I’m not sure when it will be sensible to end the measures we’re currently taking to kerb the spread of coronavirus. It is by a long-shot not my field.
But I do think this is an opportunity for us to reconsider the course that society is currently taking. Some of my more climate conscious friends have been rejoicing at statistics in the news to the effect that carbon emissions are down 50% in some areas. Some workaholics I know have been reflecting on the surprising value of being forced into a small space with their families.
For me personally, this has been a period of time where I’ve allowed myself to slow down on my own pursuit of career goals. The lockdown hasn’t made me spend more time at home than I would have otherwise, but it has given me the opportunity to sit still for a second, comfortable in the assumption that everyone else that I’m racing is also sitting still.
I’ve described three facts of the life that we usually live: pollution, isolation, and stress. With nothing to say of pollution, the scientific literature is pretty unequivocal in the way it describes the effect of stress and isolation. These effects aren’t just mental or emotional, by the way, social isolation and stress have demonstrable correlations with physical health measures like heart rate variability and risk of heart attack.
I wonder whether we’re going to go back to normal after all our respective lock-downs are lifted. When I consider that eventuality, I ask myself: do we have to!? The answer is somewhat complicated. While we certainly don’t have to, we won’t be able to avoid it without some serious self-reflection.
I tend to lose patience with pieces of writing that recommend self-reflection and then don’t provide anything useful to reflect on, so let’s try and come up with some reasons to change, and some ways to change. It’s very easy to point out that something is broken without even contemplating an alternative. My alternatives might not be particularly attractive– but neither is going sober from the perspective of an opiate addict. From where I’m standing, we are substantially addicted to a few things, and it’s always important to admit there’s a problem.
I. Progress Mythologies
One of the biggest cited advantages of the capitalist system is that it incentivizes growth through competition. Now, it might be true that competition pushes innovation– though Noam Chompsky has some rather convincing evidence to the contrary, citing the range of important research in the 20th Century prompted by government funding as opposed to the free market— but we also need to recognize that growth is only necessarily valuable in the context of the social mobility mythology.
When I say social mobility mythology, I’m not trying to say that social mobility doesn’t occur. I’m instead trying to use mythology to point out a socially sustained conception of morality or good-ness that is propagated via the stories we tell ourselves and each other as opposed to a set of propositions.
The social mobility mythology is attractive because it lets us feel good about ourselves. Beyond that, it’s attractive because it prompts us to work for ourselves and for the good of those around us that we care about. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a story. It might even be true— though I’m not sure what truth means in this context. But it’s still a story.
Stories need to be revised when they cease being adaptive. While we might be able to justify the social mobility story as adaptive just by a fingernail from our current perspective, I’m not convinced that pushing for individual or even local-collective progress is going to be morally defensible once we realize that we really were all in this together and that we really don’t have anywhere to live any more.
The point of a critical approach to culture is to be able to appraise the values of these mythologies in a multiple step process. The first step of this process is always to acknowledge that these are mythologies. Unfortunately, many would-be critical eyes point out the mythological component of a cultural practice they don’t like, acknowledge to everyone else that it’s simply mythological, as if that were sufficient to motivate throwing it out, and then they conveniently ignore the mythological component of their own favorite cultural practices.
One common criticism of baby-boomers is that they believe they’re responsible for their successes, where in reality it was an economic serendipity that they were able to purchase their homes at ridiculously low rates while making relatively massive salaries stocking shelves at the grocery store.
The difficult part to acknowledge is that we’re all capable of that sort of cognitive dissonance, and in fact we do it all the time. I’m not particularly responsible for my own success– I was lucky enough to be born into a family with enough money to send me to good schools, and at those schools I was lucky enough to be inculcated with a belief that knowledge was valuable, which prompted me to work hard enough… and so on.
II. Status Consumption.
As long as we believe that progress is the aim, and as long as we acknowledge that individual progress is important because it’s scarce, then we’re always going to be trying to beat each other. That’s great as long as we aren’t leaving behind loads of out-dated luxury goods to rot in landfills, for example, but that’s also exactly what we’re doing.
Status consumption is when you make a purchasing decision on the grounds that is either explicitly or implicitly associated with what we usually call a ‘lifestyle statement.’ The costly signalling treadmill is what happens when the exclusivity of a given commodity is a component of its status value; when signals for that exclusivity become reproducible without the actual exclusivity; and where as a result those who yearn for status.
In its worst form, this can result in a sort of status costume: purchasing decision can be made on the grounds that the decision signals social status or the association with it. The problem with this is that it the actual good that had once been inherent in the thing to be desired, which is that it resulted from the ability to do difficult things– such as acquire scarce or exclusive resources, for example– ceases to be associated with the actually positive quality with which it had been originally associated.
In the course of working with some of the most putatively deprived members of society, I’ve noticed odd purchasing decisions. I have come into contact with homeless schizophrenics who can afford to abandon council properties costing far in excess of my own rent in housing benefit, and who still have enough money left over to spend multiple hundreds of pounds on designer clothes.
What struck me as most salient here wasn’t the incongruity of a homeless man having so much gross income as such. Instead, what I noted was that his decisions all were oriented around consuming goods that we usually think of as high-status, or luxury goods and that those goods took such high priority. I how on Earth that situation could have come about, and I wondered at what sort of implicit mythology must have been at work supporting it. I also feel the need to note that this was not uncommon. It is in fact so common that you would be dumbfounded. In the absence of any meaningful long-term purchases, some of these people resorted to flash sneakers instead.
I came up with one of two possible explanations: the first is that money is an analgesic, and that we as a society are happy to give it to those who suffer the most so as to absolve ourselves of the very difficult work of helping them in more substantive ways; the second is that a vibrant consumeristic lifestyle is actually one of the best things we can think of to give someone who is suffering. Maybe we see it as a genuine improvment to furnish our poorest and most downtrodden with the ability to buy a bunch of status signalling personal possessions. Though the reality, I suspect, is somewhere between the two.
I hope you agree with me: the idea that our social structures are uninfluenced by own our unconscious biases and beliefs is a pretty ridiculous one. It doesn’t take much psychonanalytic insight to realize people project their values without meaning to.
It’s also my experience that people are far more likely to ignore ugly truths rather than act on them. That might support the money-as-analgesia explanation, but it also might support the consumption-as-genuine-gift explanation.
III. How to Get Off The Costly Signalling Treadmill.
But what happens to luxury goods when the lowest strata of society can purchase them in ridiculous amounts? They cease to be worth much in terms of signal value. That means that something new must emerge, just so that there is something more exclusive, less easily procured, and therefore signalling greater amounts of social capital.
I’m pretty sure that’s the best thing we can conceptualize as the good: just the unending refreshment of social capital and the refreshment of our self-image. I don’t think that needs to be the case.
In some cases, one of the really wonderful things that emerged in recent history is the idea that consumption is less of a signal of excellence than the ability to self-deny. The problem is that it’s possible to commodify the image of self-denial through sorts of rough-textured health food or aesthetically pleasing water bottles. It is oh-so-easy to be diverted from genuine self-control.
I criticized above the sorts of people who complain and don’t offer alternatives, so here’s my offer. It seems like one of the best ways as a society is to orient away from unhindered consumption towards an increase in self-control as an acetic-aesthetically pleasing end in itself.
It would even in theory be possible to justify this on a social signalling level. Self denial is hard, it requires skill and training, and it requires focus. All of these are valuable and difficult and scarce and beneficial. But we don’t really make much of them in the public sphere, which strikes me as so odd.
At one point in the near past, we were able to take these skills seriously– to the point that we accidentally landed ourselves in all sorts of Protestant-authoritarian intellectual wastelands. But certainly we can look back on then, look squarely at the present, and then realize the two aren’t mutually exclusive nor mutually exhaustive alternatives.
If anything, it seems as though the skills of focus and self denial are even more important to develop in the current age of multicolored and ubiquitous advertising designed to drive us into decision fatigue, alongside the near ubiquity of sugar– which I’m sure you no doubt know is potentially more difficult to kick than cocaine.
What does this look like in concrete terms? It means wearing second-hand clothing, preferably old enough to still have been made to last. It means using old phones, again, as old as possible so they can still have been made to last. It means boycotting companies at our own inconvenience simply because despite convenience offered, they still operate in immoral ways– that’s one of the real keys to untangling this issue, but without religion it’s unclear how we might rescue morality.
How can we make it so self-denial constitutes a good? I certainly don’t think we can ground the value of self-denial in the mythology of improvement per se. If we tried that, then it would be difficult to stick with when it became uncomfortable or difficult or when it actually started costing the individual in a material sense.
In order to undertake the sort of collective reorientation that a rejection of capitalism entails– the reorientation toward ecological sustainability for example– the idea of the energetic individual as the consumptive end in itself has to be consigned to the flames. The idea that the growth of the self and its development has to go the same way. The idea that the natural and domesticated spheres serve as nothing more than clay for the live expression of the individual has to be rejected.
Pragmatically speaking, we’ll need to get people to feel good about having less rather than by having more. I think the best way to achieve this is to promote an ethic of neighborly giving, as trite as that might sound. If anything, the apparent triteness might go some distance to indicate how alienated that value has become at the moment. We could say that a good metric for the necessity of considering an alternative to the mainstream in the case of particularly all-encompassing ideologies is to examine how absurd the alternatives might seem; the more absurd the alternatives, the more all-encompassing the ideology has become under our noses.
IV. Joy at Loss for the Self and Others.
Consider the following thought experiment: a young professional has been working as a manager at a job for the past two years after having worked there for a prior three. At a review, it is collectively decided that our young professional is to be demoted again– they are simply ineffective in their role and were doing a much better job in their previous position.
In the managerial position, they were an active drain on the group, and in their return to their prior role, they are once again a net positive for themselves and for everyone with whom they work. Anyone who has ever had a job has also met someone who was both a manager who should not have been a manager. I put it to you that we will have become appropriately self-determining when we can earnestly see this move as something to celebrate rather than something to lament.
The initial intuition is to be sad for our young professional, because they have lost status. Instead, we should be happy for everyone, because a bad structure has been reoriented towards actually producing good again.
If the young professional, their family, and their co-workers could be happy that a collective benefit had been rendered rather than sad because one individual’s status had been lowered, then I suggest this would be a social mythology that was, if not free from the status-progress mythology, at least less enthralled by it than our current society.
That would indicate we had done away with the obsessive compulsions toward status and personal progress that are currently alienating us from those around us, and which continue to incentivize the destruction of our planet and already anaemic communities.