by Elizabeth Oldfield
Tuesday, 21
September 2021
Seen Elsewhere

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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?

  • 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.

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