Consumerism, self-denial and perfectionism

One concern that motivates many anti-capitalists is capitalism’s prodigious appetite for ever-increasing wealth and growth: environmentalists point to the unsustainable consumption of resources, others to the damaging effects this pursuit of profit has on workers and on citizens-cum-consumers. These anti-capitalists promote low-consumption economic models which do not place excessive strain on the environment or on workers. But as is often pointed out, there is a danger that what these avowed anti-capitalists (or anti-consumerists) end up promoting is puritanical self-denial: holier-than-thou types abstaining from pleasurable things. In this post, I want to examine this puritanical streak with a little help from Nietzsche, who had a lot to say about puritanism (or, as he called it, asceticism).

The first thing is to say that not all approaches advocating lower overall consumption need be puritanical. Imagine two different responses to excessive consumption of alcohol in a society. One response is to deliberately restrict one’s alcohol consumption and advocate that others should do so too. The other response is to cultivate a new, lower consensus about what counts as a normal amount to drink on a fun night out. The first response is parasitic upon existing norms governing alcohol consumption; people are to deliberately drink less than would be normal for a fun night out. The second response changes those norms: people don’t deliberately drink less than would be normal or have fewer fun nights out, but the amount that it is normal to drink has become less.

A change in consensus is likely to arise from broader changes elsewhere (it can’t be imposed by diktat from above, or if it is then it is likely to be puritanical after all), such as changes in working conditions or the distribution of status in society. But the first response presupposes that the consensus does not change; it is the reaction of a small group who identify themselves in contrast to the norm. In Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, he imagines that the weak and powerless might make themselves feel better by evaluating all the characteristic attributes of the powerful as evil. But those who react against consumption are often not the powerless but the powerful, who derive a sense of superiority (and a sense of being the ‘good guys’ rather than systematically part of the problem) from being part of an elite who abstain from things that others do not. This, too, is part of Nietzsche’s story; the ultimate expression of power is to be so confident of one’s power (in this case, one’s ability to consume) that one can casually refrain from exercising that power.

As well as being a paradoxical means of expressing power, puritanism can be a continuation of the very tendency it supposedly opposes but in fact merely inverts. Imposing absolute efficiency on consumption, or requiring exacting justification for consumption, is simply another manifestation of the insatiable rationalising impulse at the heart of capitalism.

For an example of what I mean by this, let’s turn to Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer thought that it was impossible to be truly happy; we think we will be happy if only we can satisfy all our desires, but Schopenhauer points out that even if we did manage to satisfy all our desires we would only be bored, not happy, and before long some new nagging desire would make itself felt. Schopenhauer proposed that we should give up on the futile chase for happiness and refrain from satisfying our desires: we should live a life of saintly self-denial.

Nietzsche attacks Schopenhauer’s account on many fronts; but what particularly interests me here is Nietzsche’s rejection of the craving for a transcendent state of perfection. Nietzsche thinks Schopenhauer is right to deny that we can achieve a permanent state of satisfaction that redeems our existence; this is the beguiling myth that happiness is just round the corner as long as we just keep plugging on. Philip Larkin puts it nicely:

Something is always approaching, every day

Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,

Sparkling armada of promises draw near […]

We think each one will heave to and unload

All good into our lives, all we are owed

For waiting so devoutly and so long.

But we are wrong.

Another version of this myth is peddled in capitalist society: if you just buy this one product, you will be happy and your life will be perfect (except, of course, it turns out that there’s always another product you need to buy to achieve this happiness). Just as some anti-consumerists think we can “opt out” of this myth by refusing to consume,  Schopenhauer thinks we can achieve victory over our desires by refusing to satisfy them. But Nietzsche thinks this is just a new form of the craving for a state of transcendent perfection: the absolute clarity of nothingness.

Unlike Schopenhauer, Nietzsche does not think this craving is an unchangeable metaphysical reality but a contingent symptom of spiritual sickness. To yearn for a state in which everything is perfectly resolved, once and for all, is to be sick of life: life is dynamic and ever-shifting, and we should rejoice in the beguiling temptations of desires rather than wishing for their cessation. Any apparent endpoint will turn out to be a stepping stone to a new destination, and Nietzsche thinks we should welcome this continual process of self-overcoming.

This may seem a rather unsettled and unsettling ideal (Nietzsche would agree, but would not think it a problem). Metaphorically, he likens it to endless sailing without any solid land. Within this metaphorical landscape, the picture he is arguing against is of an otherworldly firmanent that provides absolutely solid grounding beneath our feet. But we need not suppose there is no solid land, even if we reject this myth of an unchanging firmanent. We can find grounding in things that, while firm enough to be getting on with, do not satisfy the craving for absoluteness and perfection; indeed we must, because  nothing can satisfy such a craving.

Nietzsche identifies this craving with Christianity, but that might not be quite right for all forms of Christianity. It is only where a radical separation opens up between our immanent lives and some transcendent Beyond that things go awry, and this radical separation is not characteristic of a Christian doctrine according to which which God’s goodness is disclosed through his creation. It is more characteristic of a “disenchanted” outlook which relegates value to a realm of absolute rationalistic, geometric perfection and consistency that cannot be realised in the course of our actual lives. This is the outlook of modern capitalist societies, more appropriate for machines or financial accounts than for human beings.

The way out of the impasse is not necessarily to change what we value, but our way of valuing. There is nothing wrong with wanting luxuries that go beyond our essential needs – life only flourishes amidst superfluity. But if we anxiously crave a perfected accumulation of such luxuries (in vain, since this accumulation can never be perfected), the solution is not to anxiously crave the non-accumulation of such luxuries, but to desire those luxuries less anxiously and more moderately.

Of course, this isn’t a solution that can be aimed at directly, since our consensual norms and modes of valuing are grounded in social and material factors that need to be changed before it would even make sense for most people to value otherwise than they do: But the point here is to rule out puritanism as a solution, not to propose a new solution of the same kind; the starting point for a solution lies in tackling structures of power and wealth distribution, not in finding means to accommodate ourselves to those structures.



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