The Living Is Easy

Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism by Kate Soper. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 240 pages. $27.

The cover of Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism

WHEN THE PANDEMIC FIRST HIT, “social distancing” was exactly what I wanted: I was exhausted and in a deep brain fog and all I could imagine was lying in bed for weeks reading trashy novels and watching bad TV. But with death all around, I felt the need to find something to do, so back to journalism with me, talking to essential workers and the laid-off and the homeless moving into vacant homes. As the crisis worsened, I found myself bargaining: I won’t miss touch if I can just look someone I love in the eyes; I don’t need restaurants open if I can just see friends. If my friends stay safe I don’t care if lockdown lasts six months.

I didn’t know with whom I was bargaining. It seemed like a process of letting go of expectations and desires. A process of grieving. Gradually, I started to find unexpected beauty and pleasure during lockdown: in long walks, in finally learning how to cook, in late-night texts while I was curled up in bed alone. As the restrictions lightened, I donned a mask and began to meet friends again, particularly savoring time with those who had been sick, joining the protests for Black lives in the streets. What else, finally, mattered?

Kate Soper’s Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism was written before the pandemic and does not have a hasty COVID-19 foreword slapped inside it. But if it did, I imagine it would be something like the above. Because the virus made us all adapt, light speed, to a different world, and those transformations hint at the scale of change we need in order to slow runaway climate catastrophe. Soper argues that in adaptation, in accepting impossibilities as a short-term sacrifice to save one another, we can find new kinds of pleasure.

Her “alternative hedonism” posits a climate politics that questions “the presumption that the work-dominated, stressed-out, time-scarce and materially encumbered affluence of today is advancing human well-being rather than being detrimental to it.” This critique of consumption is not (mostly) a moral one, nor a call for a more ascetic lifestyle. Rather, it advances a “more reproductive material style of living,” that values repair over disposability, and is “grounded in new ways of working and spending leisure time.”

Soper is a philosopher by trade, and, early on, the book delves into debates about post-humanism, the Anthropocene, and the Capitalocene. But it is Soper’s critique of our working lives that resonates the most today. Work has, after all, been upended. Many of us have had our homes become our workplaces, been forced back to (vastly more dangerous) shop floors, or lost our jobs entirely. But for those lucky enough to receive a paid furlough or jobless benefits, there has been free time to imagine other ways of being. And, as Soper suggests, workers have embraced those opportunities: just 6 percent of people polled in one June survey in the UK (Soper’s home country) wanted to return to a pre-pandemic economy. Far from being unwilling to change, respondents to this survey seem to show a great interest in living—and working—in new, less resource-intensive ways.

Soper does not, however, endorse fully automated luxury communism, the somewhat tongue-in-cheek online movement to make work and capitalism obsolete through technology. Rather, she contrasts her vision with a “technological-utopian” outlook, arguing that craft labor—work done with the hands—should take center stage. Here, she claims the lineage of William Morris and other radicals who sought to reframe the idea of work as creativity, and also reminds us of the importance of reproductive labor as one type for which we would likely want a human touch. Freed from time scarcity and the demands of capitalist production, she imagines more time for care and creation for its own sake—placing value on time spent with other people rather than on productivity for the market.

Still, the heart of her critique is about how we consume. She wants to “develop a more seductive vision of the very different forms of consumption and collective life we will need to adopt if we are serious about ecological sustainability.” This vision is intentionally based in wealthy nations, which consume most of the world’s carbon, and among better-off consumers. Following Raymond Williams, she cites a “structure of feeling” among such people that makes experimentation in curbing consumption possible, noticing “new forms of desire,” for a new kind of life, among everyone from climate activists to Instagram influencers. Against many Marxists (with whom she otherwise shares much), Soper argues that this change will not come mostly from working-class struggle, that it cannot come from one class alone.

Smoke particles from West Coast wildfires alter the sky's colors, Oregon, September 8, 2020.
Smoke particles from West Coast wildfires alter the sky's colors, Oregon, September 8, 2020. Teresa Trimm/Flickr

While I share Soper’s conviction that the shop floor is not the only place to stage a political struggle, I’m skeptical that consumer decisions have all that much power. Some of Soper’s points feel like a throwback to the politics of the 1990s, when talk of class was verboten and instead criticizing the conspicuous consumption of the boom economy was the best way to talk about capitalism. Many of the experiments she cites have their roots in those days, when devotees of Naomi Klein’s first blockbuster, No Logo, reigned in what passed for the left. Soper attempts to argue for a politics of consumption that is collective rather than just simply admonishing us to buy less. But even a widespread desire to purchase ethically produced fashion or cars or tomatoes does not mean that such things will be available at an attainable price. For many people, fast fashion is all they can afford.

There are moments, in other words, when her argument slips into the kind of moralism that she scrupulously warns against. For example, on France’s gilets jaunes, who fought against a fuel tax that was framed as a way to fight climate change but would have mostly hurt commuting workers, Soper rather primly reminds us that “workers as consumers are collusive in the reproduction of the capitalist economy—an issue on which much of the left has so far been extremely evasive.” But this way of thinking threatens to undermine her own very important point. Rather than chiding the left for evading the imperfect, inchoate politics of the gilets jaunes and other such uprisings, what we need is a clearer, more compelling political demand.

Indeed, following Joshua Clover, I would argue that the gilets jaunes give us a view of a collective politics of consumption, something Soper is keenly interested in. As Clover points out, these movements are gatherings of the dispossessed, who disrupt the circulation of goods in order to express anger and—importantly—to meet their own needs. In his book Riot. Strike. Riot, Clover returns our notion of the proletariat to its original meaning, “to include surplus populations among those ‘without reserves.’” The politics of consumption are here already, not just in the personal decisions of the relatively affluent but in the streets of France and Chile and Mexico and Brazil, where rioters fight over the distribution of goods they need, whether they would like to need them or not.

How could Soper’s ideas be transformed into a movement able to cross the shifting left-right alignment of these rebellions? She points to the consciousness-raising sessions of the feminist movement but does not talk much about how that political education was grounded in organization and action. As Mark Fisher wrote in his posthumously published collection, K-punk, consciousness raising is a way to produce “a new subject—a we that is both the agent of struggle and what is struggled for.” Conceivably, this, too, could push a vision of the world that has pleasure at its core.

Like Fisher, Soper has no use for simple nostalgia. She advocates what she calls “avant-garde nostalgia”—a kind of dialectical nostalgia—that critiques the past while also mining it for ideas about the future. Crucially, that means not just the histories of rich countries but also the places they colonized, where resistance contained a critique of rabid consumption and suggested a different relationship with the planet. In those anticolonial imaginaries, and in the histories of resistance from Ireland to India to today’s Indigenous battles against “neo-extractivist pressures” in Ecuador and Bolivia, Soper seeks an alternative to go-go neoliberalism. She warns us not to assume that we’ll know ahead of time what that will look like, only that we can see that what we have now is not it.

The problem with speed—from high-speed travel to high-speed communication to high-speed purchasing—is that it leaves us unable to see what we are speeding past. Taking our time, Soper notes, has been so thoroughly discouraged that it’s even criminalized. Loitering and vagrancy are associated, in a way that’s often racialized, with a refusal of work; there’s a long history of laws designed to compel labor from those who would prefer not to. In this history, can we also see the desire for another way of living that Soper reaches for? It’s true that as many of us work from home, we’ve found ways to resist work’s encroachment. But we’re also internalizing the pressures of the work ethic, compelling more labor from ourselves even as we realize afresh how unfulfilling it is.

As I write, California is on fire, and much of the rest of the West is too; my social-media feed is filled with hellish skies. Against that backdrop, Kate Soper’s vision is necessary and beautiful. What are the pleasures of consumption and work against everything else that we are so close to losing forever?

Sarah Jaffe is the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (2016) and the forthcoming book Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone (2021; both Bold Type Books).