Against Lifestyle Politics
“Be the change that you want to see in the world” so said Mahatma Gandhi. This quote sums up the essence of pre-figurative politics, or what is more often called ‘lifestyle politics’, the idea that one should act now as if we lived in the perfect future society and personally embody its principles as if the sum total of individual micro actions can affect political and social change, or as the saying goes using one’s ‘consumer choice’. This is the creed of many ‘pwogwessives’ as the late Alexander Cockburn referred to them, as well as many radicals and anarchists. You also see versions of this among the proponents of various lifestyle politics such as veganism, polyamory, minimalism, straight edgeism, and so on.
One of the benefits of modern society is the fact that so many people have so much choice in terms of how they want to live without having to fit into box defined by a higher authority. But it also reveals the limits of contemporary radicalism in believing that it can base a politics on lifestyle choices, which aren’t in a way transformative but at best are ineffective and futile acts of ‘resistance’. Lifestyle ideology focuses on changing hearts and minds instead of the material bases of society, on individual conduct instead of social transformation, which is why it is such a dead end.
Within radical queer and sex radical circles there is an idea that one’s political radicalism is linked to one’s personal sexual conduct, which is why polyamory is increasingly seen as having revolutionary ‘potential’ in upending the hegemony of monogamy, the bourgeois family and heteronormativity on society. Now, I’m down with ‘free love’ and sexual liberation as much as the next libertine, but let’s be real. It doesn’t matter if I seduce 100 women in a way that would make Don Juan himself feel emasculated, or if I bust my nut while impaling 100 men one at a time in a massive orgy, in and of itself these transgressions isn’t going to do much to create a more sexually free society. As Yasmin Nair writes in her article, Your Sex Is Not Radical, “how many people you fuck has nothing to do with the extent to which you fuck up capitalism.” What will lead to that is transforming society at its root, our understanding of sex and instituting policies that will increase sexual freedom, particularly for women, such as increase abortion rights, greater access to contraception and coming up with cures to sexually transmitted diseases. I’m not trying to finger wag and lecture polyamorous people. I have absolutely no problem with them, but don’t pretend that sex is nothing more than well… sex, and that’s fine.
Another lifestyle polititcs is ‘Minimalism’ which I find as smug and arrogant that pretends to be modest and humble. It is a sort of conspicious consumption in reverse that declares: “look at me! Look at all the stuff I don’t buy!” It allows you to take on the aesthetics of poverty without actually having to be poor (as is the case with petit-bourgeois hairshirt pseudo-radicals). Behind the ‘simplicity’ is a statement of moral superiority: “You see, I have conquered the ‘culture of materialism’ and no longer enslaved to ‘things’ unlike you!” Of course, I am not talking about people who by circumstance are forced to ‘downsize’ and live frugally, but those who wish to turn it into a politics and go on these sanctimonious rants against the ‘culture of materialism’ and how they are no longer enslaved to ‘things’ unlike you! What is ironic is the items that are ususally advertised as necessary to live a minimalist lifestyle are actually quite expensive which totally defeats the point.
While there is nothing wrong with seeing one’s lifestyle as an ethical issue or a personal choice that is dear to you, there is something obnoxious and conceited about puffing your chest out and believing that your diet, your sex life, your fashion and shopping taste will change the world or is ‘resisting’ capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, take your pick. What radical lifestylists don’t often understand is that lifestyle politics is very assimilable within capitalism for the creation new niche consumer markets, so whatever ‘radical potential’ this or that lifestyle may have had it is quickly lost as the hyenas of capital feast upon it and laugh at the naivete of its proponents.
Politics is not pre-figurative, and nor should it be. Leon Trotsky when he was 26 years old in 1906 writing in a pamphlet titled Results and Prospects I think excellently captures the problem of trying to achieve what he called a “socialist psychology” within the limits of capitalist society as a prerequisite to revolution:
Marxism converted socialism into a science, but this does not prevent some “Marxists” from converting Marxism into a Utopia…
[M]any socialist ideologues (ideologues in the bad sense of the word — those who stand everything on its head) speak of preparing the proletariat for socialism in the sense of its being morally regenerated. The proletariat, and even “humanity” in general, must first of all cast out its old egoistical nature, and altruism must become predominant in social life, etc. As we are as yet far from such a state of affairs, and “human nature” changes very slowly, socialism is put off for several centuries. Such a point of view probably seems very realistic and evolutionary, and so forth, but as a matter of fact it is really nothing but shallow moralizing.
It is assumed that a socialist psychology must be developed before the coming of socialism, in other words that it is possible for the masses to acquire a socialist psychology under capitalism. One must not confuse here the conscious striving towards socialism with socialist psychology. The latter presupposes the absence of egotistical motives in economic life; whereas the striving towards socialism and the struggle for it arise from the class psychology of the proletariat. However many points of contact there may be between the class psychology of the proletariat and classless socialist psychology, nevertheless a deep chasm divides them.
The joint struggle against exploitation engenders splendid shoots of idealism, comradely solidarity and self-sacrifice, but at the same time the individual struggle for existence, the ever-yawning abyss of poverty, the differentiation in the ranks of the workers themselves, the pressure of the ignorant masses from below, and the corrupting influence of the bourgeois parties do not permit these splendid shoots to develop fully. For all that, in spite of his remaining philistinely egoistic, and without his exceeding in “human” worth the average representative of the bourgeois classes, the average worker knows from experience that his simplest requirements and natural desires can be satisfied only on the ruins of the capitalist system.
The idealists picture the distant future generation which shall have become worthy of socialism exactly as Christians picture the members of the first Christian communes.
Whatever the psychology of the first proselytes of Christianity may have been — we know from the Acts of the Apostles of cases of embezzlement of communal property — in any case, as it became more widespread, Christianity not only failed to regenerate the souls of all the people, but itself degenerated, became materialistic and bureaucratic; from the practice of fraternal teaching one of another it changed into papalism, from wandering beggary into monastic parasitism; in short, not only did Christianity fail to subject to itself the social conditions of the milieu in which it spread, but it was itself subjected by them. This did not result from the lack of ability or the greed of the fathers and teachers of Christianity, but as a consequence of the inexorable laws of the dependence of human psychology upon the conditions of social life and labour, and the fathers and teachers of Christianity showed this dependence in their own persons.
If socialism aimed at creating a new human nature within the limits of the old society it would be nothing more than a new edition of the moralistic utopias. Socialism does not aim at creating a socialist psychology as a prerequisite to socialism but at creating socialist conditions of life as a pre-requisite to socialist psychology.