The Trouble with Consumption

The contradictions between capitalist priorities and ecological imperatives are now impossible to ignore. How might the tenets of alternative hedonism foster electoral mandates for radical economic and political change?

Buy Nothing Day dates back almost three decades. This year the anti-consumer protest will be held on November 27.
Buy Nothing Day dates back almost three decades. This year’s anti-consumer day is November 27, a.k.a Black Friday. [Courtesy of resa + kister © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.
— Greta Thunberg, January 2019 1

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 have significant impact. Even commentators who doubt whether the necessary level of resistance can be mounted view the cultural politics of consumption as critical to any possible turn-around. In How Will Capitalism End?, the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck argues that capitalism, in our era of crisis and systemic disruption, 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.” He continues:

For capital accumulation to continue under post-capitalism, 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 labor market and labor 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 a fear of social descent, while non-consumerist gratifications available outside of the money economy must be discounted and discredited. 2

As Streeck implies, this is an increasingly fragile political consensus to keep intact. There are already signs that it is fracturing. One of the earliest (and more benign) has been the growing market for organic, fair trade, and locally and ethically produced goods. This is to be welcomed in that it encourages concern about the pollutants, food miles, and exploited labor 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, and one may assume that some of those committed to more responsible buying and investment are resistant to shopping-mall culture and seeking to move beyond a society of over-consumption.

Another sign of popular resistance is increasing disenchantment with the consumer lifestyle itself: other conceptions of the “good life” are gaining hold, and affluence is now commonly seen as compromised by stress, time-scarcity, air pollution, traffic congestion, obesity, and general ill health. 3 In other words, consumerism is now questioned not only because of its ethical and environmental consequences, but also because of its negative impact on affluent consumers themselves, and the ways in which it compromises both sensual pleasure and more spiritual forms of well-being. This questioning underlies the many laments for what has gone missing from our lives under the pressure of neoliberal economic policies, and also the frequent expressions of interest in less tangible goods such as more free time, better personal relationships, and a slower pace of life.

There is growing sadness and frustration that only monetary values can make headway in our culture; that public goods cannot survive unless they make a profit.

Whether in nostalgia for a nationalized rail service (for a time, as a fellow traveler 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 commercialization of childhood and the evidence of depression among the young, what is being voiced more and more 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 expressions of discontent are not particularly class-based, and they remain low-key, diffuse, and politically unfocused. 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 disquiet is real enough, and it feeds into a widely felt regret about the opportunities we have squandered for enjoying more relaxed and less narrowly reduced ways of living.

Alternative hedonism

Despite the paucity (and indeed repression) of alternative visions among politicians and business communities, the contradictions between capitalist priorities and ecological imperatives — between what the economy demands and what is humanly valued — are becoming impossible to ignore. The understanding that we must find another way is also being expressed in a wide, albeit 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.

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 habits and practices. 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, alternative hedonism 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 for sharing and recycling, and for exchanging goods, services, and expertise, including, for instance, the Slow City and Slow Food movements, Buen Vivir, the New American Dream, and most recently, and possibly most ambitiously, at least for the U.S., the Next System project.

Primrose Hill, Spring 2020.
Primrose Hill, spring 2020. [Courtesy of Teseum © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0.]

In other words, a counter-consumerist ethic and politics should appeal not only to altruistic compassion and environmental 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 in the already existing resistance to consumer culture. At a time when some economic theorists predict a terminal decline in capitalism’s powers of accumulation, 4 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 in this way to strengthen an alternative hedonist defense of the pleasures of a less harried and acquisitive way of living.

The reduction in work should be seen, in other words, 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 fulfillment would become less dependent on the quick fixes of consumerism. Today, then, critics of the existing political-economic system need to connect with and to articulate the political desires implicit in the disenchantment with consumerism.

The dominant model of the “good life” is not only socially exploitative and ecologically damaging; it is also compromised by its negative effects for consumers.

The dominant, affluent model of the “good life” is not only socially exploitative and ecologically damaging; it is also increasingly compromised by its negative side effects for consumers. But what conditions and forms of agency might bring about a fairer allocation and more responsible and
life-enhancing uses of global resources? Alternative hedonism comes to the fore in this context as a manifestation of distinctive, though still marginal, forms of ambivalence and disquiet about the supposed blessings of the consumerist lifestyle. It figures as a potential influence on cultural change and as the impulse propelling a new politics of prosperity. Alternative hedonism can also be seen as a source of new thinking about well-being that could promote (along with other developments) a shift to a more enjoyable, socially just, and environmentally sustainable consumption.

We’ve created a world too cluttered and encumbered by material objects.

This alternative hedonist ambivalence is evident in growing concern about the negative by-products of affluent living (again, high carbon emissions, toxicity, ill health, time-scarcity, over-work, insecurity). It is also reflected in expressions of regret for pleasures we can no longer enjoy. It shows up in angry complaints about urban air pollution, plastic in the oceans, gig-economy employment practices, and land-grabbing developers; and also in the more subdued and private nostalgia over lost landscapes, communities and spaces for playing, socializing, loitering, or communing with nature. It may center around food waste or fast fashion or gendered marketing to children or the absurd inadequacy of provision for cycling in most of the U.K. and the U.S. It may surface as a more generalized lament over commodification, as a yearning for a less harried existence, or as an elegiac sense that were it not for the dominance of the combustion engine, there would be much better provision for greener transport, and both rural and city areas would look, feel, smell, and sound entirely different. Or it may just figure as a vague and rather general malaise that descends in the shopping mall or supermarket: a sense of a world too cluttered and encumbered by material objects and sunk in waste, of priorities skewed through the focus on ever-more extensive acquisition of stuff.

Discarded computer keyboards.
Discarded computer keyboards. [Courtesy of Zinneke © via Wikimedia under License CC Attribution 3.0]

Beach trash, near the Pacific Ocean.
Beach trash, near the Pacific Ocean. [Courtesy of Justin Dolske © via Wikimedia under License CC Attribution 2.0]

It will be pointed out that people in general show little inclination to cut back on shopping, driving, and flying. That is true. (It remains to be seen whether or how the current pandemic will influence these patterns.) But at the same time, the consumerist lifestyle is increasingly seen as a major source of over-work, poor health, and depression, and as a growing threat to the basic livelihood both of people already struggling elsewhere on the planet and of the children and grandchildren of those in richer societies. Its irrationalities are widely acknowledged, if only with irritation or despair. Its work routines and modes of commerce mean that many people begin their days in heavy traffic or crammed into trains and buses, and then spend much of their time glued to a computer screen, often engaged in mind-numbing tasks. A good part of our collective productivity is devoted to servicing a material culture of ever-faster turnovers and built-in obsolescence, which preempts more enjoyable and enduring forms of human fulfillment.

A good part of our collective productivity is devoted to servicing a material culture of ever-faster turnovers and built-in obsolescence.

All the while our improved efficiency is not being used to shorten the working week so we could, say, grow and prepare more food for ourselves; rather, companies profit from selling us fast food and ready-cooked meals. Deprived of the leisure and facilities to make our everyday journeys by foot or bike, we are co-opted into weekend “health walks” (with apps to monitor them) or persuaded to buy stationary cycling and treadmill-walking 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 provide profitable mini-breaks and stress relieving services. When products are advertised and sold on the basis of their authenticity and naturalness, the market promises to salve nostalgia for the very losses inflicted by its own advances into everyday life. 5 In the U.S., some shopping malls have been deliberately designed to evoke a pre-modern past in order to make it feel as if modern shopping were not happening. 6

Some might argue that we accept the dominance of the market simply because of an innate desire constantly to work and consume more. But if that were so, the billions spent persuading us to buy would hardly be necessary. As the media scholar Justin Lewis has said, “the growth of consumer culture has been made possible by a parallel growth in the advertising industry. The more we have, the harder the industry has to work to maintain demand.” 7 Many social theorists, including some who take a pretty positive view of consumerism, doubt the directness of its gratifications, and analyze it instead as compensation or substitution for other losses. They see it, in other words, as reconciling us to deprivation and alienation rather than as intrinsically satisfying — a view echoed in the less erudite recommendations of shopping as “retail therapy.” 8

There's a bin for everything.
There’s a bin for everything. [Courtesy of brookpeterson © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

It is hardly surprising, then, that many more reflective citizens, in a context of high anxiety about ecological exhaustion, are beginning to look beyond the limitations of this consumerist “compensation.” Yet this development may not bespeak a straightforward interest in returning to a simpler life, nor give much credence to reductive theories about the falsity of consumerist desires and satisfactions. Much current consumption is certainly about the pursuit of desire, rather than the meeting of more primary or natural needs. 9 Sustainable alternatives would also have to provide for distinctively human forms of need, and meet our appetite for novelty, excitement, distraction, self-expression, and the gratifications of what Rousseau called amour propre, the esteem and approval of others we respect. 10 Indeed, the alternative hedonist critique is directed more against the limited rein given to such appetites in our materialistic society than against the culture of desire as such. The essential point here concerns the complexity of human consumption, its irreducible symbolic dimensions, and the difficulties of specifying some objective and naturally determined level of “true” needs. Especially in the case of what might be called political needs — such as the “true” needs that socialist or Marxist theory has imputed to the working class, or indeed to humanity at large — these must be acknowledged subjectively, if they are to claim any democratic legitimacy.

We must track the surfacing of desires for other ways of life, even if we find them contaminated by the political confusion and ordinariness of everyday consumer culture.

If we are to provide a critique of consumerism freed from any kind of Marxist knowingness, we must be ready to track the surfacing of desires for other ways of living, even if we find them in unexpected places, desired by unexpected people, and contaminated by all the banality and political confusion and ordinariness of the everyday consumer culture out of which they will arise (since from where else?). Because it attends to evident ambiguities in the reactions of consumers themselves, the alternative hedonist critique engages with an actually emergent culture of contradictory feeling. It points to expressed interests in less tangible goods — once again: more free time, less stress, more personal contacts, a slower pace of life — as lending support to criticism of the narrow materialism of consumer culture. It makes few claims about what ought to be needed, or desired, or actually consumed by some particular class of persons, but draws on what diverse consumers are themselves beginning to discover about the anti- or counter-consumerist aspects of their own needs and preferences. This both respects the actual experience of people, and credits them with a degree of autonomy. 11

Neither heroes nor dupes

To argue along these lines is to open up a different framework of thinking about consumption, choice, and citizenship to the ones that have prevailed until recently. In particular, alternative hedonism understands consumer freedom differently from other approaches in consumption theory, whether liberal, Marxist, or postmodernist.

In the conventional liberal view, the consumer is formally, if not always in reality, a “sovereign” individual: an individual whose choice is self-determined and sacrosanct, and presumed always to obey a percipient and calculating rationality that privileges private needs and desires. 12 Some accounts, with greater or lesser irony, depict this consumer as the  manifestation of the Enlightenment subject: the “heroic” shopper who follows the Kantian injunction of aude sapere (“daring to know”) in being confident of what he wants and resisting all persuasions or enticements to the contrary. (That it is a “he” is reinforced by liberal tendencies that oppose the fully rational and therefore masculine consumer to the feminine-coded “dupes” who are by nature less capable of reason and thus more easily seduced by the allure of frivolous goods.) If such individuals concern themselves with the social or environmental impacts of their consumption, they are presumed to do so as “citizens” rather than “consumers.” Here the consumer is presented as a relatively free agent, whose autonomy must be respected but which is exercised to maintain his or her own individual living standards. The values of anti-consumerism, or of a more community-oriented exercise (or withholding) of purchasing power, do not find much register in this account of consumer freedom.

The same goes for the alternative Marxist and postmodern critical theory models, in which the consumer is regarded not as self-directing and free but rather as systematically denied access to genuine self-understanding through the manipulations of the market and the culture industry. 13 On this account, what the consumer experiences as needs (or wants), whether for material or cultural goods, is ideologically inculcated and therefore deviates from what is truly needed — that is, from what would be chosen by the genuinely free subjects of an emancipated society. In any case, the purchases of those whom the liberal account regards as heroically “free” will be no less alienated than the most frivolous whims of the “dupes.” For consumer culture, which deceives individuals about the truth of their needs, compounds the injury by promulgating a general belief in the very “freedom” of self-determination that it has in fact denied them. The market society, in other words, protracts its domination by subverting the will to resist it or to enjoy any other system of pleasures.

In neither liberal nor Marxist theories are consumers understood to be responsible agents, accountable to the world beyond their personal concerns.

There is clearly a significant division between liberal-subjective accounts centered on the heroically self-creating modern consumer, and accounts that emphasize the systemic aspects of consumer culture. Consumer behavior, treated as a matter of existential choice in the one optic, is seen in the other as the less voluntary effect of economic and social structures. But whether consumers are viewed as self-interested buyers of goods and services, or as “unfree” manipulated victims, or as self-styling “constructs” of the system, in none of these cases are they understood to be responsible agents who are accountable to the world beyond their immediate personal concerns. In this respect, there is little to choose between these various interpretations: all of them present consumers as following their private inclinations, in one case freely chosen, in the other constructed by commodity society.

I certainly want to bring back into focus the structural role of the capitalist economy in individualizing consumption, since without reference to that we cannot understand the expansion of goods and services, and the forms they have taken, in affluent societies. Smaller household units and more insular modes of living, the marketing of goods and services previously made and supplied at home, the shift from public to private means of transport, brand marketing, the studied catering to personal whims, the personalization of goods: all these factors have allowed businesses to profit from multiplying goods and services that would otherwise not be needed at all, or could be supplied more collectively at less cost to the environment and in a less socially isolating manner.

At the Westfield Shopping Centre, London, the largest mall in the United Kingdom.
At the Westfield Shopping Centre, London, the largest mall in the United Kingdom. [All images courtesy of Herry Lawford © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

To oil the wheels of consumerism, the financial sector makes credit readily available, keeping many in a state of permanent indebtedness.

Advertising and marketing by capitalist firms have sought to make consumption the marker of social status, encouraging a competitive spiral of acquisition that preempts less socially divisive ways of spending time and energy. People are exhorted to define and value themselves in terms of what they can afford to acquire even if this means borrowing to do so. Not only is everything promoted as new or improved, bigger or better, faster or smarter, but there is a constant suggestion that the buyer will gain some enviable personal distinction. In much of this marketing, we find stereotypical views on gender that reinforce existing divisions between the sexes. Branding gurus are targeting both boys and girls with an ever-greater array of age- and sex-specific items. Preteen girls are the target of fashion and beauty articles and promotional magazines that presuppose their eventual entry into conventionally gendered roles and shopping practices. To oil the wheels of consumerism, the financial sector makes credit readily available — and keeps many consumers in a state of permanent indebtedness. 14

In drawing attention to these profit-driven pressures, my analysis clearly connects with an earlier socialist critique of the market and commodity aesthetics. It also resonates with the more recent “practice-theory” of those who have criticized consumption studies for being disengaged from production, overly semiotic and too preoccupied with fashion, self-styling, and identity-affirming forms of consumption, at the cost of less self-centered and more routine practices. 15 However, the alternative hedonist approach resists the paternalism of earlier leftist opposition to commodification. My main focus is neither on consumption as a bid for personal distinction, nor on consumption as a relatively unconscious “form of life,” but instead on the ways in which a range of contemporary consumerist practices, more or less everyday and identity-oriented, are being brought into question because of their environmental consequences, their impact on health, and their constraints on sensual enjoyment and more spiritual forms of well-being.

In attending to the savvy motives of consumers today, alternative hedonist theory invites a complex and civically oriented understanding of consumption.

In attending to the savvy and reflective motives of consumers today, alternative hedonist theory invites a more complex and more civically oriented understanding of consumption than we find in the existing spectrum of theoretical perspectives. We are talking here of consumers motivated in part by altruistic concern for the ecological and social consequences of materialist lifestyles on a global level, but also in part by self-interest. Under this impulse, the individual focuses upon the collective impact of aggregated acts of affluent consumption, and takes measures to avoid contributing to it. She might, for example, decide to cycle or walk whenever possible in order to reduce pollution, noise, and congestion. The hedonist aspect of this shift does not lie exclusively in the wish to decrease the unpleasant by-products of affluence, but also in the intrinsic personal pleasures of consuming differently. The cyclist or walker enjoys sensual experiences, including those of greeting other cyclists and walkers, that the insulated motorist cannot. But these different pleasures themselves require and thrive not only on alternative hedonist self-policing in car use but also on support for policies that restrain it.

From the Instagram feed of
From the Instagram feed of

Summit Place Mall, originally Pontiac Mall, was the first enclosed mall in Michigan. It became a dead mall half a dozen years ago.
Summit Place Mall, originally Pontiac Mall, was the first enclosed mall in Michigan. It became a dead mall half a dozen years ago. [Courtesy of kevinwilburn © via Wikimedia under License CC Attribution 4.0]

To insist on the sensually impoverishing aspects of consumer culture is to open up a new political imaginary.

People who think this way will be disinclined to invoke a them-versus-us, producers-versus-consumers allocation of responsibility for environmental damage. They will readily acknowledge their own role in creating and perpetuating the health and safety risks of modernity, rather than view themselves as passive victims of industrialism. For these consumers, the priority — whether they exercise or withhold their purchasing power — is not to sustain and hand down to future generations a high living standard as currently defined, but to consume differently now in order to sustain or reinstate the goods being lost or jeopardized by “high” standards of living — and also to deal more fairly with those who labor to provide these goods. Their need is to enjoy those goods in the present and to preserve their enjoyment as a legacy for future generations. 16

To defend the progressive dimension of this resistance to what passes for progress is not to recommend a more ascetic existence. On the contrary, it is to insist on the sensually impoverishing and irrational aspects of contemporary consumer culture. It is to speak for the forms of 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.

Democracy and political transition

To some, this shows an altogether too wishful trust in the power of democratic process to resolve the environmental crisis. Cumulative bottom-up pressures, they argue, almost always run counter to environmental and ecological desiderata, and only more top-down autocratic interventions will suffice. The political sociologist Ingolfur Blühdorn, for example, has questioned the effectiveness of democratic systems in delivering sustainable welfare; democracy, he argues, “is always emancipatory, in other words it always centers on the enhancement of rights and (material) living conditions [and thus] is not really suited to restricting the rights or material conditions affecting the majority.” 17 In Blühdorn’s view, it is futile, especially given the so-called “post-democratic” turn, to expect democratic support for measures to achieve sustainability, since these would require a profound value change and the acceptance of new cultural limitations and structural restraints. Likewise, the political philosopher Susan Baker has argued that liberal democracy can be seen as inherently inimical to sustainable development since it takes human interests as the measure of all values. Baker casts doubt on the capacities of representative democracy to advance sustainable ways of living. 18

I regard alternative hedonism as helping to foster electoral mandates for radical economic and political change.

This kind of skepticism about liberal democracy is understandable, given that its political guardians and defenders are often indifferent both to the real world of need formation and satisfaction, with its huge inequalities of income and opportunity, and to the intractable environmental constraints on consumption. What one misses, however, from the libertarian attacks on state governance is any recognition of the “dictatorship over needs” that is now exercised by consumer society itself. And it has to be said, too, that what these skeptics fail to acknowledge is that enhanced material consumption, while being “permissive” in advancing the majority’s “rights” to go shopping, can simultaneously be restrictive on other “rights,” including options for more free time, unpolluted environments, and less noise. Nor do they adequately recognize the conflictual nature of affluent culture — where the rights of drivers so often clash with those of cyclists and pedestrians; of those who want piped music in their shops and cafés with those who prefer silence; of those who support airport expansions with those who do not, and so on and on.

On the A3217 by Eaton Square, London.
On the A3217 by Eaton Square, London. [Courtesy of David Hawgood © via Wikimedia under License CC Attribution 2.0]

It is also important to recognize that people are “conditional co-operators” who are much likelier to take action to combat climate change impacts and conserve resources if assured, by democratic voting, that their fellow citizens will do the same. Democracy, it seems, very considerably enhances the prospects for reciprocal cooperation. 19 Moreover, and on a more philosophical note, even if it were possible to enforce sustainable consumption through a top-down dictatorship of needs, this would have to count as a moral and political failure — and coerced sustainability would surely prove fragile and short-lived. As the economist Peter Victor has insisted, policy changes cannot be driven solely from the top: “They must be wanted and demanded by the public because they see a better future for themselves, their children, and the children of others, if we turn away from the pursuit of unconstrained economic growth.” For Victor, the only option is bottom-up — “a groundswell of aversion to further growth in consumption.” 20

People are ‘conditional cooperators,’ much likelier to conserve resources if assured, by democratic voting, that their fellow citizens will do the same.

These arguments apply equally in the case of the large-scale state-led rewilding and reforestation projects that have been proposed as remedies to the harmful effects of climate change. 21 The land reclamation essential to their implementation will be so extensive, and so decisive in its impacts on human consumption and lifestyle, that it is difficult to see how it can succeed without democratic support for a revised politics of prosperity. A mandate for reduced consumption will also be critical to the ultimate replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy, since the territory needed for solar and wind farms will otherwise prove unmanageably vast. 22 Here the importance of revising our thinking on consumption and its dependence on popular approval combine to justify an alternative hedonist approach to the cultural politics of transition. Even so, this approach still remains remains vulnerable to the charge that it relies too heavily on individual responses, and should instead target the structural and institutional obstacles standing in the way of personal change. It has also been construed as neglecting the formative impact of production and marketing strategies on consumer attitudes, and the constraints they place on personal habits even when consumers show some willingness to change. And my engagement with alternative hedonism has been criticized as well because it ignores the development needs of impoverished nations and communities.

Though understandable, these more specific charges do not fully grasp the political rationale for attending to the constituency of the “affluent disaffected.” So in conclusion I shall expand on the ways in which new alternative hedonist experience emerges from and contributes to changed social policy in affluent societies, on the relay of pressures that this can initiate, and on the potential global reach of an alternative politics of prosperity.

Governmental interventions can tap into subjective shifts of feeling and make them the basis for new policies that benefit ourselves and the planet.

On the first two points, about the focus on consumer needs and attitudes: it is true that revised paradigms of consumption accompany new regimes of capitalist accumulation and reorganizations of labor processes. Fordist production brought with it significant changes in consumption norms — the commercialization of goods previously supplied at home, the individualization of lifestyles, suburbanization, the shift from public transport to private car use, and so forth. 23 These trends have continued with the information technology revolution, and have been augmented by the internet’s transformation of work and consumption, the pervasive acquisition of personalized electronic equipment, and the immense acceleration of the fast-fashion dynamic and brand marketing. 24

I would argue that this correlation between regimes of production and consumption does not justify a deterministic account of consumer responses, which cannot reflect people’s options for more ethical and sustainable ways of living. Nonetheless, the systemic curbs on the exercise of alternative choices are real, and demand attention. It is here, indeed, that governmental interventions can tap into subjective shifts of feeling and make them the basis for new policies that weaken or remove those curbs, while advancing choices that benefit ourselves and the planet. One frequently cited example is the way in which the provision of safe routes for cyclists not only leads to more cycling, with all the related advantages to health and well-being, but also allows everyone to experience the pleasures of reduced traffic, thus reinforcing support for the transition to a less car-centered future.

Another example is that of the congestion charging introduced in Greater London in February 2003. This was a policy that benefited from a predisposition in its favor, given public concern about gridlock and pollution: it could not have been imposed without the existing disaffection (even among London drivers) with car culture and its impact on city life. But the level of explicit support for the policy was fairly low, and the response to its introduction was ambivalent. Had it been put to the vote, it would probably not have received majority support. 25 Once implemented, however, congestion pricing brought benefits (quicker and more reliable buses, quieter and less noxious streets) that widened public support and later allowed for its further extension. 26 This exemplifies the alternative hedonist dialectic in which an initial if still equivocal “structure of feeling” legitimates the experimental introduction of certain forms of collective self-policing, which are then extended and consolidated because of their pleasurable consequences. 27

Anti- and counter-consumerist pressures such as these remain insignificant compared to the mandates for policing consumption that will be needed to advance genuine global sustainability. But the model of democratic procedure that they instantiate — whereby proactive green initiatives encourage emerging structures of feeling by providing for alternative experiences — can help us envisage the larger-scale shifts that will be essential in any transition to a sustainable economic order. As well as underscoring the benefits that will follow from new regulations and modes of provision — not only greater sustainability but also improved health, richer sensual and aesthetic experience, more amenable public spaces — those pressing for their introduction must be able to appeal to some pre-existing disposition in their favor. Policies introduced with limited public support can, through the positive effects of their implementation, help overcome subjective prejudice against objectively good practice.

Created by Street Lab, Homework Hubs are pop-up, open-air places for NYC students to meet and do homework together.
Created by Street Lab, Homework Hubs are pop-up, open-air places for NYC students to meet and do homework together during the pandemic. [Courtesy of Street Lab © under License CC Attribution 4.0]

Created by Street Lab, PLAY NYC enables safe play for children on closed-off streets in high-need neighborhoods.
Created by Street Lab, PLAY NYC enables safe play for children on closed-off streets in high-need neighborhoods amidst the pandemic. [Courtesy of Street Lab © under License CC Attribution 4.0]

We can thus see the importance of rendering explicit the desires and concerns now implicit in current expressions of consumer anxiety. Indeed, this implicit alternative transcends and exposes the Janus-faced response of governments that ask the public to adopt energy-saving measures and more healthful lifestyles, all the while promoting economic policies that support the expansion of consumerism. New kinds of individual experience — involving new ideas about the aesthetics of material culture and the satisfactions it provides, and heightened awareness of the potential political power of consumption, or non-consumption— might not only hasten the introduction of specific policies but also press governments to confront their contradictory stance on the growth economy. And anything that helps to promote such changes within affluent societies will possess wider global relevance, since the disproportionately high levels of consumption by the rich is a major factor in the deprivations of the world’s poor.

Citizenship necessarily involves something more than enjoying rights and holding a passport; it embraces duties towards the wider community.

The focus of alternative hedonism is on individual disaffection with affluent consumption, and on possible alterations in consumer desire and behavior in the rich nations. But the leverage that such alterations may have in enabling a more egalitarian world order is integral to my wider argument. The international agencies and institutions committed to a sustainable welfare agenda will remain relatively powerless, and little pressure will be applied on national governments to cooperate in promoting this agenda, unless and until their electorates perceive that the necessary changes in their own consumption are in their own interests. Alternative hedonist thinking about the good life, which alters conceptions of self-interest among affluent consumers, can thus play a critically important part in setting off a relay of political pressures for a fairer and more sustainable global economic order. The anxiety and ambivalence about affluent consumption increasingly felt by consumers-citizens should be recognized and encouraged. An alternative hedonist understanding of the consumer as a reflexive and relatively autonomous agent whose self-interested needs can also encompass collective goods is essential to a left project for greening the economy, which will recast consumption as a site of republican pressure for sustainable living. In this view, citizenship necessarily involves something more than enjoying rights and holding a passport, and embraces duties towards and concerns for the wider community, including the well-being of future generations and the planet. 28

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism, which is being published this month by Verso. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher.

  1. Greta Thunberg, aged 15, founder of the Youth Climate Change movement, to the political leaders and entrepreneurs gathered at Davos, January 2019.
  2. Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? (London: Verso, 2016), 45.
  3. Kate Soper, Martin H. Ryle, and L. Thomas, eds, The Politics and Pleasures of Consuming Differently (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Roger Levett, A Better Choice of Choice (London: Fabian Society, 2003); Madeleine Bunting, Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives (London: Harper Collins, 2004); Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (New York: Harper One, 2005); John Tomlinson, The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy (London: Sage, 2007); Nick Osbaldiston, Culture of the Slow: Social Deceleration in an Accelerated World (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013); H. Shah, “The Politics of Well-being,” Soundings, 30 (2005), 33–44; Lyn Thomas, “Alternative Realities: Downshifting narratives in contemporary lifestyle television,” Cultural Studies, 22, (2008), 680–99.
  4. Paul Mason, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (New York: Macmillan, 2017); W. Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?. Reviewing some key economists on the issue, Streeck suggests that it is not so much a question of whether, but of how and when, capitalism will end.
  5. Cf. Alistair. Bonnett, The Geography of Nostalgia: Global and Local Perspectives on Modernity and Loss (London: Routledge, 2016), 21–44. See also, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso: 2007).
  6. Margaret Farrar, “Amnesia, nostalgia and the politics of place memory,” Political Research Quarterly, 64, 4 (2011): 723–35, 728 (cit. Bonnett, 23). DOI: 10.1177/1065912910373553.
  7. Justin Lewis, Beyond Consumer Capitalism: Media and the Limits to Imagination (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 53.
  8. Zygmunt Bauman, Freedom (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1988), 57–61; 95–8; cf. The Individualized Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001); Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001); David B. Clarke, The Consumer Society and the Postmodern City (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 150.
  9. On the distinctive features of consumer desire, see Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987); Zygmunt Bauman, Freedom, 58–63; Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 196–208; Don Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), 28–9; p. 76.
  10. In this, I agree with Paul Mason’s point that any adequate substitute would have to mirror the complexity of current consumption, PostCapitalism, 234f.
  11. Cf. Kate Soper, “Counter-Consumerism in a New Age of War,” Radical Philosophy, 135, January–February, 2006, 2–8.
  12. Colin Campbell, “I Shop therefore I Know that I am: The Metaphysical Basis of Modern Consumerism,” in Karin M. Ekström and Helene Brembeck, eds, Elusive Consumption (London and New York: Berg, 2004), 36–9; Romantic Ethic, 60–86.
  13. Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London and New York: Routledge, 1991); cf. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964). W. Leiss, The Limits to Satisfaction: On Needs and Commodities (London: Marion Boyars, 1978); Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986) Conrad Lodziak, Manipulating Needs: Capitalism and Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1995).
  14. Outstanding consumer credit lending in the U.K. in November 2019 was £225.3 billion; and household debt was nearing $14 trillion dollars in the U.S. C. Lilly, “Debt statistics: How much debt is the UK in?” at Finder, 19 February 2020; “U.S. household debt at record, nearing $14 trillion – NY Fed,” CNBC, 13 November 2019.
  15. Alan Warde, Consumption, Food and Taste (London: Sage, 1997); “Practice and Field: Revising Bourdieusian Concepts,” ESRC, CRIC Publication, April, 2004; cf. T. Schatzki, Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Theodore Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny, editors, The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory (London, Routledge 2001); Elizabeth Shove, Frank Trentmann and Richard Wilk, Time, Consumption and Everyday Life: Practice, Materiality and Culture (Oxford: Berg, 2009).
  16. Cf. Kate Soper, “Re-thinking the ‘good life’: The citizenship dimension of consumer disaffection with consumerism,” Journal of Consumer Culture, no. 7, 2, July 2007, 205–29; “Alternative Hedonism and the Citizen-Consumer,” in Kate Soper and Frank Trentmann, eds, Citizenship and Consumption (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008), 191–205; “Introduction” to Kate Soper, Martin H. Ryle and Lyn Thomas, The Politics and Pleasures, 1–21.
  17. Ingolfur Blühdorn, “The sustainability of democracy: On limits to growth, the post-democratic turn and reactionary democrats,” Eurozine, 11 July 2011, 6–7. Other commentators he notes — such as David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007) and Anthony Giddens, The Politics of Climate Change (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009) 56, 198–9 and 91–128 — have likewise begun to regard participatory democracy as eco-politically ineffective and to suggest that liberal democracy is part of the current problem rather than the solution to it.
  18. Susan Baker, “Climate Change, the Common Good and the Promotion of Sustainable Development,” in James Meadowcroft, Oluf Langhelle, and Audun Ruud, eds, Governance, Democracy and Sustainable Development: Moving Beyond the Impasse (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2012), 266–68
  19. Oliver P. Hauser, David G. Rand, Alexander Peysakhovich, and Martin A. Nowak, “Cooperating with the future,” Nature 511 (7508), 2014, 220–3, ; World Development Report on “Mind, Society, Behavior,” Washington, DC: World Bank, 2015, 167.
  20. Peter A. Victor, Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2008) 221–2.
  21. See, for instance, the “half-earth” proposal that 50 percent of the Earth’s land be given over to nature in order to halt catastrophic species loss and extinction; E.O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (New York: Liveright, 2016). On the Rewilding Britain project, see Damian Carrington, “Rewild a quarter of UK to fight climate crisis, campaigners urge,” The Guardian, 21 May 2019; cf. George Monbiot, “The natural world can help save us from climate catastrophe,” The Guardian, 3 April 2019.
  22. Cf. Troy Vettese suggests that all of the U.K. national territory might have to be covered in wind turbines, solar panels, and biofuel crops to maintain current levels of energy production. “To Freeze the Thames: Natural Geo-Engineering and Biodiversity,” New Left Review, 111, May–June 2018, 6.
  23. Max Koch, Capitalism and Climate Change: Theoretical Discussion, Historical Development and Policy Responses (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 68–75.
  24. Juliet Schor, “From Fast Fashion to Connected Consumption: Slowing Down the Spending Treadmill,” in Nick Osbaldiston, ed., Culture of the Slow: Social Deceleration in an Accelerated World (Basingstokre: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 34–51.
  25. See Kate Soper, “Rethinking the ‘Good Life’,” 220–22; when a congestion charging policy was put to the vote in Edinburgh prior to any implementation, it was rejected.
  26. For reports on this, see J. Jowit, Observer, 15 February 2004; A. Clark, The Guardian, 16 and 18 February 2004; J. Ashley, The Guardian, 19 February 2004.
  27. “Structure of feeling” is a concept first used by the cultural critic, Raymond Williams, to refer to emergent or pre-emergent responses or qualitative changes of affect that “do not have to await definition or rationalization before they exert palpable pressures and set effective limits on experience and on action.” See his Marxism and Literature (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), 132; cf. 128–36.
  28. Cf. J. O’Neill, in Frank Trentmann and Kate Soper, eds, Citizenship, 185–90.
Kate Soper, “The Trouble with Consumption,” Places Journal, November 2020. Accessed 03 Dec 2020. <>

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