Imagining a world beyond consumerism(4)

Jonathan Rowson
Mar 22, 2017 · 10 min read

In part one we considered the logic of consumerism in the context of human needs and our current imaginary. In part two we considered what it might take to reshape the imaginary through alternate social and emotional logics with greater intrinsic value. And in part three we considered the intrinsic (and extrinsic) value of human development, why this idea is so important politically and why it has been resisted for so long. There is so much more to say at each stage, and many more stages, but for now I want to end this mini-series with the question everybody always wants to ask:

What do we do?

Let me confess that I don’t really have an answer, but I do have some sense of what an answer might look like. The point of the emphasis on human development is this: we urgently need to understand what we are all ‘subject to’ at a perceptual and epistemological level and how that constrains our sense of what is politically necessary and possible. At a political level we are subject to economic growth and at a societal level we are subject to consumerism — they have us, we don’t have them. That’s what has to change.

Clearly there is no panacea. It is tempting to think we could change one thing and everything else would readjust seamlessly and beautifully, like some kind of societal acupuncture. ‘If only everybody became vegan’ or ‘if only everybody stopped watching TV’ or ‘if only everybody meditated for half an hour every day’ or ‘if only there was no commercial advertising’…if only such things happened the people of the world would have a chance to know themselves again and everything would improve.

There is some truth here — some changes are more transformative than others, and a world without advertising where people meditated every day would probably be a good start — at least for me- not least because it would support human development, but how can you really say? And what would my commercially minded uncles say? Such ‘if only’ ideas don’t inspire hope unless they are part of a larger vision that is politically astute, that meets people where they are and is not selectively coercive in spirit.

The same point applies to policy ideas relating to carbon taxes, citizen incomes and shorter working weeks — we should campaign for what we believe in — of course — but most changes in public policy are likely to be coopted by the prevailing imaginary. Take ‘green growth’ or ‘inclusive growth’. Typically these are expressions devised by people who could care less about growth but care deeply about ecological sanity, human dignity and solidarity. Alas they don’t — because they feel they can’t — fight for such things on their own terms. The result is to reinforce the imaginary that corrodes the sources of value we think we are protecting.

The world is also moving too quickly and too unpredictably for static visions that sound utopian. The idea of saying the world should be like Z, the barriers to getting there are X and therefore we should do Y also doesn’t ring true, if only because the rest of the alphabet rushes in from stage left and spoils the whole show. There is just too much going on, and so much energy is spent on simply coping with events. Partly because of the direct and indirect effects of climate change, that’s more likely to get worse than better in the coming years. It’s like we are in the middle of the ocean and hopping between boats. What we really need is land, but we can’t get there because we can’t see it.

That land is a new imaginary, which effectively means rewriting the cultural code. We don’t get there by going on a march saying: “What do we want? A new imaginary! When do we want one? Now!” The imaginary is constituted by institutions and policies and practices so changing it means changing them too. But here’s the crucial point. We have to keep the target in mind. We are not trying to change human nature, but rather shift the normative foundations of society such that neglected aspects of our natures are better acknowledged and attended to.

This is why Perspectiva seeks ‘a more conscious society’ — we need to wake up to how the world is shaping us before we can properly shape the world. And part of that waking up is a renewed sense of purpose and direction at a fractal level — from individuals to families to communities of interest and practise, to countries, to the world as a whole. We should not be content just to keep the show on the road, but let’s rather improve the show, improve the road, and if the road seems to be going nowhere in particular, let us make a ‘show’ that reflects on that experience to help us transcend it.

To contextualise what it might mean to wake up in practice, The New Citizenship Project seems to have one main message and it’s a good one — namely that we should resist the idea that we are just consumers, and fight for recognition as citizens instead — hence #Citizenshift. This is important, not least because it looks like Barack and Michele Obama will be emphasising the importance of citizenship for the foreseeable future. It is part of ‘sketches of the normative’ that Rowan Williams alluded to in the second post.

Why should citizenship matter? Because it’s an intentional stance towards life. It’s a form of maturity and part of being awake to the world. It’s a way of meeting others as moral equals in a form of benign activity and inquiry. It also about believing that the true, the good and the beautiful should be given a chance, and that they will prevail if they have the right kind of hearing. The challenge, then, is to make places and times for citizenship to manifest.

A useful contrast might be The Sunday Assembly whose motto ‘Live better, help often, wonder more’ is galvanising on its own terms, but such generic injunctions will inevitably be coopted by the imaginary. Unless you explicitly connect ‘living better’ to an idea of the good, ‘help often’ to an experience of compassion and ‘wonder more’ to a form of contemplative practice you may entertain and enliven but you will not meaningfully change the world. Perhaps we genuinely need vivifying communal entertainment to break free of consumerist habit energy, but if so, let’s not be shy about saying that.

The New Economics Foundation has been trying to present an alternative vision of the world for years, but why does it never seem to quite cut through? I think because it doesn’t deal with the inner world at all, and lacks appreciative inquiry about world views (eg libertarian or conservative) that are different from their own. That might change now under the leadership of Mark Stears, which seems to have started well. However, their new ‘take back real control’ emphasis is second hand injunctive language; it adopts the prevailing narrative of anxious grievance but sidesteps the materialist imaginary that has created it. The Club of Rome also appears to be trapped in a way of communicating that is about presenting a problem with evidence and suggesting a solution with evidence. The problem is that as long as the normative basis or ‘moral order’ of society is only discussed at the level of the things outside (the economy, ecological limits) and not the things inside (love, compassion, human growth) the immune system of the status quo will adapt and absorb external changes in a way that leaves the imaginary untouched.

I make these judgments with limited information, so I could be wrong, and apologise for any unfair generalisations. But I am keen to emphasise that you need to commit to something gently subversive. And for that, you need to know what you are against as well as what you are for, without perpetuating the divisions that keep us exactly where we are. That’s why I co founded Perspectiva. The ‘story of stories’ we need is one where competing visions of the world and incommensurate values can be fully expressed and co-exist in harmony, without the harmful pretence that there are no objective values or criteria to judge one form of life better than another. To get there we need to dig deeper into ontological and epistemological foundations of the imaginary. That means looking more quizzically at the nature of life as such, how it gives rise to consciousness, how moral intuitions form, how people, institutions and societies change. From that depth, we hope, a clearer sense of aesthetic unity and purposive pluralism should arise.

But I still haven’t answered the question! What should we do? To force my hand, I’m going end with some numbers. Stand back.

  1. Primum non Nocere. The first thing doctors learn in medical training. First do no harm. We need to protect human rights, uphold a free press and the rule of law. Fight wholeheartedly for the value of the truth. Know and value what democracy means. Shine light inside black boxes full of data used to perpetuate consumerism. And fight for a viable and desirable planetary habitat…don’t let civilisation fall apart.
  2. Speak truth, beauty and goodness to power. In all of these battles, don’t be merely defensive or utilitarian. The pillars of our civilisation have normative, emotional and spiritual elements that need to be brought to the surface. As Rowan Williams puts it: Moral imagination won’t kill you, but the denial of it will, both literally and spiritually. Let’s have the courage to say what we really think and feel, not merely what seems to be culturally permissable. We need to speak up for the ecological and civic foundations of our world, yes, but in a way that recognises why they are under threat. There is far too little of the human in human rights; far too little virtue in virtue signalling.
  3. Keep it complex, but make it clear. This statement is (or at least should be) a rallying cry for The Alternative UK. We can’t really know the world if we’re afraid to use the world epistemology. We can’t get real if we are too shy to analyse problems at an ontological level. We can’t defend the soul if our only legal tender is the language of matter. We can’t reimagine the economy if growth is always an answer and never a question. Yes, we need to meet people and politicians where they are, but we don’t have to stay there. It’s ok to enrich the conversation with ideas and language that expand horizons.
  4. Campaign for ‘larger lives’. Roberto Unger captures the underlying purpose when he writes: “A progressive is someone who wants to see society reorganised, part by part and step by step, so that ordinary men and women have a better chance to live to a larger life.” A larger life is good lodestar for progress. It refers to “a life of greater scope, greater capability and greater intensity” and that’s not so difficult to comprehend. We can all do and be more, with growing aptitude and wisdom, and experience life more fully and deeply as a result. Of course that means we all need to have a place to live, work to do, and the education and time we need to do it, but crucially those things are the socio-economic means to the experiential ends that ultimately matter. I therefore think it’s time for ‘progressives’ to speak about experience as such, in the explicit and evocative terms we need to cut through ambient distraction — the language, for instance, of the deepest currents of life; love, death, self and soul. When Russell Brand said the problem is primarily spiritual and secondarily political it was a minor tragedy for progressive thought that this timeless message was subsumed by its messenger.
  5. Keep on asking — who am I? But don’t expect an answer. As the question becomes more salient and pressing, you will probably find that buying things doesn’t work and will hopefully feel compelled to look for answers in what you care about most in the world. Enduring self-knowledge arises through encounter. For me that came principally from waking up to climate change. I believe most of us know what we need to encounter to become who we are, and that encounter often takes a civic or political form.
  6. Speak freely about the ‘complexification of consciousness’ and ongoing human development. We considered this in more detail in part three but we will need to keep talking about it until people get tired of hearing it and start trying make sense of it and acting upon it.
  7. Think systemically, but don’t forget systems are not machines. Everything is connected, literally, but the active ingredients that are most powerful are people’s hearts and minds. Nora Bateson is a pioneer here. We need to get better at thinking in terms of systems yes, but we also need to realise that the way we see them is part of their nature. There might, for instance, be a story of renewal that combines ‘democratising the means of production’ through new organisational forms; blockchain technologies and 3D printing, and that might hook up with new forms of Government finance, say ‘universal basic income’ derived from carbon taxes at the source of fossil fuel extraction, and it looks like you might have a new system. But if the souls are the same, if the social logics are the same, and the imaginary is the same, we won’t achieve the ends — eg survival, meaning, purpose, love — that we seek.
  8. Connect policy design to the redesign of the imaginary. The value of universal citizens investment (universal basic income with a name that helps) is partly about shifting the societal emphasis from ‘jobs’ to what Tim Jackson calls service or perhaps just ‘meaningful activity’. The value of putting a price on carbon is to raise consciousness of the hidden ecological resources that make the economy possible. The point of proportional representation is to make more citizens feel more invested in the political process. And so it goes on. There is the work you do with the policy and the work you do on what the policy means for shifting the imaginary. We need both, with a renewed emphasis on the latter.
  9. Be hopeful, not optimistic. It has become conventional to distinguish hope from optimism but it’s important. The hope we need is the sense of meaning that comes from facing reality. It’s about fighting the good fight to know reality better, learn from it and then push it towards a better version of itself. But such hope needs a home too. To get beyond consumerism, to create a new world, we have to protect and create institutions that allow us to refine our epistemic perceptions and expand our moral imaginations. It will take time, and many legions, but I hope Perspectiva might be one of many leading the way.
  10. There is no tenth point, alas, because this is not a ten point plan…

@Jonathan_Rowson is Director of Perspectiva


Perspectiva is a research institute that offers a deeper analysis on the social and political challenges of our time, highlighting the relevance of our inner worlds.

Jonathan Rowson

Written by

Philosopher, Chess Grandmaster and Father. Founding. Director @Perspecteeva. Scottish Londoner,


Perspectiva is a research institute that offers a deeper analysis on the social and political challenges of our time, highlighting the relevance of our inner worlds.

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