Our most recent issue, The Politics of Pleasure, features a forum led by Kate Soper, who argues that a post-growth economy need not be a recipe for austere misery. On the contrary, post-growth life might present an opportunity for greater pleasure while also giving our overtaxed planet a new lease on life. The issue also includes an essay from Lynne Segal about the connections between care work and political optimism.
Segal and Soper have both made significant contributions to the struggle for gender and sex equality, Marxist and socialist thinking, and environmentalism. In this conversation, which took place live as part of our new events series on Philosophy Today, they delve into the finer points of Soper’s argument and discuss them in connection with Segal’s investment in care work. At the end, they are given questions from the audience by Anthony Morgan, editor of the Philosopher.
LYNNE SEGAL: The core of your work is to argue for alternative hedonism. Alternative hedonism is not only going to help us create sustainable consumption, create a better possible future, but also, in the process, it is actually going to bring us greater pleasure, give us more time, enable us to slow down and enjoy life more. Maybe you want to say a little bit about your arguments there before we move on to discuss them.
KATE SOPER: I think probably what I should emphasize is what is particularly distinct about my own argument, because I think a lot of commentary on environmental crisis is going to accept that there can’t be any sustainable planetary order that doesn’t involve much greater equality, both within and between nations. And I think most environmentalists will also accept that we need a break, ultimately, from growth-driven capitalism and the consumer culture on which it depends. I share both those positions.
But what is more distinctive to my own viewpoint is the emphasis I’ve placed on the downside of the so-called good life associated with consumer culture today. I’m talking here about the dominance of the work ethic, the way in which that creates time scarcity for everybody, how car culture and planes are very polluting, create a great deal of congestion, and so on. So there are negative aspects of contemporary ways of living that I’m stressing, and I’m arguing that if we were to opt for an alternative—what I called an alternative politics of prosperity, an alternative way of thinking about the pleasures of living well—then we could not only create a green renaissance of some kind but also, as you say, enjoy ourselves more.
I don’t think it’s been sufficiently emphasized that there is enjoyment to be had from revised ways of living. Very often it is accepted that we need in the future to fly or drive less, for example, or consume less stuff. But that tends to get seen as dutiful belt-tightening or as a problem to be overcome in pursuit of a consumerist way of living that in many respects, I think, is dystopian and anti-hedonist. They’re too fixated on work and money-making with too little appreciation for the pleasures of having more time, doing more things for oneself, traveling more slowly, and so on.
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I think inviting people to consider the benefits to themselves of adopting more ecofriendly ways of living is surely a more effective way of winning their support than instilling yet more panic and alarm over climate change. Or appealing simply to a sense of duty. And since, in fact, many people do now deplore the stress and time scarcity of the work and spend type of existence, the appeal already has some basis in experience. I think that there is a certain amount of disaffection with the so-called consumerist good life. And that feeds into my own concerns to avoid an overly abstract kind of moralizing position, because I think the existence of that emerging structure of antipathy to the consumerist way of living can provide a certain legitimation for what I’m calling an alternative hedonist politics, understanding a need to move to an alternative way of thinking about progress and prosperity.
LS: I think you are absolutely right to talk about the miseries of everyday life and of our existing neoliberal capitalism, where so few people have the time to enjoy anything in life. They don’t have time to care for each other, care for themselves. So much is absent that they might wish to do, and that’s why we see the enormously high levels of depression and isolation. There’s no question about how bad the dynamics are of everyday life today.
But there is a problem many people would raise at once, which is the problem of inequality. So many people surely are not in a position to simply choose alternative lifestyles. They can’t escape from the drudgery of their working days, which are often very long, working at what David Graeber would call “bullshit jobs.” But nevertheless, particularly in the public sector, they’re forced to do so much administration and bureaucratic work, that it is really, really hard for them to escape, other than to give up their jobs altogether. But they can’t give up their jobs altogether, because as we know, the cost of living is getting higher and higher. So people might fear that you are only talking to an elite who have a possibility to make these choices. It would be wonderful if more people were in the position to make these choices, but surely many people are not. They are on a treadmill of work, and it is very, very hard for them to get off, even without factoring in inequality, and hence the difficulty of so many people escaping from the hard labors that they’ve been forced into.
KS: I’m glad you’ve raised the issue, Lynne. There are two main things that I want to say in response to it. One is that I don’t necessarily see participation in a consumerist form of living associated with neoliberal capitalism as something that only elite or more affluent consumers have access to. I see it more as a kind of regime in which we’re all caught up in one way or another. So one of the ways in which people are caught up in it is that they have far too little time, and time is very important to developing alternative ways of thinking about politics and ways of living.
I think you need to question whether consumerism is a natural way of living, which is often the way it has tended to be thought about. One of my criticisms is over a kind of Marxist approach which rightly emphasizes the purely historical nature of capitalist production, but tends too readily to accept that consumer culture is somehow a natural way of meeting our needs and having pleasurable existence. I want to argue that we need to challenge that sense of it being an inevitable, acceptable way of living and think about an alternative.
The other thing is that I’m not really suggesting that alternative hedonism is simply a question of a more affluent group changing their ways of consuming. I’m suggesting that we need to connect with the extensive forms of disaffection that you have mentioned yourself as a way of insisting on the need for the articulation of an alternative way of living, an alternative politics of prosperity. And as things stand in this country—and I think this is true of the United States as well—there is very little reference among the mainstream political parties to the possibility of an alternative way of living, centered not so much on endless growth, which we know is unsustainable, not so much simply on full employment and consumerist ways of gratifying ourselves, but on rethinking what is the point of all this creation of wealth. Who is really being served by this commitment to endless production? In political life at the present time, most political parties in the mainstream are agreeing on the ends of growth, carrying on with raising living standards as currently defined, and full employment. Where they tend to differ is simply about the means to those ends. I’m saying we need to challenge those ends. And in doing so, we need to look to the ways in which contemporary ways of living are actually causing a great deal of misery to people, as well as being fundamentally unsustainable.
LS: I certainly agree about the misery that’s being caused. On the issue of growth, what exactly do you mean by growth? You know, do you mean technological productivity? One of the biggest increases today is in care jobs. But care jobs are so badly paid. People are working ever longer hours for ever less pay. Yet there’s a huge crisis of care, because of the long hours people are working, they don’t have time to care, and so we’re importing people from the Third World to do our caring jobs. So we actually need an increase in care jobs that will enable us to care more and care better.
That takes us to debates around green growth. I think you tend to be a little critical of the idea of green growth, but it seem to me that growth is a problem in terms of how you’re using it and how you’re defining it. The left in general, you’d be right to point out, tends to think of growth in terms of productivity, not in terms of care. We need a lot more caring jobs, which are actually not destructive of the environment. But we don’t organize our politics in the way in which I was arguing with others in The Care Manifesto (2020), which would involve prioritizing care at every level. We have to understand our interdependence and see that our interdependence is not only on each other, but also on the only world we have. And that means beginning from thinking about care and how we provide for each other’s needs. And how we provide for each other’s needs will require growth in certain areas, in certain forms of infrastructure. Obviously in hospitals, and in various places that can help us to be able to care for each other better. So what have you got to say to those people who want you to clarify what you mean by growth? And how does the huge need for caring jobs fit into your perspective?
KS: You’re right, one does need to clarify issues around this notion of growth. I think we need to be clear that growth tends be thought of in an essentially economic fashion, as essential to economic order. Now, that’s a position that I would disagree with. And if the advocates of green growth or of the Green New Deal would want to argue that we should have indefinite growth of a green kind, I would dispute that. I would argue that the idea that an economy is incapable of functioning without continuous growth is a fundamental mistake. We need to rethink what we mean by wealth and its creation if we are committed to that kind of theory.
Having said that, I completely agree with the view that growth in certain areas would need to be part and parcel of what I’m calling a green renaissance. Of course we need the growth and the revaluation of care, and we need to recognize much more fully the interdependence of people. We need to challenge what you call in your article the “uber-individualism” of our culture, which of course has served the capitalist market very well indeed. I mean, trying to get us all to consume in more individualizing ways means that more goods and services can be sold to us on that basis. When I’m arguing for living differently, part of that would be a turn to more collaborative ways of living, more sharing of goods, more use of common networks of providing for ourselves. And that could have all sorts of benefits. Many people who are on the margins would be able to overcome some of the problems that they have from having to live within a market-driven society.
So I think we need growth in the division of care. We need growth in the division of culture, of the arts, and education, as well as a shift to teaching about how to live more fulfilling lives. But we also need growth in a transition period, in such areas as the infrastructure of renewable energy and so on. So I’m not cutting out the need for growth as such, but I am in certain areas. I would like to see a defense—as some of the green parties now put forth, to be fair to them—of growth within a transition which no longer says GDP is the only thing that counts in terms of prosperity, that is actually prepared to say that we need to transition to an economy that no longer makes such a solipsism simply of growth. And in the last analysis, why is growth a solipsism? It’s because it’s impossible to realize endless profit if you don’t continue to grow.
LS: It’s the 1 perecent that are making those endless profits, isn’t it? The rewards of productivity are going to ever fewer people. I’m glad you mentioned collectivity, because one thing I was thinking about is that a lot of your examples of alternative hedonism seem very much based on the individual and the personal: more cycling, more time to do things, and so on. Whereas in my writing, I’m always emphasizing collectivity. When we can manage to secure things with others that are going to be for the benefit of others, we are likely to feel the most joy and the most happiness. I would also link that to politics, inasmuch as I don’t know how quickly you can get from a belief in the benefits of alternative hedonism to changing a political structure—to get to hegemony around the idea that basically we have to oppose capitalism if we’re going to stop the push toward endless growth. We just have a new prime minister in the United Kingdom who’s pushing us in exactly the wrong direction, is going to deregulate further, is going to do everything the opposite of what we’re asking for. So we really have to work out how to organize politically. That is crucial, isn’t it? And can we really get from a commitment to alternative hedonism to engagement in the struggle to overthrow capitalism?
KS: Well, you’ve touched on the key issue here, which is the question of agency. I mean, we can say what’s wrong with the present order, what needs to be put in its place, but it’s harder to actually produce a convincing argument about the agents or forces or processes of transformation. And I think that’s become harder on the left, because we no longer have quite the same confidence as a more orthodox position would have had in the role of the working class as being the agents of that kind of revolutionary transition.
I don’t think I have an answer here at all, but one of the reasons I came around to thinking in terms of what I’m calling alternative hedonism was because of the question of agency, really. I had wondered where a new leverage might emerge, and whether a new movement could emerge from the disaffection of people with their existing lifestyle and their preparedness to campaign around an alternative politics of prosperity that could then hook up with a more conventional and militant form of campaigning. In the final analysis, it may be very difficult in an advanced industrial society such as the UK or the United States to build the electoral support for a radical shift in the economy. So how could we find a way to have that be supported by consumer groups that have not usually been counted as the agents within left thinking, in other words—those who are actually enjoying the lifestyle, or at least are able to consume it at any rate, whether they enjoy it—because they are in a position to create a movement, politically, for the kinds of change that we would see as desirable.
But I completely agree about the importance of more collaborative ways of thinking, and indeed my own argument around alternative hedonism and things like cycling is that it’s not just the pleasures of being out in the fresh air and getting some exercise, but it’s also the pleasure of knowing you are not contributing to air pollution, that you’re actually helping to guarantee a more livable world for your children and grandchildren. So a lot of alternative hedonism is focused on different ways of working, different ways of traveling and so on, to try to open up a more citizenly way of thinking about consumption, which hooks in to what you are arguing, I think, about the need for us to reignite that more citizenly, republican sense of how we need to live. But how do we actually create the momentum for it, and particularly now, because I think as you yourself recognize, although there’s quite a lot of voluntary work going on—and people have responded to the pandemic, for example, with a surge of caring activities of various kinds—at the same time, we’ve got electorates that are voting for parties that are committed to increasing inequality rather than narrowing the gap between the rich and poor.
LS: Well, our only hope, I think, is that in this country, and I think in the United States, too, overwhelmingly the young did not vote for the Tories. If we had only the under-twenty-five-year-olds voting, we’d be solid Labor throughout the country. If we had only the over-sixty-five-year-olds, unfortunately, we’d be solid Tory in Britain. And so that would translate to Democratic and Republic, I imagine, in the United States.
What most people are aware of, except for the 1 percent, is time poverty. And so I think emphasizing time poverty, and thinking in terms of a shorter working week, which the Labor movement is beginning to take up here. But also time poverty relating to care, and how we need to prioritize care and downplay the forms of productivity that are not improving our lives at all. What improves our lives is care, our care for each other. It is care workers who’ve been leading protests lately, you know, for better pay, better conditions, and so on. So I think through the unions and the Labor Party in this country, and within the Democratic Party and the DSA in the United States, that we will need to mobilize around saying we’ve got all our values wrong. If we want there to be a future at all, you know, we have to begin by looking at our interdependence and thinking about how we care for each other, and how we care for the world. The left has got it wrong in the past by going along with arguments for productivity and not thinking about reproduction rather than production. So for me, it’s pushing for questions of care at every level. But perhaps we should open up to the floor, because I’m sure there are lots of questions that people will have.
ANTHONY MORGAN: Thank you both for that excellent conversation. One question which I think is very interesting is from Chris, who I believe is based in Boston. So Kate, can you address how to translate your ideas into an emotionally driven political message as one has to reach the heart instead of the brain in politics to effect real change? How do we balance the kind of more rational argument with an appeal to the emotions which tends to bring about the kind of political changes required?
KS: I think a lot of the people are already experiencing a sense of alarm. They’re alarmed about their well-being, and the survival of their own children and grandchildren. They are worried about the extremes of wealth and poverty, and the plight of impoverished people around the globe, which, even if you’re not actually afflicted by it yourself, is painful to contemplate. If we don’t have any political adjustments, I think we could very well end up in global conflict, which could prove terminal. So it’s a very dangerous and worrying time. And particularly I think for young people.
And then I think there are ways, and Lynne and I have touched on them a bit, in which what we are arguing for could generate forms of pleasure, forms of enjoyment. The new forms of solidarity and collective initiative, the energy that comes with that. But I’ve also argued in the past that we have to build more emotional momentum, to challenge the monopoly on how the good life is understood. There is a complete monopoly, artistically and by our advertising, on what we count as living well. If we could challenge that it would help enormously to generate a new aesthetic around material culture that no longer is tied to consumerism as the most attractive possibility.
LS: I would begin by emphasizing our shared vulnerability: our shared vulnerability to climate change, our shared vulnerability to global pandemics. The right promises that it can protect people by building walls—and now Biden is continuing with that dreadful wall that Trump started—that will protect us by cutting off the rest of the world. And that idea really is ludicrous, as surely COVID-19 showed us. But it’s ludicrous in so many different ways, because we simply are all interconnected. Climate change is not only going to happen in Bangladesh. It is happening in California. It is happening in Sydney. It is happening all around the world. And so if we can’t see that we’ve got to look at this together and protect ourselves together and find new ways of protecting ourselves through changing our way of relating to each other and relating to the world, then our children and grandchildren will not be living on a viable planet. So I do think that interdependency, shared vulnerability, this sort of thing that Judith Butler and so many philosophers now are talking about, is one place to begin. But we have to challenge that sort of paranoid mindset, which is on the rise in Italy and in all sorts of places, and which the right is trying to encourage. It’s a real battle to stress the fact that, clearly, humans are interdependent, on each other and on the world.
AM: There are two questions which I think play off each other, and they’re basically about the use of time. And this kind of reminds me a little bit of Bertrand Russell’s essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” where he offers the worry that if people have too much time on their hand, they would turn to drinking and so on. Brett asks something along those lines saying, “Are you afraid that most people would use more free time to pursue, quote, lower pleasures? Would we care what ‘pleasures’ they pursue?” And Elke says: “Having more unscheduled time is not enough. Overwhelmingly people with time on their hands were filled with massive boredom and overwhelmingly craved any form of social interaction. Those who pose the questions tend to presume everyone yearns for unassigned time.” I’m not sure how central the increase in non-instrumentalized free time is to your account, Kate, but do you want to speak about that issue, that if people are presented with more free time, they would either use it pursuing more lowly pleasures, or they would experience it as in some way threatening or unpleasant?
KS: There’s quite a lot of issues involved here. The important thing is to recognize that there will be diversity in the way that people use extra free time. And we shouldn’t be too moralizing about how they use it. There’s nothing wrong, I don’t think, with simply being idle. We are going to move to a post-work culture, one way or another, because the future is going to be reliant much more on drones and robots to do work. This is a point made by the left, by so-called tech utopians who are delighted that drones will take over everything.
I would argue against that as a desirable future. I think that we do need to work. All of us want some work, I think. But not as much as we’ve actually got caught up in through the capitalist work ethic. And many people are indeed time scarce, I think. But if we’re going to move to a post-work, four-day or even three-day workweek, then I think we need at the same time to shift our way of thinking about use of time, to make work less central to people’s live. And that would mean, I think, transforming our educational system, from primary school right through to higher education, to put more emphasis on education as a preparation for making fulfilling use of leisure. At the moment, I think one of the reasons people get scared about having more free time is that the only thing that structures their lives is work. And that creates its routines and its forms of conviviality and, in the transition away from work, people are going to find that difficult. I wouldn’t deny that. But we’re going to have to find ways of negotiating that shift. And one of the ways of negotiating that is to see education in a different light, not simply as preparation for career or for work, but as preparation for living well, for enjoying ourselves, for finding diverse ways of engaging. And encouraging what I would call a more lucid life, one that isn’t committed to a totally instrumental way of thinking about time, but is happy to let people just play more. You know what I mean? Children have got a lot to teach us here. We need to be allowed to play more.
LS: I think it’s a very strange question, and I don’t know where it’s coming from, actually. I think that people do some of the most destructive behavior precisely because they have very little time, and so they feel they have to reward themselves by drinking heavily or finding other forms of instant gratification. And as for the question of time anyone with any dependents—with children, with old people needing care, with friends who need care—does not have enough time. I mean, I don’t know quite what world these questions are coming from, but all my friends do not have enough time to do the things they would like to do to give support for their friends, to look after their children, to look after their elderly and so on. You know, we do live with huge time poverty, and I find it really, really odd that it’s thought otherwise. And also, I don’t think for a minute that automation is going to replace our care jobs. You know, caring is a hands-on business, where the goal is to enable the other person you’re caring for to respond in an interactive and mutual way, so that together you each can have a certain sense of autonomy. Perhaps be able to play together, to share things together, and so on, but the idea that we’ll simply have time on our hands seems to me rather preposterous. If you begin from thinking we should be caring for each other, caring for our environment, caring for the wider world, the idea that that’s not going to require us to be doing things is to me rather perverse.
AM: A question from an anonymous attendee is around the role of utopia. This was a phrase that Kate used, and it’s in the title of your essay, Lynne. What are people talking about these days when they talk about utopia? It’s a word where you tend to get laughed out of town if you start even using. People seem more comfortable with dystopias than utopias.
LS: Nothing is selling like dystopias nowadays, if you think of The Hunger Games or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, they’re all about dystopias, the fact that we know we’re going to end up starving or eating each other, or someone’s going to be in control of our reproductive systems. And that is a shift. When I came into politics in the 1960s and ’70s, the thinking was much more positive. We did think that we were going to be able to change things together. When feminism comes along at the end of the 1960s, into the ’70s, we really think we can transform family life, get more people sharing the caring. We can also make the workplace more compatible with the home. Utopian thinking is imaging a better world, a world that’s based on our actual needs and our being able to care for each other. And caring was very much at the heart of feminism. Many of us were young mothers. We were thinking, how can we create a world where you don’t have these isolated mothers looking after their children, getting depressed, and their children also suffering from that? We can have public nurseries, public kitchens, we can create community. Utopian thinking is about creating community. It’s about sharing. It’s about not seeing ourselves as these isolated individuals who every minute should be simply trying to improve ourselves, rather than working for each other to try and improve the conditions for everyone. That is utopian thinking. And without utopian thinking, we’re not going to survive. It is as simple as that. We’re not going to survive, or our children or grandchildren are not going to survive.
KS: I think utopia, in the past, had a sort of bad reputation as being literally the place that never really came to pass, the place that’s out of place. Today I think we tend to use the notion of utopia to indicate where we would ideally like to go, socially and politically. It’s used to specify the ways of living and organizing the economy that we would prefer to see in place of the existing order. And I agree with Lynne that in that sense, we need as much utopian thinking as we can get. There are obviously going to be different kinds of utopian visions. I mentioned utopia as associated with some of those on the left who are primarily advocating that drones should do the care work, and that we should move to a more automated world in which nobody has to do any work. There would be abundance for everybody, and we will all be driving electric cars. We will all be taking tourist trips to Mars. We will all be living this kind of crazy kind of future, which for me is not only unrealizable but also dystopian.
AM: We’re pretty much at the end. Lynne, do you have any final words?
LS: Well, I can see some people thought that I was being rather didactic or dismissive in saying we’re not simply going to have time on our hands if we’re going to think about how to care for each other and care for the world. We’re going to have to be pretty active. A caring world is a world in which I’m afraid automatons are not going to be doing everything for us. We’re going to have to be interacting with each other. I guess that’s the world I’m passionately fighting for and committed to. We don’t only need to be cared for. Part of happiness is being able to care for others. We do need to be able to care for others, and get off this treadmill of thinking that the point of life is self-improvement. No. It’s about enjoying sharing this world with those who are on the world with us.
AM: Kate, any final words? Any topics that you would have liked to have touched on that didn’t come up in the short time we have available?
KS: I understand Lynne’s emphasis on care and a kind of altruism that should govern us much more—kind of a new sense of citizenship that we need to develop—I do see the need to present the case for alternative consumption in terms of a sense of duty to others. But it is also something that we can have a self-interest in as well. In other words, I think that moving to an alternative hedonist way of thinking about the future could be defended both as providing a more sustainable world—introducing forms of caring and responsibility that have not been forwarding in our current culture at all—but also something that could be more personally gratifying, and therefore that the politics that takes us there should be appealing to self-interest and the potential that it could restore to us ways of thinking about ourselves that have been eroded by seeing ourselves purely as consumers.