Cynical capitalism, cynical anti-capitalism

How an unloved system survives by default, and how its would-be critics condemn us to more of the same

In the run-up to Christmas last year, German churches and trades unions joined forces to protest against the loosening of the country’s traditionally restrictive opening hours for shops. Berlin’s city administration, run by Social Democrats and reformed Communists, had passed an amendment allowing shops in the capital to open every Sunday in December, despite objections in terms of both religious tradition and the perceived interests of shop staff. Beyond these particular objections, as the Financial Times reported, the protests against this change ‘struck a chord in a country growing uncomfortable about all aspects of economic liberalisation’ (22 December 2007).

Like others around the world, many Germans feel powerless in the face of economic liberalisation driven by apparently anonymous global forces. ‘Anonymous’ indeed, as this relentless liberalisation does not have, or seem to need, any serious champions. While there is no coherent political opposition to the market as an economic system, intellectually and morally capitalism is more and more disdained not only by trades unionists and church leaders, but even by sections of the Western political elite itself – and not just in Europe, but also in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries. Objections to capitalism pervade popular culture and intellectual debate, and critics regularly demand an end to this or that excess, whether footballers’ salaries or advertising aimed at children.

Where the perceived needs of the economy clash with this cultural mood, there is no battle of ideas, but more often a pragmatic shrug. The avowedly left-wing Berlin administration passed the amendment not because it wanted to challenge the conservatism of Germany’s retail laws and make shopping easier for busy working people, much less out of ‘neoliberal’ zeal, but simply because the economy needed a boost. While German opening hours do seem bizarrely inconvenient to British and American consumers (including Christian ones) and while in the right circumstances more hours could benefit shop workers as well as consumers, the case for the change was almost apologetic: Sunday opening is crucial for the sake of the economy.

That the defence of capitalism takes the form of an apology is nothing new, but thecritique made today is very different from that of traditional anti-capitalism. While in the last century the pragmatic case for capitalism was made in opposition to calls for social change, in this case it is the opposite: it is capitalism that threatens to transform society and critics who seek to conserve the status quo, talking in terms ofresisting change rather than taking control of it. Rather than debating which changes are or are not desirable, from more convenient shop opening hours to GM food, we are presented with a binary opposition: for or against this single relentless force, variously described as ‘neoliberalism’, ‘globalisation’ or simply ‘capitalism’? Worse, critics rarely expect to prevail anyway: ‘anti-capitalism’ has become a moralistic posture rather than a political challenge. Significantly, this almost-emotional critique has become mainstream only with the passing of the political alternative that once had capitalism on the defensive.

The best worst system?

For much of its history, and especially during the 20th century, the case for capitalism was simply that ‘it works’. While some right-wing thinkers argued capitalism was morally superior to communism, this was never a mainstream view. Even in Cold War America, capitalism was cloaked in a kind of civic nationalism that supposedly tempered its excesses. The standard tack taken by apologists for the system was to acknowledge the moral failings of capitalism, its ruthlessness, and its tendency to create inequalities and undermine solidarities, while insisting that alternatives were simply unworkable; a sentiment captured in the title of Irving Kristol’s Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978). Or, as Margaret Thatcher said when appeals to Hayek’s erudite moral case simply wouldn’t cut it: ‘There is no alternative’ (TINA).

For as long as capitalism did face an alternative, namely communism or socialism in one form or another, this response to critiques of capitalism resonated with fears that efforts to transform society for the better would end in ruin. Political conservatism was about protecting the imperfect but seemingly necessary institutions of capitalist society from reckless change.

The lack of a credibly positive moral case for capitalism means that in the absence of such a threat, Western society now finds itself in a something of a moral vacuum. No doubt this is why Western leaders have grasped onto the War on Terror as a putative source of definition and meaning, but the intellectual and organisational incoherence of the ‘enemy’ means the war does little to cohere capitalist society itself. The everyday operation of the economy continues unquestioned and essentially unchallenged, so rather than engaging in an ideological struggle, apologists for capitalism are reduced to mouthing platitudes about ‘our values’.

Increasingly, Western elites find it difficult to elaborate what those values actually are: the ‘grand narratives’ associated with the Enlightenment are a source of embarrassment rather than inspiration for a technocratic political class. As Frank Furedi argues, Western leaders’ nervousness about seeming to disparage Islam when discussing the War on Terror indicates a lack of confidence about what it is that distinguishes the West and benign ‘moderate Muslims’ from their mortal enemies. At its worst, the elites’ intellectual exhaustion means leaders fall back on a defence of the worst caricatures of capitalism. Furedi notes:

The empty character of the lifestyle of consumption was brought home in the aftermath of 9/11, when President George W Bush called upon the American people to stand up against the terrorists and defend the American way of life by… shopping. Historically, leaders’ promotion of consumption has frequently provoked an opposite reaction: a cultural critique of consumerism, and a celebration of restraint. (Really Bad Ideas: Environmentalism, spiked, 12 September 2007)

But critics of capitalism, whether Western themselves or explicitly anti-Western, also struggle to assert a positive moral ideal of how the world should be. The celebration of restraint per se in fact reflects moral uncertainty.

At another time of political flux, as the Second World War approached, erstwhile Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued in ‘Their Morals and Ours’ that from the Marxist point of view, actions are morally justified in as much as they contribute to ‘increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man’. In fact, this view would have been shared by many if not most social and political movements since the Enlightenment. It is perhaps only now that it is being seriously challenged in mainstream politics. It is not only that man’s attempt to dominate nature is seen as the cause of impending ecological catastrophe, but more generally that unfettered human activity is considered to be destructive both of the natural environment and the well-being of humans themselves. In this view, human beings need either to be constrained or else ‘liberated’ from their own self-destructive desires.

Institutionalising critique: the myth of neoliberalism

While increasingly mainstream, this typically takes the form of a critique, as if challenging a prevailing but strangely unarticulated pro-capitalist ideology, sometimes called neoliberalism. Benjamin Barber’s Consumed is an excellent example. In a sense, both Barber’s book and Brink Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance are reconsiderations of Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). Bell argued that capitalism had become a victim of its own success. The cultural values that had driven capitalism historically – in particular the Protestant work ethic described by Max Weber at the turn of the last century – could not be sustained in the abundant and individualistic society that had resulted. Twentieth century capitalism fostered a counter-cultural ethic, celebrating leisure and self-realisation rather than hard work and deferred gratification. This led to what has been called a ‘culture war’ between conservatives aiming to shore up traditional values and radicals seeking to undermine them.

The American sociologist Alan Wolfe famously judged towards the end of the 20th century that while the right had won the economic war against socialism, the left had won this culture war. This was a reasonable characterisation of those on either side of struggles to do with feminism and gay liberation, for example, where the culture war did seem to correspond to the politics of left and right. But there were always those on the ‘economic left’ (including Daniel Bell) who saw themselves as ‘cultural conservatives’ with regard to the value of elite culture, for example, or the possibility of human universals against the claims of cultural relativism and particularism. Meanwhile, the right-wing emphasis on individual choice and the primacy of the market rather than social norms undermined traditional institutions intellectually as well as structurally. The right may have lost the culture war, but the nature of that war meant there was no clear or coherent winner. Instead, confusion reigns.

The inadequacy of the left-right paradigm with regard to the cultural contradictions of capitalism is even clearer in the case of the German retail dispute, where an alliance of ‘conservatives’ of left and right was ranged against a change justified in terms of practical necessity rather than ideology. On one side, ‘culture’, on the other ‘the market’: capitalism seemingly cut loose completely from human agency. The result looks less like a culture war than a desperate alliance of human beings against an alien force. Capitalism is not an alien force, of course, and critics are surely right to insist that politicians and others do make decisions that affect people’s lives, and should be accountable for them. But the desire of some avowed leftists to present ‘neoliberalism’ as an ideology – even a fundamentalism – is simply unworldly. What it obscures is the negative quality of market liberalisation: rather than sweeping aside alternatives and crushing its political enemies, the market is rushing into a vacuum.

Brink Lindsey’s intervention in the debate, The Age of Abundance, is a usefully contrarian reminder that contemporary capitalism is not in fact destroying the social fabric as wantonly some critics make out, any more than the ‘Aquarian’ counterculture of the 1960s ultimately did.

Notwithstanding the Aquarian rebellion against order of any kind, recent years have seen at least a partial regeneration of those healthy bonds that hold society together. And notwithstanding the blind-versus-blind ideological conflict that the Aquarian rebellion commenced, a new and workable modus vivendi has been taking shape in the broad center of American public opinion. The unity and strength revealed after 9/11 were not just vestiges of a long-standing but badly depleted stock of social and moral capital. Rather, they were a sign that this stock has been renewing itself in recent years. (pp311-2)

The idea of ‘moral capital’ is intriguing, and returned to below. What’s interesting in terms of the culture wars, though, is Lindsey’s suggestion of a new centre of public opinion, encapsulated in the books surtitle: ‘Why the Culture Wars Made Us More Libertarian’. He argues that Americans, like many others around the world, are not only wealthier than ever before, but also more tolerant and well-disposed towards others. For Lindsey, liberal capitalism is not an alien force but a way of life people can affirm and enjoy. Benjamin Barber agrees there is popular resonance for what might be called ‘consumerist’ values, but his analysis is far more pessimistic about this (though more subtle than left-wing anti-neoliberalism). Rather than self-interested capitalists carving up the world for their own ends, he sees a new popular ethic, analogous with the Protestant work ethic itself. Barber argues that, ‘our current capitalist dilemma is not, as Daniel Bell portrayed it several years ago, that the passing of the Protestant ethic has left capitalism “with no moral or transcendental ethic”, but that it has acquired a new and different ethic’ (p40).

While Lindsey contends the culture wars have given way to a healthy libertarian outlook that can be shared by all, the new ethic identified by Barber reinforces greed and puerility, helping sustain today’s consumer capitalism. He cites Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, with its infamous slogan ‘greed is good’. But of course the film was meant as a critique, and resonated with popular disaffection with the soulless materialism of Reagan’s America. The great paradox not noticed by Barber is that the moral critique of consumerism is as pervasive and deeply ingrained in contemporary capitalist societies and culture as consumerism itself. This is because a gap has emerged between public feeling and social reality, allowing consumerism and its critique – Brink Lindsey and Benjamin Barber – to co-exist and even complement one another.

Democracy in the age of TINA

Elsewhere in his book, Barber does acknowledge that over time ‘the cultural ethos transforms oppositional values into mere play’ (p250). Just as ‘carbon neutral’ can be just another brand and a Che Guevara t-shirt is a commodity bereft of political meaning, the anti-consumerist posture is all too easily co-opted into consumer culture itself in the form of films and indeed books like Barber’s. This isn’t because the consumerist ethos is all-powerful, however, but because the scope for political change is severely limited. Barber argues that the effect of the consumerist ethos is ‘to legitimate the structural features and behaviors capitalism depends upon that might otherwise be thwarted or rejected, if other value systems were pursued (religious, political, civic, artistic)’ (p249). But why aren’t these other value systems pursued? Barber’s emphasis on the supposed power of the consumerist ethos means he neglects the manifold problems afflicting each of these other systems. It is easy to say any or all of them are preferable and ought to be pursued, but there are good reasons for their having been eclipsed. This is especially, and most importantly, true of politics.

While discussing the public’s apparently more passive involvement in sport, Barber observes that, ‘Politics too, even for aficionados, has become a spectator sport, where democracy is something we watch on TV rather than an activity we engage in’ (p191). But why should this be? At root it is an historic problem rather than a cultural one. Thatcher’s dictum that ‘There is no alternative’ would not have struck a nerve if it had been simply untrue. In fact, it accurately described the exhaustion of left-wing politics, and was thus primarily directed not at revolutionaries but at Tory ‘wets’ and others who balked at the harsh consequences of Thatcher’s market reforms.

Starting in the 1980s with the effective defeat of the labour movement, and accelerating with the end of the Cold War, British politics was transformed from a public debate about how to organise society to a technocratic discussion about how best to manage capitalism. A similar process took place throughout the Western world, albeit unevenly. Though American politics had never been defined by class to the same extent as European politics, the process was no less pronounced there, and came to be personified by Bill Clinton, who, significantly, distanced the Democratic Party leadership from its traditional social base. The problem was not that people were seduced by TV, then, but that the big questions were taken off the agenda by the defeat of any serious alternative to capitalism – whether domestic or international – rendering mass politics meaningless.

Barber quotes Hannah Arendt’s insistence that ‘political freedom, generally speaking, means the right “to be a participant in government”, or it means nothing’ (p118). It is difficult to imagine what this means at a time when politics is primarily about administration: few of us would relish the thought of sitting in on cabinet meetings. For Arendt’s understanding of politics to be meaningful, serious change has to be not just an abstract possibility (in a banal sense, of course there are alternatives to capitalism) but an immanent one. There have to be concrete mechanisms – mass parties, movements, civil organisations – through which people can exercise power and effect specific and immediate changes. An activist culture is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the great mass of people to become participants in government.

Given the gap between most people and political power, it’s not surprising people tend to see their freedom as something they exercise in opposition to the state and public authorities rather than through them. For Barber, though, the assertion of individual, ‘negative liberty’ (freedom from regulation and interference) is part of the problem, threatening to undermine democracy itself and benefiting only the corporations who profit from a passively consuming public.

This is not to point to some conspiracy of boardroom managers manipulating political theory to the advantage of the bottom line. Marketers are not that smart. Nor do they have to be. The emerging cultural ethos does the work for them. For when we deploy private liberty against public power in a democratic regime, even if we think we are upholding our ‘rights’, what we are really doing is to assail not tyranny but democracy. (pp125-126)

Barber is surely right that the prevailing conception of rights is impoverished. In his BBC documentary series The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom?, Adam Curtis convincingly documents how a narrow conception of negative liberty has become institutionalised in recent decades in various ways. But the problem isn’t that people are too selfish or preoccupied with their own rights, so much as that our demands are limited to the merely personal. And it is not a consumer ethos that holds us back so much as the lack of a political alternative.

So the problem is more political than Barber acknowledges. He sees it as a sort of structural tension between the emerging cultural ethos he describes and the attitudes and institutions necessary for society to flourish. The role of democracy is to save capitalism from itself by bringing non-market values to bear on public life. But what are these non-market values? Barber warns that ‘without democratic constraint, capitalism’s challengers are likely to be zealots or nihilists’ (p260, emphasis added). For Barber, capitalism needs to be constrained, or else one way or another it will bring about its own destruction. But in the absence of an alternative to the market other than that represented by zealots and nihilists, ‘constraining capitalism’ means not taking control of the forces that shape our lives, but instead constraining our own desires. Democratic agency is reconceived as institutionalised restraint of our collective behaviour.

Institutionalising discontent

Barber writes that so-called ‘shopping addiction’ – apparently compulsive and irrational consumption – is market society writ large, ‘hiding behind a rather flimsy screen of self-deprecation’ (p242). Certainly, the notion of shopping addiction is yet another example of capitalism’s seemingly limitless ability to absorb critique and repackage it as a harmless conceptual happy meal. But while the notion that our consumption is pathological has not led to any concrete threat to consumerism itself, it surely affects the way we experience it. In Cold Intimacies, a fascinating exploration of what she calls ‘emotional capitalism’, Eva Illouz suggests a therapeutic narrative has come to dominate our self-understanding, to the extent that we conceive life itself as a ‘generalised dysfunction’: ‘This narrative foregrounds negative emotions as shame, guilt, fear, inadequacy, yet does not activate moral schemes or blame’ (p52).

It is precisely because traditional morality no longer resonates that Barber’s critique, while cutting, is not penetrating. The modern consumer is ‘less the happy sensualist than the compulsive masturbator’ (51), he notes. But railing against masturbation has never been especially effective as a means of inspiring virtuous behaviour, even if it succeeds in inducing feelings of shame. While Barber describes well the spiritual malaise of consumerism, he neglects the extent to which that malaise is already understood and lamented, but without meaningful moral consequences.

In an effort to explain the role of the putative consumerist ethos, Barber cites Karl Marx’s idea that the brutal ‘cash nexus’ of early capitalism stripped bare the exploitation at the heart of the system by undermining more organic connections between people. For Barber, the new consumerist ethos ‘reclothes capitalism’s nakedness by substituting consumer commodities for the cash nexus’ (p48). He explores at length how brands function as a source of meaning and community, much as religion did in the past. ‘When Jihad takes on McWorld today [a reference to the title of Barber’s earlier book Jihad versus McWorld], it’s not religion against commerce, it’s religion versus religion’ (p180).

But consumerism is a peculiarly cynical form of ‘religion’. It has something in common perhaps with the decadent and spiritually empty version of Catholicism that provoked Martin Luther to kickstart the Reformation. But it is a world away from the robust Protestantism later associated with the rise of capitalism – which, for so long, served to make sense of, rather than veil, the harshness of the system. Again, Illouz describes the situation well: ‘If ideology is what makes us live within contradictions with pleasure, I am not sure that the ideology of capitalism is able to do that any more’ (p113). In contrast to the solidity of the Protestant work ethic, the meaning and identities derived from brands and so on have an unmistakeably ersatz character. If the emperor’s new clothes in fact barely cover his cash nexus, it is not naivety so much as ironic resignation that keeps most of us from labouring the point. Barber cites the attitude of the savvy consumer: ‘Make me fall in love with your product. Even the customer knows the love affair is the responsibility of the producer and its marketing agents rather than his’ (pp196-197). But precisely because consumers already understand the passive and artificial nature of our relationship to brands, simply describing it does not point to a way past it. Illouz points out that this problem has been apparent for some time:

I think that such cynicism is what Adorno had in mind when he suggested that in contemporary culture, consumers feel compelled to buy and use advertising products even though, and at the very moment, they see through them. Seeing through and obeying, Adorno tells us, is precisely the dominant mode of using consumer products in late capitalist societies. Cynicism is the tone one is likely to use when one sees through and yet feels compelled to do the same thing over and over again. (p89)

This cynicism is a logical product of capitalism uncoupled from meaningful human autonomy in a historic rather than merely day-to-day sense – that is, political agency. The diminishment of politics means we participate in society without being truly responsible for anything beyond our choices as consumers, and so those choices take on a spurious significance. We know the satisfaction derived from buying particular products rather than others – or buying less stuff altogether – is trivial, but in the absence of more genuine means of asserting ourselves, we cannot help but overburden these small choices with meaning – no wonder we become cynical.

The tragedy is that even when critics want to challenge this narrowing of human autonomy, their critique is typically trapped in the same cynical sphere. Barber’s critique is echoed in apparently more political terms by the Australian economist and author Clive Hamilton. In a paper given to the British think tank Compass, Hamilton laments the empty individualism of contemporary capitalist society, and argues that this should be the focus of political activity: ‘I maintain that the defining problem of modern industrial society is not injustice but alienation, and that the central task of progressive politics today is to achieve not equality, but liberation.’ (Social Democracy: Dead, or pining for the fjords? [PDF], October 2007)

For Hamilton, this means acknowledging capitalism has succeeded in delivering material prosperity to most people in the West, and turning now to countering its demoralising effects. ‘Whereas socialists and social democrats traditionally wanted, through various forms of public ownership, to limit the role of the market within the economy, today the task is to limit the market and its values to the economy, to drive it out of non-economic domains’.

Of course, this is hardly revolutionary, and indeed the same argument has been made explicitly by conservative critics such as the Christian theologian Phillip Blond, for example (Conservatives must reject capitalism, First Post, 4 October 2007) as well as politicians of various shades. Hamilton concedes that conservative politicians have been quicker than traditional social democrats to recognise new political realities and talk about the importance of civil society, but what he calls the ‘new conservatism’, adopted by the (recently ousted) centre right in Australia, counterposes civil society to the state rather than the market, and thus fails to make a strong moral case for ‘non-economic values’. Given the diminished options afforded by the politics of TINA, however, it is questionable whether such distinctions between left and right are especially significant. In Britain, after all, it was the traditional party of the left that first flirted with ‘communitarian’ ideas even as it continued Thatcher’s legacy of market reforms.

Rather than contrasting political approaches to capitalism, perhaps what is at stake is simply the difference between moral critique and the practical business of government in a post-political age. Just as the former leftists running Berlin liberalised the Christmas shopping hours for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, other governments, whether avowedly ‘neoliberal’ or ‘left-wing’ tend to behave in much the same ways regardless of the mood music. Hamilton himself does not suggest an alternative political programme, and indeed his object is not society as such so much as human subjectivity. The protection of ‘non-economic domains’ does not mean a reassertion of democratic agency – which is in fact severely restricted by its consignment to non-economic domains – but rather an ‘emotional reorientation’ of individual consumers, as Hamilton puts it in the Compass paper.

Hamilton argues elsewhere that: ‘Our profligate consumption is no longer aimed at meeting material needs but at reproducing ourselves psychologically… If in order to solve climate change, we are asked to change the way we consume, then we are asked to change who we are – to experience a sort of death’ (New Left Review 45; p92). He goes on to quote approvingly George Monbiot’s admission that theirs ‘is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves’. A sort of death; austerity; less freedom; a campaign against ourselves. All this sheds fascinating light on what Hamilton means by ‘liberation’.

Liberation from ourselves

Benjamin Barber is surely right to note that often, ‘what we want is not really what we want to want (what our social selves want)’ (p221). But he confuses the personal inner conflict we all might experience when weighing up whether to go for a run, have a cigarette, or make a pass at someone unsuitable, with the more structural mismatch between consumer choices and the ends we might favour as citizens. Most of us want high quality schools, healthcare, a clean environment and other public goods for all, for example, but the private choices we make often lead to very different results. In contrast with the more complicated psychological phenomenon of inner conflict, however, in this case both sorts of desires are perfectly rational. As the Marxist critique of capitalism used to go, it is not individual behaviour that is irrational, but rather the system itself, since it involves the very separation of economic from political life now championed by Clive Hamilton. In burdening private consumer choices with the weight of social aspiration, critics like Barber perpetuate the very trap of diminished autonomy that they set out to criticise.

In the absence of a political alternative to capitalism, and thus with democratic control of the economy ruled out, the only sphere in which ‘non-market values’ can flourish is individual behaviour, which now becomes the object of ‘democratic agency’ in the form of government interference and ‘guidance’. And with the problem diagnosed as analogous to addiction, the solution becomes a kind of therapy, or ‘emotional reorientation’. In his book Affluenza, Hamilton argues that the cure for our malaise is to ‘downshift’, spending less money and reclaiming time for family life. He goes on to endorse British think tank the New Economics Forum’s Wellbeing Manifesto for a Flourishing Society, which calls on government to take an interest in individual happiness. In another book, also called Affluenza, and more recently in The Selfish Capitalist, British psychologist Oliver James takes the argument further, arguing that capitalism actually makes us mentally ill because of its relentless focus on acquiring ever more stuff. Again, the solution is to settle for less material wealth, and focus on happiness rather than the discontenting rat race. Rather than broadening out the meaning of citizenship as Benjamin Barber wants, however, this approaches narrows it down, encouraging an ever greater self-obsession, and an ever greater distance from genuine popular political agency. Perhaps most significantly, the notion that economic growth is not a worthy goal demonstrates a stunning lack of historical imagination.

In more thoughtful mode, Barber notes in Consumed that: ‘The ethics of narcissism promote and reflect a preference for the timeless present over temporality itself – whether past or future’ (p108). While historically the dynamism of capitalism liberated people from tradition, today’s consumer capitalism fosters an obliviousness to history. We only have to add that the consumption-obsessed anti-consumerist critique is itself part of this process. And as with the diminishment of politics described above, it has become hard to imagine what a more active, transcendent attitude to history – such as might lead us to want more rather than less growth – could mean. Frank Furedi argues that the prevailing critique of consumerism misses the target:

Instead of valuing people for their achievement, the consumer culture celebrates them for what they possess. But the problem with consumer society is not that it encourages us to be discontent, but rather that it incites us to find contentment through things. Discontentment is historically a positive virtue that has driven the human imagination. The problem with the consumer society is not that it makes us too ambitious but that it confines ambition to the sphere of consumption. (Really Bad Ideas: Environmentalism, spiked, 12 September 2007)

Discontent can be progressive, rather than simply becoming institutionalised, when it co-exists with a sense of the transcendent, the possibility of a way out of the suffocating present. Even without an immanent political alternative, an orientation to the future and its unseen possibilities is preferable to a preoccupation with the present, even if it sometimes makes us unhappy. Arguably this kind of discontent is the essence of modern human subjectivity, and is certainly not exclusive to contemporary capitalism. It is not simply that dissatisfaction inspires improvement, or that the desire for improvement makes us dissatisfied, but that the two are inseparable – whether we experience this as misery or the very stuff of life depends on how much control we have over our lives. The peculiar malaise identified by today’s anti-capitalist critics has less to do with rampant capitalism, let alone a putative consumerist ethic, than the feeling of powerlessness induced by the lack of a political alternative.

The prevailing critique fails to overcome discontent because it identifies the current malaise with modern subjectivity itself rather than its political frustration. An historically specific malaise is recast as a general problem of modernity. In an essay published on Culture Wars last year, Tim Black argued that the enduring appeal of Martin Heidegger’s pessimistic philosophy lies in the fact that it represents alienation as a consequence not of capitalism in the Marxist sense – a critique which fails to resonate in the absence of an alternative – but of rational modernity as such.

His starting point is a sense that the societies in which modern man lives lack meaning, something to believe in. And it matters not whether these societies are liberal-democratic, socialist, or some other variation on a rational, self-governing theme. For Heidegger’s target, to borrow Weber’s melancholy phrasing, is the ‘iron cage’ of rationality itself. (Why Heidegger?,10 January 2007)

In Heidegger’s thought, the cold rationality of modern society is seen as intrinsically alienating, robbing individuals and communities of spiritual meaning. There is more than an echo of this idea in today’s critique of consumerism and materialism, according to which ‘capitalism’ is eating away at our values. For all their protestations to be preserving culture and civil society from the individualising depredations of the market, critics of consumerism see participation in our highly-developed society, as opposed to the family and folksier, small-scale communities, as the cause of alienation. The notion that individual and community life might be enriched by their connection to more developed mass society, and indeed a shared idea of human progress, is very much out of vogue. If the reason for this is obvious – the mass political movements of the twentieth century, and the grand narratives that went with them, have been largely discredited – the consequence is nonetheless profoundly conservative. Values and spiritual meaning have become precious commodities to be protected from cold social and historical forces, casting conscientious individuals and communities against their own wider society, as well as against their rapacious selves.

Rediscovering society

Both Brink Lindsey in The Age of Abundance and Benjamin Barber in Consumed invoke the concept of ‘moral capital’, suggesting that this a concrete resource of some kind, though its source is somewhat mysterious. While Lindsey cheerfully contends that moral capital has been replenished in the US in recent years, Barber is more in tune with prevailing thought when he suggests that capitalism only takes and never gives. He discusses how marketers try to associate particular brands with positive ideas like motherhood: ‘Yet in exploiting these borrowed attributes, the companies help drain them of their meaning’ (p196). For Barber, the process of making consumers ‘fall in love’ with products is dangerously expensive in moral capital.

Making consumers fall in love depends on parasitism, however, which not only draws on but draws down our society’s stock of values – using up, trivializing, and demeaning them, without putting anything back in the bank (p197).

The idea that moral values and meaning are a finite, non-renewable resource goes back at least as far as Jurgen Habermas’ Legitimation Crisis (1973): Habermas worried that consumer culture was driving an irreversible process of moral depletion. As Frank Furedi suggests in the essay cited above, Habermas’ moral anxiety is existentially prior to the notion of natural limits, which was then revived from the largely discredited Malthus, and pursued by Daniel Bell. It is not surprising, then, that a moral dimension recurs in contemporary critiques, even when they take the form of concern about the environment. Whatever the real extent of climate change, this moral anxiety surely accounts for the fact environmentalist concerns have such resonance despite there being so little in our direct experience to confirm predictions of impending catastrophe; it also perhaps explains why this resonance does not lead people to act as they claim to believe they should. The environmentalist concern with natural limits is a kind of metaphor for the more profound crisis of moral meaning.

But in reality, there is no such thing as ‘moral capital’, and the current crisis is neither inevitable nor irresolvable. The prevailing critique of capitalism, however – that is, the way capitalism increasingly understands itself – only institutionalises the sense of crisis and prevents us from realising the potential for real transformation. The starting point for a more penetrating critique has to be a recognition that there is indeed more to life than consumption, and that what makes life meaningful is not our consumer choices, our mere appreciation of culture, or a set of ‘values’ inherited from history or inherent in nature, but instead our active involvement with other human beings in making the world around us. Contemporary capitalism – mass society, with its sophisticated division of labour, its ever-advancing technology and global reach, and its manifold interconnections – is not a spiritually empty hell, but on the contrary is thick with meaning and potential. The problem is not that we are running out of ‘moral capital’, or that we are all going insane, but that we lack the means to take collective responsibility for our society.

This is no simple problem, and there is no easy solution, but rather than ‘downshifting’ or trying to withdraw in some sense from mass society, we instead need to engage in it more fully. In Cold Intimacies, Eva Illouz discusses online dating as an example of a particular way of thinking about oneself and others, one based on a rational, psychological approach to emotions, which she argues is characteristic of contemporary capitalism, from family therapy to the workplace. This is a very limited way to conceive what it is to be human, and yet it is one reinforced rather than challenged by critiques of capitalism that emphasise the importance of individual well-being or emotional reorientation.

Ilouz counterposes the psychological self displayed online to the physical body, which is considered incidental to the authentic self (and yet which is rather important to most actual human beings). It is perhaps even more relevant to see this narrowly psychological self in opposition to the social self – not simply in Benjamin Barber’s sense of the conscientious citizen, but rather the self grounded in society through particular ties and relationships beyond the family and immediate community. This need not mean an emphasis on the physical as opposed to ‘virtual’ (the internet and similar technologies have great political potential), but rather a concern with meaningful social bonds as opposed to superficial affinities.

Historically, the most obvious example of such a bond is social class – a concern almost entirely absent from today’s anti-consumerism, for obvious reasons. But the decline over the past two generations of class-based solidarity – discussed in less political terms as atomisation, or less accurately individualisation – has not altered the fact that we are bound to one another by more than conscious affinities or even what Benedict Anderson called ‘imagined communities’. The upside of capitalism’s all-pervasive nature is that it unites human beings in layers of interdependence which now stretch across the world. There is the possibility of real solidarity between people all over the world, and the basis for that solidarity is not some spurious set of values or a new ethos of some kind, but the fact that we collectively make the world.

Undoubtedly, we tend to experience capitalism as an impersonal force rather than our own creation, but mass society is the product of human creativity, and as such ultimately subject to human control. The first step to achieving this is recognising that potential, and rejecting solutions that leave us more rather than less subject to domination by outside authorities, whether human or otherwise. The hollow celebration of restraint represented by contemporary anti-consumerism makes us less rather than more human, trapping us in a narcissistic cycle of failure and repentance.

Against the disembodied, one-sidedly psychological notion of love favoured by therapy culture, Eva Illouz argues that: ‘To love is to recognize libidinously and in someone else’s body our social past and our social aspirations’ (p103). The same is surely true of solidarity: our shared past and shared aspirations – rather than their disavowal – must be the basis of any credible critique of capitalism, and the surest way out of the trap of cynical capitalism and cynical anti-capitalism.

First published on Culture Wars.