The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, partriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors. . . . The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto looked up to with reverent awe. . . . The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil. . . . All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. . . .
–Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto”
In the age of depletion and contraction there will be a revolution in expectations. The obvious candidates are our expectations for comfort and convenience, our entitled view that we in the industrialized world should never be too hot or too cold, that we can eat whatever we want whenever we want, travel on a whim, be entertained at all times and, when things go wrong, be taken care of by a government that we don’t have much interest in funding.
But this post-peak oil revolution will not begin with any of our mainstream political parties, nor even according to familiar political values. With only minor differences about how the spoils of the oil age might be dispersed, cutting across political lines is the master-belief that if we have the right to anything we can afford. Whether liberal or conservative, progressive or reactionary, nearly all inhabitants of North Atlantic democracies lavish themselves with as much of the looted splendor of the age of cheap energy as they can seize. There is so little room outside of this hegemony of entitlement that this marginal space, until now perhaps, has been reserved only for an impractical fringe unaware of the democratic needs of a mass-society in the industrialized world.
Progressives have in fact been the advanced guard in this campaign for general and indiscriminant opulence. Whether the endorsement of rural electrification, the promotion of the Model-T, the fight for the 40 hr. work week and workers’ compensation, the production of cheap household conveniences so that even the most downtrodden might dream of never needing to hang clothes on the line again, or the more recent mass liberal conversion to what Thomas Frank refers to as Market Populism, progressives have, with as good intentions as humans can have, fought to spread to the unfortunate all the privileges and comforts of modern life. An indiscriminate distribution of wealth is far better than a discriminating one. However, it is easy for us to recognize, now, that progressives were also universalizing unsustainability.
Prior to the Clinton years there was, perhaps, the semblance of a leftist or blue-collar alternative. But in a consumer culture, how can the progress of equality be measured except as access to consumption, whether in the form of possessions or experiences (travel and edification have been important to the liberal elite’s program of imagining itself apart from consumerism)? But during the 90s, progressives decided in droves to join the party, becoming increasingly enamored with economic growth and the stock-marketization of everyday life.
Who can forget Clinton, himself, thumping the lectern with his characteristic thumb-point, filling our hopeful souls with the Democratic Party’s new mantra, “grow the economy.” I remember my election-day exuberance: if guided by a President free from anti-communist belligerence and moved by the plights of the marginalized, the advancement of a market ideology seemed not only tolerable but full of promise. We imagined the barriers that our national opulence, now put in the service of equality and justice, could destroy, the boats that the rising tide would lift. Perhaps the old focus on workers’ rights and on too much regulation would, in fact, lead to a stagnating economy that would do no good for anyone. Even the British Labour Party was moving in this direction.
Something similar was at the same time occurring within leftist academic culture. There was a feeling, if not a belief, that the problems of scarcity had been solved and that the road to political equality was being paved. During the 60s, Sociology departments had been the seat of progressive thinking in the university. By 1990, English and Comparative Literature (which I was at the time studying) had become the vanguard of a new kind of radicalism, concerned with identity and representation. Using the critical tools honed by French and German post-Marxists, the task now was to deconstruct the hegemonic narratives that had been used to oppress and marginalize.
There was, in our in-your-face excoriation and rejection of the social norms that brought shame to gays, violence to women, and invisibility to the stories and language of the world’s brown-skinned people–in this moment of multi-cultural awakening–a legitimate rebellion against conservative forces that had used a specific notion of unfettered freedom as tool to keep the competition for resources and capital (especially cultural capital) tilted decidedly in their own favor.
Despite the fact that we were the heirs to the basic model of Marxist critique, one could find in the “cultural studies” of the time, not only a tendency to give consumerism and “the market” a free pass, but to elevate the creative marketer almost to the level of hero of the multi-cultural left, rubbing elbows, at the very least, with “Bill Gates and his legion of tattooed-causal disciples,” that Thomas Franks so nicely characterizes. Uncritical of the culture of stuff, equating markets with democracy, artsy social criticism became a matter of choosing which stuff would represent your newly fashioned identity, as Kitschy detritus was reconfigured into a statement of resistance, and popular culture icons were celebrated as democratic levelers.
It is easy to look back and scoff. It almost always is. But like Marx’s bourgeoisie, the market and all the riches it brought–especially the opportunities for reflection, non-utilitarian expression, increasingly safe and sheltered quests for oneself, its model of unlimited freedom of choice—all this did, in fact, play a great role in demolishing “ancient and venerable prejudices.” Post-colonial ideological hierarchies were overturned by the cool and cynical disregard for “patriarchal, idyllic relations” and any notion of a “natural superior,” all of which had, in fact, been intertwined with and supported by not only our political institutions, but by the literary cannon and its hierarchical systems of valuation.
All this was done without any regard for ecology. Indeed the very notion of “nature” or “the natural” was shown to be a construct, used to idolize but disempower, to scorn and exclude. In the vast urban electric simulacrum, such confusions were unlikely. Limits, for their part, were artificial–manufactured for the purpose of dominating or colonizing “the other.”
For better and for worse, the age of limitless choice and fluid identity, of ironic post-consumerist hoarding, of reconstructing language and reality to suit our inner needs as we elevated ourselves to God-like creator—this age is winding down. As with Sue Lowden’s bartered chickens we are on the cusp of a broad revaluation of values, as well as ethics, morality, and familiar political categories and the language and stories that have supported them.
Consider in this light the chart, below, which Pat Murphy presents in his indispensible book, Plan C. Here we can see in sharp detail the reversal that is underway. The content of the chart is the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues, compared according to tradition and religion versus modern advertising and thus the market-based culture I have been describing.
Armed with the tools of the multi-cultural left, it is easy to show how each of the values as represented in modern advertising had worked to liberate someone, and how the traditional wisdom had been previously employed as a tool of oppression. Take, for instance, chastity. Chastity, as a virtue, has a rich history of working to limit the sexual freedom of women. Failure, here, still means death by stoning in places around the world ungraced by the progressive critique of patriarchy. Likewise, it is hard to imagine something easier to harness to a system of oppression than the faith in unseen things. Belief in yourself, in your own powers of thought and the truths of your specific identity have been necessary instruments of liberation for many. Behaviors and attitudes once seen as prideful have likewise been a necessary tool in the assertion of the rights of those who have, in fact, been told that they are unworthy, that their proper role is one of subservience, that they are worthless.
From the standpoint of the cultural progressive, then, the right side of the chart represents freedom and self-expression, while the left side catalogues various tools of oppression. The traditional and religious view, with its moderating limits represents the conservative limitation of legitimate social progress that nearly all of us privileged members of the bourgeoisie enjoy.
This, of course, is not what Murphy had in mind when he presented this chart. Rather it comes as a part of his critique of mass media, especially the marketing and advertising industries and the way they have dismantled the “reverent awe” that we perhaps need to reinstitute. The traditional interpretations of the sins and virtues support a sense of ecological limits that have been torn asunder by our 100 year frenzy of consumption. Two years into the Transition Movement, my initial response to this chart was the same; it did not occur to me that I was returning to a system of valuation that, only a few years earlier, I would have seen as an obstacle to freedom and equality. The only thing that would have surprised me more would be if I had become a Republican.
Which raises an interesting point and some questions that I will wrestle with as I go foreword. The turn towards this sort of language of limits does mark a significant change of perspective for this (former?) progressive, and I imagine, for many others soon to follow. But as an ethical transition, even spiritual (did I actually use that word?) transformation, the obstacles are relatively small. Adopting an idiom of traditional wisdom, I still can imagine myself as a self-stylized radical, even as I take an undeniably conservative turn in my thinking. Not that dismantling strongly held beliefs can’t be challenging, but the gratification I get from being more radical than the radicals also can’t be denied.
I don’t believe that Transition’s primary challenge will be one of electoral politics, but politics at this level will always be a force and a factor. So the question, what sort of political term, principles, and values will accompany an ethics (and a physical necessity) of limits? We in America have very little experience with self-limitation and have largely defined our national culture in reaction to them, whether with those imposed by the British on the Colonies, or the ones we feared the Communists would force upon us if the dominoes began to fall.
The American Civil-War, provides even more illumination: the Union imposed limits on the Confederacy and the enduring resentment from Dixie plays an enormous role in American political culture today. The freedom to consume often is sold to us with a Southern or Country flair. But the only way this sort of imposition was possible in America, it seems to me, is that at the same time it was also the greatest lifting of limits to freedom; it was a battle between conflicting visions of freedom and liberty. We still have no practice in the act of rolling back individual liberties or imposing restrictions on liberty and the pursuit of property