Fortunately, contemporary regimes of subjectification are not all consuming. Foucault held open a conception of the subject that maintains the possibility of resisting or exercising choices that might be partially severed from a dominant ethic or the neoliberal enterprise culture (Shankar et. al. 2006:1019). Shankar (2006:1019) adds:

If this is the case, technologies of the self may also transform individuals and partially liberate them from previous cultural circuits. With this notion, Foucault observes the possibility to create new privileged spaces, and indeed, he infers that the result of such practice may endow the individual with happiness, purity, wisdom, and perfection.

Just as the contradictions of ecological constraints have begun to make themselves felt in debates on macroeconomic concepts of ‘growth’ and the meaning of ‘prosperity’, so we can expect reflective individuals and communities to increasingly transform their experience of ‘freedom’ – reduced to calculable market choice – into a more far-reaching set of choices and refusals in response to a proliferation of forms of discontent with the by-products of affluence and a growing awareness that the realisation of important intrinsic values are not in the gift of the market. In response to more and more choice, a growing number of people are choosing to simplify, consume less and differently, and to bring their expenditure and their experience of self under control, recognising that while choice is beneficial up to a point,  limitations, restrictions and boundaries can also have a strangely liberating effect (Sigman 2004).[i]

From a Foucauldian technology of self perspective, I want to extend the notion of empowerment to the possibility of a more radical shift than the one envisaged by Shankar (2006), to one that includes a withdrawal or distancing from the governmentalized practices of consumption. This refusal and resistance would amount to an expression of life and being ‘at the frontier’ as Foucault (1984:46) described it. The challenge of climate change forces States and their citizens to a new frontier of critical reflection on the viability of our current socio-economic structures and leading concepts such as ‘growth’ and ‘prosperity’. The experience of individuals and communities engaged in contemporary practices of askēsis suggests that such a step can be supported by certain forms of knowledge pursued alongside mental and physical disciplines. Foucault’s (1988) interest in the work we do on ourselves – effecting operations on our bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct and way of being, so as to transform ourselves – in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality, has a particular resonance in the context of debates on sustainable consumption. Just as we spontaneously attend the gym to maintain our health and well being in the face of societal lifestyle trends that carry risk, so attendance to our subjective responses is also possible, including the adoption of mental and physical techniques designed to enhance both our physical, mental, even spiritual resilience[ii].

The work

Sustainable consumption occupies the frontiers of the sustainable development agenda, posing some of the most profound questions for contemporary citizens in their relation to both the State and the capitalist complex, as climate change confronts both with an – as yet – unanswerable demand: is the social logic that binds the advanced industrialised state, capitalism and dominant modes of consumption/prosperity capable of adaptation to a sustainable path? Part of the test lies in the gap between what we know and what we are willing to do to translate our knowledge and volition into action. Few reports on public attitudes to the adoption of sustainable or ethical forms of consumption and investment fail to note the fact-value gap, wherein individuals consistently declare aspirations that are not followed up in practice[iii].

Sustainable consumption as biopolitics invites a reconsideration of the role of ‘training’ or ‘practice’ in preparation for the exercise of a richer notion of freedom and ‘self care’ and self knowledge that is compatible with a vision of human flourishing, within ecological limits. Kissack (2004) recalls how  Foucault’s focus on the exercise of power through the constraints of language led him to consider the meaning of contemporary freedom. Foucault was prompted to examine the work of Greek and Roman philosophers on how the subject, inevitably immersed within a nexus of linguistic and cultural influences, reflected upon and modified their heritage, refashioning themselves according to the conclusions of their philosophical deliberations. In one of his last interviews, Foucault referred to this deliberative and transformative activity as ‘techniques of the self’. In Foucault’s work on ‘techniques of the self’ or askésis, we may also find cues for strategies consistent with the contemporary demand for sustainable consumption and resistance to unchecked consumerism, which has as its animating ethos a ‘joyless compulsiveness’ (Christopher Lash 1979). Within Foucault’s understanding of biopolitics – and the deployment of disciplinary, normalizing institutions in pursuit of a secure, healthy and productive population – techniques for the mass production of individuality do not simply free us and allow us to realize our truth. They free us to be true only by fabricating a certain truth and arranging the spatial-temporal world to direct individuals toward truth. Moreover, with advances in neuroscience and neurology, we are coming to appreciate the formative impacts of mental operations on the structures of the brain, with lasting consequences for the individual. Just as individuals can undertake mental and physical activity with a view to altering their mind-body state, so the influences of the vast media complex that acts as an extension of the circuits of production and consumption, also leave a lasting impression. McGushin adds:

A completely biopolitical interpretation of life is a political project. In this way, discipline, biopolitics, and normalization paradoxically institute a powerful self-neglect, a pervasive thoughtlessness about the fundamental political and ethical question – How will I live? – precisely by saturating space and time, our bodies and desires, with techniques, discourses, and relationships which have the goal of taking care of us and making us happy. (McGushin 2008:xx)

Foucault links the rise of biopolitics – power over life – to the decline of the age of Empire, when a new problematic took hold: that of organising and securing states from within in an emerging era of competition between states. Biopower, specifically, seeks to bring life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations (Foucault 1988:143). This is a process of objectifying the forces of life, quantifying them, measuring them, and on the basis of this knowledge, setting them into productive coordination. From the end of the 17th century onwards, there was an explosion of productive technologies of power, focused on the ‘the body as object and target of power’ (Foucault 1977: 136). This was a political anatomy that was also to become a mechanics of power. These developments would, ultimately, call forth the role of the psy-sciences in helping to construct experiences of interiority (of the subject) conditioned by, and conditioning, the imperatives of the new objects of ‘economy’ and ‘state’.

[i] A. Sigman, The Explosion of Choice: Tyranny or Freedom? (2004) cited in the report I will if you will: Towards sustainable consumption (Sustainable Development Commission and the National Consumer Council, London, 2006). <> (accessed 6 October 2008)

[ii] Larry Glover, on his wild resilence blog, writes: ‘Wild Resiliency will not be understood or confined certainly by any models that do not also take into account the human spirit in the wholeness of who we are, which also includes our propensity to accommodate ourselves to our shadowed resilience, our affinity for comfort and denial, our domesticity. Our wild resilience can in truth no more be contained or modeled than can words describe the Tao; we can only point at it with such tools, which accounts for the human incorporation of poetry, mythology and the arts to help us more fully appreciate and experience the entangled complexity and mystery of who we are.’ <; (Accessed 26 November 2009).

[iii] A McKinsey survey of consumers in Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, UK and the US found that 53% were concerned about environmental and social issues, but not willing to take action at the shops; a further 13% were willing to pay more, but currently did not do so. Cited in Sustainable Consumption Facts and Trends – From a Business Perspective, 2008, World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

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.

In contrast with the negotiations leading up to the 1997 agreement on the Kyoto Protocol, the ambition of binding targets to be undertaken by OECD countries after the Copenhagen (COP/MOP 2009) process will be largely ‘evidence based’ and more closely reflect the urgency and scope of ambition conveyed in the latest IPCC science[i]. The architecture of the political agreement coming out of the UNFCCC/Kyoto Protocol Conference and Meeting of the Parties in Copenhagen in December 2009 and follow-up negotiations is expected to lead to an unprecedented scaling up of the emerging global carbon market. Indeed, market-based instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) will act as the templates or vehicles for enhanced arrangements that will both facilitate and link ambitious targets in developed countries and an unprecedented transfer of resources and investment to the developing world in return for a form of ‘meaningful’ participation, short of binding commitments. The upshot of these developments will be further consideration of implementation measures that begin to impact on energy consumption and lifestyles. The IPCC evidence base that is helping to shape current UNFCCC negotiations has left policy-makers in no doubt that lifestyle change will have to be part of the mix when it comes to designing policies and measures that match the ambition of the anticipated emissions reduction and mitigation targets. Specifically, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC 2007) calls for changes in lifestyle and consumption that emphasize resource conservation and contribute to the development of a low carbon economy that is both sustainable and equitable[ii].The IPCC Chair, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, followed up the Panel’s Fourth Assessment Report’s (2007) treatment of the lifestyle issue with a call in 2008[iii] for a cut back in meat consumption as an individual contribution to curbing climate change.


Sustainable consumption lies at the provocative end of the sustainable development debate, insofar as it forces a return to some of the formative questions that drove Governments to convene the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992). Climate change policy responses after Copenhagen will inject a new urgency into the UNCED Agenda 21’s ‘Cinderella Chapter’[iv].  For Sachs[v] and Princen[vi] and others the efficiency perspective that has dominated discussion on the ‘sustainable production’ side of the equation must be accompanied by a sufficiency debate on the consumption side. The transition towards sustainability can only be achieved through a twin-track approach, which brings about an intelligent reinvention of the means as well as a prudent moderation of ends. Questions about ‘ends’ and ‘what the economy is for’ draw policy makers into uncharted territory in the consumption debate. Is it possible, for example, to imagine flourishing communities where an appreciation of limits and self-restraint has been deeply embedded or re-covered in our culture and society? Few governments in advanced liberal democracies have begun to pursue the logic of the sufficiency debate, and for understandable reasons. Sarkozy’s (Stiglitz et. al.,2009) commission was a unique moment of critique that will, undoubtedly, set a benchmark in the debate on the ends of economic activity alongside the UK Sustainable Development Commission’s report, Prosperity Without Growth: the transition to a sustainable economy (SDC 2009).

Part of the difficulty with the emerging governmental challenge of redefining wealth and prosperity, is that it runs against the grain of embedded assumptions about consumption in liberal democracies. As Offer[vii] reminds us, modern consumption theory assumes that rational consumers make choices that are well informed, far-sighted, and prudent. Consumers reveal their preferences by means of market choices, and market choices correspond to their well-being (‘welfare’). Offer[viii] points out that a great deal is at stake in the model of ‘revealed preferences’ as the source of well-being. Indeed, it may be nothing less than the conceptual underpinning of liberal society. The doctrine regards the free exercise of market choice as not only economically efficient, but also as a vital human aspiration (albeit, human choice that must be translatable into knowledge as algorithm (Marglin 2008). It is, in part, for this reason that political leaders have been slow to pursue the ‘sustainable consumption’ agenda since the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), when an ambitious redefinition of prosperity was part of the explicit menu of policy challenges.

In the decade since Agenda 21 (UNCED 1992)[ix], technological development and innovation have increased resource efficiency at some levels and in some sectors. However, these developments have not amounted to an adequate response to address critical patterns of unsustainable consumption and production. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, negotiators revisited the consumption agenda and agreed the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (Chapter III) which includes a call for the development of a 10-year framework of programmes[x] in support of regional and national initiatives to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production” (SCP), with a focus on policy responses in the EU and OECD countries. The definition of sustainable consumption, however, had narrowed post-1992 as it ‘evolved’ in the course of negotiations at a range of international policy arenas and became more widely accepted as a policy goal.[xi] Seyfang[xii] (2005) cites, for example, the work of the OECD during the 1990s and its conclusion that market failure was the prime cause of unsustainability. She concludes that, within the strong market-liberal perspective, as reflected in OECD analyses, governments are encouraged to correct prices and provide regulatory frameworks to influence producers and stimulate eco-efficiency, and merely offer consumers more green choices.

Sustainable consumption implies much more than the identification of niche markets and the rhetoric of decoupling (Jackson 2009). It invites us to go back to the origins of the neoclassical economic model and ask what model would have been most viable in the absence of an inflated set of assumptions that we could find endless technical substitutes for our diminishing and non-renewable resources. The consumption question not only provokes a reconsideration of ‘full world’, ecologically constrained conditions, but places ecosystem functioning upfront and central. It does so by generating questions that ask – What is consumed? What is put at risk? What is lost?[xiii] The consumption question also foregrounds intention and societal design.

Mont and Plepys (2007) have articulated the challenge succinctly:

…developing socio-economic systems ensuring high quality of life and sustaining environmental impacts in line with nature’s carrying capacity should be perceived as the contemporary societal goal. The ultimate question facing today’s society in developed countries is whether consumerism actually contributes to human welfare and happiness….Strategies are missing that would conceive ways of shifting from a current culture of limitless consumerism to a society with less materialistic aspirations. (Mont and Plepys 2007:537)

[i] IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR4 2007) (IPCC, Geneva). <> (Accessed 8 October 2008).

[ii] IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR4) 2007 (IPCC, IPCC). <> (Accessed 8 October 2008) 16.

[iii] The Observer, 2008, ‘UN says eat less meat to curb global warming’, Sunday, 7 September, p.1.

[iv] Chapter Four of the UNCED Agenda 21 (1992), on sustainable consumption.

[v] W.Sachs, Planet Dialectics: explorations in environment and development (Zed Books, London, 1999).

[vi] T.Princen, M. Maniates, and K. Conca (eds.), Confronting Consumption (MIT Press, Cambridge, Ma., 2002).

[vii] A.Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006).

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992.

[x] Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Development Johannesburg, South Africa
26 August-4 September 2002 (A/CONF.199/20/Corr.1)    Identify specific activities tools, policies, measures and monitoring and assessment mechanisms, including, where appropriate, life-cycle analysis and national indicators.

  • Adopt and implement policies and measures aimed at promoting SCP patterns, applying, inter alia, the polluter-pays principle.
  •  Develop production and consumption policies to improve products and services.
  • Develop awareness- raising programmes on the importance of sustainable consumption and production patterns, particularly among youth and relevant segments in all countries, through inter alia, education, public and consumer information, advertising and other media.
  • Develop and adopt consumer information tools to provide the information related to SCP.
  • Increase eco-efficiency, with financial support from all sources, where mutually agreed, for capacity-building and technology transfer.

[xi] At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, consumption was clearly identified as part of the problem in a definition that appeared in Chapter 4.3 of Agenda 21: ‘…the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industialized countries, which is a matter of grave concern, aggravating poverty and imbalances.[xi]By 1994, following a conference in Oslo, a popular and much less ambitious definition would emerge: ‘…the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of water and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations’.[xi]

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] In the second half of 2009, two high-level reports were published, looking beyond and beneath the flawed assumptions of our growth-driven national economic models. The contents, sponsored by Government-backed commissions in France and the UK, are discursive milestones in the career of a set of questions that challenge our most basic assumptions about the way we measure economic performance and social progress[xiii], and define prosperity[xiii]. Published on the eve of the Copenhagen COP/MOP, they signal a high-level engagement with some of the far reaching challenges for OECD economies arising from the demands of climate change policy. The Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (2009) was commissioned by the President of the French Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy. The distinguished authors register their concern at the way in which narrow measures of market performance are now confused with broader measures of welfare. After all, ‘what we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted’ (Stiglitz et al., 2009:4).

In an essay calling upon artists to pursue the truths of the times we live in through honest, socio-politically responsive work, Scottish playwright David Greig argues that one of the key roles of theatre in our times is to resist ‘the management of the imagination by power’. Here, Greig paints a picture of the influence of capital and power on the core cultural mythology:

The institutions of global capital manage the imagination in the first instance through media institutions. Hollywood cinema, the television and newspapers of the great media empires like Fox and CNN. These forms create the narrative superstructure around which our imagination grows. In this way we learn to think along certain paths, to believe certain truths, all of which tend, in the end to further the aims of capital and the continuance of economic growth. Once the superstructure is in place, our own individual creativity will tend to grow around it and assume its shape so that the stories we tell ourselves, the photographs we take and so forth, are put in the service of the same narratives and assumptions. … Very few imaginations are totally colonized, just as very few are totally liberated. In most minds there is a constant back and forth- a dialogue between challenge and assumption like waves washing against a shoreline. … By intervening in the realm of the imaginary, power continually shapes our understanding of reality.[i]


For an understanding of the colonizing power of capital in the realm of culture we can do no better than look to the contemporary theoretical work of Jonathan Nitzan and Shimson Bichler for whom capitalization is ‘the central institution and key logic of the capitalist nomos’.[ii] It is the algorithm that generates and organizes prices. Specifically, they understand capitalization as the representation of the present value of a future stream of earnings: it tells us how much a capitalist would be prepared to pay now to receive a flow of money later. A concept that was perfected in the 20th century – notably with the rise of the corporation – its principle characteristic is universality. In other words, the calculation of value based on a claim on future earnings can be applied to everything. Nitzan and Shimson explain:

Nowadays, every expected income stream is a fair candidate for capitalization. And since income streams are generated by social entities, processes, organizations and institutions, we end up with the ‘capitalization of everything’. Capitalists routinely discount human life, including its genetic code and social habits; they discount organized institutions from education and entertainment to religion and the law; they discount voluntary social networks; they discount urban violence, civil war and international conflict; they even discount the environmental future of humanity. Nothing seems to escape the piercing eye of capitalization: if it generates earning expectations it must have a price, and the algorithm that gives future earnings a price is capitalization.[iii]


                The all pervasive influence of capitalization suggests to Nitzan and Bichler that capitalism seems able to shape ‘preferences’ as effectively as any authoritarian regime and is able to mould habits and instil fears. Indeed, capitalism does more by virtue of its ability to make these ‘preferences’ and outcomes sufficiently predictable for capitalists to translate them into expected profit discountable to present value. On the face of it, they add, liberal capitalism is all about ‘individuality’ and ‘free choice’. And yet, the so-called individual consumer ends up being part of a collectively managed mob. And here’s the rub: the Friedmanite[iv] individual may feel ‘free to choose’ her 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 creation of a predictable ‘representative’ consumer – that gets capitalized.[v] The consumer has every choice under the sky except the choice of whether to consume! The global expenditure on advertising in 2008 reached nearly half a trillion US dollars, equivalent to more than $80 dollars each for every man, woman and child on the planet.[vi]

One of the contributions of the Nitzan and Bichler’s thesis on ‘capital as power’ is their demonstration of how our understanding of the operation of capital must incorporate any power arrangement, institution, and process that systematically affects the flow and temporal pattern of earnings, because this is how the capitalist views the world. In other words, it is impossible to distinguish contributions to accumulation as clearly ‘economic’. Instead we must include institutions ranging from politics and culture to the family. It follows that capitalists exert control within relevant communities in order to maintain the status quo and protect the value of the assets they own or seek to provoke changes in order to generate and divert earnings.[vii] Moreover, building on the work of Veblen, Nitzan and Bichler show that – for the capitalist – there is no absolute benchmark against which accumulation may be judged as successful or unsuccessful. Rather, the success of accumulation is a matter of differential comparison, i.e. capitalists and their enterprises seek only to ‘beat the average’ in a defining and unending intra-capitalist struggle over trades, takeovers, and mergers, together with the pursuit and capture of assets not already capitalized. Evaluation of success occurs within markets as participants buy and sell on the expected ability of the vested interests to turn the ‘social control’ exercised by dominant capital in the 21st century into earnings. Markets therefore constitute empirical representations of control. Cochrane comments:

It is these groupings within dominant capital whose actions have the greatest influence on political economic developments. Their struggles for differential accumulation are massive exercises of power that continually order and reorder society.[viii]

Di Muzio[ix] has illustrated the extent to which dominant capitalist groups depend on broader social, cultural and political processes in their attempts to beat the average returns and redistribute a larger share of earnings away from their competitors:

For example, the corporate earnings of Apple Computers Inc. do not simply depend upon the ability to produce its range of iPods or other goods and services by directing the labour of its workers. Rather, their corporate earnings, and the willingness of investors to bid up the price of existing shares, depend upon a whole range of factors that the corporation may wish to influence: the perception that portable mp3 players are a necessity; their ability to press for new markets and trade agreements with other legal jurisdictions; the ability of the state to punish violators who infringe their intellectual property rights; the quality of their lobbyists; their public reputation; accounting practices and standards; the ability of its consumers to access credit; the ability to influence anti-trust legislation and so on.

It is this understanding of accumulation that leads Nitzan and Bichler to argue that ‘power is both the means and the end of accumulation’.[x]  Corporations exert whatever power they can muster over society, politics and culture in order to generate earnings and beat the average. Di Muzio notes that, if Nitzan and Bichler are correct, behind this movement is a whole history of corporate power deployed to ‘restructure society and affect its overall development’.[xi] At the heart of their thesis is a claim that anything – including any dimension of human creativity and behaviour – can be targeted for capitalization through enclosure, expropriation and commodification. Indeed, as Di Muzio concludes, for Nitzan and Bichler, the modern corporation has become an incipient form of the State, insofar as firms control ever more facets of life and planetary resources. Power itself has become commodified.

The current era of economic, social and environmental uncertainty has given new prominence to a number of debates that converge around the theme of sustainable consumption. Questions about the effectiveness of traditional measures of national economic output such as ‘Gross National Product’ or ‘Gross Domestic Product’, the contested relationship between consumerism and life satisfaction, and  improvements in our ability to measure ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ are putting subjectivity centre stage.

The governmentalization of lifestyles implies a shaping of desire and morality so that people want to do what they believe is good for them according to a prescribed biopolitical logic. I want to frame forms of mindfulness training as an opening to contemporary practices of askēsis as understood by Michel Foucault (Foucault 1985, 1986; McGushin 2007), with the potential of making a contribution to the development of personal and collective resilience in the face of biopolitics as consumerism in an age of ecological constraints. Mindfulness[xii] is associated with the cultivation of enhanced states of concentration, awareness and moment-by-moment intentionality; alternative materialist and embodied systems of knowledge/discipline; and an articulation of individual freedom that might be reconciled with notions of sufficiency and limits, and thus, potentially, with support for public choices compatible with sustainable consumption[xiii].

As lifestyles are already being reshaped in preparation for a low-carbon future (Lipschutz 2009:3), it is imperative that we keep the door open to research and insights that not only direct our attention to alternative governmentalities in pursuit of sustainable development, renewable energy services and green products, but direct our attention to the quality of attention itself and the prospect of a new materialism. This prospect is tied to a significant premise of this article, which is a view I share with Davisson (2002): Foucault’s engagement with Greek and Christian antiquity and askēsis (‘gymnastics of the mind’) was not designed merely to call us back to a ‘golden age’ but (as evidenced by his passing, but significant engagement with Zen practice) was bound up with his desire to destabilize deeply engrained contemporary concepts of self, identity and ways of knowing; and an understanding that an important dimension of our resistance to political power is established in the relation of the self to itself[xiv]. Foucault’s approach to askésis has a subtle and contemporaneous ring to it in this ‘Century of the Self’ (Curtis 2002), and age of limits.

Renegotiating freedom in an age of limits

The back story to the rise of the consuming self runs deep in those parts of our history where the ends of the West’s (geo)political legacy meets its  philosophical heritage, and the Western subject’s negotiation with the timeless and formative experience of contingency. Late-modern states are now confronting a moment of transition that will be characterised by a departure from ‘secular assurances’ (Connolly 1991), often worked out through acts of consumption, to a reworking not only of the relationship between the citizen and the state, but a revisiting of our understandings of freedom and felicity.[xv] In late modernity, writes Connolly, the contingency of life and the fragility of things becomes more vivid and compelling, while aspects of our reflection on the issues posed by this condition have too often been shuffled to the margins of state-centred discourse. Attempts at the mastery of micro-contingencies and the globalization of macro-contingencies advance together:

Each possible scenario of future waste or destruction is linked ironically to priorities definitive of the modern epoch, especially to the drive to organize the state, the economy, and self so that the world itself can be subjected to more thorough mastery. These scenarios of possible reversal expose how the end of eliminating contingency recedes as the means to it become more refined and perfected. (Connolly 1991:25)

The modern concept of the individual, bounded, isolated self is a modern phenomenon, roughly paralleling the development of industrialisation and the rise of the modern state. Tracing a genealogy of the political economy of desire, Beard (2007) discusses the destabilisation of the ‘Old World’ following the discovery of the ‘New World’, and the role of doubt at the dawn of the age of reason. During a long sixteenth century, she notes (2006:77-79), the doubt of the age inspired a corresponding impulse ‘to sharpen boundaries, to render meanings more precisely’, and define the terms of humanity’s promise. It was during the beginnings of the modern era in the 16th century that the Western world began to shift from a religious to a scientific frame of reference, from an agricultural to an industrial means of production, from a rural to an urban setting, and from a communal to an individual subject. These changes set the scene for the dual triumph of Michel de Montaigne’s (1533–1592) subjective individual and the method necessary to study it, in Descarte’s objective empiricism (Cushman 1990:600). For Beard it is the work of Montaigne that exemplifies this struggle with uncertainty and doubt – the loss of words caused by the discovery of the unnamed New World, and the loss of the Word in the religious wars of the Reformation – a struggle of each subject to know itself, construct its ego and to recognise itself in the gaze of the other.

An important dimension of this crisis of representation was an emerging liquid market in Europe and its apparent capacity to commute specific obligations, utilities and meanings into general, fungible equivalents, prompting fears that the emerging self was as empty as the fetishes of capital (Beard 2007:82). Roy (1992) traces part of the critical transformation back to Thomas Hobbes’ (1588 – 1679) fateful rejection of the notion of ultimate purpose and the reduction of our understanding of ‘felecity’ to ‘a continual progress of the desire from one object to another; the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter’[xvi]. Roy (1992) concludes that with this revision, our needs became endless in two senses: on the one hand, needs came to be detached from higher life purpose and, on the other, they began to expand and proliferate endlessly. The endlessness of life came to be grounded in the acquisition and accumulation of material resources such as wealth, prestige and power. Commodious living, in the Hobbesian sense, came to constitute the prime motivating force of life in modern times.

With great prescience, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) would later (cited in Roy 1992:372) observe that this shift from simple to commodious living required a condition of the highest cultivation that could establish accord within and among men through self-discipline. In meeting the demands of his or her nature, the individual must – in order to protect collective well-being from possible harm – exercise a higher control over the self. Instead, the advances in science and technology that would follow, and apparent control over nature, have culminated in a culture of consumerism that has helped to erode auto-control and further conflate the goods life with any sense of the good life.

One of the most intriguing questions the modern citizen faces in this new age of limits – an age in which it appears that the anticipated exhaustion of resources and pollution sinks is matched by the psychic exhaustion of what was once a political imaginary with universalising ambition – culminating in an age of sovereign consumers demanding the West of all possible worlds – is the ageless question of freedom. On the meaning of freedom signalled by the rise of the ecological movement, Eckersley (1992) once suggested that the new project entails much more than a simple reassertion of the modern emancipatory ideal of human autonomy or self determination. It also calls for a re-evaluation of the foundations of, and the conditions for, human autonomy or self-determination in Western political thought (Eckersley 1992:18). Leiss (1978) made a related point when he observed that everything depends not so much upon the establishment that limits to economic growth do exist but upon whether humans regard such limits as a bitter disappointment or as a welcome opportunity to turn from quantitative to qualitative improvement in the course of creating a conserver society. Leiss’s (1998) question hovers over contemporary debates about prosperity, welfare, human happiness and the ends of politics and the economy, as witnessed most recently in the publication of the Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (2009), commissioned by the President of the French Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, which explores how ‘narrow measures of market performance’ have come to be conflated and confused with ‘broader measures of welfare’, signalling a potentially far reaching renegotiation of the State’s responsibility to its citizens.

The politicization of consumption and growing scepticism about the globalizing culture of consumerism registers and re-opens wider debates about the relationship between the economic and the political, and that between the roles of consumer and citizen, especially as these relations have been rearticulated in extremis under the sign of neoliberalism. Modern States and international institutions are deeply embedded in the ethos of productivism while confronted simultaneously today by the need to deal with the negative fall-out (unintended consequences experienced as socialized risks) and contingencies resulting from a process of bracketing off and externalizing the full social and environmental costs of stimulating and meeting consumer demand for goods and services, in the pursuit of economic growth. Productivism describes the way in which mechanisms of economic development substitute for concepts of personal growth. Consumerism has its roots in and is a direct expression of a collective and individual embrace of a productivist orientation to the world: ‘It is, as it were, an active, mass exploration of life politics…the need to make life choices is expressed only in a distorted and narrow way as the purchase of goods and services’. (Giddens 1994:169) States appear trapped in this ethos while publicly espousing the rhetorics of sustainable development policies that demand a shift towards a post-scarcity economic model. It seems the dilemma is symptomatic of the closure of the political that has resulted from the technologising of politics and politicisation of all life (Dillon and Campbell 1993:23). By aspiring to an ontology of unconditioned certainty and to the extent that it exhibits confidence in its articulation of such an ontology, Western thinking has experienced a risk-laden foreclosure of transcendence. Dillon and Campbell (1993:23) sum up their point as follows:

If you aim to tell it like it is, and believe that you have succeeded in doing so, then there is no more to be said or done.

In the wake of the demise of the Christian legitimization of rule, the State had to develop a capacity to comprehend every finite thing in order to hold out forever (Dillon 1995). The world was transformed into a legible surface. The new objects of the ‘State’, the ‘economy’, and the modern ‘subject’ could not and cannot exhaust the real, but we are confronting the very real prospect that  the ‘ground plan’ (Heidegger) of consumer-led development now threatens to exhaust the complex ecosystems on which it has been imposed  in a violent assault on being. The unprecedented global risk presented by climate change recalls Foucault’s (1987) warning that modernity stands at a threshold where the life of the species is now wagered on its own political strategies. The threshold signals not only a unique level of risk but also a challenge to investigate the individual and collective consequences of a decision to buy into a self-imposed closure of a privileged ‘world-view-as-destiny’ associated with a socio-economic model of development defined in the image of the ‘West’ (Latouche 1996; Swazo 1984).

Climate change marks, perhaps, our most acute and potentially most destabilizing experience of global contingency. In some senses, the scale of the work ahead of governments and citizens has left us quite literally lost for words. Perhaps there is some appropriate historical symmetry in the alignment of the name of ‘Kyoto’ with the UNFCCC ‘Protocol’. Certainly, many of us who attended the negotiations leading up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 were aware of that city’s other historic association with the tradition of Zen Buddhism. The former UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Michael Zammit Cutajar, reminded one plenary session for the negotiators that their challenge was not unlike that of a Zen koan: bringing about a deep mental shift in language and understanding.

[i] D. Greig, ‘Rough Theatre’, in R. D’Monte and G. Saunders (eds.), Cool Britannia? British Political Drama in the 1990s (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), cited in R. Nada-Rajah, ‘A Review of ‘Environmental Justice’ Research in the UK’ (2010), available at <;.

[ii] See J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, n. 8 above.

[iii] Ibid., at 158.

[iv] A reference to the leader of the Chicago school of economic thought, Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman. Friedman has been a highly influential figure for his association of capitalism with freedom. He regarded agency and freedom in the context of the market as much more than instrumental values but as ends in themselves. In libertarian terms, Friedman viewed market activities as existential goals. See S. Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community (Harvard University Press, 2008) for a critical discussion on libertarian approaches to economic thought.

[v] See J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, n. 8 above, at 160-161.

[vi] The chief aim of global advertising, described by Kanner and Gomes as the ‘largest single psychological project ever undertaken by the human race’, is to sell consumerism itself and shore up a consumerist, addictive culture. Kanner and Gomes describe the construction of a ‘consumer self’, resulting from the ‘merciless distortion of authentic human needs and desires’. A. Kanner and M. Gomes, ‘The All-Consuming Self’, in T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, and A. D. Kanner (eds.),  Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (Sierra Club Books, 1995), at 80 and 83. Cited in M. Hathaway and L. Boff, The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation (Orbis Books, 2009), at 103-104.

[vii] D.T. Cochrane, ‘Castoriadis, Veblen, and the ‘Power Theory of Capital’, paper presented at the 2008 Great Lakes Political Economy Conference (23-24 April 2008), at 114.

[viii] Ibid., at 116.

[ix] T. DiMuzio, ‘The “Art” of Colonisation: Capitalising Sovereign Power and the Ongoing Nature of Primitive Accumulation’, 12:4 New Political Economy (2007), 517, at 522.

[x] J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, The Global Political Economy of Israel (Pluto Press, 2002), at 10.

[xi] Ibid, at 38.

[xii] Mindfulness training, or meditation, is now firmly established in Western therapeutic practice, with the writings of Jon Kabat-Zinn on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) peer-reviewed in medical and psychiatric literature (2008) and other writers such as Eckhart Tolle (2005), Thich Nhat Hanh (2008) and psychoanalyst Barry Magid (2007) bridging the literature on mindfulness, psychology, and well being.[xii]

[xiii] Barber (2007) has argued compellingly that public liberty demands public institutions that permit citizens to address the public consequences of private market choices. Liberty understood as the capacity to make public choices (in Rousseau’s terms to engage in ‘general willing’) is a potential faculty that must be learned rather than a natural one that is exercised from birth.

[xiv] CDF82, p.241.

[xv] In his brief essay on ‘Freedom and Resentment’ (1991:16), Connolly excavates the ‘background assumptions’ or ‘unconscious phenomenology of life and death’ that mediate secular experience and compensate for the experience of loss after the ‘death of god’. Recognition that life is short, he notes, encourages the self to contribute to the crystallization of its own individuality. Morever, the relation of individuality to foreknowledge of death creates an ambiguous context for the exercise of freedom.

[xvi] Thomas Hobbes 1950, Leviathan, E.P. Dutton: New York, pp.79-80.

In this chapter I will explore the genealogy of the psychic investment of ‘capitalism’ through the process of capitalization[i], which I describe as a ‘technology of micropractices’. These practices are most visible in the outworkings of the operation of mass media, advertising and the culture of consumerism and represent the culmination of a deeply ambivalent tradition in Western thought that has resulted in a profound ‘breach of faith toward everything that is’.[ii] For Apffel Marglin and Bush it is this breach, first articulated by René Descartes, that not only enabled unprecedented levels of human control and manipulation of the social and natural world but also lies today behind a deep alienation and meaninglessness. Since the sixteenth century, ‘control’ has been a key strategic value informing the explosion of technological development associated with the rise of the European West and its influence over other parts of the world. Hershock notes that what we refer to generically as ‘technology’ is actually a particular family or lineage of technologies that has arisen and been sustained through a complex of political, social, economic and cultural forces focused on the value of exerting control over our circumstances to enhance felt independence. This strategic value has delivered military and ecological destruction on a scale hitherto never attained, having co-evolved with and serviced the rise of the modern nation State[iii]. Writing from a Buddhist perspective, Hershock notes that although we remain related to others and to our environment, the prevalence of control fosters a dichotomous perspective on that relationship – a splitting into the objective and subjective – that facilitates treating our relations with others as either actually or potentially instrumental:

No longer intimately continuous with all things – that is, related internally – gaps open in what I can attend or hold in careful awareness. By ignoring what intimately connects who “I am” with what “I am not”, I render myself liable to being blindsided – subject to accidental or fateful events of the sort that cause the experience of trouble or suffering. Asserting independence through exercising technologically mediated control almost paradoxically renders us subject to new vulnerabilities.[iv]

Hershock believes that the single most important long-term cost of convenience and control – in the context of the availability of global commodities – is an overall erosion of relational quality resulting in a mounting incapacity for appreciation and contribution. He observes an overwhelming trend in contemporary commodity consumption practices in the compression of the temporal and spatial scope of consumption that it mimics a digital transition from not having to having – a transition that disallows any complex, improvised relational ground being navigated or any qualitative shift in relationality being initiated and sustained. Noting considerable implications for the nature and dynamics of the public sphere, he 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 are rendering 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 and suggests 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. This has among its salient effects the conservation of an uncontested space for the perseverance of liberal individualism and an ontological bias towards existents rather than relationships. To counteract our dramatic impoverishment and attentive atrophy, he commends the direct cultivation of appreciative and contributory virtuosity. Hershock looks to the cultivation or rehabilitation of a form of freedom understood as virtuosic skill in improvising meaningful interdependence. Desire, then, need not be solely viewed as a source of frustration arising from self-centred attachment or craving. Rather, with cultivation, desire can become a crucial factor in the immediate realization of an unprecedented responsiveness.[v]

At the heart of the dilemma outlined here is a decisive break in our understanding or appreciation of the ethical (under the sign of modernity), a break that has serviced the growing gap between our collective ability to discuss the ethical and devise effective strategies. These envisaged strategies would contribute to the cultivation of embodied micropractices consistent with the translation of our recognition of ‘ecological boundaries’ into demands for consistent lifestyle choices and practices for the great transition.[vi]

Foucault believed that a moral code per se is inadequate. For an action to be ‘moral’ it must not be reducible to an act or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value. There is no moral conduct, for Foucault, that does not also call for the forming of oneself as an ethical subject; and no forming of the ethical subject without ‘modes of subjectification’ and an ‘ascetics’ or ‘practices of the self’ that support them.[vii] In the course of his work, Foucault makes clear that the modalities of self-formation are always potentially prescribed. In his work on Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison[viii], he discusses ‘biopower’ as the normalizing power of disciplinary practices that write the law into the body. However, in the later work, Foucault holds open the prospect for self-formation that cannot be reduced to the possibilities of normalizing power such as that exercised by the institutions of capital. He insists on the possibility of reflective modification of the sensibility of the self by the self, positing that there is no self without discipline, no discipline that does not also harbour opportunities for the arts of the self, and no effective ethics without such an aesthetic project. For Foucault a moment of freedom survives within subjectivity after all, at least when it is not reduced to a purely intellectual formation. Foucault resignifies freedom by locating it in relation to a historically situated rationality and a recalcitrant body. He tries to find a way to speak of the moments of individual self-direction that persist inside disciplinary power and to do so outside of a Kantian vocabulary. To engage ‘the limits that are imposed on us’ is, says Foucault,[ix] at the same time to ‘experiment with the possibility of going beyond them’. [x]

For Bennett, sensibility or refinement of new assemblage of sensible primorida, while culturally encoded and temperamentally delimited, is still educable to some degree. Like the code dimension of ethics, techniques of sensibility-formation are concerned with governing and refining behaviour. The difference is that these techniques respond to subtle norms of admirable behaviour and thought; they address the question of which modes of perception and which styles of comportment, and not simply which actions, are most laudable. She posits that this refinement might even make for a more resilient and careful approach to ethics. [xi]

[i] J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder (Routledge, 2009).

[ii] M. Boss, A Psychiatrist Discovers India (Oswald Wolf, 1965), at 102-121, cited in F. Apffel-Marglin and M. Bush, ‘Healing the Breach of Faith Toward Everything That Is: Integration in Academia’ (2005), available at <;.

[iii] J.C. Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998)

[iv] See P.D. Hershock, n. 2 above, at 90-91.

[v] See P.D. Hershock, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 132. See also, P.D. Hershock, Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch’an Buddhism, (State University of New York, 1996); and P.D. Hershock, n. 2 above.

[vi] The New Economics Foundation, The Great Transition: A Tale of How it Turned Out Alright (New Economics Foundation, 2009).

[vii] M. Foucault, ‘An Ethics of Pleasure’ inJ. Johnston and S. Lotringer (eds.), Foucault Live, (Semiotext(e), 1989), at 266, cited in J. Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics  (Princeton University Press, 2001), at 144-146.

[viii] M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (Vintage Books, 1995).

[ix] See J. Bennett, n. 14 above, at 150.

[x] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, in Foucault Reader, 50, cited in J. Bennett, n. 14 above, at 146.

[xi]  Ibid., at 150.

[i]A call for a new political economy of attention: mindfulness as a new commons


Peter Doran


Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination. Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see. We celebrate prosaic vocational skills and the ridiculous requirements of standardized tests. We have tossed those who think, including many teachers of the humanities, into a wilderness where they cannot find employment, remuneration or a voice. We follow the blind over the cliff. We make war on ourselves.[ii]

(Chris Hedges, 2012, Nation of Change, Tuesday, 10. July. (




How has the culture of capitalism – its psychic investment in colonizing our attention – compromised our collective ability to respond meaningfully to the challenges of sustainable development? There is an emerging consensus that consumerist excess and the media complex of consumerism are bad for us, environmentally, socially and psychologically. This chapter will present an argument that we may have underestimated the way in which our immersion in the ‘social logic’ of capitalist consumption actively constrains our attempts to understand and respond to the ecological crises at both a personal and political level – and that both dimensions of our response are bound together. To make the case, I look to Peter Hershock’s work, drawing on China’s Chan Buddhist philosophy for intimations of a worldview that challenges the West’s over-commitment to forms of ‘control’ in favour of a need for the cultivation of mindful and careful awareness – and an offering of unconditional attention.

In the stunning American movie, Detachment (2011), substitute teacher, Henry Barthes, drifts from school to school, classroom to classroom. During a one-month assignment in a failing public school Barthes finds a connection to the students and teachers who are all, in their own ways, experiencing a deep loss of connection, and negotiating a world so bereft of love and attention that they have become –in a way – invisible at work and at home. Screenwriter and former public school teacher, Carl Lund, has Barthes deliver a speech in his class room during a pivotal moment in the film:

Henry Barthes: How are you to imagine anything if the images are always provided for you? Doublethink. To deliberately believe in lies while knowing they’re false. Examples of this in everyday life: Oh, I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I – I need to be thin. Famous. Fashionable. Our young men today are being told that women are whores. Bitches. Things to be screwed. Beaten. Shit on. And shamed.

This is a marketing holocaust. Twenty four hours a day, for the rest of our lives, the powers at be are hard at work dumbing us to death. So, to defend ourselves, and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read. To stimulate our own imagination. To cultivate our own consciousness. Our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.

Detachment (2011)

The nature of modern mass mediatized capitalism poses a direct threat to well-being at the most subtle levels of human experience: attention and intention. In so doing, a fertile ground is being prepared for a popular denial of the world’s ecological predicament, and innate faculties for personal and collective resilience are being undermined. In the words of Peter Hershock[iii], through the consumption of mass media (as well as other commodities), attention is exported out of our immediate situation:

This compromises relational depth and quality, effectively eroding presently obtaining patterns of mutual support and contribution, and triggers further and still more extensive commodity consumption. As this recursive process intensified beyond the point at which all major subsistence needs have been commodified, consciousness itself is effectively colonized. The relational capabilities of both persons and communities atrophy, situational diversity is converted into circumstantial variety, and the very resources needed to meaningfully respond to and resolve our suffering or troubles are systematically depleted.[iv]

In his book on Capitalist Realism, which opens with a chapter entitled, ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’, Mark Fisher observes that over the past thirty years, capitalism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including health care and education, should be run as a business.[v] Similarly, Bourdieu and Wacquant have described a ‘planetary vulgate’ that has taken hold in all advanced societies – a vocabulary replete with references to ‘globalization’ and ‘flexibility’, ‘governance and employability’, ‘underclass’ and ‘exclusion’, ‘new economy’ and ‘zero tolerance’. Multilateral environmental negotiations on the environment and climate change have their counterpart vocabularies informed by the neoliberal paradigm, including, inter alia: ‘consumption and production’, ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘flexible mechanisms’, ‘economies in transition’ and ‘green growth’. For Bourdieu and Wacquant, the diffusion of this new planetary vulgate – from which the terms ‘capitalism’, ‘class’, ‘exploitation’, ‘domination’, and ‘inequality’ are conspicuous by their absence, is the result of a new type of imperialism whose effects are all the more powerful and pernicious in that it is promoted not only by the partisans of the neoliberal revolution who, under cover of ‘modernization’, have tried to remake the world by sweeping away the social and economic conquests of a century of social struggles, but also by cultural producers (researchers, writers and artists) and left-wing activists who still regard themselves as progressives. Comparing it to ethnic or gender domination, the authors believe that cultural imperialism is a form of ‘symbolic violence’ that relies on a relationship of constrained communication to extort submission.[vi]

The upshot has been a series of highly constrained debates at the UN-sponsored negotiations that have unfolded since the first Rio ‘Earth Summit’ (UNCED) in 1992 that take the form of a disavowal, when it comes to acknowledging that our well-being is now staked on our ability to address the all-consuming technology of capitalism and its active colonization of a new frontier that reaches into our experience of self and other, mind and nature. As Žižek has described,[vii] capitalism relies on a structural disavowal based on an overvaluing of individual belief – in the sense of inner subjective attitude – at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behaviour. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange – settling for an ironic distance. This corporate sponsored rupture, summed up in Saul Alinsky’s observation that ‘most people are eagerly groping for some medium, some means by which they can bridge the gap between their morals and their practices’,[viii] goes to the heart of the debate on well-being, redefining prosperity, and sustainable consumption. For the choices that confront us are not merely about our relations with the world and others. The choices must also embrace a much older conversation about our relations with the self.


[ii] C.Hed ges, 2012, Nation of Change, Tuesday, Viewed 10. July 2012. (

[iii] P.D. Hershock, Buddhism in the Public Sphere: Reorienting Global Interdependence (Routledge, 2006).

[iv] Ibid., at 86.

[v] M. Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books, 2009), at 17.

[vi] P. Bourdieu and L.Wacquant, ‘Neoliberal Newspeak: Notes on the New Planetary Vulgate’, 108 Radical Philosophy (2001) at 1.

[vii] Cited in M. Fisher, n. 4 above, at 13.

[viii] Saul Alinksky, Reveille for Radicals (Vintage Books, 1969), at 94.