by Elizabeth Oldfield
Tuesday, 21
September 2021
Seen Elsewhere
17:10

Paul Kingsnorth is right: we’re in a spiritual crisis

The West's consumerism has run amok
by Elizabeth Oldfield

Paul Kingsnorth wrote an excoriating essay this week, in which he placed the fault of the climate crisis at the feet of the Western bourgeoisie. Kingsnorth certainly wouldn’t call himself a Marxist, but he believes that Marx’s analysis of the bourgeoisie provides a canny prediction of the world that has come to pass:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.
- Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Continual product innovation (which may in fact be a delusion), disruption, creative destruction: all of these approaches have normalised the stark reality that things that were luxuries for our grandparents have become necessities, even rights, to us.

We are all #bougie now. When Marx popularised the term, the bourgeoisie were distinct from rural peasants and the ruling aristocracy. They were defined by their ownership of the means of production and ability to amass capital and thus indulge in aspirational consumerism. Schumpeter used the term with a particular focus on entrepreneurs and innovators who use creative destruction to continually create new ‘needs’ and thus new markets. But #bougie, as a social media meme, implies very little power beyond the ability to purchase slightly fancy consumer goods. It’s an insult, but a knowing one, applicable to all but the most hair-shirted hermit. Upwardly mobile, aspirational, primed to see the good life as the pursuit of ever more comfort, convenience and status. Hyacinth Bucket, for those who remember her. If we’re honest, all of us too.

Our imaginations have atrophied to the extent that, faced with the rapidly looming existential threat of a three degrees warmer world, we reach only for market delivered goods, oat milk and bamboo toothbrushes and Teslas. Sadly, we cannot shop our way out of this. An upwardly mobile society cannot survive. We will have to tolerate some downward movement, some reduction in comfort and convenience, if we want to leave anything liveable for our children. Kingsnorth’s prescription is as stark as it is persuasive: spiritual vigilance. We will have to listen again to the religions that told us that wealth is “deceitful” and that liberation from our constant craving for more is possible.

Rather than creating, reluctantly, a greyer and more austere world, we might even find ourselves freer and happier, as these spiritual paths suggest. Hyacinth Bucket always looked a bit miserable, after all.

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Andrew D
Andrew D
10 months ago

Don’t doubt that we’re in a spiritual crisis, but surely the remedy also has to be spiritual, not Marxist/materialist?

Zac Chave-Cox
Zac Chave-Cox
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

I’ve been reading all of his essays on his substack, and that is exactly the same conclusion Kingsnorth has, and I agree. This is what he says later in the essay:
“What Schumacher knew but Marx denied – with all the terrible consequences that the twentieth century produced – was that the solution to the triumph of want, as far as there can ever be one, is not political revolution followed by a grand new social structure, but something harder and less spectacular: spiritual vigilance. The problem of want can be guided by systems and cultures, but it is, ultimately, a matter of the heart. Want will dissolve everything, if we let it, and new structures will not prevent that. Guarding the heart is the best defence against the acid.”

Zac Chave-Cox
Zac Chave-Cox
10 months ago
Reply to  Zac Chave-Cox

I’m a Christian, and so is Paul. That means we think the goal is to work hard at doing good in the world, but to acknowledge that “fixing” the world and creating a utopia is impossible for us to do. Being a Christian also means waiting (or you could say guarding the heart, or being spiritually vigilant, but really it boils down to waiting and trusting God). As Paul says, it’s not spectacular, and it might not sound particularly profound to you, nor should it. It should sound kinda boring, because it’s something that we should all know already, we just tend to forget, and that’s how we end up with grand totalitarianisms and the like.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Although spirtual crises seem to be most keenly felt when material crises strike. People are more ripe for a spiritual takeover as the stays of their life collapse. The collapse of the Roman Empire, the eastern invasions and the plague of Justinian all consolidated the temporal power of pan-European church.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago

Well a lot depends on the individual too. We all seem keen on gradiose generalisations about people and society, but different people with different characters react in distinct manners when a crisis occurs.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
10 months ago

An important point. The oft repeated generalisation is “there are no atheists in a fox hole”. And while its decades since I read Solzhenitsyn and other Russian writers of the era, I seem to recall even those most sharply critical of communism compared to the West seemed to say it caused an intensification of Spirituality, despite the oppression of religion. It’s the exception that proves the rule 🙂

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago

Yes, that of Rousseauian luxury spiritualism and noble savages.
Real crises tend to produce stone-cold atheists or fire eyed zealots and little in between. I have read accounts of Holocaust survivors that fell between these camps.

Last edited 10 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

Paul Kingsnorth wrote an excoriating essay this week,
There’s something very sad about the first clause of the opening sentence of this article. Big business has never been more successful or active. After a year and a half of lockdowns and social disruption, the stock market is at all time highs. Large corporations have coopted what should be their enemy–wokeism–for their own purposes. And what do the voices of anti-consumerism and anti-globalisation manage to do? Write an ‘excoriating essay’.
Then I remember the woke. For decades the philosophy (if that isn’t too grand a word) behind this movement grew in universities, one inane essay at a time. And when the moment was ripe it burst into public view and has already exerted enormous influence on western society.
So I say keep on excoriating our global capitalist leaders, Paul Kingsnorth. Your insight about the emptiness and, ultimately, destructiveness, of consumerism is hardly original, but keep on writing one essay at a time. Like the woke, one day your time might come.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
10 months ago

We will have to tolerate some downward movement, some reduction in comfort and convenience, if we want to leave anything liveable for our children. 

I hear this a lot from comfortably well-off people.

Last edited 10 months ago by Julian Farrows
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

That and how grammar schools and academic selection are wicked institutions but post-code lotteries and falsified religious conversions are positively capital.

Last edited 10 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Martin Smith
Martin Smith
10 months ago

So the love of money is the root of all evil… who knew?

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago

With all due respect to the author I am always quite suspicious of people who talk of the need for downward mobility, or equalisation who happens to be upper middle class and comfortable in some academic rent seeking industry. Presumably her children won’t be the ones who become illiterate serfs regardless of talent or ability. It reminds me a lot of the kind of people in Labour who destroyed our grammar schools and with it opportunities for bright working class kids whilst simultaneously ensuring their children went to upper middle class nominal comprehensives.

Although I have the sneakimg suspicion if the crisis arrives in the form she expects, someone with a useful professional engineering profession session is likely to retain more status than a jobbing academic.

Last edited 10 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Giles Chance
Giles Chance
10 months ago

In August we went to Ghent, and saw the altarpiece painted by the van Eycks (father, son) for a wealthy Ghent merchant. (The merchant and his wife are featured on two of the outer folding panels.) The altarpiece, centred on the Lamb of God, is one of Western civilisation’s great statements, up there with Michelangelo’s Pieta in St Peter’s Rome, and Bach’s Passions (St John’s, St Matthew’s). These works of man appeal directly to our spirit. We are humbled in the presence of something much larger than us. We realise that we are a community of lost souls. This medieval world was much closer to true fulfilment than ours could ever be. Have we regressed since 1600?

Last edited 10 months ago by Giles Chance
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Pray tell, what is a ‘soul’? And where can I locate mine exactly?
If you are going make an argument for us regressing us to medieval barbarity and superstition you need to be more specific with your terms.

Last edited 10 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Giles Chance
Giles Chance
10 months ago

The fact that you have to ask me what, or where your soul is simply highlights the depths of ignorance and perversion into which our so-called advanced civilisation has sunk.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Could you just answer the question? Of course I am aware the soul supposedly has no physical location, but then the question is begged, if it has no physical location then how does one recogise its existence?
Or am I compelled for some reason to believe everything that the great Giles Chance believes in as he obviously has the ability to see things I am not capable of?

Last edited 10 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Andrew D
Andrew D
10 months ago

I can’t see or locate my breath, but I think and hope it exists.
You aren’t compelled to believe something just because Giles Chance believes in it, but the fact that the vast majority of humanity shares that belief might give you pause for thought. Of course that vast majority might be in error, but some humility is surely in order? Maybe there’s a chance that there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy?

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

The vast majority of humanity is barely able to perform basic arithematic or read books at a reading level higher than a 9 year old if they can even read at all and believe in ghosts. Why would I care about their beliefs about metaphysics?

And the breath comparison is extremely facile. Of course there are means if extending our senses with instruments. I could design a series of chemical experiments that would reveal the concentration of gases in my breath. What means is there of determining in an equivalent manner the existence of a soul?

Last edited 10 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Andrew D
Andrew D
10 months ago

Am I compelled for some reason to believe everything that the great Ferrusian Gambit believes in as he obviously has the ability to see things I am not capable of?

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

or, more precisely, the ability not to see things your are obviously capable of

Claire D
Claire D
10 months ago

https://britannica.com/topic/soul-religion-and-philosophy
will give you a helpful explanation.

Last edited 10 months ago by Claire D
Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
10 months ago

Agree with every word, if only it wasn’t just us Cassandras who believe this. Here’s a little quote from Morris Berman suggesting why a de-industrialised world might be happier, despite the obvious privations. “The view of nature that predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers and cloud were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human being felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging. “

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Yes an enchanted world of communal violence, heretic burning, smallpox, brutal child mortality and periodic famine.

As for the hackneyed romanticist sentiments about not being able to understand something and see the beauty. As Plato pointed out sometime ago, there is a higher beauty once you are out of the cave – and the light of the sun of Truth is brightest in apriori knowledge like mathematics – even if those inside can’t see it.

Last edited 10 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
9 months ago

Exactly. Nasty things are always conveniently erased by this lot. For example, Queen Anne- family life shadowed by smallpox illness and death; constantly pregnant ( 19 pregnancies?) Yet not one child survived.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

It reminds me of an immortal quote: “While we’re at it, there are systems for a reason in this world. Economic stability, interest rates, growth. It’s not all a conspiracy to keep you in little boxes, alright? It’s only the miracle of consumer capitalism that means you’re not lying in your own s***, dying at 43 with rotten teeth. And a little pill with a chicken on it is not going to change that. Now come on… f*** off.”

Last edited 10 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
10 months ago

Hm. I think the miracle of consumer capitalism as it currently stands is quite efficiently producing exactly those results (death/teeth/sh** etc), and on many, many populations – just not where you are living. Of course it’s very efficiently concealing that impact, too.
The question is whether, as it proceeds, the miracle will tip the balance in your (our) direction or the other, and I’m not 100% sure we can look forward under current management to all that ‘economic stability’, growth and so on, tho I maintain a cheerful optimism.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
10 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

There’s abundant evidence that the industrial revolution caused mass disenchantment. Even great thinkers as grounded as Max Weber wrote along those lines. There’s evidence that some hunter gatherer tribes still experience the enchanted world today. That said, there’s also plenty of historical & contemporary anthropological evidence to the support the view of yourself & Ferrusian Gambit, so perhaps you guys are right. In case it matters to you, unlike Paul Kingsworth I believe there’s still a *small* chance Lord Keynes vision in ‘Economic possibilities for our grandchildren’ could come to frutition. We might get to a sustainable AI augmented future where we can retain most of the benfits of capitalism.

William Murphy
William Murphy
10 months ago

Any number of religious people seem very happy to be deceived by the evil wealth. From the Indian guru with dozens of Rolls Royces to the American bishops living in mansions. Of course, they don’t actually own these splendid digs – the mansions and chauffer driven limos belong to the dioceses.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
10 months ago

AMEN

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
10 months ago

Where the Spirit of the Lord is . . . there is Liberty.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
9 months ago

Read the essay. It’s a fascist tract. He’s ok in his VW van ( presumably made in a nasty factory by horrid people) but comes across a town full of people enjoying themselves and buying things. Horrid people! Kingsnorth belongs to a nihilist group of writers who accept we’re doomed. Of course they are enlightened. He goes to live in the West of Ireland to get away from the hordes. Everyone,that is, apart from him. He’s different somehow to the scum. As I said, proto fascist.