The case for a predominantly materialist approach to addressing the welfare needs of citizens has come under scrutiny in recent psychological and neurological research, demonstrating the central role of subjective accounts that help to delimit the capacity of the market to deliver the good life. Kasser (SDC 2009) has found that the intrinsic aims for self-acceptance, affiliation and community feeling are also the values and goals that promote personal happiness, positive social involvement, and ecologically sustainable behavior. The pursuit of these intrinsic goals has also been associated with the humane treatment of others, (Sheldon and Kasser 1995), and with caring more about ecological sustainability and being less greedy with limited resources (Brown and Kasser 2005; Sheldon and McGregor 2000). Researchers have begun to provide empirical evidence to support the view that it is not only possible for people to live happier lives while exercising higher levels of environmental responsibility, but that people have already embarked on such life paths. Some, including members of the US-based Voluntary Simplicity movement, constitute a kind of embryonic community of counter-practices, responding to a pervasive culture of consumerism. As Luke (1999) observed in his Capitalism, Democracy, and Ecology, the consumerist social model calls for a ‘political economy of social ecology and voluntary simplicity’ (1999:198). Citing the work of E.F Schumacher, Hazel Henderson, Ivan Illich and Duane Elgin, Luke describes voluntary simplicity as an essential part of a practice as on oppositional form of struggle against the regimes tied to transnational corporate capital, and designed to undercut the extravagant consumption, social passivity and personal impotence engendered in the everyday life of the consumer. For his part, Elgin, also underlines the overlapping concerns of ecology, resistance and mindfulness as a technique for the ‘care of the self’ in the emphasis he places on intentionality and purposefulness for those who wish to pursue a simplified lifestyle, with due regard for both the outer world and the inner world:
To the extent that we do not notice both inner and outer aspects of our passage through life, then our capacity for voluntary, deliberate, and purposeful action is commensurately diminished.(Elgin 2002: 245)
Identifying the general pattern of behaviours and attitudes associated with Voluntary Simplicity as a lifestyle, Elgin notes the importance of working on the full spectrum of human potentials, including the physical, the emotional, the ‘mental’, and spiritual or ‘learning to move through life with a quiet mind and compassionate heart’. In this latter interest, Elgin closely mirrors a core concern for those engaged in mindfulness and Zen training. Brown and Kasser (2005) have also lent support to the view that a mindful disposition – associated with well being – also supports positive and ecologically sound decision-making. They examined subjective well being (SWB) in groups of adults and young people, and found that individuals reporting higher levels of SWB reported enhanced ecologically responsible behaviour (ERB). Moreover, the research further established that an intrinsic value orientation[i] and a mindful disposition contributed to SWB and ERB. The research points to a mutually beneficial relation between personal and planetary well being, especially given that supportive factors such as mindfulness and intrinsic values can be cultivated. Jackson[ii] (2009) finds these findings are extraordinary because they would seem to indicate that there is a double or triple dividend to be had from the promotion of less materialistic lifestyles: people will be both happier and live more sustainably when they favour intrinsic goals that embed them in family and community. Hence, flourishing within limits is a real possibility.
Part Two: Consumerism and the ‘political technologies of individuals’: the subjects of power
For a detailed insight into the relationship between the modern state and the consumer-citizen, we must now turn to Foucault’s work on governmentality and biopolitics. Foucault’s notion of governmentality points to a reciprocity in the constitution of power techniques and forms of knowledge. The semantic linkage of governing (“gouverner”) and modes of thought (“mentalité”) suggests that it is not possible to study the technologies of power without an analysis of the political rationality underpinning them. There are two sides to governmentality. Governments define a discursive field in which exercising power is ‘rationalized’. This process involves a series of problematizing operations, wherein governments identify/define and represent ‘reality’ and offer solutions to a series of perceived ‘problems’ (problematisation). A paramount consideration, of course, is the security, reproduction, and continuation of the state itself through a combination of geopolitics and political economy. In advanced capitalist economies, the problematic pursuit of economic growth has come to be rationalized in a number of ways, including through a claim that prosperity and opulence facilitate and support the human need for symbolic interaction, linkage with the provision of public services such as education and health, and finally, government interest in economic and social stability (Jackson 2009). The reproduction of the advanced industrialised state necessitates a reproduction of conditions that support a set of co-dependent subject-object relations, with individuals located in, moving between and latterly, conflating the roles of ‘citizen’ and ‘consumer’.
Foucault sought to show how the modern sovereign state and modern autonomous individuals co-determine each other’s emergence (Lemke 1997). For example, in his study of the Chicago School as a social form, Foucault suggested that the key element in the School’s approach is their consistent expansion of the economic form to apply to the social sphere, thus eliding any difference between the economy and the social. A key feature of the neo-liberal rationality is the congruence it endeavours to achieve between a responsible and moral individual and an economic-rational individual. Neo-liberalism encourages individuals to give their lives a specific entrepreneurial form. Critically, in this transposition of individual life choices onto entrepreneurial forms, and rendering ‘economic’ those areas of life that were previously extra-economic, now to be decided on the basis of economic efficiency, a close link is forged between economic prosperity and ‘self care’ or personal well-being.
Reith (2007:39-40) notes that consumers are expected, within neoliberal states, to govern themselves through their consumption habits, with the ideal of consumer sovereignty based on autonomous individuals shaping their own trajectories through their actions in the marketplace. These self-determining agents are responsible for their own welfare, security, and future happiness independent of wider systems of social support. He adds:
…the ideologies of free choice and consumer sovereignty actually become the regulatory principles of modern life[iii]. (Reith 2007:40)
Rose’s (1998) work on psychology, power and personhood provides a useful theoretical departure point for a ‘genealogy of subjectification’ (Rose 1998:23). To write such a genealogy is to seek to unpick the ways in which the self functions as a ‘regulatory ideal’ in many aspects of our contemporary forms of life, including ‘our systems of consumption’. The ‘subject of consumption’ is the individual who is imagined and acted upon by the imperative to consume. (Miller and Rose 2008:114): Rose comments:
A genealogy of subjectification takes [this] individualized, interiorized, totalized, and psychologised understanding of what it is to be human as the site of a historical problem, not as the basis for a historical narrative. (Rose 1998:23)
This genealogical work follows Foucault’s interest in ‘our relation to ourselves’ (Foucault 1988). It is a genealogy of ‘being’s’ relation to itself and the technical forms that this has assumed, according to Rose (1998:24):
Our relation with ourselves, that is to say, has assumed the form it has because it has been the object of a whole variety of more or less rationalized schemes, which have sought to shape our ways of understanding and enacting our existence as human beings in the name of certain objectives.
Of particular interest in this context is Foucault’s keenness to direct our attention to the ways in which strategies for the conduct of conduct frequently operate through trying to shape ‘self-steering mechanisms’. It is through these technologies and mechanisms that modern individuals experience, understand, judge and conduct their selves.
The role of psy- sciences
Of particular importance in his genealogy of subjectification is the role of the so called ‘psy-‘ sciences, including psychology. These, according to Rose (1998) have acquired a peculiar penetrative capacity in relation to practices for the conduct of conduct, and play a key role in our contemporary regime of subjectification and its unification under the sign of the self. Indeed, a critical history of the psy disciplines must take as its object our contemporary regime of the self and its identity. Rose (1998:45) suggests that we might learn most about the relation between the vicissitudes of capitalism and the rise of the psychological disciplines by examining the political, institutional, and conceptual conditions that gave rise to the formulation of different notions of the economy, the market, and the labouring classes. He invites us to attend to the ways in which these conditions problematized different aspects of existence, and to analyse the ways in which these problematizations produced questions to which the psychosciences could come to provide answers (legitimating their claims to authoritative knowledge production in the process). Rose observes:
…and we should explore the ways in which the psychosciences, in their turn, transformed the very nature and meaning of economic life and the conceptions of economic exigencies that have been adopted in economic activity and policy. (Rose 1998:45)
Miller and Rose (2008) are interested in the relations between the object of psychological knowledge – the mental life of the human individual, subjectivity – and psychological knowledge itself. For psychology cannot be regarded as a pregiven domain, separate in its origins and evolution from something called ‘society’:
Psychology constitutes its object in the process of knowing it. (Rose 1998:49)
Psychology can be viewed as a form of technology, as an ensemble of arts and skills entailing the linking of thoughts, affects, forces, artifacts, techniques that do not simply manufacture and manipulate, but which, more fundamentally, order being, frame it, produce it, make it thinkable as a certain mode of existence that must be addressed in a particular way. In liberal democratic societies, norms and conceptions of subjectivity are pluralistic, but the condition of possibility for each version of the contemporary subject is the birth of the person as a psychological self, the opening of a space of objectivity located in an internal ‘moral’ order, between physiology and conduct, an interior zone with its own laws and processes that is a possible domain for a positive knowledge and a rational technique. (Rose 1998:65)
Branches of the psy sciences facilitate the translation of important features of the capitalist complex, notably the objects of capitalisation (Nitzan and Bichler 2009), in a way that they ‘become psychological’, in that they are problematized or rendered simultaneously troubling and intelligible in terms that are infused by psychology. Nitzan and Bichler (2009:160) note that the Friedmanite individual may feel ‘free to choose’ his location in the distribution, but the distribution itself is shaped by the power institutions and organizations of capitalism. And it is this shaping – i.e. the very multifaceted creation of a predictable ‘representative’ consumer – that gets capitalized. Luke (1999:72) comments that under corporate capitalism the plannable life course of all individuals qua consumers becomes a capital asset in that the ‘consummative mobilization’ of production directly boosts the productivity, profitability, and power of corporate capital’s increasingly automated industries.
Psychologists have come to participate in the fabrication of contemporary reality – in producing calculable transformations of the social world – providing the language to establish translatability between politicians, lawyers, managers, bureaucrats, businessmen, and individuals:
Convinced that we should construe our lives in psychological terms of adjustment, fulfilment, good relationships, self-actualization, and so forth, we have tied ourselves ‘voluntarily’ to the knowledges that experts profess, and to their promises to assist us in the personal quests for happiness that we ‘freely’ undertake. (Rose 1998:77)
Within contemporary political rationalities and technologies of government, subjects are obliged to be free, to construe their existence as the outcome of choices that they make among a plurality of alternatives (Meyer 1986). This is never more so than in our choice of lifestyles, which are to be assembled by choice among a plurality of alternatives, each of which is legitimated in terms of a personal choice:
The modern self is impelled to make life meaningful through the search for happiness and self-realization in his or her individual biography: the ethics of subjectivity are inextricably locked into the procedures of power.(Rose 1998:79)
Calculability, or rather the problematisation of calculability of individuals, is one of the contributions of the social role of psychology:
Truth thus takes a technical form: truth becomes effective to the extent that it is embodied in technique. (Rose 1998:89)
Consumption is one of the key sites for the deployment of contemporary presuppositions concerning the self. Expertise has forged alignments between broad socio-political objectives, the goals of producers and the self-regulating propensities of individuals. A complex economic terrain has taken shape, in which the success of an economy is seen as dependent on the ability of politicians, planners, and manufacturers and marketers to differentiate needs, to produce products aligned to them, and to ensure the purchasing capacity to enable acts of consumption to occur. While political authorities can only act indirectly upon the innumerable private acts that comprise consumption, it is the expertise of market research, of promotion and communication, underpinned by the knowledge and techniques of subjectivity, that provides the relays through which the aspirations of ministers, business, and the dreams of consumers ‘achieve mutual translatability’. (Rose 1998:162) In rendering the internality of the human being into thought, in rendering it simultaneously visible and practicable, the psychosciences have made it possible for us to dream that we can order our individual and collective existence according to a knowledge/technique that fuses truth and humanity, wisdom and practicality.
[i] Intrinsic goals are associated with self acceptance (growing as a person), affiliation (quality of relationships and friendships), and community feeling (engaging with the wider world and local community). (Brown and Kasser 2005).
[ii] In her contribution to the preparation Prosperity Without Growth? (2009), the philosopher Kate Soper (2007, 2008), points to a growing appetite for ‘alternative hedonism’ – sources of satisfaction that lie outside the conventional market. She has detected in certain groups a ‘structure of feeling’ that consumer society has passed some kind of critical point, where materialism is now actively detracting from human wellbeing.
[iii] My emphasis.