Mindfulness as Commons – Part Ten


We have known for some time that modernity and its exemplary mode of material transmission in the form of capitalism has only progressed by imposing collateral damage on society and nature. Indeed, for Carlisle, Henderson and Hanlon,[i] well-being is the collateral damage. They agree that the science of well-being and its critique are, despite their diversity, re-connected by, and subsumed within, the emerging environmental critique of modern consumer society.

Eckersley has linked static or declining levels of well-being in ‘modern’ societies because they focus primarily on economic and materialist concerns, to the exclusion of other values, and are characterized by rampant individualism and consumerism.[ii] The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has documented the history of Western modernity as a continuous obsessive and compulsive modernisation in every sphere of life, with profound consequences for how we live, act and think.[iii] His description of mobile and de-territorialized capital under the sign of ‘liquid modernity’ captures many of the dynamics that bring uncertainty and transcience into modern life. One of the vehicles is consumerism and its culture of disposability, wherein consumers are guided by aesthetic interests, not ethical norms. In the absence of ideals or recipes for a ‘good life’, the result for more and more individuals has been an experience of mental depression and feelings of impotence and inadequacy.[iv] For Apffel-Marglin and Bush,[v] and Hathaway and Boff,[vi] the provocations forced by the global environmental crises – and their implication in a series of social pathologies – invite an investigation that must revisit the origins of a paradigm of knowledge and power codified in the 17th century, and which quickly established a homology with the expansion of the market economy and the rise of the modern State. The historical resolutions – arising from the need to restore a sense of certainty in the wake of the spiritual-cum-epistemological movements in the Renaissance, and provoked by the Reformation – left deep traces in the paradigm of modernity that was to emerge.

As Jackson and Victor (2011)[vii] have noted, capitalism – due to the ‘productivity trap’ (growth=jobs=social stability) – has no easy route to a steady state position. Its natural dynamics push it towards one of two states: expansion or collapse. Jackson[viii] believes that any new economy will have to take three steps: i. establish and impose meaningful resource and environmental limits on economic activity; ii. develop and apply a robust macro-economics for sustainability; and iii. Redress the damaging and unsustainable social logic of consumerism. On the latter, Jackson has noted that the profit motive stimulates a continual search by producers for newer, better or cheaper products and services (‘creative destruction’ (Schumpeter, 1934)[ix] and the way in which the continual production of novelty is intimately linked to the symbolic or communicative role that material goods play in our lives. Noting that the social logic that locks people into materialistic consumerism as the basis for participating in the life of society is extremely powerful, Jackson adds that it is also detrimental ecologically and psychologically, contributing to a ‘social recession’. He advocates structural change designed to address the social logic of consumerism, consisting of: i. dismantling the perverse incentives for unproductive status competition; and ll. New structures that provide capabilities for people to flourish – and particularly to participate meaningfully in the life of society – in less materialistic ways (Jackson 2011:163). One avenue will be the development of non-consumerist ways of understanding and being in the world. It is envisaged that a less materialistic society will increase life satisfaction; and a more equal society will lower the importance of status or positional goods.

The ‘social recession’ manifests in a number of symptoms that flow from a disintegration of social ties or what Zygmunt Bauman[x] has described as social liquidity, including “consumer society” wherein all things, goods, and people are treated as consumer objects. Liquid society is the result of a process that has accelerated from the early 1980s along with neoliberalism and globalisation; it is a mobile, transient, precarious society in which the disintegration of social ties reaches levels that have been hitherto unknown. Bonaiuti[xi] (2012:41) has linked this disintegration to: i. the spread of individualistic behaviours and to positional competition; ii. a contribution to the loss of well-being in contemporary societies; lll. A loss of resilience of social organisation when faced with external stress (economic or ecological); and iv. to a clue to comprehending why contemporary societies seem to show little reaction when confronted with the multidimensional crisis we are facing.

Many of us are now familiar with the argument that advanced capitalism is hitting up against both planetary boundaries (Rockstrom et. al. 2009)[xii] and ‘social limits’[xiii] associated with myopic behaviour and hyper-individualism. But what if the ‘social recession’ is not only undermining our psychological wellbeing but also undermining our ability to respond to the ecological crisis?  As Bauman[xiv] (2005:117) suggests, ‘Imagining the possibility of another way of living together is not a strong point of our world of privatised utopias’. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the way we experience the deep socio-cultural patterning of advanced capitalism. Perhaps caring for the self is a necessary pre-requisite for and accompaniment to our collective response to the larger systemic crises.

Tracing the rise of the post-Fordist brand of newly invigorated capitalism in 1980s Britain, Rutherford[xv] (2008) describes how the new capitalism extends commodification into the realms of subjective life and invades the space of creative living (Winnicott)…’Just as early industrial capitalism enclosed the commons of land and labour, so today’s post-industrial capitalism is enclosing the cultural and intellectual commons (both real and virtual), the commons of the human mind and body, and the commons of biological life.’  Paul Virno[xvi] has argued that the productive force of post-Fordist economic activity is ‘the life of the mind’. Not just cognition but also intuition and the symbolic world of the unconscious, where communication is non-verbal. Rutherford detects a tragic  dimension in the culture of capitalism that has depoliticized class while heightening the inequalities and social gulf between classes. Consumption may offer the pleasurable pursuit of desire but it is also a mass symbolic struggle for individual social recognition, which distributes shame and humiliation to those lower down the hierarchy: ‘The pain of failure, of being a loser, of being invisible to those above, cuts a deep wound in the psyche’(Rutherford 2008, p.14). In turn, this kind of stress dramatically increases our vulnerability to disease and premature death.

In a report on Mental Health, Resilience, Inequalities (2009)[xvii], the World Health Organisation described mental health as a fundamental of the resilience, health assets, capabilities and positive adaptation that enable people to cope, to flourish and to experience good health and social outcomes. It is also a key pathway through which inequality impacts on health. There is overwhelming evidence that inequality is a key cause of stress in itself and also exacerbates the stress of coping with material deprivation. It is noted that communities across Europe place a high value on well-being just as the limitations of consumerism are being more widely reflected on in relation to children, family life and the basis of civil society.

Noting considerable implications for the nature and dynamics of the public sphere where we must, finally, negotiate and engage with the crises of ecology, Hershock describes the market valorization of convenience and choice as signalling both a general narrowing of our horizons of personal responsibility and, over time, a severe compromise of relational capability and attunement. Each act of commodity consumption marks a smooth and efficient paving over of opportunities for developing the complex attentive and relational skills associated with contributory virtuosity. And, in the process of handing ourselves over to the purveyors of expertly designed and manufactured goods, services, knowledge products, and meaning, we render ourselves increasingly in need of expert, globally mediated, care. Degraded environments, then, are inseparable from degraded consciousness, in a dual pattern of degradation that at once devalues what is experienced and lowers experiential quality.

Hershock goes further, suggesting that the colonization of consciousness is in many ways a more critical threat to our possibilities for realizing truly liberating environments than is the depletion of soil, the fouling of our rivers, lakes, seas, and skies. The mass media have become the primary system through which the attention economy manages to be a net producer of dramatic entropy or situations in which no matter what choices we make, they will not ultimately make much of a difference.

At least two primary sets of responses to such investigations are emerging. Both elements will have to form part of what I am calling a political economy of attention for the age of the anthropocene. At the macro-level of the economy and society, the totalizing drive of the neoliberal phase of capitalism – whose rise accompanied the decades that preceded and followed on the heels of the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio in 1992 – has reached a point of exhaustion both in terms of the need to revisit the capitalist ideology of ‘growth’ (and its role in concealing the institutionalization of inequality across countries and within countries) and to confront the challenge of redesigning an economic system in the service of people and respectful of the planet’s ecological and atmospheric boundaries. As Jackson has outlined,[xviii]meaningful steps to a transition to a sustainable economy must establish and impose meaningful resource and environmental limits on economic activity, develop and apply a robust macro-economics for sustainability, and redress the damaging and unsustainable logic of consumerism.

Integral to the macro-response is an emerging recognition that a parallel and urgent challenge for Western citizen-consumers is the need to recast the notion of prosperity in a new language of flourishing and well-being rooted, in part, in a reclamation of ‘attention’ and ‘somaesthetics’ from the complex of capitalisation. Institutional support, consistent with a new social logic, will also be required to support a new and holistic appreciation of the human being as opposed to the self-interested ‘radical subjectivism’[xix] cultivated by and in the service of the market. As Sachs observes in his chapter on ‘The Mindful Society’, an integral part of restoring balance to our engagement with society, health and the economy, will be a restored quality of mindfulness as a key element in silencing the ‘relentless drumbeat of consumerism’.[xx] Mindfulness and contemplative practices (yoga, tai chi, meditation) are already embedded in American classrooms from Princeton to Westpoint, where students begin their classes in silence. For Apffel-Marglin and Bush, the emergence of contemplative practices in our universities is an entirely appropriate response to the 21st century ‘onto-epistemological situation we find ourselves in’, one that requires new tools for empathy and inquiry, tools that allow us to inquire into a world with which we share our ‘interbeing’ and support a recovery of ethics.[xxi] Hershock describes mindfulness practices as an alternative technology – an alternative to our technological bias toward control and wanting. For control has silenced the things and people sharing our world, making it impossible for them to spontaneously and dramatically contribute to our narration.[xxii] Unfortunately, a strategic silencing of alternative ways of seeing the world and the human being has been one of the major achievements of unfettered capitalism, a strategic silencing that effectively patrols what can and cannot be contemplated in the course of current global environmental diplomacy.

Twenty years after the first Rio ‘Earth Summit’ (UNCED), much of the optimism generated by the political and media spectacle of high-level earth politics has dissipated. The proliferation of multilateral environmental agreements and summits that followed 1992 points to an unprecedented achievement in international diplomacy but also to the gap that continues to exist between the aspirations of the ‘children of Rio’ and a world haunted by an all pervasive fear that much needed change – notably at the level of society, communities and individual lifestyles in the developed world – has been too little, too late. An acceleration of global environmental diplomacy has taken place alongside, and apparently with little impact on, an unprecedented era of globalized trade, investment and the ascendancy of financialized capitalism that has left few parts of the world untouched. In twenty years of credit-fuelled spending and consumer confidence, more people, perhaps in all of human history, got to witness the sublime beauty and complexity of this lonely planet on television screens, video players, and Hollywood movies. The same media complex today bears tidings of a global recession, the spectacle of stalled climate negotiations, rumours of an impending energy crisis, and a widespread collapse in confidence in the political class. We are at once captivated by our dilemmas and yet condemned to an intimate distancing from our bodies, minds and the earth under the spell of capitalist realism.

[i] S. Carlisle, G. Henderson and P.W. Hanlon, ‘”Wellbeing”: A Collateral Casualty of Modernity?’, 69:10 Social Science and Medicine (2009), 1556.

[ii] R. Eckersley, ‘Dialogue on Despair: Assessing the West’s Cultural Crisis’, 28:2 The Futurist (1994), 16.

[iii] Z. Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (Polity Press, 1998); Z. Bauman, Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (Open University Press, 1998); Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Polity Press, 2000); and Z. Bauman, The Individualized Society (Polity Press, 2001).

[iv] S. Carlisle, ‘Modernity and its Consequences for Wellbeing’, Cultural Influences on Health and Wellbeing in Scotland, Discussion Paper 6 (January 2008), available at <http://www.ogilvie.fastmail.co.uk/healthyfuture/bauman.html&gt;.

[v] See F. Apffel Marglin and M. Bush, n. 9 above.

[vi] M. Hathaway and L. Boff, The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation (Orbis Books, 2009).

[vii] T. Jackson and P. Victor, ‘Productivity and work in the new economy: some theoretical reflections and empirical tests’, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions (2011), 1(1): 101-108.

[viii] T .Jackson, ‘Societal transformations for a sustainable economy’, National Resources Forum (2011), 35:155-164.

[ix] J. Schumpeter, The Theory of Economic Development. (Transaction Publishers, 1934 London)

[x] Z. Bauman, Society Under Siege. (Polity, 2002, London)

[xi] M. Bonaiuti, M. ‘Degrowth: Tools for a Complex Analysis of the Multidimensional Crisis’, Capitalism Nature Socialism(2012), 23:1, March, pp.30-50.

[xii] Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries:exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society (2009), 14(2): 32. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/

[xiii] K. Raworth, A Safe and Just Space for Humanity, Oxfam Discussion Paper, February 2012.

[xiv] Z.Bauman, Liquid Life. (Wiley, Oxford 2005).

[xv] J.Rutherford, ‘The culture of capitalism’, Soundings: journal of culture and politics (2008), 38: 8-18.

[xvi] P.Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an analysis of contemporary forms of life. (Semiotext Foreign Agent Series, 2004).

[xvii] World Health Organisation/L.Friedli, Mental Health, Resilience, Inequalities (WHO Europe Office,2009)

[xviii] See T. Jackson, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 163.

[xix] See Marglin, n. 22 above, 64.

[xx] J. Sachs, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity (Random House, 2011), at 161-183.

[xxi] See F. Apffel Marglin and M. Bush, n. 9 above, at 21-22.

[xxii] See P.D. Hershock, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above , at 280.

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