Shifting the social imaginary


Consumerism is remarkably difficult to displace as our default societal setting and plot, CUSP fellow Jonathan Rowson argued in his first blog on imagining a world beyond consumerism. In the second part of his essay he is introducing a set of competing logics, alighting on the idea that in order to go beyond consumerism it might be necessary to improve what German Philosopher Metzinger calls “the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species”. (This article first appeared on the Perspectiva blog page.) 

CC-BY 2.0 :: Thomas Leuthard / Flickr

I ended part one of my essay with a rhetorical question and a promissory note about how we might wake up, and go ‘beyond consumerism’.

The first thing to say is that we are already beyond consumerism, but in a diffuse, localised and mostly private way. Anthropologist David Graeber argues that even communism is embedded all over the place if you know where to look for it. For instance the Marxist principle ‘from each according to their ability to each according to their need’ is what happens in families every day — most of my work as a father is communist in that respect.

Gerry Cohen’s famous essay ‘Why not Socialism?’ pushes the point further with his claim that there is no principled reason why ‘camping trip values’ – in which everybody naturally chips in for the common good – should not be the values that we adhere to across contexts. More generally we know what it’s like to value something or somebody as ends in themselves, we know how it feels to create something beautiful, to experience wonder, be touched by admiration, or learn for the love of it. We know how it feels to be at ease, and not have an itch to buy something. We are clearly beyond consumerism in so many ways.

The challenge is that the sources of value and practise that lie beyond consumerism are not politically enfranchised. There are several levels to the challenge, including macroeconomic, political, cultural, technological, social, psychological and spiritual. We need to be able to separate these levels in theory in a way that remembers they are joined together in practice.

The last post focussed on the logic of consumption for individuals, but those logics are constantly reinforced by the perceived (deluded) political imperative to perpetually increase the size and speed of the economy. For a thorough and nuanced account of that issue I highly recommend Tim Jackson’s work. The solution is not as simple as ‘degrowth’ which has its own (economic and social) problems. While the fetishisation of growth is deeply problematic, particularly from an ecological standpoint, the fixation on asking ‘growth: yay or nay?’ is not a particularly productive way forward. It’s a fundamental question, but not as fundamental as many seem to think.

What matters more is meeting the needs and aspirations currently met by growth in a sustainable way, and improving the quality of the thing (the economy) that is growing, if indeed it needs to grow. Jackson argues that we can change the operating principles of the macroeconomy — enterprise, work, investment and money — such that enterprise is less about productivity and profit and more about service; work is not a personal sacrifice but desirable cultural participation; investment is not risky speculation that perpetuates debt but a commitment to the future; and the money supply is not a private play thing, but a social good issued by a progressive state.

These issues of economic structure are essential for any serious attempt to go beyond consumerism, but while they are necessary, they are not sufficient. I want to focus here on what I think are the more challenging constraints of the imaginary — the broader ideational struggle to speak not just truth but also beauty and goodness to power.

Tim Jackson makes this point particularly vivid in the second edition of Prosperity without Growth (p136) when he reflects on Shalom Schwartz’s values research that leads to an ‘evolutionary map of the human heart’ or ‘circumplex’. With the y-axis marking variations in novelty and tradition and the x-axis marking the extent to which we are self or other directed, Jackson observes that ‘self’ and ‘novelty’ is a legitimate part of the story, but it should be only part of it (roughly a quarter!). Instead, as he puts it: “ What we’ve created in consumer capitalism is an economy which privileges, and systematically encourages, one specific segment of the human soul.”

Tim Jackson’s depiction of Shalom Schwartz’s circumplex, in Prosperity without Growth 2nd edition (p136). Consumer capitalism functions almost entirely in the top right quadrant.

The resulting feeling that fundamental questions of human and social life are not publicly permissible is reflected in the preeminence and tangible nature of extrinsic and novelty values (eg profit, success, status, fashion) compared to the relatively orphaned and nebulous nature of intrinsic and traditional values (eg friendship, craft, belonging, compassion). This unbalancing is related to the degrading of civic institutions, secularisation, the coarsening of public debate, and the relegation of philosophical questions to private and academic realms.

It was in the context of this maddening sense of intellectual asphyxiation — ‘There is more to life!’ ‘Why don’t we talk about the things that really matter?!’ ‘Why don’t we properly value the things that are really valuable?’ ‘What is this all for?’ — that I won funding to lead a 2 year project on reimagining spirituality at the RSA in London which involved about 300 people directly and many more indirectly (The Political and the Spiritual captures the journey quite well). While considering how to communicate ‘the message’ of the final report, Spiritualise, at the end of 2014, I received a wonderful email from Ian Christie:

I wonder if the framing needs to be about the post-extrinsic? We have had two centuries of a civilisation of unparalleled material progress, abundance and development based on extrinsic values (self-interest, materialism, economic growth, keeping up, social mobility); intrinsic ‘beyond-self’ and religious values have periodically been reasserted but they have lost their institutional hold and centrality to the stories that make sense of our lives. The extrinsic values celebrated by industrial society are now under real pressure in the West as scarcities begin to return and confidence in the future wanes, for good reasons of ecological disruption, social fragmentation and economic dysfunction and inequality.

Well said, and note that ‘post-extrinsic’ doesn’t mean anti-extrinsic — it’s about going beyond rather than rejecting wholesale. A post-extrinsic society wouldn’t necessarily be anti-growth. It would just be very clear that growth is not an end in itself; ends in themselves would become the focus. We would continually debate what they are, but they would coalesce around for instance the good the true, the beautiful; love, virtue and so forth. Particular economic models including ‘growth’ or otherwise would be considered and tested against these kinds of ends, and may or may not be found wanting.

The post-materialist emphasis that appears to be emerging in Nordic countries is a good case in point. Projects like Tech Farm or 29k in Sweden emerge from stable market economies respecting ecological constraints rather than an entirely different economic model. I don’t doubt Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland have major problems to overcome, and they remain vulnerable to world events, but they have reached a stage of political and economic development where questions about how to keep the show on the road have evolved into questioning what the road is made of and where it is leading. Too many people assume that the only alternative to consumerism is something stiflingly communal, technophobic or regressive, but it need not be. Consumerism needs to be tamed and dethroned, but not necessarily eliminated. I am a big fan of book shops for instance.

Harvard Professor Michael Sandel captured the essence of the problem when he said that ‘a society with a market’ has become ‘a market society’. The state and civil society should be proactively socialising and humanising the economy, but instead governments have allowed markets to gradually economise and dehumanise society. In Rowan Williams’s wonderful review of Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy in Prospect he pinpoints the premise of Sandel’s critique into excessive marketisation as follows:

The fundamental model being assumed here is one in which a set of unconditioned wills negotiate control of a passive storehouse of commodities, each of them capable of being reduced to a dematerialised calculus of exchange value. If anything could be called a “world-denying” philosophy, this is it…a possible world of absolute commodification.

He goes on…Those who know Rowan Williams — a first rate academic philosopher and theologian and incisive social commentator — will know that he chooses his words very carefully, so read the following with that in mind:

If we want to resist this intelligently, we need doctrine, ritual and narrative: sketches of the normative, practices that are not just functions, and stories of lives that communicate a sense of what being at home in the environment looks like — and the costs of failure as well.

I admire Rowan Williams hugely, so I want to try to develop what he offers as the beginning of an answer to the challenge of going beyond consumerism. Each of these suggestions contains a certain amount of ‘logic’ that can meet our ‘human givens’ and counteract the logics of consumption mentioned in the previous post. (The analytical nature of those connections and a fuller development of each idea is beyond the scope of this post.)


During the RSA project on spirituality the anthropologist Matthew Engelke said of the core term: “the word has a history, and that history has a politics.” The same point applies to ‘doctrine’, but that doesn’t mean we should reject it. Doctrine really just means a shared commitment to certain ideas, principles or values. I would say we have lost that, and we are suffering for the lack of it.

Beyond slightly maddeningly vague and aspirational references to ‘shared values’ we lack shared institutional or textual touchstones to clarify who we are and what we care about — both nationally and internationally. Where we have them -for instance in national constitutions or the declaration of human rights- there is no longer a palpable sense that such things are sacred or even fully accepted.

We need doctrine of some kind to bind people together in a way they would willingly choose to be bound. What we need to foreground is not just laws but the principles and purposes that laws reflect. I would say the front-runners here include human rights but also ‘happiness’, and the hard work begins when you try to develop such notions without violating freedoms. My preference here is for eudaimonia and a detailed account of flourishing. To make that commitment entails that the state has a role in providing conditions conducive to human development and the cultivation of virtues. (There is a subtle philosophical point at the heart of this about human rights being justified through a prior recognition that there is human responsibility to develop).


The world is full of rituals, but most of them have been disenchanted. Football matches, Sunday lunches, walks in the park after school drop off (that’s me), cake for gratuitous celebrations, and even ‘wine o’clock’ which is 6pm at a friend’s house (I often find myself there at that time). Such things add pleasure and texture and meaning to life — I’m not knocking them! — but they are a bit gratuitous and I don’t think they are what Williams has in mind. Rituals may have social elements but they need to point beyond the social to something larger, fuller and deeper. The relationship at the heart of ritual is the relationship between life and death, mediated by elemental forces. The kinds of rituals that fall out of that might be a monthly day of silence, perhaps periodic fasting, perhaps singing around the fire. All such things need to be done as symbolic testimony to the joy and sorrow of being human, not because they are fun or convenient.


We suffer from a kind of mythic deprivation. We don’t just need ‘new stories’ because we are inundated with stories. The point, as Alex Evans has recently argued, is that we need to bring mythos back into our lives. Evans argues that such myths need to be expansive enough to contain ‘a larger us’ and ‘a longer now’, but how exactly? Isn’t there something absurd about manufacturing myths as tools to solve problems of meaning? Or maybe not, perhaps that’s just what creation and story telling is about.

I wonder though if the point is that it’s not myths or even meta narratives that we need. French philosopher Francois Lyotard encapsulated the postmodern attitude as ‘increduility towards meta-narratives’ but he was looking backwards to the meta narratives of modernity and finding them wanting — lacking the vivid and defining contexts that shape our actions. What we need now is to look forward to the meta-narratives beyond postmodernity. If you want to be precise about it, we are looking for a ‘meta-meta-narrative’. Knock yourself out.

But it’s true. We need ‘a story of stories’ and that story has to be a magnificently inclusive and inspiring vision of how we survive and thrive. And I’m not sure it will be mythic in nature at all, at least not for a few thousand years.

Sketches of the normative.

One example of a ‘sketch of the normative’ is Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics about the social and ecological constraints within which an economy has to operate. It’s an impressive idea and hugely important contribution, but the economy as such may not be a large enough frame to shift the social imaginary.

The political and philosophical think tank Metamoderna offer a more compelling example of what a ‘sketch of the normative’ looks like. Their forthcoming book The Listening Society attempts to build a comprehensive vision of what society as a whole should be trying to do. Their argument is broadly that one meta-ideology has ‘won’ — basically the Nordic model, and now the challenge is both to steer the world towards that model and then improve it by making the cultivation of the inner lives of human beings the paramount political objective — and that idea is very clearly delineated; it’s not just ‘we should all be better people’ but rather why and how, in what manner for what purpose and to what extent? From those parameter certain policies and economic models become more or less viable and attractive.

I don’t agree with every aspect of Metamoderna’s case by any means and look forward to reviewing their work in detail before long, but it’s refreshing to hear an attempt to ‘sketch the normative’ ie to say ‘this is what I think we should all be trying to do, why, and how we might go about it’ . Alas, this kind of bold and visionary thinking is all too rare.

Practices that are not just functions.

This curious expression is presumably about the importance of undertaking practices that are not co-opted by instrumentality; a defence of doing being in a way that is not subsumed by doing. For instance, meditation is widely practiced and promoted, and rightly so — the research evidence for its benefits to mental health and productivity for instance is very strong. But looking more deeply, the purpose of meditation is arguably purposelessness — it’s about stopping that incessant chain of doing A because of B and B because of C…and Z because of A.

In his commencement address at Stanford, Zen Priest Norman Fischer was adamant that spiritual practice must be “Useless, absolutely useless”:

“You’ve been doing lots of good things for lots of good reasons for a long time now…for your physical health, your psychological health, your emotional health, for your family life, for your future success, for your economic life, for your community, for your world. But a spiritual practice is useless. It doesn’t address any of those concerns. It’s a practice that we do to touch our lives beyond all concerns — to reach beyond our lives to their source.”

More generally the idea of practise is important. German Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk is both a respected scholar and a former follower of Indian Mystic Osho. In his 2013 book You must change your life (p11) he states: “In truth, the crossing from nature to culture and vice versa has always stood wide open. It leads across an easily accessible bridge: the practising life.”

The challenging aspect of this emphasis on practise is that it ceases to work once you formalise it. Once you say ‘let’s set aside an hour a day to do our own thing for its own sake’ you’ve already undermined the idea. There is something of the ‘relax!’ and ‘be spontaneous!’ paradoxes here — you can’t capture and operationalise something where the value inheres in being non-instrumental.

Stories of lives

We envy too much and admire too little, partly because the latter emotion takes longer to cook. Most of us are surrounded by like-minded people living broadly similar lives, but there are so many ways to live well, and we don’t hear enough examples to expand our imagination of what is possible. Our thoughts are so bound up in projection — we see ourselves in others, but rarely manage to see the otherness in others because we are not actively encouraged to. The example that comes to mind is a BBC documentary about an Australian man who rescues baby kangaroos from the highway and nurses them back to health on his small farm — watching that documentary expanded my notion of what it might mean to live well, and not because I have a sudden interest in tending to baby kangaroos.

A sense of what being at home in the environment looks like.

Matthew Crawford’s work about the importance of working with your hands and the need to protect ‘the attentional commons’ (‘the right not to be addressed’) is very helpful in making sense of what ‘being at home in the environment’ looks like. As Crawford puts it: “We find ourselves situated in a world that is not of our making.” For Crawford, ‘getting real’ means at least three things: working with material reality, acknowledging other people and the inheritance of the past. We need to embed such things in our daily engagement in the world to resist the flights and fancy and projection that arise through over-emphasis on textual understanding and the virtual world.

And the costs of failure as well.

None of this sounds easy, but we don’t really have a choice. In an essay published in 2014 — Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty — philosophy professor Thomas Metzinger wrote the following challenging words:

Conceived of as an intellectual challenge for humankind, the increasing threat arising from self-induced global warming clearly seems to exceed the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species. This is the first truly global crisis, experienced by all human beings at the same time and in a single media space, and as we watch it unfold, it will also gradually change our image of ourselves, the conception humankind has of itself as a whole. I predict that during the next decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings.

Will we increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings? Perhaps we do already? But while I hate facile positive thinking as much as the next person, I’m not ready to give up. Developing Rowan William’s suggestions above is a good start, but the deeper and related hope, surely, lies is in Metzinger’s premise — “the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species”. Those abilities of our species are not fixed.

We know, as well as we know anything, that human beings can grow and change for the better. And it’s no longer optional. In fact it’s the new categorical imperative. We simply have to understand what it means for human beings to grow and develop and think about what follows for political and civic institutions and social and economic policy. It’s no small task, but you have to start somewhere, so that’s the subject of my next post.


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Founding Director of Perspectiva – a new research institute that studies the interaction of systems, souls and society through transdisciplinary inquiry. As CUSP fellow he is working within the Meanings and Moral framings strand with a focus, as he puts it, “on the ‘U’ in the context of the hidden epistemic demands of ‘understanding’ sustainable prosperity”.

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