In the last edition of Shift Magazine, Josie Hooker and Lauren Wroe wrote an article suggesting we ought to abandon the idea of lifestyle politics. Here, I respond to their concerns and go on to argue that lifestyle is a fundamental part of social change. Originally published in January 2012.
Contrary to the claims of many opposed to it, lifestyle politics are developed alongside a radical and engaged analysis of the world and its many problems; it by no means lets ‘the structural factors off the hook’, as Wroe and Hooker’s article suggests, but directly responds to them and is an attempt to ultimately destroy them. The fact that it does so by side-stepping them is due to the anarchistic vision of creating another world in the shell of the old, rather than taking state power directly. So yes, it ignores state and capitalism, but only in the sense of refusing to allow them to tell us how to live; it does not ignore their impact and the barriers they place in our way when we try to live differently. In fact, in attempting to live in accordance with our values, these barriers are made even more obvious. Furthermore, as I explain in greater detail below, lifestyle is an explicit response to the inter-related nature of our lives under capitalism, and a recognition that what we do has an impact on other people.
It is commonly claimed that lifestyle is the preserve of the privileged. But this is only true if we see lifestyle as a consumerist greening of capitalism. In fact, lifestyle is about radically changing the way we live, and that includes not simply ethical consumerism, but ethical consumption, which must mostly be understood as consuming less, and consuming (or using) without buying; by re-using, recycling, borrowing, creating and, again, simply using less. Often, then, lifestyle activism is cheaper than other lives. It’s also an attempt to escape the allure of endless capitalist products that we are all so easily sucked into. Paying that little bit more to support a local shop may mean not updating our phone, spending fewer nights in the pub, or whatever; but those are choices we need to make. And this encourages us to think critically about what it means to be able to afford something, and what the real costs of things are. When we say organic food is too expensive, what we’re really saying is it seems expensive compared to products made in ways which we entirely disapprove of; when we say we can’t afford it, we (often) mean we’ve chosen to spend our money on other things: we need to reconfigure our relationships here, and to think of what we want to support, rather than simply what we can afford in economic terms.
And is it wrong that people who can do something do it, even if others can’t? Is there any form of activism that doesn’t exclude some people? Of course, it’s absolutely wrong if people condemn people for not doing things that they genuinely can’t do, due to their personal circumstances, but this is a critique of the way some people behave, not of the tactic of lifestyle per se. Yes, lifestyle forces us to consider our own responsibility, and that might lead to disagreements and even condemnation, but if we want to live in a world where we create our own values, then isn’t this always a possibility? Perhaps we should embrace the fact that we’re engaging in ethics rather than leaving capitalism and the state to decide what we can and can’t do. It’s also worth considering how this accusation of lifestyle as privilege ends up itself being a defence of western consumer lifestyles (pretty much all of which are privileged from a global perspective); working class people in the UK, so this argument goes, must be left to do whatever they want with their money; but what about the impact their choices have on much poorer people across the globe? This isn’t about moral puritanism or vanguardism, but it is about acknowledging that the way we live has an impact on everyone and everything around us, and that we often do have some scope (even if it’s limited) to act differently.
Lifestyle is Moral Puritanism.
But what if people want to update their iPhone? Isn’t lifestyle a form of ethical vanguardism, dictating how people should live their lives? Well, no. And, yes. It isn’t, in the sense that while many lifestylers follow certain ethical norms (such as veganism) this is due to particular cultural trends, but it in no ways exhausts the possibilities of the tactic of lifestyle activism. Simon Fairlie, editor of The Land, offers what I’d say is a fine example of lifestyle politics, but, as a result of his critical enquiry into the way he wants to live, he supports small-scale animal farming. Lifestyle forces us to consider the ethics of what we do, and I see that as a good thing. The reason many people see this differently is, I’d suggest, a result of following a liberal logic which divides the public and the private. Following this line of reasoning, veganism is a private, ethical issue, which we shouldn’t insist people follow, but anti-capitalism, say, is a public, political issue which we’re free to shout about. But that makes no sense. We all want to see a world that supports certain values and not others; if we think we don’t, that’s because we see our values as somehow obvious, natural, or undeniably right (as liberals do). Ultimately, there’s no difference in arguing for a vegan world than arguing for an anti-capitalist world – they’re both just expressions of our values, but we often fail to recognise this. For example, an anti-capitalists may feel comfortable in denying the legitimacy of sexist behaviour, because they see this as universally wrong; but they see vegan values explicitly as personal values and argue that therefore they should be kept private. Again, this is what the liberal state does.
Ultimately, then, we do need to address the question of what sort of world we want to live in, and recognise that there are limits to diversity and limits to what we can do if we take our values into account. Lots of people want to fly to Spain every year for their holiday. OK, but that means many more people will suffer somewhere else on the planet. Lots of people want cheap electronics. OK, but this means that economic slaves have to make them. Ironically, the failure to recognise this is a result of what lifestylers are so often accused of – namely, failing to recognise the ‘social [and, we might add, environmental] dimensions of capitalism’ (’Give up lifestylism!’ Issue 13, SHIFT). Vegan cyclists are accused of pushing their ethics onto others, yet this is only true in a discursive sense (at most), but we must all live with the consequences of people eating meat, driving cars, etc.. Again, the invisibility of this is precisely what liberal capitalism is all about, and why those who oppose lifestyle are in fact the ones who appear to fail to see the inter-related dimensions of global state-capitalism.
Aren’t lifestyle choices just about better capitalism?
Of course, we live in a capitalist world, and it’s hard to escape that, but many lifestyle choices are about working outside this logic. So, for example, we might set up a tool club where a community has access to a library of things they need from time to time but don’t want or need to own. This is a small but powerful step towards communalising the things we need to live and thus side-stepping the capitalist model of private ownership. And we can take it further, as workers’ co-ops do, and begin to communalise the ownership of the means of production. Some argue that workers’ co-ops are capitalist enterprises, but this is untrue and conflates markets with capitalism. Workers’ co-ops are run by their members, but no one owns the machinery, buildings etc – they are effectively collectivised. And they explicitly reject profit and growth, using surplus income to either improve their products or make them cheaper. Some argue co-ops have to grow like any other capitalist business; again, this is untrue. Many survive sticking firmly to their principles. Of course, many struggle because they are up against capitalist companies that produce stuff with economic slaves and with no consideration of the environment; but a lot more co-ops would survive if more people who care about the values they defend supported them – in other words, if more people followed a lifestyle politics…
Lifestyle is Individualised Action.
…which is why lifestyle is definitely not about individualising the fight against capitalism. Living differently necessitates and promotes supporting others who are doing likewise (supporting workers’ co-ops for example). As such, lifestylers develop the sorts of communities that many others simply bemoan the lack of. Getting to know local shop-keepers by shopping in small shops, not soul-less supermarkets, and so on.
Conclusions: if not now, when?
When well understood, lifestyle is very much a response to the realities of state-capitalism, and very much about creating networks of resistance and new ways of doing and being that help us escape the cultural, ethical and structural parameters that dominate our world. Of course, it presents certain challenges – but what form of activism is easy? And some who engage in it may feel and act morally superior, condemning others who fail to meet their ethical standards, but many non-lifestyle activists do so too. We shouldn’t conflate the actions of certain people with the tactics they use.
It seems to me that lifestyle is absolutely necessary, not only as a way of breaking state-capitalism, but also as a way of ensuring that, if we succeed in doing so, we will be prepared to create not simply another world, but also a better one. Lifestyle allows us to experiment with new ways of organising, to critically explore our own values and priorities. State-capitalism has robbed us of responsibility, and has replaced it with promises of material wealth which we have come to see as our right; if we don’t start to live and think differently, then, if we ever did crush the state, through some epic battle, say, then we’d simply recreate the old hierarchies and ways of doing.
If we’re happy to live lives fed by unsustainable practices and slave labour now, why wouldn’t we be at any other time? Capitalism offers us these things, but why do we not refuse? At what stage should we take responsibility for the way we live?
Lifestyle both prepares us for and helps us move towards a world where we, not state-capitalism, control our lives. From insurrectionary acts to on-line petitions, many other tactics will be needed to change the world, but for the world to really change, we surely need to change ourselves as well.
"Matt Wilson is an activist involved in Bicycology and Radical Routes, an independent writer, and a worker with Bartleby’s, a worker owned micro-brewery."