Green Fever about Luxury—Misunderstanding the Middle-Class Battler

Abstract

This is the (slightly revised and corrected) text of a speech I gave as invited speaker at the annual dinner at International House in mid-2004.

Green Fever about Luxury—Misunderstanding the Middle-Class Battler

Luxury Fever and Manufactured Identity

For some years now, prominent environmentalists have been expressing concern about the social and ecological impact of the amount Australians spend on non-essential luxury items. Most recently, Clive Hamilton from the Australia Institute has launched a stinging attack on such over-consumption, which he terms luxury fever. Luxury fever, says Hamilton, is “(t)he desire to emulate the lifestyles of the very rich … .” This desire has led “… to booming sales of trophy homes, luxury cars, pleasure craft, cosmetic surgery and professional quality home equipment.” (p.6, OIA) According to Hamilton, infection by luxury fever is a chronic condition of consumer capitalism: this can only survive by constantly growing and it achieves constant growth by using advertising to create artificially high and constantly rising levels of demand. This explains why so many in Australia, although “wealthy by any historical or international standard[,] actually feel poor” (p.6, OIA). It also explains our currently record levels of consumer debt.

The advertising industry has done this, thinks Hamilton, by exploiting the fact that humans seek emotional warmth (p.69, GF), and in particular, that they “… naturally pursue a sense of community and belonging … .” (p.77, GF) We want such community and belonging because only if we have them can we obtain from others recognition and confirmation of ourselves as worthy human beings. And such recognition and confirmation by others is true happiness, which all human beings seek. Advertising tells us that we can find recognition and confirmation of self, thus happiness, by acquiring goods and utilising services. And so, says Hamilton, “(c)onsumption behaviour has become central to the construction of personal identity and lack of access to this activity would cause severe distress to many.” (p.6, OIA)

But this way of constructing a sense of self-worth traps us in a cycle of excessive work and consumption in which the recognition and confirmation we seek constantly eludes us. We are thrown into loneliness and existential depression, are left with “a niggling sense that there is no point,” (p.75, GF) to which our society can only respond by advising us to go shopping. (p.75, GF) No wonder, then, says Hamilton, that suicide is on the increase. No wonder, too, that the environment is collapsing under the weight of all those people looking for happiness and authentic selfhood in the wrong place.

A False Diagnosis?

My students love this kind of social critique. It is almost as if they want to believe it. Yet it seems to me not just wrong, but also dangerous—dangerous because it presents a grossly distorted picture of why most people consume as they do, and as a result, it insinuates a completely distorted picture of what is needed in order to address the current environmental crisis.

Let us ask whether it is really true that, with the rise of the outer Sydney aspirational voter, “the little Aussie battler has become the great Australian whinger” (p.8, OIA), in other words, the kind of person who sees a ban on backyard swimming pools as contravening human rights. Now it is certainly true that these days large numbers of people can and do acquire things which were unattainable even for their parents, from flat screen home cinemas through professional quality power tools to powerful four-wheel drives.1 But is this really a consumerist feeding frenzy driven by a misguided search for recognition and true happiness?

Hamilton points out that “… Australians today have incomes three times higher than in 1950.” (p.5, OIA, see also p.8, DIA) But one way of understanding this threefold increase is to see it as a decrease in prices: many goods and services are cheaper than ever before. The most obvious and radical example is air travel, but the same is true of electronic and electrical goods: my first computer, an IBM XT clone bought in 1987, cost about $3,500 in today’s money, two and a half times the cost of today’s low end machines. Given this, it is not surprising that even those with comparatively modest incomes by contemporary standards own cars, televisions, DVD players, computers, mobile phones, power tools and the rest. So the fact that these days people have more things in their homes is not necessarily a sign of some pathological condition whose explanation requires baroque psychological theory of the kind offered by Hamilton and others. It is simply a matter of people opportunistically using their incomes, more or less wisely, to buy what they can now afford.

There is, however, a deeper point implicit in the historical observation about how many once expensive things have become much more affordable: it intimates a subtle shift in what counts as a luxury item. A luxury item is, after all, not just unnecessary, it is also, at least typically, expensive. Certainly, this is how Hamilton understands the notion. Now over the last thirty to fifty years many consumer products and services which, had they been available earlier, would have been very expensive, have become comparatively cheap. By contrast, things like health, education, legal representation, public as opposed to private transport and of course housing have all stayed the same or become considerably more expensive. So lots of privately purchased and used goodies have moved down the luxury scale while many often publicly provided and used services have moved up it. So there is no contradiction these days in the idea that one can be poor, or at least struggling, while still possessing a fair range of consumer goodies. For the mark of the battler has increasingly become inability to access the services of the kind just mentioned.

Once one appreciates this, the complaints of outer Sydney aspirational voters appear in a different light. These complaints are not, as Hamilton thinks, just the whinging of self-indulgent individuals who in fact have never had it so good. Many apirational voters are doing it tough—doing it tough in the sense that housing, education, transport, legal protection, physical security and health services have become economically and socially less accessible even as individual consumer goodies have become more accessible. Their complaints are not about inability to buy the Grand Turbo gas-fired outdoor barbeque which represents for Hamilton the epitome of consumer fetishism. Rather, their complaints concern the difficulty of obtaining such clearly quite non-consumerist services as those just mentioned—services which in the past have often been public and which, for anything up to half a century, for example, public transport, have been in steep decline. Naturally, the complaints of those whom Hamilton calls middle-class battlers also concern the consequences of such decline, for example, the insecurity, filth and general unsocial character of public spaces. And these complaints also concern things like economic insecurity and the rapid rate of unpredictable change, also consequences of the new global economy by pandering to which governments have created public squalor amidst private affluence. Of course, to say this is not to deny that middle-class battlers often misidentify the causes of their problems, for example, by blaming their woes on criminals, junkies, dole-bludgers, asylum seekers and/or aboriginals.

That aspirational voters and other middle-class battlers do not in fact suffer from luxury fever, and in particular, do not consume in order to manufacture identity (p.72, p.74, p.88 and p.95, GF), is shown by what they spend their incomes on. They certainly do work all hours in order to earn as much as they can, just as they certainly do spend a considerable portion of what they earn on consumer goodies. But most do not primarily spend their money on such things. Rather, they primarily work and earn in order to put their kids through private school, to pay for ballet lessons, to have a beautiful garden or to build a house big enough to give each child the room to itself which it will inevitably demand (and perhaps even need, given all the things—computers, books, desks, sports equipment—which growing up these days requires). True, this purchasing behaviour undermines public schools (as ever more kids get private educations). True, it wastes oil and causes pollution (as ever more obese children are ferried around town in four wheel drives). It also introduces all sorts of weeds and poisonous chemicals into the environment (as ever more land is planted out with agapanthi and drenched in Roundup). Lastly, it renders vast tracts of good agricultural land useless (as big houses on small blocks devour ever more of the Sydney basin).

But it is not luxury fever. People today consume excessively, thoughtlessly and often selfishly. But, I suggest, they do not do so in order to bring meaning into meaningless lives. Indeed, this whole idea makes no sense.2 Rather, contemporary patterns of consumption are those one would expect from people turned inwards—not egoistically, towards their own selves, but privately, towards their own families, friends and other private interests. Contemporary consumption does not show that people are greedier or more materialistic than ever before—they have surely always been that—, but at most that they are more uncertain about whether, beyond the strictly private sphere, there are meaningful relations which offer recognition and confirmation of self. And, given the concrete realities of contemporary society, who would blithely say they are wrong?

Contemporary consumption is thus not pathological behaviour, as critics like Hamilton suggest. It is in fact moderately rational behaviour, given the concrete situation people take themselves to be in. Hamilton and other like him can only think that it is pathological, and thus explicable only by postulating recondite psychological mechanisms which cause people to look for such dubious things as ‘real’ happiness and ‘true’ selfhood in the wrong place, because they indulge in a fantasy already mentioned, namely, that “(p)eople naturally pursue a sense of community and belonging.” (p.77, GF) In saying this, Hamilton is surely not making the anodyne point that humans have an inherent desire to be recognised and confirmed by the ones they love, admire or respect. If he is making more than this obvious point, then he can surely only be claiming that humans have an inherent desire to stand in relations of solidarity and support with whoever they have to rub shoulders with on a more than casual basis—with their neighbours, their colleagues, their community, etc. Note that if this is what Hamilton is saying, then we can explain his surely otherwise inexplicably negative attitude towards modern communication technology: Hamilton regards it as a bad thing, as evincing “(t)he absence of real contact” (p.79, GF), that “with all the enormous advances in communications, people know less of their neighbours than ever before … .” (p.79, GF) In other words, no amount of modern technology permitting us to remain in contact, even at great distance, with family and friends compensates for the fact that we no longer gossip over the back fence with our neighbour. For this latter kind of contact realises more fully our inherent need for belonging, and thus our true selves.

A Dangerous Diagnosis?

I have given you a rough indication of why the kind of social critique offered by Hamilton might be wrong. Let me now indicate three ways in which it might be dangerous:

Firstly, it leads us to regard luxury and self-indulgence as main causes of environmental crisis. But in fact more environmental damage is done by buying from Roger Corbett than from Hugo Boss. The central problem is not the luxury consumption of $400 sunglasses from Gucci (p.7, OIA), but the non-luxury consumption of $3.00 cornflakes from Woollies. Naturally, luxury consumption does cause environmental damage. But it should really only be an incidental target for the environmental movement—not the least because luxury consumption is arguably best controlled by curbing much more extensive and damaging non-luxury consumption. It is, after all, the latter kind of consumption which creates the jobs and incomes, and thereby the economies of scale, required to keep luxury items on the cusp of mass affordability rather than irrevocably beyond reach.

Secondly, Hamilton’s diagnosis misleads us into thinking that downshifting, otherwise known as sea change, is a real protest against consumer society 3 rather than just another expression of it. Having attacked those of us who suffer from affluenza, Hamilton celebrates those who have taken a cut in income in order to live “more simply” down on the coast or in the bush. But this downshifting is just as much a turn inwards, a flight from public to private, to family, friends and home. Nor is it less environmentally damaging than the more conventional behaviour of aspirational voters. No doubt down-shifters earn less, hence buy less consumer goodies than those on the urban fringes. Perhaps they even have solar power. Even so, downshifters still want to have roads to drive to town on, hospitals, railways, police, airports and schools to send their kids to. And they want to have these services while living in areas where the provision and use of such services is much more financially and ecologically costly. Note the current protests coming from rural and regional councils about their inability to provide the infrastructure taken for granted by sea-changers.

Thirdly and perhaps most dangerously, this diagnosis both presupposes and reinforces the rhetoric of community currently prominent in the environmental movement, for example, in the political statements of the Australian Greens. Modern capitalist society certainly has destroyed local communities and neighbourhoods, it certainly has tended to restrict relations of solidarity and support to the private sphere, that is, to family and friends. But as we have seen, Hamilton regards this loss of close relation to our neighbours as contradicting our natural or inherent human desire to belong, not to a private sphere of family and friends, but to something in between the public and the private, something called ‘the community’.4 So this loss is positively fated to generate mass misery and existential depression.

But where I live in the Blue Mountains, whatever ‘community’ there is centres around the local bush fire brigade, whose bonding exercises consist amongst other things in very meaty barbeques and the creation of fire trails which destroy the bush and introduce weeds. So I don’t want to be part of, or more dependent than necessary on, my local community. Nor do I feel particularly depressed, and I do not see myself as pathologically addicted to grossly consumerist behaviour. Or am I just deluding myself? Do I in fact need to be told, naturally in the nicest, most caring and inclusive way, that in fact I am depressed, that I am really looking for my true self, albeit in the wrong place, and where I might find it? Must I, however caringly-and-sharingly, be forced to be free? Of course not; the idea that, really and truly, we seek community and inclusivity is poor man’s metaphysics (or perhaps moral psychology or philosophical anthropology) with no clear content. It is indeed a false description of whatever human nature there is and it leads to policy which hamstrings environmental politics—like the idea once promoted by the Canberra Greens that everyone had to be allowed to put things on the agenda and consensus had to be reached on all agenda items. By 10:30 pm, and with only three items decided of an agenda thirty items long, I had had enough and gone home.

The kind of radical social critique propounded by Hamilton and the Greens is underwritten by the assumption that in order to overcome the environmental crisis it will not be enough to do what we have always done in smarter, more environmentally friendly ways. This assumption is surely right; we must indeed learn to consume less. And if we are to consume less, then it is essential to understand why we consume as much as we currently do and how we might live just as well or even better without consuming as much. Unfortunately, accounts of the kind offered by Hamilton give us merely the illusion of understanding. Something must, after all, be wrong with a diagnosis which portrays as alternative to the consumerist middle-class whinger what this latter would doubtless call the downshifting middle-class wanker.

References

Hamilton, Clive 2002 “Overconsumption in Australia—The Rise of the Middle-Class Battler” (OIA), The Australia Institute, Discussion Paper Number 49, November 2002

Hamilton, Clive 2003 “Downshifting in Australia—A Sea-change in the Pursuit of Happiness” (DOA), The Australia Institute, Discussion Paper Number 50, January 2003

Hamilton, Clive 2003 Growth Fetish (GF), Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Notes

  1. Hamilton provides ample statistical evidence of how people these days can afford things their parents could not: while the average size of households has fallen from 3.3 people per household in the early 1970s to 2.6 today, the size of houses has grown from an average of 115 square metres in 1950 to 221 square metres today (so that each occupant today has more than twice the space). (p.6, OIA) Some contemporary household appliances, like refrigerators (Hamilton’s example—see pp.6-7, OIA), are more expensive than their 1950’s counterparts; and so on.

  2. If Hamilton were right, one would have expected to see all sorts of people, in particular, young teenage men, on the shop-until-you-drop bus tour shown on the Four Corners programme Till Debt do us part of 24.05.04. But in fact one saw basically pairs of adult to middle-aged women, clearly going out together for a bit of a lark, none of them showing any signs of the existential depression which according to Hamilton we go shopping in order to cure.

  3. How much Hamilton thinks this is shown by the following: “Unlike middle-class whingers, downshifters do not demand that the government solve their problems. One might say that they have been offered a ‘fistful of dollars’ but have said ‘no thanks, the price is too high’. In recent times political leaders have begun to change their rhetoric with more talk of family friendly policies and concern about overwork. But for downshifters this is not enough because the political system continues to promote consumerism and growth at all costs, precisely the values that downshifters have discarded.” (p.6, DIA)

  4. Indeed, so much is belonging to a community supposed to be part of our true and authentic nature as human beings that when this is denied us, we succumb to existential depression to which we respond by going shopping—“as if by purchasing socially sanctioned goods we could buy a sense of belonging. Ignoring those around us, we came to look for a sense of community on the shelves of the supermarkets and the clothing stores.” (p.77, GF) Other environmentalists are also prone to such claims about our essential need for community and how it is crushed by modern society. There is much that one could and should say about this notion of community, in particular, by way of showing (1) that, historically speaking, there has never actually been such a thing; and (2) that, conceptually speaking, it is actually wooden iron. In fact, the notion is a popular rehash of Rousseau notions of the general will. Does this mean that we must retreat from the thick, not to say mawkish, concept of community to be found in much Green thinking to some thin, liberal concept of the public? Not necessarily. It depends on how one conceives the ‘I’-thinking and -saying subject. One need only answer affirmatively if one conceives of the subject as wandering lonely through a disenchanted nature with purely subjective ‘values’ jangling like small change in its pocket.