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 The politics of struggle has been superseded, writes Giddens, by the politics of lifestyle, and the real concerns of ‘life politics’ involve questions of autonomy and self-expression.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?
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.