Sunday, October 31, 2010

Consumerism or liberation?

A slightly edited version of this article was published at Links magazine. An abridged version is available here and as published by Green Left Weekly, here.

In a recent seminar on trade unions and the climate movement, I observed a surprising disagreement between some of the socialists present. It was started by a comment from Melbourne University academic (and Socialist Alliance activist) Hans Baer, who suggested that the “treadmill of production and consumption” had to be challenged, that we need to challenge consumerism and the alienation of work that makes people buy things to feel better.

Liz Ross of Socialist Alternative took umbrage and declared that this was against the idea that workers could create and enjoy wonderful technological products, tearing down a straw figure that Hans was supposedly arguing to stultify the creativity of the working class.

A more nuanced response came from a member of Solidarity, Chris Breen, who suggested he was fine with rich people giving up their second house but against the idea that ordinary people should be asked to sacrifice.

The disagreement over consumerism highlights a strategic debate among environmentalists, but also an important debate on the left.


Consumerism has often been a convenient scapegoat for conservatives, a way of blaming problems on the consumer not on the capitalist system that creates consumerism. Barry Commoner related the following hypothetical scenario to show that how pointless the consumer’s decisions tend to be:

You go to the store to buy a refrigerator. You and the storekeeper have no idea how the thing was delivered from the factory. It could have come by railroad or truck. If it comes by truck, it causes four times as much pollution as if it came by railroad, because the fuel efficiency is four times lower. But what am I going to do, go into the store and say, “Listen, I’m an ecologist. I must have a refrigerator delivered by railroad”?

Simplistic liberal consumer-sovereignty arguments are in fact not an argument against consumerism, but an argument for enlightened consumerism. As such they pose no challenge to capitalist relations and we can expect the left to reject them. This is a debate between the left and the right in the environment movement, a debate that sorely needs to be had since in the 1990s “green consumerism” became the dominant form of environmental consciousness.


Jonathan Neale, in his (generally quite good) book Stop Global Warming: Change the world (Bookmarks, 2008) entitles a chapter “Sacrifice is not the answer”. This is a counter-intuitive notion for many environmentally aware people: hasn’t our over-consumption of resources caused the ecological crisis? Don’t we have to cut back, to “sacrifice” some of the rich world’s consumption? Neale explains the weakness of this approach as it relates to convincing people to take action. This is my summary of his argument:

Many liberal environmentalists say the pampered masses (of the rich countries) must sacrifice some of their luxuries for the sake of the environment and the world’s poor. More equitable sharing of the world means some have to give up. “Live simply, so others may simply live” is the mantra of this political current.

For the well-off middle classes (and particularly people in the rich world), sacrifice is like charity: giving up a small part of their privileges to make themselves feel better. For such people, talk of sacrifice only reinforces an elitist mentality.

But for poorer, working class people, sacrifice has another connotation. It’s the sacrifices made for the boss at work and the government, sacrifices that are never reciprocated or repaid to those making them. It is the mantra of the last three decades of decreasing standards of living: longer work hours, lower wages and less social services. Talking about “sacrifice” won’t go down easily with broad sections of the population. In particular, when you consider that the majority of the world’s population do not have much to sacrifice, and actually want more not less as part of a just solution.

But if this elitist notion of “sacrifice” is not useful, does that mean we have nothing to say about consumerism more generally? In reality it is a complicated and rich topic of discussion for the left.

Affluenza and the growth fetish

Australian author Clive Hamilton has written two books against consumerism, Growth Fetish and (with Richard Denniss) Affluenza: when too much is never enough. The authors explain that a growing level of material wealth is not matched by growth in happiness.

There are many levels to engage with their argument, and valid criticisms to be made. Not all left critics appreciate the scope of what Hamilton is analysing, however. Brian Webb wrote a criticism of Hamilton’s views in the Socialist Worker magazine in 2006 (published by the predecessor of Solidarity, the International Socialist Organisation).

Webb summarised Hamilton’s argument (as expressed by Hamilton in a Quarterly Essay) like this:

Hamilton argues that modern capitalism has transformed society such that the idea of class is redundant. “Affluence” means that working Australians have become selfish, identify primarily as consumers, and consequently the ideas of class and solidarity are no longer relevant.

Poverty and oppression now only exist at the margins of the system, which has eliminated structural oppression. The “defining problem” that parties need to concern themselves with is alienation.

…As a solution he proposes the “politics of wellbeing” – that instead of economic prosperity we need to focus on our consumer choices and lifestyle.

Hamilton’s thesis is a dangerous one. It is pessimistic and elitist, and disarms the left ideologically against the free market.

…The left needs to rebut Hamilton and in the process become clearer about the principles and issues around which it can build influence.

Webb rebuts Hamilton’s arguments that the idea of social class is redundant. Yet the underlying reality – that most of the population are still in the wage-worker class – is not the whole picture. My reaction to Hamilton and Denniss’ books was not so much that class analysis was missing but that their centrepiece, criticism of consumerism, did not go deep enough.

Neoliberalism (usually called “economic rationalism” in Australia) saw a massive restructuring of the working class by outsourcing and privatisation, breaking up large centralised workforces into atomised and competing groups of workers, which has been one of the factors in the decline of the union movement. Hamilton conflates this with a shift from industrial to consumer capitalism considering it an established reality rather than an ongoing process of class struggle.

The change in emphasis from the production to the consumption sphere is one shared with postmodern social analysis, except that postmodernism accepts consumption at face value, with little appreciation of its historical purpose or personal significance. It was not ‘modernity’ that had changed; it was capitalism that had morphed from industrial capitalism into consumer capitalism… This transition’s effect on the definition of self has been as profound as the effect of the transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism, and it is this basic truth that postmodernism has unwittingly grasped. (Growth Fetish, p. 149)

The observation that capitalism is increasingly dominated by marketing is not new to Marxists. Sweezy and Baran analysed it well in their 1966 classic Monopoly Capitalism. Hamilton provides a useful survey of the psychology of consumerism. He criticises the culture of work too, or more precisely the culture of overwork.

But the alienation of work remains unchanged. The impulse to consumerism remains tied to the alienation of work. This is not explored systematically enough; for that, we have to turn to (for example) Sharon Beder’s Selling the Work Ethic (Zed Books, 2000). Marta Harnecker’s Rebuilding the Left (Zed Books, 2007) also includes an historical analysis of how the work ethic turned into the consumer ethic. (For Liz Ross – a published author on union struggles – to conflate work with “creativity” may have been an accidental error, but it’s definitely an error.)

“Affluence” is a dangerously vague term. In Stop Global Warming, Jonathan Neale quotes Vincent Navarro:

An unskilled, unemployed, young black person living in the ghetto area of Baltimore has more resources (he or she is likely to have a car, mobile phone, and TV, and more square feet per household and more kitchen equipment) than a middle class professional in Ghana, Africa. If the whole world were just a single society, the Baltimore youth would be middle class and the Ghana professional would be poor. And yet, the first has a much shorter life expectancy (45 years) than the second (62 years)… It is far more difficult to be poor in the United States… than to be middle class in Ghana.

In some ways this is the argument made by Hamilton and Denniss, but they consider the relatively few poor in the rich countries not relevant to the overall problem of consumerism.

But Neale adds, “That person in Baltimore may not need those extra things, but he or she does not want to give them up. They are a sign that at least they have something. Possessions are the way people in their society keep track of power and powerlessness.” Neale goes on to search for “the sort of measures that can stop global warming without ordinary people having to sacrifice what they hold dear.”

The other side of the coin

Now, having poured scorn on the middle class moralists who patronise what they see as the pampered masses, let us be even handed and consider the absurdity of this profound love that people supposedly have for their flat-screen TV or their new hair-dryer. We all know that people do get obsessed with these things. Cars, entertainment/sound systems, cars with sound systems – these are all things by which many people measure their social worth, hold dear even. Do socialists have to protect that?

Let’s think of an analogy: Many people invest a lot of self-worth in being promoted into management at work, but socialists and unionists have always considered that to be a sell-out or cop-out. Consumerism parallels this. A small section of the world’s working class can afford the trappings of luxury that consumerism provides. Many of the world’s poor working people aspire to join them. To accept this as a given – as some socialists seem to do – is akin to thinking that to attain some dignity at work, some control over one’s conditions of work, the only way is to get a promotion or set up one’s own business. Either mistake fails at class analysis, simply following a superficial expression of class identity, idealising working people’s shallowest wants.

Without joining the condescending middle classes who consider working people too stupid and greedy to liberate themselves, socialists need to steer a course that finds a way out of the consumerist nightmare and appeals to the people who are engaged in it. Telling people to sacrifice is usually not the best approach, as a PR strategy, but finding ways to promote better lifestyle rather than more consumption are important.

Webb’s article defends workplace collectivism and working class altruism against what he sees as Hamilton’s conservative and right-wing views. Hamilton, on the other hand, looks to “downshifting” for his solution: voluntary opting out of the system of overwork and overconsumption.

Webb rightly suggests that “Hamilton’s downshifting may connect with the widespread sentiment that we are working too hard, but it is an individualistic solution that ignores those that don’t have the option of accepting a lower income or cannot change jobs or negotiate lower hours with their employer.” I can vouch for this: a professional IT worker, for example, may easily find a part-time position, but for an industrial maintenance fitter like me (with a similar skill level, in a different industry) part-time jobs are basically unheard of. And for unskilled casual workers, knocking back one shift often leads to being passed over for future shifts.

Hamilton, to be fair, doesn’t just rely on individual downshifters: 
While the downshifters might be seen as standard bearers in the revolt against consumerism, the social revolution required to make the transition to a post-growth society will not come about solely through the personal decisions of determined individuals. The forces devoted to buttressing the ideology of growth fetishism and obsessive consumption are difficult to resist, and they are boosted immeasurably by governments’ obsession with growth at all costs. Making the transition to the new dispensation demands a politics of downshifting. Political downshifting can be defined as the entrenchment within popular culture , public and private institutions and, ultimately, government of a predisposition to promote the quality of social and individual life rather than surrendering to the demands of the market.
Which presumably is why Hamilton has now run as a candidate for the Greens.

Two sides of a bad coin

Let’s rescue the class struggle from Hamilton’s dismissal. The destruction of unions and working life perpetrated by neoliberalism is not a done deal, it is a continuing process. That workers have already lost so much in this battle makes their conditions of struggle in the workplace all the more difficult, but not irrelevant. Consider the upheavals these last few weeks in France, or here in Australia the massive street protests against the WorkChoices laws in recent years.

But let’s not ignore the real issues raised by Hamilton either. Let us not reduce the class struggle to the workplace, nor to simply gaining a larger share of the pie. As Hamilton notes, “The cold war ideological divide was not about the desirability of economic growth. On that all agreed.” The left does not have to follow the productivist path: capitalism won over state socialism, and that should settle it. The only strong holdout from the 20th century socialist states is Cuba, and its survival has a lot to do with the alternative ideology provided by Che Guevara’s critique of Soviet economic planning.

This confusion over productivism is not new on the left, but the ecological debate has made it a confusion that must be dealt with.

Wikipedia defines Productivism as the belief that measurable economic productivity and growth is the purpose of human organization (e.g., work), and that "more production is necessarily good".

It is hard to debate “productivism” in the abstract. For example, if we challenge that “more production is necessarily good” with the alternative that “better production is necessarily good” are we still productivist? How do you define vague terms like “better” or “good”? Do we mean production of consumer goods, or production of the necessities of life (food, shelter etc)? Are we referring to the (re)production of social relations, as discussed extensively by Marx?

A 1970s article by Fredy Perlman, recently republished here is a good starting point for any reader not familiar with this last, crucial point about reproduction of social relations.

Capitalism is not just something that occurs when a boss exploits a worker: it is a global economic system. It impacts everyone, not just workers. The exploitation of workers' labour is the key element for the survival of capital, but the reproduction of the whole system hinges on those workers not challenging their role in its reproduction. Ideology is key, and consumerism is the ideology of modern capitalism – so much so that otherwise astute analysts like Hamilton even think that consumer capitalism is a new stage surpassing industrial capitalism.

Living well, not better

He who is richer is not who has more, but who needs less.
Zapotec saying, Oaxaca, Mexico - quoted by Bolivian delegation at the UN
Challenging consumerism is an important part of defining a politics that can liberate not just the working class, but all humanity, from capitalism. There are elements of this idea in the global left. The Bolivian government of Evo Morales has been promoting the indigenist concept of Living Well as a way to respect and preserve life on Earth.

The culture of Death is capitalism, what we, the indigenous peoples, say that it is To Live Better, better at the cost of another. The Culture of Life is socialism, which is Living Well.

What are the deep differences between Living Well and Living Better? I repeat again, Living Better is to live at the cost of another, exploiting another, extracting the natural resources, raping Mother Earth, and privatising basic services. (The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth, Evo Morales, Bolivian Foreign Affairs ministry 2010)

Of course, there is a long way to go before this ideology really sinks into the masses – even in Bolivia. As Bolivian vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera explained in 2007:
The outlook according to which the indigenous world has its own cosmovision, radically opposed to that of the West, is typical of latecomer indigenists or those closely linked to certain NGOs ... Basically, everyone wants to be modern. The Felipe Quispe [Indigenous] insurgents, in 2000, were demanding tractors and internet.

Bridging the gap

Let's consider the lessons of trade unionism again. If the skilled, better paid part of the workforce spurn unions and seek to join management or go into business for themselves, there is a strong encouragement for less skilled, less educated workers to follow that example. Efforts to unionise are undermined. To organise an effective union, it is usually with an alliance between at least some of the more skilled workers and the greater mass of unskilled and semi-skilled.

The left in the first world cannot wait for the impoverished third world masses to beat down the doors of imperialism and destroy our enemy from without. Nor can we rely on the spontaneous wants of workers to mobilise them against capitalism in the heartlands of imperialism and consumerism. We have to find struggles that break out of the logic of capitalism while providing tangible benefits to the working people who we want to see mobilised.

One most obvious such struggle is to halt climate change. Capitalism keeps inventing new schemes to try to fix the problem (or be seen to be trying): emissions trading, efficiency measures, feed-in tarriffs and so forth. Some of these measures do produce verifiable results (although not emissions trading!) but none of them really solve the problem. That takes a inter-industrial plan, out of the hands of the big corporate interests of the day like mining corporations, car manufacturers and the oil companies. And for all the false solutions marketed by capitalist governments, they cannot paper over the worsening climate crisis when floods, droughts, wildfires and heatwaves kill thousands at a time.

On a less grand level, what should the left advocate as a solution for rising petrol prices? Wage rises at work? Or increasing public transport services to the level where most people no longer need a car? The second solution is not an easy ask of capitalism, but it does actually solve the problem. It is also a threat to a key sector of capital – the auto industry (I recently wrote an article on that). The auto industry is close to the largest part of consumerism, measured by cost (after housing, but houses are more of a necessity in some ways).

I also recently wrote an article about utopian ideas and rehabilitating them on the left. Many practical cooperative schemes are dismissed by the traditional left because they look naïvely utopian, hippy even: community gardens and organic food co-ops, for example. But would the left dismiss such co-operative efforts if they were like the Black Panthers’ free school breakfast program, not a hippy trip at all but a real help to a community they were trying to organise?

Prejudices and preconceptions on the left, based on the arguments of yesterday, often hinder the development of new, creative and necessary responses to the problems of capitalism.

An aside: the IS tradition and the environment movement

Talking of preconceptions hampering people, Solidarity and Socialist Alternative especially are still wed to the Cold War debates that saw their political tradition (the UK-based International Socialist Tendency, which includes Jonathan Neale) defend a theory of State Capitalism to explain the Soviet Union’s problems – and, in a kind of guilt by association, the Cuban system as well. Hence they are probably unaware of the profound and useful anti-productivist criticisms of the USSR made by Guevara, and even tend to downplay or ignore the significance of the (pro-Cuban) Bolivian and Venezuelan revolutionary processes that are unfolding before us in real time.

It is less understandable that these groups would have so much trouble grasping the nettle of productivism. Coming from a Trotskyist background, one would expect they might be independent of the productivist ideology of Stalinism and Social Democracy. Sadly, most of the Trotskyist groups in Britain at least were stridently anti-Stalinist in form, but often melted into social democracy in content, joining or defending the Labour Party and often opposing new social movements outside the unions (women’s liberation, gay liberation, ecology and so on).

The IS were never as blinkered as some of the truly awful cults like the Socialist Labour League (parent to today’s Socialist Equality Party). Yet I recall that until the 1990s in Australia the ISO regarded the Greens and the environmental movement broadly as a middle class distraction, unworthy of socialist participation. Fortunately most of them have in practice overcome this sectarianism, although Socialist Alternative are having the hardest time grappling with it.


  1. Hi Ben,
    A great article. Have you read John Bellamy Foster et al.'s related chapter from his new book, at ?
    It has a bearing on this very discussion.

  2. Hi Ben

    Really thought provoking stuff. My first thought though is that important aspects of the discussion seem to depend on the existence of, on the one hand, a clearly identifiable working class and, on the other, a clearly definable middle class. You mention for example "…the middle class moralists who patronise what they see as the pampered masses" and again "…the condescending middle classes who consider working people too stupid and greedy to liberate themselves". Don't know how you'd draw the boundaries between these groups any more. Is the distinction income related? My plumber lives in a big house in Kew and sends his kids to Xavier. Self employed vs wage earner? ditto. I was an academic, definitely middle class, a unionist and a wage slave. Property owner vs renter? Hardly in today's property market. Perhaps it is really a continuum defined by the relationship of individuals to variables like those I mention or possession of degrees of various capitals, (social, educational, cultural, economic etc) a la Bourdieu? Anyway unless there is a neat (or even a messy) way to characterise these groups, which have been blurring into one another for fifty years, basing discussion of contemporary social structures on their existence is fraught it seems to me.

  3. Doug you're right, middle class is such a vaguely and varyingly defined category as to be pretty useless and it was only my sloppiness that introduced it as a confusing element into my article. I guess I was using it as a pejorative way of saying liberal (small-L liberal). Moralistic liberals. Middle class vs working class is not a very useful distinction because many people whose economic status is in the hazy area between workers and petit bourgeoisie are really part of the progressive movement. I'm arguing against reductionist workplace-centred views of the class struggle, but sometimes the verbiage takes a while to catch up!

  4. The sixties approsh to alienation and consumerism on the left was a quest for a more real life which, ironically was filled by lifestylism.

    Often this meant consuming less but consuming with quality -- a certain smugness was entailed that still prevails such as eating organic at all costs.

    While you miss mentioning Ian Lowe's penchant to advocate scungier older clothing and less pizaz and sparkle on our backs and in our homes, the complication today is that consumption is hypothetically boundless as easy credit can put the world in your hand. This mountain of debt is the Achilles heal of consumerism -- not the alienation that feeds it.

    But debt rules almost all classes, almost all countries and as we know, all Labor states. It is the new fetish.

    So the argument about debt has to one about a better way tp consume. The environment movement fails hay challenge because it gets caught up in the
    point of sale exchange. So consumption isn't so much about what we produce but how.

  5. FYI: I've submitted an edited version of this to LINKS magazine - basically removing the use of the ambiguous term "middle class" and tightening up my quoting/paraphrasing of people. If I have misquoted or misconstrued anyone please correct me!

  6. I'm not going to comment on your article but your "aside" about orthodox Trotskyists rejecting social movements is assertion, not fact. I know there have been some bizarre Trotskyists sects around, but defenders of the USSR and Cuba, like the DSP/Socialist Alliance, have entirely worse record on the question of fighting oppression or understanding ecology.

    Many soft-Stalinists have defended the homophobia, sexism, racism and appalling environmental record of their favourite deformed/degenerated "workers' states". Predecessors of the DSP, i.e. now the Socialist Alliance, defended Cuba's treatment of AIDS sufferers in the 1980s, which was perhaps even worse than that of the United States. I would not be surprised if some still do.

    And on The Greens have always been based on middle-class environmental politics. They still are - it is their leftwing voting base that makes them a serious force. They are not based in the working class in amy meaningful way and nor are they a straightforward left reformist foundation. Socialist Alternative are determined to cut themselves off from everything, but are you trying to argue that socialists should *join* The Greens?


  7. Amy, thanks for reading.

    You say "socialist alternative are determined to cut themselves off from everything" - interesting way of putting it and their attitude to the Greens at the moment currently looks like they are inoculating their members against the Greens. I don't think socialists should all rush to join the Greens, I haven't done so, I am still in Socialist Alliance. I think critical support is the order of the day. march separately, but strike together, and all that old socialist tactical stuff.

    There is a lot of odd assertions you make about "soft stalinists" etc, of which I should point out, I am not one. Even Fidel Castro has criticised the past record of Cuba (and himself) on gays etc and I have no problem making criticism of Cuba's past on that count. But perhaps you ought to check out Che's critique of Stalinism (Helen Yaffe's recent book on Che's economic thought is well written and insightful). Certainly now Cuba has a good standard in terms of gay liberation, and ecology since we mention it. You don't have to ask "soft stalinists" to hear that.

    My "aside" was not about orthodox Trotskyists but about Tony Cliff's current of British Trotskyists. And yes, historically, these groups have derided "new social movements" as petit-bourgeois, in my own memory both feminist and environmentalist politics copped that term from the ISO. I think it's good they have changed of course. Whatever its problems, the DSP was always a very solidly ecologist and feminist organisation. Your assertion on that regard is misplaced.

    I'd like you to explain what "middle class environmental policies" means. Is there a special environment only enjoyed by "middle classes"? I thought we only had one planet? Joking aside, as I pointed out in a comment above, the term "middle class" is too vague. Do you mean liberal environmental policies? Bourgeois environmental policies? Or do you still have some of the confusion I described in the aside about the IS tradition?

  8. "Many soft-Stalinists have defended the homophobia, sexism, racism and appalling environmental record of their favourite deformed/degenerated "workers' states". Predecessors of the DSP, i.e. now the Socialist Alliance, defended Cuba's treatment of AIDS sufferers in the 1980s, which was perhaps even worse than that of the United States. I would not be surprised if some still do."

    This is typical of the kind of arguments that many of the socialist groups (including the ex-DSP at times) use to inoculate their members against other groups or ideas. The article has nothing to do with any of this, nor do you supply any proof of your claims, but you just chuck it in there like you've been brainwashed to do.

    If you want to have a debate about Cuba then cool. If you want to argue that the Greens are not worth supporting then go for it. But you should put forward a proper argument. And the fact that a group or individual disagrees with you doesn't make them bizarre, middle-class or generally evil.

  9. Ben, thanks for an interesting post. Three things:

    (1) You are far too soft on Hamilton. What he has done is wedded a debased version of Marx's theory of alienation to a clear argument that we live in a post-capitalist society, which you quote above. When he says this is as big as the change from feudalism to industrial capitalism, he specifically means that the class struggle (understood narrowly or broadly) is over. His books are marked by the absence of a ruling class in any genuine sense of the term, replaced by a decentralised drive to consume in which we are all complicit. Hence the moralism and calls for state regulation of behaviour at the heart of his political strategy. It's nasty, elitist claptrap.

    (2) Any analysis of consumerism as ideology needs to start with a materialist analysis of consumption and its location and function within capitalism as a system. This is what Hamilton and many environmental writers obfuscate, confusing issues like the consumption of nature with consumption by individual people, two very different things.

    Put another way, the "growth fetish" is caused by a capitalism drive by "production for production's sake", and working class consumption of commodities plays a lesser or greater role in it depending on many other factors. In most rich countries it is production of means of production that consumes the most resources (and this has remained true in the neoliberal era).

    Nevertheless, the creation of consumer commodity markets is one way that capitalists can find an outlet for productive investment, often of a very profitable kind (think of the amazing penetration of mobile phones globally). Ideologies of consumerism are therefore necessary to increase the chances of finding sales.

    However, there are other times when it is in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole to decrease working class consumption, such as we are seeing with austerity drives around the world in the wake of the GFC. While in the current scenario that may throw some economies into deeper recessions, as long as the working class can be made to pay (in effect by having its consumption slashed) the restructured capitalism that emerges at the other end of the process might do so with a higher level of profitability (or at least that's how the bosses see it).

    (3) Finally, the ideology of consumerism is more than something that has been introduced consciously by advertising in recent years. In part it is built into the lack of control people feel over their lives in general (which Hamilton does address to some degree). Because commodities have use-values beyond just material necessity, the ownership of them can provide at least a temporary sense of mastery over a world where our productive capacity is alienated from us into an impersonal realm of commodities to be bought and sold. Given that relations between people are reduced to relations between things in a system of generalised commodity production, the purchase of commodities creates at least the short-lived illusion of control over that process.

    My conclusion would be that trying to overcome consumerism is like trying to overcome religion, only more difficult because it is tied even more tightly into the basic workings of the system. Yet in either case it is the social system behind the comforting opiate that must be challenged to undermine the hold of the opiate itself.

  10. Tad, thanks.
    Re Clive Hamilton, I broadly agree regarding the shortcomings of his arguments. However it's instructive to look at their strong points in order to gauge why they are popular (for example among Greens supporters) and if there is something useful in them. I think drawing out the contradictions of consumerism is a useful excercise, and Hamilton provides some useful points.

    Secondly, I think your comment re the lack of a direct link between consumption of nature and mass commodity consumption is quite right. John Bellamy Foster et al write about this in the link posted above by glparramatta.

    However, addressing consumerism is also useful tactically in my opinion. Too many leftists organise in a rigidly "politicalist", if not workerist, manner that ignores many of the less confrontational political activities like organising neighbourhood co-ops, disaster relief, social/artistic clubs etc. It is almost a mirror image of the lifestylists who want nothing to do with politics and only want to tend their organic vegies at the local community garden.

    Certainly it's possible to waste time on some "community" activities that amount to providing a charity-like passive service. But equally, not everyone becomes a political activist through an intellectual conviction of the class struggle (although this has tended to be the only way the Marxist left seeks to recruit in Australia).

    In particular, at present there is a widespread dissatisfaction with capitalism despite a frequent lack of active class struggle. But the widespread dissatisfaction gives potential for the left to sink roots. This is what the Greens are currently doing in many areas, like at the neighbourhood progress association inaugural gathering I attended yesterday. For these reasons, I think understanding people's discontent with consumerism and the "daily grind" is important to inform what we do.

    Overcoming consumerism entirely would certainly be like convincing everyone to be atheists. But in fighting capitalism we are supposed to be undermining its hegemony. I doubt that all this will magically fall into place after some cataclysmic revolutionary upsurge. Revolution is not likely to be that simple.

  11. I guess my point of difference is that I see any "tactical" approach to consumerism as problematic if it is not tied to an appreciation of where it fits in a system of "production for production's sake". Clearly I advocate a thoroughgoing critique of consumerism, but the one Hamilton peddles actually leads towards whitewashing the systemic and class processes that lie behind consumerism as both an ideology and a response to alienation.

    One of the negative aspects of the neoliberal era has been the retreat from any understanding of class as a conflictual relation. Mainstream critiques of consumerism reinforce such mistaken notions by accepting the external appearance of capitalism as a decentred market where all participants are essentially equal in their ability to buy and sell. Deeper social forces (and hierarchies) are essentially ignored because the atomised patterns of purchase and sale are what counts.

    Finally, in terms of the argument about building subaltern hegemony: Winning workers to a critique of consumerism needs to be tied to actual struggles to improve their lot under capitalism by challenging (even in a partial way) the logic of the system. Co-ops and such-like, while they may in some ways be "prefigurative", cannot seal themselves from the operation of the law of value, and so leave those social relations undisturbed. They are simply not very good models for subverting the logic of the system, and so do little to undercut consumerism as a social, rather than a private, phenomenon. Replacing private consumerism with private anti-consumerism (even if it is collective private anti-consumerism) is not really a step forward in that sense.

  12. Ben,

    I think there are some horribly confused ideas in this post which annoyed me enough to spend time writing this lengthy response. Firstly, on consumerism. It should be obvious to Marxists that consumerism is a response to the alienation of the workplace, and provides a comfort for workers who have to spend most of their lives doing boring, alienating work. The real question is how to challenge alienation—and deal with the cause of the disease not the symptom. Tad’s analogy to religion here is a useful one I think. Drawing workers into struggle is a much more effective way of beginning to break down the pull of opiates like consumerism than indulging in the kind of lifesylist lecturing that is common in some middle class environment circles. To be honest, I can’t see how your call for the left to find “ways to promote better lifestyles” could mean anything else than doing just that. For Marx it was axiomatic that workers change through struggle, and as he put it “rid themselves of the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”. At high points in struggle you have seen examples of workers challenging their narrow economic self-interest: for instance nuclear industry workers in Iran during the Iranian revolution went on strike to call for the abolition of the nuclear power industry and their own jobs.

    Secondly, on “productivism”. I suspect your ideas on this have more to do with your (in my opinion mistaken) idea that Che Guevara offered any significant development of the Marxist tradition than any errors on Solidarity or Jonathan Neale’s part. It’s not at all clear what Neale says or Solidarity has argued that you are objecting to. Are you seriously arguing that socialists should oppose demands for wage rises? Or that we should advocate measures to deal with the environmental crisis that require ordinary people to take cuts to their living standards? Or are you just trying to say that socialists should try to draw out more general political questions in any struggle, and not simply be the most militant in terms of the economic struggle? In itself that is hardly an innovation—after all Lenin himself railed against narrow socialist “economism”.

    I also think you are dead wrong on “utopian socialism” but I’ll leave that for another day.

  13. Finally let me deal with your silly swipe against Solidarity and the SWP(UK). The International Socialists in Australia did go through a sectarian phase in the 1980s--the essence of which Socialist Alternative has sought to continue since 1995. In that period I'm sure there were sectarian attitudes towards feminism in particular. But to lump the whole IST in with that, in terms of some supposed sectarian attitude to social movements is batty. We have a theoretical disagreement with the DSP over how to approach feminism--which I think reflects concessions to bourgoeois feminist ideas on your part--but there is a rich literature in our tradition on this question which I think is a little silly to just dismiss as "sectarian". But when have we ever “opposed” the existence of the gay liberation movement, black or women’s struggles--as opposed to arguing against confused ideas within these movements?

    The early IS in Australia (before its sectarian turn) participated constructively in the Movement against Uranium Mining of the 1970s--so your thesis that the group simply denounced as middle class any environmental campaign does not stand up. However I think there is a legitimate argument that the dynamic around The Greens was different in the late 1980s to what it was in the 2000s—in the 1980s there were some right-wing moving mileux in retreat from class politics as the big union battles of the 1970s subsided and the class suffered defeats. By the noughties The Greens were expressing a shift to the left amongst newly radicalising layers, and some veterans moving back into activism. The Greens have won support on the basis of a clearly left of Labor stance amongst a wide section of society, which was not true even in the early 1990s. I haven’t been around long enough to judge what the real dynamic around The Greens in the 1980s was—but the party’s base and support is clearly different to what it was at its beginning in the 1980s.

    Finally, although I've disagreed with a lot of what you've written thanks for raising some thought provoking issues.

  14. James, thanks for the comments. "ways to promote better lifestyles" seems to be your wording not mine. Specifically, I think the left ought to promote campaigns that objectively undermine the consumer spending economy e.g. public transport eliminates the need to own cars. Secondly, the left needs to engage with political consciousness where it's at, including people who would rather join a local community garden than go on strike tomorrow. That's not to say we should abandon organising workplaces; that is the key weakness of Hamiliton's argument as I pointed out and as Tad emphasises even more.

    As to the analogy between consumerism and religion: religion is a motivating force for many radical anti-capitalists, although this has only become recognised by Marxists in a limited way since Camilo Torres and (morse so) the Sandinistas. I'm just mentioning that as something that popped into my head: I haven't drawn any conclusions from it (for this discussion) as yet.

    Regarding the sectarian turn of the IS in the 1980s - this mirrored the rightward turn in the green movement and feminist movement that you mention. Which I think is where the mistakes in the ISO's criticism of feminism (in general) and the Greens (while still supporting the governing Labor Party) came.

    Thanks for the comments!

    We all belong to groups that had sectarian phases, I think the DSP was in one when I joined in the 1990s.

  15. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for the response--although you're wrong on the IST's analysis of feminism. While I'm sure there were some sectarian attitudes from the IS in the 1980s towards feminist movements, the IST has a wider critique of the women's movement, which draws largely from debates inside the SWP as a result of their involvement in the women's liberation movement in the 1970s. The IS itself before its sectarian turn also had a much more critical attitude towards bourgeois feminism and its influence in the women's liberation movement, articulated in articles like Janey Stone's "Radical Feminism: A critique" from 1974 and later articles also written in the 1970s. The debates in the SWP(UK) revolved partly around their failed experiment in setting up a women's only organisation within the SWP which published its own publication, Women's Voice.

    I agree with you on the public transport demand but am much more sceptical about how to engage with community gardens and similar alternative lifestyle projects. I'm not saying it can't be done but I think, unless there was some kind of seriously mass-based explicitly political movement around projects like this, drawing people involved in them into wider political struggle is going to be hard.

  16. James is certainly correct that community gardens and the like are much more politically interesting in the context of wider political struggles - but that was Ben's point too!

    After all, he wrote: "Many practical cooperative schemes are dismissed by the traditional left because they look naïvely utopian, hippy even: community gardens and organic food co-ops, for example. But would the left dismiss such co-operative efforts if they were like the Black Panthers’ free school breakfast program, not a hippy trip at all but a real help to a community they were trying to organise?"

    We could add other examples, such as the "People's Park" struggle in Berkeley in the 60s, or the Green Bans in the 70s, where struggles over urban land use became struggles over social priorities.

    Such struggles are entirely just, and utterly mandatory for socialists to engage with, when they occur. When they aren't happening is another story, unfortunately, and that's usually the case.

    Surprise, surprise, we need to maintain flexibility...

  17. Just to tie off some of the commentary about Cuba and Che Guevara: this review of Helen Yaffe's book on Che Guevara is a good starting point. Of course I recommend reading the whole book, which is a great read apart from anything else, but the review summarises its salient points regarding Che's critique of Stalinism.

  18. PS: apologies to James. "ways to promote better lifestyle" is indeed my wording. But what is wrong with promoting a better lifestyle? Isn't that why the left has fought for a shorter working week, better healthcare, recreational facilities and time for working class people? Of course it is. If people start organising themselves to create some of the conditions for less alienated community life (such as a community garden, although that's just one currently trendy example) isn't that a worthy thing to support, and to try to draw on in developing the overall movement for change?

  19. Speaking of urban land use, community life and so on: the gas project in Sydney would be a perfect issue to organise around.

    It would require a little subtlety, of course, since in theory it's an attempt at a "green" approach to powering the city, but its overall drawbacks make it unacceptable.

    Many of the community garden types will, no doubt, be interested.

  20. Ben,

    I agree that a "with and against" approach is needed with The Greens.

    I am pleased to hear you're willing to criticise the record of the Cuban state on issues like homophobia. Though, I still think it's interesting that it was the IS you critiqued as sectarian towards social movements, when the checkered history of the DSP/Soc Alliance is, in my view, is really in need of an honest reassessment.

    It is my view, too, that there is nothing particularly radical in Cuba's treatment of LGBTI people nowadays that is different from most other capitalist states. I have heard the argument about emissions reductions, but to me this seems more a result of the general economic decline that Cuba has suffered since the end of the USSR (that has also seen declining living standards), not as any step towards democratic socialist planning that can consider the environment and natural laws in decisions about production.

    James has said a lot I agree with about the attitude to feminism - I suggest having a look at Judith Orr's "Marxism and feminism" for a modern assessment of women's liberation from the IS.

    As for "middle class environment politics" - perhaps that was a clumsy formulation. But what I mean is that The Greens' politics does not originate from an understanding that society is divided by class. They are not social democratic.

    Take, for example, the attitude to donations - unions and businesses are similarly regarded as "interest groups". Unions can't affiliate to the party. Aside from electoral donations, The Greens do not take building a base in the trade unions particularly seriously.

    The kind of policies they propose to deal with the environmental crisis are informed by this attempt to make action on climate change fit the status quo, rather than seeing the status quo as part of the problem. There has historically been a focus on campaigns for wilderness protection that focus on media stunts and lobbying over workers taking action for the environment, ala BLF.

    Hence they accept the premise of the Garnaut review, for example, which was essentially about finding ways to fit climate action in with business-as-usual (much like squaring a circle). That informs their drive to find a "better" ETS or carbon price instead of direct regulation. Christine Milne has called direct regulation "Stalinist" and has argued for a carbon price on the basis of business certainty.


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