Give up Lifestylism! - Lauren Wroe, Josie Hooker

Shift Editors Lauren Wroe and Josie Hooker return to the lifetsyle debate. Originally published in September 2011.

‘Ethical lifestylism’, or the practice of adapting one’s individual lifestyle habits (where you shop/eat/work) as a means of promoting or facilitating social change, has always been something of a bug bear for SHIFT. However as the political climate transforms, with uprisings in the UK, Europe and the Arab world, we want to return to this critique as we consider how to relate to and act with the struggle against wide-scale economic and political crisis. Do our old methods and tactics still stand up to the challenge? Arguably they never did. This article will lay the way for a series exploring the relevance of lifestyle politics in the current political climate.

Back in 2007 we attended the climate camp at Heathrow airport. The camp set out to tackle the root causes of climate change, and as difficult as it is to determine where these factors manifest and how best to tackle them (especially when you are tied by the camp/direct action model) camping outside large infrastructure targets seemed as good a choice as any. The political focus at this camp was often directed toward corporate expansion and profiteering and the subsequent and unnecessary short-haul business flights, rather than holiday makers on their two week package holiday from work. However we felt the choice of airport as target was in some ways a symptom of, and could all too easily slip into, an attack on flying as a holiday/’lifestyle’ choice and quite often it did (see Shift Editorial Issue 1 and Jessica Charsley’s article in the same issue ‘Climate Camp- Hijacked by Liberals). We felt that this failed to acknowledge the dimensions of class and privilege that make it harder for some people to take a 4 week holiday in a bus to southern Spain rather than booking a budget flight to accommodate for their kids and their 7 days off work. This isn’t to glorify the limitations of work and money, but rather to acknowledge class and privilege as barriers that must be overcome, rather than reinforced, by radical political movements (see Climate Camp and Us, Shift, Issue 7).

We used the term ‘lifestyle’, then, as the focus of these actions were usually highly individualised, isolated acts in which a person made decisions on how they live their lives, within capitalism, in a more ethical or moral fashion. It is the individuality of these actions, their ignorance of the social dimensions of capitalism, that we found problematic, rather than the ‘everyday’ level at which the actions are taken. It can be argued that these actions are empowering, allowing the individual to re-gain control of their lives, but often it seems to result in division and finger-pointing; pinning the blame for social problems onto each other whilst letting the structural factors off the hook.

There is also an assumption here that social change will come about as more people realise the error of their ways. But the demands made by those advocating more ethical lifestyles are often impossible escapes, further trapping us into the work, consume, logic of capital. They are often easily co-optable/tolerable forms of resistance. This is not to say that skipping, shop lifting, skiving (to name a few) are not meaningful actions; it depends on the context and the manner in which they are carried out. For example thousands of people shoplifting in a non-identitarian, collectively politicised way, could potentially be very powerful (think of the radical and popular auto-reduzione movement in Italy)!

However there is often a strong element of ‘turning one’s back on society’ characteristic of collective ‘lifestyle’ projects, housing co-operatives being an example. Whilst these mutual aid networks can be a vehicle for exploring new ways of housing and organising ourselves, if we retreat into these communities as ‘viable alternatives’ to capitalist reality, we run the risk of isolating ourselves from the reality of capitalism and the everyday struggles of work, housing and community. They are powerful tools if they remain engaged and antagonistic and don’t become mere havens for ‘radicals’ and hippies. Along with many other lifestyle choices, veganism, squatting, etc, we have to acknowledge that these are havens for us, not everyone’s idea of autonomy from capitalism would look the same.

When we fail to acknowledge this we are guilty of a kind of ethical vanguardism, peddling the idea that we could live better lives within capitalism, if only we could be bothered or were educated enough. There is also pseudo-religious, sacrificial element here, that we are the martyrs for social change, but considering the often subcultural irrelevancy of our actions our sacrifices and preaching often fall on deaf ears anyway. When we make these sacrifices we are, in fact, not martyrs; we are further reinforcing our identities as ‘activist’ and ‘anarchists’, this is our haven, this is where we fit (un-problematically) into society.

As we see it then lifestylism as we describe it here is a tendency that emerged in a very specific context. In recent years it has represented, at best, an accentuation (in de-politicised form) of the New Left tendency towards identity politics; or perhaps a certain inertia vis-à-vis the absence of an exciting politics to replace that of the anti-globalisation movement or, with the mainstreaming of environmentalism, that of the radical green movement. At worst, however, it embodies the gravest shortcomings of identity or “new social movement” politics stripped of all radical (or even properly political) content.

The heady unraveling of crisis after crisis following the collapse of Lehmann Brothers in 2008 has of course transformed this landscape beyond all recognition, bringing structural factors to the fore in a way that the anti-capitalist wing of the climate movement could do only on limited terrain. Gone is the consensus that ‘There Is No Alternative’ (to capitalism) – and even the seemingly unshakeable paradigm of liberal democracy has taken unprecedented blows to its legitimacy in recent months. In short, politics – that is, possibility – is back! And it hardly takes a Marxist or a class war veteran to point out that this return of the political has been closely associated with the return of class as a serious political issue.

With the very fundamentals of our social organisation in question and the re-emergence of class-based politics, then, the inadequacy and irrelevance of the lifestylism into which our [the authors’] political generation was born is laid bare. Indeed, we imagine that our readers need little reminding of the fact that the recent ruptures (which, as we write in the wake of the August riots and the victory of the Libyan rebel forces over the Gadaffi regime, only seem to increase in pace and intensity) have had very little to do with the practices that we identify here as lifestylist: with living in a housing cooperative, consuming ethically or belonging to a minority subculture. Indeed, in this climate where “the alternative” is on the lips of hundreds of thousands of people, the alternative that an ethical lifestyle supposedly embodies (that old, self-satisfied call to ‘be the change!’), not surprisingly, has very little traction.

So why, then, the continuing attention to what we can all agree is an obsolete practice?

The answer, for us, is two-fold. Firstly, the allure of ethical choices and lifestylist solutions is still strong. With increasing pressure to find ‘answers’ to our present predicament, it’s not surprising we look to our existing repertoires and their cut-out templates: when asked at a protest “so what is there if not capitalism?”, we might offer the example of workers’ coops. However, while important on their own terms (and the strengths and limitations of autonomous institutions and infrastructure is something we’d like to address in this series), these alone will not topple capitalism: indeed, taking (always limited) ‘control’ of our own exploitation is very different from abolishing capital/value as the root of the labour relation. Similarly, if we recognise lifestyle choices for what they are – that is, expressions of personal preference for a particular brand of freedom (the freedom we call autonomy) that can make our lives under capitalism more palatable – there is also a danger that in these harsh times we retreat inwards to these comfortable islands that shelter us materially (or however else) from the raging storm beyond. Yet this alluring comfort zone isn’t only material. If we recognise activism as a lifestyle/identity in itself, there is surely also the danger that, faced with the disorienting new political climate (and the associated identity crisis of identity politics), we cling to that identity in a bid for status and security.

The second motivation for insisting so heavily on the exorcism of lifestylism speaks to the question posed by various contributors to this issue of SHIFT: ‘where are we?’ Because the ruptures of the past months and years have not only revealed, as we’ve argued above, just how heavy a price has been paid for our departure from the traditional left in the post-1968 period (in terms of a dislocation from class politics). They have also been a clear reminder of the weakness of the traditional left (testament, then, to the necessity of the departure in the first place): indeed, from the cowardice of the NUS leadership last November to the glaring failure of the unions to generalise the J30 strikes, more and more people are experiencing this inadequacy first hand (betrayal has indeed been a defining experience for the new ‘Millbank generation’).

In the present climate of social unrest and political possibility the stakes have therefore never been higher. Yet if we have the ambition in us to believe in an autonomous, radical left worthy of its name, we must be sure that the question ‘where are we?’ is interpreted as we intend it: as a criticism not of our absence, but of our tendency to assume the importance of our presence, regardless whether the latter takes a politically adequate form. Because for us ‘where are we?’ is patently NOT an invitation to head into the fray armed with vegan curry for the masses, to bicycle our way to global communism or to advise the rioters on how to source their loot ethically. Neither, though, is this call to a ‘we’ meant as a re-assertion of the identity into which we users of the ‘activist toolkit’ tend to fall. Indeed, the final lesson that recent events have given us is that we perhaps didn’t go far enough with our critique of lifestylism and ethical choice first time around: it was all too easy to make jibes at those environmentalists whose “radical” credentials amounted to nothing more than the appropriation of direct action to ends of state and consumer lobbying in favour of individualist, lifestylist solutions. Targeting this unapologetic liberalism was perhaps a straw man that allowed us to cut short the critique of a practice that was perhaps too close to home: that is, activism as a lifestyle itself.

It is in this spirit that we wanted to publish this series. We wanted to remind ourselves of the dangers of the activist identity, and the lifestyle that goes with it; because it is these that present such an obstacle to our entering into the process of creation of a new politics. We [the authors] believe that there is a role here for the radical, undogmatic left, but only if the latter stands for more than an identity or a set of lifestyle choices; only if it is willing and able to formulate and promote positions that are adequate to the politically complex – and increasingly dynamic – world we inhabit. Give up lifestylism! Give up activism!

Lauren Wroe and Josie Hooker are editors of SHIFT Magazine.