An extract from Growth Fetish….

…Advocates of the third way argue that the pursuit of ideology is old-fashioned, that society today is not marked by class division but by a ‘messy plurality’, and that politics is no longer the art of struggles for class dominance and social transformation. The politics of struggle has been superseded, writes Giddens, by the politics of lifestyle, and the real concerns of ‘life politics’ involve questions of autonomy and self-expression. There is some truth in this perception of modern attitudes and politics insofar as the dynamic of modern capitalism has shifted from the production to the consumption sphere.

The problem is the uncritical acceptance of ‘life politics’ by advocates of the Third Way. There is no analysis of why people have retreated to lifestyle and no discussion of whether the messy plurality is a surface manifestation of deeper, systemic social changes. The Third Way seems to be saying that if people want lifestyle that is what we must give them, without asking what forces lie behind the pursuit of identity and self-worth through lifestyle choices and brand association and how these perceptions are created and manipulated in the marketing society. Thus the ‘life politics’ of the Third Way is precisely the politics that suits the consumer society: it focuses on manufactured identity and the flim-flam of marketing, rather than the deeper urges of humanity. It is the politics of the masses caught in a web spun by corporations and their publicists.

Nowhere in the writings on the Third Way can one find an analysis of how social structures condition thinking; nor can one find discussion of class consciousness or false consciousness or any inkling of why people believe what they do. The political superficiality of the Third Way is the ideal counterpart of the emptiness of modern consumer capitalism.

Underlying all this is a belief that people are free to choose what is best for them, in exactly the same way that the economics texts cleave to consumer sovereignity as the guarantee that in free markets, people will get what they want. But what the idea of consumer sovereignity and the political individualism of the Third Way refuse to recognize is that people’s preferences are not created ex nihilo: they are formed by the society they live in-which in the present case means in large measure and increasingly by the messages of the marketing society. Because the advocates of the third way have no social critique, they imagine that people are free to pursue their life goals and to ‘create themselves’, ostensibly from nothing. In the post-modern world people create their own selves, but they do not create them just as they please: they create them under circumstances and with materials made and transmitted by the ideology of growth fetishism and the marketing machine.

The Third Way is adamant that, rather than deciding for people what they want, its purpose is to provide everyone with the opportunity to express and satisfy their personal desires. A deeper critique would acknowledge that, because our desires are so bounded by the ideology of growth fetishism and so concealed by layers of images and distorted associations created by decades of marketing, until we individually and collectively stop to examine ourselves we do not know what is in our interests. In the Third Way, the model citizen is the highly educated, flexible, mobile worker-‘symoblic analysts’ or ‘bourgeois bohemians’. We might call this model ‘Third Way Man’, a caricature that reaches its zenith with the invention of the ‘wired worker’, the exemplary worker of the information age who transcends the class struggle and stands as the model citizen, the Stakhanovite of history’s end. While one could venture a sociological critique of this type and argue that it will always represent only a small proportion of the population, the real question that must be asked is whether high incomes, professional mobility, disdain for community, and inflated self-image make Third Way Man happy. For if they are not happy, why would government policy attempt to create the conditions for them to multiply?
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Clive Hamilton’s thoughts resonate with the way my own ideas have evolved over the last year and half. The exemplary workers that Hamilton talks about are all around us. Some find their way out of the caricature over time – either due to some growing awareness as they progress in their careers, or in their wisdom, they choose to find a more holistic alternate path. But the hard truth is in the western economies at least, the majority did not. It is a consequence of the nature of the modern economic beast. The signs are here around us that such could be the case here as well.

Almost an year ago, I wrote “The US and the Western European economies for all their excesses have still done a good job of addressing their poor. Their poor are not the same as our poor. For the most part, their poverty is a poverty of a different kind, its a poverty of being unable to meet the small wants, not the important needs.” And for this reason alone, I still believe we need growth. Our issues are still different – those of needs, not wants. And I don’t believe we have the means to resolve these issues without at least some growth. Just some.

But even more importantly, we need an alternative political ideology – an ideology that “under emphasises” consumption and marketing, and channelizes individual and collective participation in resolving our deeper current malaises. In doing so, we will also find better, more reliable, and self-invigorating growth engines – not the disheartening ones we are forced to put up with for the moment. Hearteningly, we have good examples in quarters we are not used to having good examples – the lifestyles of Manmohan Singh & Abdul Kalam are what all of us probably need to emulate.

I have been fairly unsuccesful in translating these feelings in the way I live my own life. It is not for a lack of trying, it is more an absence of discipline and sufficient will. And that is something I need to correct this year. I have never taken a new year resolution in my life, maybe this is a good time to start.

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Posted on January 8, 2005, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. it would be most interesting to read j.k.galbraith’s “The affluent society” in the context of this post. i believe the fortieth revision is out, and conventional wisdom (could not resist using it here) dictates that the book is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.

    • Galbraith is a very wise man. I find it hard to understand that he has not won a Nobel yet. I read his American Capitalism sometime ago – very fine book. Affluent Society is on my wishlist for the moment, but yes, that’s a book I would like to read soon.

  2. Have you read Oulook magazine’s survey on happiness (I managed to buy a copy after you told me about it)? They’ve come up with some interesting studies as to how the poor in India are much more happier than their counterparts in developed countries – despite their basic needs not being satisfied, let alone wants. I think that’s pretty much what I would expect, given that we are not yet a materialistic (growth oriented) society at the grass root level.

    It brings us back to the question as to whether the goal of economic and political policy is to satisfy wants or make people happy (not that it has to be mutually exclusive – but the growth model of the west has made it so). By adopting this model of growth, we will continue to make it mutually exclusive. Once you set your objectives as growth, its impossible to lay down the limits, for no one knows how much is enough or what the tipping point is (if we can’t make people happy or satisfied in the US even with all that growth, what’s the guarantee that India will ever be happy?). And growth at the bottom of the pyramid is almost always a trickle down effect in capitalism. Even mordern growth engines like rural marketing will not be effective unless it is agressively pushed by top-of-the-pyramid companies like ITC who have enough consumers to absorb all that produce (which I suppose is CK Prahalad’s unabashed recommendation to help india’s villages). It was Galbraith who said that growth in Capatialism works by feeding a horse enough oats hoping that some may pass through undigested to feed the sparrows!

    I’m pretty much convinced that Gandhi’s self sufficiency is the key to poverty removal. Not growth. We produce what we need and we are satisfied with what we have. We shouldn’t need an ITC to tell our farmers what they should be producing in order for them to grow. But I doubt if we can revert back to that model – I think we’ve come too far down the growth stage to know what we really want as a nation.

    I also believe that genuine self identity will come only when self-sufficiency is achieved both at an individual level and national level. As long as you are an interchangable IT worker or an insignificant farmer working for other multinational giants, you will have no true individual identity. Your wants, needs, your lifestyle, and ultimately your society will not be defined or shaped by you, but by these global corporations and their standards. I think that’s pretty evident in the case of the Bangalore community – compare it 15 years back with now and then compare it with say, Coimbatore where the entrepreneural base is still strong. You can see who or what shapes society and which community has a more genuine identity.

    • I’m going to collate my thoughts and make a detailed post on this once I get to read Growth Fetish. Its been a long time since I’ve done any serious reading or writing…

      Meanwhile, keep posting! šŸ™‚

    • I’m pretty much convinced that Gandhi’s self sufficiency is the key to poverty removal. We produce what we need and we are satisfied with what we have.

      I have been fairly convinced about that for a while now – maybe if we had begun that way, we may have ended up a model country. As Jagmohan Raju would have said, Who knows? But as it stands now, we run with a handicap and I do not believe that we are in any position to practice that ideal today.

      In fact, the Gandhian ideal should be the model for developed world today, and it is a pity that realization has not dawned there yet. They still approach the world from a winners vs losers & an excessively consumption oriented paradigm when they have no real need to do so. And that paradigm does come from an indecent obssession with growth.

      If we cut down to the chase – food, clothing & shelter are our primary needs. That is a problem that has been solvable for some time now. There is no reason any man, woman or child should go hungry. That we don’t solve it is because the world continue to operate from the wrong paradigm. And considers poverty as no more than an unfortnate trickle down problem that will be solved with more growth. So long as that mindset persists, the problem will not disappear. In India, of course, it is also because the state & it’s representatives for far too long did not care enough.

      Maybe the way to give direction to this runaway train heading the wrong way is to move it to a different track. If the train is growth, and the track is an excessively materialistic consumption orientation, we need to change the track. For our own good, we need to curb our consumption instincts and channel that desire into more meaningful activities. That is a paradigm shift we need to make. One aware individual at a time. And the new route on which the train travels may be less agitated and exciting, but it will be a more agreeably scenic and suitable one.

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