everything to be done by robots, including caring and child upbringing? Do we really want to commit to a word of endless material acquisitions? I would say no.
KA: What do you make of more recent changes in elite consumption, with its interest in local food and natural wine? Are there any shreds of hope in this pushback to hyper-consumerism?
KS: I guess some of those moves toward local shopping or more organic foods have to be seen as a movement in the right direction. For a lot of people they don’t necessarily go together with more radical thinking about consumption. Some of it is just caught up in a sort of greenwashing. But it has some positive impacts. People who are undertaking these forms of consumption are in the process of rethinking the impact of their shopping or the services they make use of, and coming to have a sharper sense of their role in the ruling order. But in themselves they’re not going to change the world.
I don’t make any bones that part of my argument in the book is addressed to a kind of constituency of disaffected affluent people. If people who are slightly better off are much more likely to be able to make greener and more ethical choices in consumption, that has to be recognized. I’m not sure how far the people who you’re talking about recognize that. Some do and some don’t. But in the end I think they need to go to the next step, and think about how the influence they would like to exert environmentally or socially through their consumption choices is not going to have any impact until it is part of a larger movement of thought and action to overcome gaping inequality. Because I don’t think that sustainable progress can go forward without that. We’re not going to be able to convince people on the breadlines into thinking about alternative paths to prosperity.
KA: What do you make of the way the pandemic has changed consumption? In the worst possible circumstances, it’s forced a slowing down in the global economy. People have used this as a means of going after critics of growth (“Is this what you want?”) but I’m wondering if you think there are any lessons to be had.
KS: The pandemic has had very contradictory effects which are ongoing obviously. On the one hand yes, it did provide some people with an opportunity to have a better sense of how it might be to live at a slower pace and to sit down. I say some because for many people it’s been nothing but a misery. They were not laid off and furloughed from working from home, delivering in services or working as nurses in hospitals. For people who got the illness it’s been awful as well. Likewise, for people who don’t have any gardens and live in crowded accommodations with lots of kids. That’s not much fun. For some people, it allowed some experience of what it might mean to cycle on roads without cars, for instance. I think a lot of us enjoyed plane free skies, and pollution did go down. And people had a chance because they were working less and had more free time to begin to reflect a bit more on the ways that they’re living and working. I don’t think it’s lasted very long. Things have gotten back to business as usual, even with this second lockdown that’s not been as intense.We could produce a society in which people didn’t have to do the most unpleasant jobs all the time, and in which we have a great deal more free time.
On the one hand, it led to people saying we don’t want to go back. A Yougov poll here in June found that only 6 percent of people wanted to go back to pre-pandemic normality. On the other hand, if you ask people, “Don’t we need to all get back to work?,” a majority say yes. In poll after poll people agree that they want a more sustainable economy. But when confronted with the consequences of that on their work and ways of spending time they see it as implausible. In a sense it is. What we’re talking about is a green renaissance, moving toward a post-capitalist economic order and implementing radical changes in the economy. Without those, I’m not sure how we don’t become caught up in those contradictions.
KA: Do you think there’s any more openness to rethinking endless growth now then there might have been a few years ago?
KS: It is very strange how little questioning there is within the mainstream of the commitment to growth, even now. People used to reach for a straightjacket if you started talking about degrowth. It’s not quite like that anymore, but it’s still regarded as pretty batty to be committed to any kind of degrowth perspective, at least outside the academy. There’s a lot of work being done in the academy now. These networks are growing. And they’ve got a bit more clout than they used to have. There’s a group in the European Union committed to moving toward a degrowth way of thinking. So things are taking off there, but it’s very slow and it’s late. One would like to see it be taken more seriously by mainstream political parties.
The Green Party here has started talking about moving their thinking away from a commitment to growth, but there’s a long way to go. It’s also difficult for the Green Party to make much headway in our first past the post political system. What I would like to see is an alliance between the Greens and Labour that might help to carry the movement forward. Some of the trade unions are now beginning to rethink this discourse and commitment to growth, too. I suppose in quite a short time we started talking about degrowth openly, and it got onto the agenda in a way that it wasn’t 10 years ago. So things are shifting, but it just depends on how much time we’ve got.
Post-Growth Living by Kate Soper is available via Verso Books.