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A Cult of Austerity

by Dennis Graemer

Let’s start with the facts: Global warming exists, and it is caused by human activity. The burning of fossil fuels leads to the release of greenhouse gases, which absorb heat radiation and thus cause an increase in temperature. No serious scientist would question those facts. The theoretical models make sense and their empirical consequences can be observed everywhere: Average global temperatures have risen by 1 degree Celsius since the late 19th century, Arctic and Antarctic ice is melting, sea levels are rising and ocean acidification is progressing. We will experience further droughts, floods and storms if we don’t massively reduce our CO2 emissions immediately.

What can we do in the face of imminent disaster? Luckily, people are giving us all kinds of advice on the internet, on television, and in the newspapers. We should consume less, buy local and organic food, and car-share, explains the David Suziki Foundation. This is still rather sane, compared to what some Hippies from Germany us to do: We should manage to live “without consumption”. A similar picture emerges when we take a look at the social media – a fiery appeal to the consumer follows the other. Those who are not prepared to live in a hut, detached from society like the Hero from Thoreau’s Walden should at least shop at the Whole Foods. If the cucumber costs three times as much there, it’s your problem.

The cult of renunciation and austerity has long since arrived in the mainstream. The daily news asks “What can the individual do?” and kindly gives us the answer: the environmentally-conscious consumer will from now on, unfortunately, have to do without air travel. The British Guardian also reveals the holy commandments of our time to its readers: Don’t buy new things while the old ones are still working! Create a vegetable garden! Get away from your dishwasher! Stopping climate change seems to be very easy. All we have to do is buy the right things, ride a lot of bikes and always turn off the lights when we leave a room. If everyone gets down to it, then everything will be all right!

Such approaches think that climate change can be fought by kindly asking people to change their consumption habits and lifestyles. The responsibility for global warming is deferred to the individual. In this way, the structural and political causes of climate change are being ignored. While the woke activist compares ecological seals of approval for different carrot varieties in her favourite organic food store, energy producers and manufacturing industries are allowed to make juicy profits with the backing of the state. If the coal giants need someone to bet up those pesky protestors, the police forces of capitalist states will always diligently do their work, and it goes without saying that the concerns of domestic carmakers are an important priority – climate targets can wait. Instead of worrying about such inconveniences or even advocating for a different economic and environmental policy, the consumer critics have taught us that the isolated individual should start with themselves. According to them, anyone who has ever flown on holiday by plane should shut up anyway.

No such Thing as Society

Conscious consuming habits are not only promoted as a solution to climate change; its proponents are also convinced that it can alleviate or even eliminate a large number of other social problems. No matter whether it’s sweatshops in developing countries, environmentally harmful production methods, or particularly blatant cases of exploitation; anyone who wants to change things shall just buy fair trade and organic food. Especially evil international corporations shall be boycotted. How can the extraordinary popularity of such appeals to the individual be explained? If we want to answer this question, we must analyse how people think in our age of market radicalism.

The individualisation of social problems is a central element of neoliberal ideology. Within a society organised on the basis of generalised competition, man necessarily appears as a completely isolated being. Each individual stands alone. Everyone must fight for her own career, for her own survival. Within the framework of a post-Fordist socio-economic environment, one can only imagine action as individual action. Such an attitude was expressed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she declared: “there are only individual men and women […] there is no such thing as society”. Those who live in poverty or are unable to pay the rent shall not blame the decisions of the government or even the capitalist mode of production. Instead, the individual must acknowledge that she herself is responsible for her miserable situation. If she wants to improve her life, she shall simply make an effort at work.

Consumer critics want us to consume less. They promote austerity, which is an inherent characteristic of contemporary ideology. Notwithstanding all racist narratives about lazy Greek workers, the Greek debt problem was the direct result of German economic policy. Still, the Troika forced the country to implement a ruthless austerity program. The myth that capitalism needs more and more consumption is a relic of an age of Fordism-Keynesianism, where capitalism indeed relied on mass consumption. Neoliberalism, on the other hand, demands that workers consume less – in this respect, it promotes precisely the same agenda that the consumer critics hold so dear.

The adaptation of hegemonic ideology is not conscious; it is rather a more or less automatic reflex to the materiality of life under specific social and economic conditions. Those who live in a neoliberal society will automatically internalise a corresponding way of thinking. Under such a system of universal competition, the individual stands alone. Neoliberal individualisation also affects those who stylise themselves as critics of the existing order. The cult of austerity wants to be a radical antithesis to the neoliberal status quo. In reality, however, it accepts the premises of this status quo: Individualism and austerity.

Conscience and Power

The ethos of renunciation not only goes back to neoliberal individualism, but it also feeds on the overwhelming feelings of powerlessness with plague left-wing activists in recent decades. The cultural theorist Mark Fisher coined the term capitalist realism for the belief that there can be no system other than capitalism. The fact that the trade unions were unable to oppose the neoliberalist assault spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan has broken the will of the political left. It has also triggered the capitulation of social democratic parties, their defection to the enemy (New Labour in Britain or the German SPD with the Agenda 2010). The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s did the rest. One failure after the other has led the left to believe that in principle, they can do nothing. Hopelessness has been normalised. Aany thought of profound change appears to be incomprehensibly naive. Demoralisation and practical irrelevance form a disastrous cycle, a feedback loop which damns to left to vegetate at the fringes of society. The End of History (Fukuyama) leaves no place for revolution and utopia.

Those who no longer believe they can exert influence on the economy and the state have only one weapon left: their behavior as consumers. Of course, the consumer critic is not really convinced that her personal regime of austerity will do anything to save the planet. She does not want real change – she wants to do something about her bad conscience. In this sense, fair trade and organic food are nothing more than a postmodern indulgence.

The gesture of demarcation makes the therapeutic package complete. Many do not agree with the overall political and economic situation and have recognised that climate change represents an existential threat to humanity. Insights such as these naturally create a bad mood, especially when they are linked to the secret belief that nothing can change. How can people live in social conditions that they genuinely reject? How can they exist when they know that an unbelievable catastrophe is approaching and they can do nothing but wait? Only through gestures of symbolic distancing.

The core of consumer-critical thinking is the idea that one can detach oneself from entanglement in social conditions by personal renunciation. Conscious consumption serves to hand over responsibility for socio-economic and ecological problems. The consumer critic (allegedly) does not participate in those processes that destroy the planet – or fellow human beings – and therefore no longer feels responsible. She desires nothing more than the right to ignore reality, to finally be able to withdraw from politics. In this respect, she resembles the tram passenger who instinctively lowers her head and remains silent in the face of a racist or sexist assault. It’s none of my business.

Back to the Stone Age

Conscious consumption has never been primarily a political tool. It is the expression of an epochal turn of time, a counterattack, an accusation against the supposed impositions of a modernity which is out of control.

Complexity and technology are generally positive phenomena. They allow an increase in prosperity and freedom. In the course of the historical process, growth, science and machinery have massively increased the standard of living. Today we can easily cure diseases that in the past meant a certain death, we can tame forces of nature that sealed the fate of entire populations in previous ages. The development of productive forces allows us to delegate laborious and degrading work to machines while producing more goods in less time. Knowledge is liberation.

No wonder, then, that the left of the 19th and early 20th centuries empathically praised progress. Universal emancipation was to be attained through modern technology. The realm of freedom (Marx) was to be established not against, but in the context of urban industrial society, which is characterised by anonymity, abstraction and division of labour. From the very beginning, the Promethean program of rational control over nature was a core element of Marxism.

However, various social phenomena and historical events have fatally undermined the belief in modernity. The failure of revolutions, the dangerous side effects of technology and the cynical double standards of those who claim to embody universal progress have left a bitter aftertaste on entire generations. The progress optimism of the long 19th century was challenged by an anti-modern attitude. For the antimodernist, social complexity and technical development are not harbingers of a better future; they are instead the embodiment of a total loss of control. The idea that modernity takes a life on its own can be found with Heidegger, the Frankfurt School and the anti-globalisation movement attac. Abstraction and rationality are no longer seen as means of liberation. We are reminded to be careful not to indulge the hubris of the mind, not to allow the disenchantment of the world. The ideas of the Enlightenment no longer regarded as the embodiment of objective progress, they are suspected to be somehow eurocentric, masculine, mechanical, dangerous.

This anti-modernism is an intellectual trend, but at the same time it is also something which affects society as a whole. It is by no means just a few professors who hold anti-modern beliefs. Large sections of the population of industrial nations have been infected. Having lost faith in their own minds, they want nothing more than to overcome the confusing complexity of modern societies. They want to return to an organic community, they want the immediacy and closeness of small communities. This understandable but thoroughly false sigh of the oppressed creature (Marx), which has been tortured by modern capitalism, is at the heart of consumer-critical attitudes and activities.

Means and Possibilities

Conscious consumption is just as ineffective as a means against global warming as it is in combating poverty and exploitation. It will not stop the melting of the ice caps, and it will not lead to the closure of sweatshops. It is a “political instrument” of astonishing uselessness. As we have seen, the popularity of consumer criticism can be traced back above all to neoliberal ideology, the phenomenon of capitalist realism and anti-modernism. Those who want us to begin with ourselves prevent large sections of the population from asking the right questions. The realisation that climate change is not a result of individual decadence or malice, but rather a product of political power relations and systemic constraints, must be the starting point of any serious effort to save our planet.

A significant reduction in CO2 emissions can only be achieved at the political level. One of the most important short- to medium-term possibilities to do this is the political struggle to phase out coal plants. Coal is responsible for 25% of global CO2 emissions and therefore even exceeds oil. All emissions that arise in the course of energy production are caused either by the relatively limited combustion of natural gas or by coal-fired power plants. Therefore, phasing out coal plants on a global scale would imply a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Those who want to stop global warming should, above all, fight for the end of coal. However, successes in the fight against coal are not only extremely desirable but also practically possible. An example of this is the temporary victory of German environmentalists before the Higher Administrative Court of Münster. It effectively prevented the deforestation of the Hambach forest and thus the extraction of the coal hidden beneath it. The withdrawal from coal energy is a demand that we must forcefully promote on a political level. Even if all individual consumers were to switch to so-called green electricity – and this condition is already completely illusory – the industry, which has no other goal than to maximise profit and reduce costs, would still buy all the electricity it can get. Coal-fired power can only be abolished within the framework of international legal initiatives. Changing one’s own electricity supplier does not do much here.

But on other fronts, too, there are many things that we must enfoce against the interests of the bourgeoisie. For example, we should demand massive investments into public transport. Such a demand can be raised anywhere in the world and will massively reduce the use of cars, which are responsible for about 15% of all CO2 emissions in the EU alone. In addition to a massive reduction in CO2 emissions, investment in rail networks will also significantly improve infrastructure and thus mobility, quality of life, and economic efficiency. The expansion of public transport would enable city planners to replace parking lots and streets with parks and to build denser city centres. A Promethean transport policy aims to take as many cars as possible off the road. But the ruthless and consistent pursuit of such a policy of skilful rationality requires massive investments; it must be forced through against the will of the car industry. Beating one of the most important bourgeois factions is not easy, but possible. History has shown that the people can defeat the powerful if they take to the streets instead of growing vegetables on the balcony.

There is much we can do within the framework of national legislation and international treaties. However, in the long run, only the abolition of capitalism can guarantee that global warming will be stopped. Competition between companies is forcing them to focus on maximising their profits. Capitalist companies are forced to reduce their spending as much as possible – also at the expense of the climate. The Hobbesian state of nature that prevails between companies and presents them with an insurmountable collective action problem can be resolved with the help of binding legislative initiatives. Ultimately, however, the problem is only shifted to a higher level in this way. The fear of capital flight motivates sovereign states to enforce as few regulations as possible because such provisions would impair their competitiveness on the world market. The struggle for the survival of humanity finally makes necessary the socialist world republic.

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