Life after consumerism

Duncan Bowie on an historian’s manifesto

Gregory Claeys has set out a powerful counterblast to modern consumerism. Claeys is professor of political thought at Royal Holloway College and the leading contemporary historian of utopian socialism. A prolific author, he has not only written books on Owenism and English radical co-operation, Mill, British anti-imperialism, utopianism and dystopias, he has edited several sets of volumes of primary sources on Owenism and British utopian thought from the 17th century to the present day.

I had the privilege of chairing a talk he gave recently to the Socialist History society. It is fair to say that some participants in the vigorous discussion which followed were not convinced of his analysis or remedies. Some argued that Claeys, in focusing on action to be taken by governments and by individuals, was letting capitalism off the hook – that Claeys, as a non-Marxist socialist, had failed to undertake a class analysis. Others argued that achieving the required change through persuasion was unrealistic – the rich would resist loss of their privileges (and some participants were clearly not prepared to surrender their own privileges), and revolution and compulsion were necessary. Claeys’s book, one of the most important and challenging books by a contemporary historian, should start a debate on the left on means and ends. However, debate is clearly not enough, and the case for the urgency of radical action cannot, perhaps, be overstated.

This new volume starts with an extended study of different definitions of utopianism, before reviewing utopian writing and the practice of utopian settlements from Thomas More to the hippies of the 1960s, drawing on Claeys’s knowledge of an extensive range of utopian writings. As someone fairly familiar with Claeys’s early works and who has written on early British utopians in the context of the radical and socialist origins of British town planning, I was intrigued by some of the lesser known works Claeys references. It took me a week to read the book as I kept heading to my own bookshelves as well as the internet to check on sources. 

What is original about Claeys’s new work is his tracing of the role of consumerism in historical development and the attitude of utopian writers and practitioners to consumerism. Just to take two primary sources with which I am unfamiliar: the French philosopher Francois de Selignac de la Mothe Fenelon, tutor to Louis IV’s grandson, whose Telemachus, published in 1699, was a critique of Louis’s extravagance and expansionism and an argument for simplicity, hard work and the notion of governance as serving the public.  The second example is the Belgian professor of political economy, Emile de Laveleye, who, in 1891, published (in English) a book entitled Luxury which argued that luxury was unjustifiable, whether exercised by the state or by private interests.

But Claeys’s new book is more than just an erudite study of historical utopianism. It draws on the lessons of history to put forward a detailed argument and manifesto for combating the impact of climate change and for saving the planet from dying. This is a dramatic and apocalyptic message – but an optimistic one in that Claeys sees a way forward if radical action is taken now.

The book’s dedication to Greta Thunberg should have been an indication of what was to come in the last section of the book: advocacy of action which makes the proposals of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil seem somewhat conservative. For Claeys argues not just for the abandonment of fossil fuel extraction but for an abandonment of all luxury – in effect, the nationalisation of all private wealth above a figure of £10m (this seemed a surprisingly high threshold), the ending of travel by air, the introduction of personal carbon allowances, the end of private car ownership and use, local sourcing of all food, and severe restrictions on advertising and branding. He further argues for a non-profit system of retailing, restraint on population growth, the restructuring of all corporations and businesses on a democratic and egalitarian model (in effect, co-operatives), progressive income and wealth taxes, development of new communities on a neighbourhood unit model to ensure economic, social and environmental sustainability, and a new concept of urban sociability, which Claeys refers to as ‘neo-Fourierism’. 

Claeys also sets out a programme for change in personal behaviour – reduce meat, dairy, fat and sugar consumption, eat leftovers, reject all plastic packaging, eliminate waste, reduce clothing acquisition, mend clothes and wear them longer, reduce water use, “shun those who display wealth ostentatiously”, use public transport, resist advertising – strike, resist, agitate, go on demonstrations. He argues that “this is the greatest and most momentous movement in the history of our species”.  But there is a positive message: moving to a more austere lifestyle has to be fun, and we should all have a grand party before the transition to a new lifestyle commences!

Utopianism for a Dying Planet
by Gregory Claeys
Princeton University Press, £35 

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