Anything ‘sustainable’ is not worth having

Frank Furedi challenges the cult of sustainability and restraint that is growing in response to the economic recession.

Frank Furedi

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At the Battle of Ideas in London on 31 October and 1 November, Frank Furedi spoke about the ideologies that might arise in a ‘post-recession world’. His speech is published below.

The current economic crisis is very interesting because, while it may have a fiscal dimension and a banking dimension, at the level of ideas it does not have a production dimension. The capitalist system of production is not at issue here; it is not a part of a debate. It is very striking that there is widespread silence on the fundamental structure of contemporary global society, a silence that takes the system as given. And what is even more interesting to me, as a sociologist, is not simply the fact that capitalism itself is unquestioned, but the paradox where, today, even the defenders of capitalism are conspicuously silent about the legitimacy of their own system.

All of this puts me in the minority of those people who do not take neo-liberalism too seriously, because there are very few celebrations of neo-liberalism at this particular time. What we have instead is a kind of bad faith, where the system is defended and validated almost indirectly; it is very rarely celebrated in its own terms. This is a very interesting paradox. There’s a lack of critique of what exists, but also a lack of a defence of what exists, and these positions both exist at the same time. This is what makes the contemporary ideology of the crisis so interesting, while also making it difficult to unearth its precise ideological features.

As it happens, many ideas in relation to the crisis are evolving and emerging. Some are very powerful ideas which appear to be at odds with one another, but they are actually mutually reinforcing. And these ideas tell us something about the world we are moving towards, in moral, spiritual, intellectual and ideological terms.

First, it does sometimes appear as if there is a critique of the system. But it’s a very superficial critique, centring around a cynical, populist critique of bankers’ greed. Everyone has strong views on bankers’ bonuses and parlimentarians’ wage packets. It’s very similar to the early twentieth-century populist critique of Jewish people, financiers or fat capitalists, but we have an even more caricatured version of that ‘radical critique’ today.

In particular, this critique targets rich consumers. It’s a kind of negative cultural script that attaches itself to various forms of conspicuous consumption, a self-reflected austerity ideology. In Britain, the Guardian newspaper expresses this in the most systematic way. You will read lots of articles about how good it is to eat brown rice and how bad it is to drive round in flash cars.

This ideology goes hand-in-hand with a powerful anti-modernist, misanthropic sentiment. It is telling that the works of the eighteenth-century doom-mongering demographer Thomas Malthus are more popular today than ever before. Malthus is back at the centre of public discussion. The whole hierarchical notion of inequality, and most importantly the whole notion of limits, which Malthus so forcefully promoted, is palpable in public debate today. It is best summed up by the widespread idea that having too many babies is a bad thing, that we should slap a ‘carbon tax’ on children, and that one can demonstrate one’s maturity and sense of responsibility by not procreating because human beings are polluters with huge carbon footprints.

That ideology is very important and is underlined by a quasi-religious, almost medieval idea that ‘we are getting what we deserve’. It’s an interesting idea because, in previous times, when it was said that ‘we got what we deserved’, that was usually another way of saying ‘it’s the fault of the rich’. We all got what we deserved because of the conspicuous consumption of those rich bankers, gurgling their champagne and eating their caviar. These days, however, when people say we got what we deserved, they mean ‘we all got what we deserved’; everyone played a role in this debacle; we’re all consuming a little bit too much, and we would all be better off if we didn’t fly on aeroplanes, didn’t use Ryanair, and all the rest.

So what we have is a moralising narrative of excess, where the emphasis is one-sidedly on consumption and almost never on production, and where the principal variable becomes the degree to which one consumes. In that sense, the theoretical underpinnings of the current ideology surrounding the recession is a kind of old-fashioned, pre-modern, depletion story of economic life. It is a depletion story in which the world is seen as containing a certain amount of resources, and apparently the more of those resources we use up then the less there is for future generations and the less there is for other people.

As a result, the ideal of egalitarianism today is an entirely reactionary, pre-medieval, old-fashioned, Catholic-like sentiment, where ‘equality’ means we can share misery and problems in ‘an equal kind of a way’. So we have this depletion story of economic life and, at the same time, a quasi-religious call to make amends. The recession is now commonly used to try to make amends for the past; there is a sense that recent generations had a very good time – for example, those baby boomers who spent lots of money, had flash cars, travelled the world and destroyed the environment – and now the poor kids of the future are going to have nothing left.

One peculiar consequence of this ideological story is that we now have actual scientists, and other chief proponents of this quasi-religious standpoint, calling for everyone to take up vegetarianism. Unless we all go vegetarian, we are not doing the right thing – apparently that is the only way to save resources, live sustainably, and stop being so environmentally destructive. This is the logic of the whole climate-change discourse, which, again, is a kind of quasi-relgious argument about redemption, where we will apparently be redeemed by these various acts of austerity.

What I find most objectionable as an intellectual – or maybe a pretend intellectual, since we never know we’re intellectuals until about 200 years after the event – is the very dishonest, self-deceiving element in contemporary economic discourse, particularly in the domain of policymaking.

In countries like Britain or France, there is an active and conscious attempt to redefine economic indicators, to move them away from production and material reality, towards things like happiness or wellbeing. People are deadly serious about this. On both sides of the political spectrum, both Labour and Conservatives ask why we are so hung up about gross domestic product – why not focus on gross domestic wellbeing, they ask? Or why not have a happiness index which defines what a good life really is? I don’t necessarily want to go into a critique of a happiness index, except to make one historical point: if you look at the way in which happiness was discussed and used by economists over the past 100 to 150 years, in almost every passage that you read you will see that happiness is linked to prosperity.

There you have it. Happiness and prosperity. That’s the way these things are generally framed in the grammar of everyday life. The idea is that the more prosperous we are, the happier we are. There is some kind of link there. It’s obviously not a straightforward link, but the assumption is that if you are starving to death, if you are living in the dark, then it is difficult to walk around with a smile on your face. Today, however, we have the paradox of a happiness argument that says the richer we are, the more prosperous we are, then the more sad and ‘mentally damaged’ we become. And therefore we should all go to Himalayan states like Bhutan, which apparently have a higher level of happiness, and aspire to that kind of model society.

This is the thing I find saddest about the current ideological understanding of the recession: the way in which society and thinkers have reacted to the recession actually makes neo-liberalism look almost progressive by comparison, and it makes conservative thought look positively radical.

We live in a world in which the one idea that everyone can sign up to as a way of dealing with the recession is ‘sustainability’. Now, I’m old-fashioned about this – maybe it’s my classical economist, Marxist background – but basically I would say that sustainability is not a good thing. Anything that is sustainable is not worth having, and that has always been the main principle of human development. That is, it’s precisely because we recognise the transient, fluid character of our existence that we don’t simply want things to be sustainable – we want things to move forward, to progress, to develop. It seems to me that what is really lacking today is some kind of progress-related, progressive ideology, which we might use to deal with today’s many troublesome ideas and issues.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here. The above is a speech that was given at ‘Post-recession Ideologies: it’s the politics, stupid!’ at the Battle of Ideas in London on 31 October 2009.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi explained why we need a public debate about the economy. Brendan O’Neill gave his view on post-recession virtues, and argued against austerity. Neil Davenport reviewed Austerity Britain. When it comes to anti-consumerist tracts, said Daniel Ben-Ami, there are too many to choose from. Rob Killick looked at what’s in store for the British economy and set out a three-point agenda of what the G20 – and the rest of us – should be debating. Or read more at spiked issue Economy.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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