The New Normal by Amitai Etzioni
Editor’s note: Amitai Etzioni’s article below is a powerful critique of approaches we often take in Tikkun magazine. We welcome this kind of challenge to the vision we put forward, particularly at www.spiritualprogressives.org/covenant. Please read that along with this article. One question we have to ask Etzioni: what level of consumption reduction would be sufficient to prevent humanity living in capitalist socieites around the globe from continuing the destruction of the life support system of the planet that is a regular feature of the capitalist marketplace’s endless search for profits–and how could that search be stopped as long as capitalism depends on private investment to fuel its bottom line and meet the growing demands from all around the world for a standard of living comparable to that in the U.S. Middle class?
The New Normal
If the people of the world cannot return to what is being called the ‘old normal’ (paid for by strongly growing economies), what will the new normal look like? Will it simply be a frustrating and alienating, scaled-back version of the old normal? Or will people develop different concepts of what constitutes a good life, as they did in earlier historical periods? If successful, a recharacterization of the good life will allow people to make – to use a rather archaic turn of phrase – a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; in plain English, to turn their misery into an opportunity.
Replacing versus capping consumerism
Criticisms of consumerism, materialism and hedonism are at least as old as capitalism and are found the world over. Numerous social movements and communities originating from within capitalist societies have pursued other forms of the good life. The Shakers, who left Manchester for America in the 1770s, founded religious communities characterized by a simple ascetic lifestyle. Other ascetic communities (some secular, some religious) included the Brook Farm Institute, the Harmony Society, the Amana Colonies, and the Amish. In Britain, John Ruskin founded the Guild of St. George in the 1870s, which he intended to guide the formation of agrarian communities that would lead a simple and modest life. Jewish refugees who emigrated to Palestine early in the twentieth century established kibbutzim, in which the austere life was considered virtuous, consumption was held down, communal life was promoted, and advancing a socialist and Zionist agenda was a primary goal of life.
In the 1960s, a counterculture (‘hippie’) movement rose on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Its core values were anti-consumerism, communal living, equality, environmentalism, free love, and pacifism. Timothy Leary encapsulated the hippie ethos when he advised a crowd to ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’. The British iteration of the hippie movement manifested itself in London’s underground culture, which Guardian writer Gary Miles has aptly described as a ‘community of like-minded anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-rock’n'roll individuals, most of whom had a common interest in recreational drugs’.
Many of the movements and communities that wished to opt out of both the consumption and work systems of capitalism sought to form an alternative universe wherein people could dedicate themselves to transcendental activities, including spiritual, religious, political, or social pursuits. The aim was to replace capitalism, rather than to cap it and graft onto it a different kind of society.
The historical record reveals that practically all these movements and communities failed to lay a foundation for a new contemporary society, let alone a new civilization, and practically all of them either disintegrated, shriveled, or lost their main alternative features. It seems that there is something in ascetic life that most people cannot abide for the longer run.
Hence it seems that if the current austere environment calls for a different attempt to form a society less centered on consumption, this endeavour will have to graft the new conception of a good life onto the old one. That is, not seek to replace consumption but to cap it and channel the resources and energy thus freed into other pursuits.
Once one approaches the subject at hand through these lenses, one finds millions of people who already have moved in this direction, although they are they are not necessarily aware that they are following a new vision of a ‘good society’ or coming together to promote it. These millions include a large number of senior citizens who retired before they had to, to allow more time for alternative pursuits. These seniors typically lead what might be called a comfortable life from a materialistic viewpoint, but spend more of their time socializing and engaged in spiritual, cultural and politically active pursuits, rather than continuing to be employed and to consume full throttle. (Note that by definition those who retire early earn less than those who continue to work, and hence either consume less or leave less of a bequest, which limits the consumption of their families.) The same holds for the millions of women who decide not to return to work after having children (at least until the children reach school age, and, for many women, long after that) although doing so means that they will have to consume less.
As these two large groups illustrate, as well as those who drop out of high-earning pursuits to follow a more ‘meaningful’ life (say, as teachers for those less privileged), to consume less one need not lead a life of sackcloth and ashes, of deprivation and sacrifice. One can work enough to ensure one’s basic creature comforts but dedicate the rest of one’s resources, energy, and aspirations to goods other than the consumed variety. One can, indeed, find more satisfaction in pursuits which offer an alternative to working long and hard to pay for consumption above and beyond what is needed for a comfortable life. The fact that millions have long persisted in capping their consumption and finding other, more authentic sources of contentment suggests that such capping is much more sustainable than the ascetic life advocated by the social movements and communities that sought to replace capitalism altogether
The main alternative to consumerism is what I call ‘transcendental pursuits’ – those activities whose focus is neither materialistic nor commodity-based, and which yield much more contentment than does the obsessive pursuit of consumer goods. Many transcendental pursuits are very familiar, but deserve restatement as they seem to have fallen into neglect, eclipsed by the rise of consumerism.
Social activities: Individuals who spend more time with their families and friends are more content than those less socially active. As Robert E. Lane writes, ‘Most studies agree that a satisfying family life is the most important contributor to well-being… The joys of friendship often rank second’. Robert Putnam presents a mountain of data to the same effect in his classic book Bowling Alone.
Spiritual and religious activities: Individuals who spend more time living up to the commands of their religion (attending church, praying, fasting, making pilgrimages, and doing charity work) are more content than those less so engaged. In his book The Politics of Happiness, Derek Bok points to studies that demonstrate that people with a deep religious faith are healthier, live longer, and have lower rates of divorce, crime, and suicide. Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that the difference in happiness between an American who goes to church once a week and one who never attends church was ‘slightly larger than the difference between someone who earns $10,000 a year and his demographic twin who earns $100,000 a year’.
Non-Instrumental activities: Much of consumerism’s failure to bring satisfaction can be attributed to the fact that the focus of consumerism is the pursuit of enjoyment rather than the enjoyment itself. People labour long hours for the sake of getting money which, in turn, is only a means to purchasing things that they will hardly have time to enjoy after all the time spent working and shopping. By contrast, there is great joy to be found in those activities that we consider to actually comprise the good life as opposed to those that are merely the means to attaining that good life. These non-instrumental activities include studying for studying’s sake – rather than doing it for vocational purposes – or engaging in cultural activities such as painting or making music, again not to serve a market but for the intrinsic enjoyment that they bring. Such activities are characterized by what Kant called ‘purposiveness without purpose’: intentional, motivated action that is engaged in for its own sake.
Community involvement: Researchers who examined the effect of community involvement found a strong correlation with happiness. One study by John F Helliwell, which evaluated survey data from 49 countries, found that membership in (non-church) organizations has a significant positive correlation with happiness. Derek Bok reports that ‘Some researchers have found that merely attending monthly club meetings or volunteering once a month is associated with a change in well-being equivalent to a doubling of income’. Other studies have found that individuals who devote substantial amounts of time to volunteer work have greater life satisfaction.
There is no need for more documentation here as these studies are familiar and readily accessible. They suggest that capped consumption combined with greater involvement in one alternative pursuit or another (or a combination of several) leads to more contentment than consumerism does. The challenge we face is to share these findings, along with their implications for populations dragged into an age of austerity.
A society in which capping consumption is the norm and in which the majority of people find much of their contentment in transcendental pursuits will receive two bonuses of great import. One is obvious, the other much less so.
Obviously, a good life that combines a cap on consumption and work with dedication to transcendental pursuits is much less taxing on the environment than consumerism and the level of work that paying for it requires. Transcendental activities require relatively few scarce resources, fossil fuels, or other sources of physical energy. For instance, social activities (such as spending more time with one’s children) require time and personal energy but not large material or financial outlays. (Often parents who spend large amounts of money on toys or commerical entertainment for their kids bond with them less than parents whose relationships with their kids are much less mediated by objects.) The same holds for cultural and spiritual activities such as prayer, meditation, enjoying and making music, art, sports, and adult education. True, consumerism has turned many of these pursuits into expensive endeavours. However, one can break out of this mentality and find that it is possible to engage in most transcendental activities quite profoundly through only moderate consumption of goods and services. One does not need designer clothes to enjoy the sunset, or shoes with fancy labels to benefit from a hike. And the Lord does not listen better to prayers read from a leather-bound Bible than those read from a plain one, printed on recycled paper. In short, the transcendental society is much more sustainable than the consumerist one.
Much less obvious are the ways in which the transcendental society serves social justice. Social justice entails transferring wealth from those disproportionally endowed to those who are underprivileged. A major reason such reallocation of wealth has been surprisingly limited in free societies is that those who command the ‘extra’ assets tend also to be those who are politically powerful. Promoting social justice by organizing and galvanizing those with less and forcing those in power to yield has had limited success in democratic countries and led to massive bloodshed in others. Hence the question: Are there ways to reduce the resistance of the elites to the reallocation of wealth?
Recharacterization of the good life along the lines here indicated can help, because it encourages high earners to derive a major source of contentment not from acquiring additional goods and services but from transcendental activities that are neither labour- nor capital-intensive. There are numerous accounts of rich people who have given substantial parts of their wealth to good causes. It is much better for all when such people gain prestige, self-esteem, or affection by doing good rather than by buying goods.
Among the well known examples of those who have embraced charity over additional consumption are George Soros, Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and the children of the Rockefellers. And there are many more like them, such as the rich who give to charity for religious reasons, but are less visible because their contributions are smaller (though not smaller proportional to their assets). The more transcendental ideals are accepted, the greater the number of affluent and powerful people who will have less reason to oppose reallocation of wealth, and the more who may even find some source of contentment in supporting it. Granted, we have seen that embracing transcendental ideals and social-minded values can take on a more extreme and excessive character, as was the case with the spread of the counterculture. There is no guarantee that we shall get it right this time, but surely it is worth a try in face of the mounting anti-social reactions to forced austerity.
One can envision other characterizations of a good life. However, we should not delay the dialogue about what such a society would look like and what its norms and projects can be. The world would greatly benefit from a reorientation of the goals of the economic system, in particular if we face prolonged sluggish economic growth. By reframing our conception of the good life, slow growth might be viewed not as frustrating and alienating but as an opportunity to reexamine and reset life’s priorities, and to determine if we can break away from consumerism without denying that we all seek and are entitled to secure, basic creature comforts. Re-characterization of the good life may not only spare the world major social and political upheavals and international conflicts but also create a world in which more people can flourish.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at the George Washington University, and author of The Active Society, The Spirit of Community,and–The New Normal and most recently, Privacy in the Cyber Age.