No 2143 Posted by fw, January 14, 2018
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In Section 4, Chapter 10, Tim Jackson made the case that the state has a legitimate role to play in “shifting the social logic” so we can escape from the “‘iron cage’ of consumerism,” hence his title, “Government as a commitment device.”
Unfortunately, our selfish “pursuit of affluence is itself eroding and undermining our commitment devices.” Decades of neoliberal governments have kept our society “‘locked in’ to consumption growth by forces outside the control of individuals.”
In his concluding paragraph of Section 4, Jackson signals a potential way out of the “‘iron cage’ of consumerism” – ‘governmentality’.
‘Governmentality’, is the subject of my synopsis of Section 5, Chapter 10, which Jackson titles “The governmentality of growth.”
‘Governmentality” refers to the way governments try to produce citizens best suited to fulfill their policies.
Decades of neoliberal regimes have practiced the governmentality of growth to keep the ecologically destructive capitalist economy booming.
The commitment to consumptive growth has undermined government’s potential role as a commitment instrument in nurturing the governmentality of altruistic and conservative human values and behaviours.
Jackson begins Section 5 of Chapter 10 with two telling propositions:
1/ “Social stability rests on economic stability.”
2/ “In a growth-based economy, economic stability rests on growth.”
From proposition 2, Jackson reasons:
In support of the promotion of consumer-based social stability, “A complex network of institutions, regulations and market signals co-create the culture of consumerism,” thereby creating a conformist culture that inhibits thinking of a full range of ecologically friendly lifestyle possibilities.
As Jackson puts it:
“‘… consumer choice is what people want’. We are even led to believe that citizens are, by nature, exactly what we need them to be: individualistic, hedonistic consumers in search of the good life – cashed out in increasingly materialistic ways.”
That’s what governments would have us believe. But Jackson will have none of it. As he illustrated in Section 6 of Chapter 7, human motivations are not all selfish, despite the appeal to evolutionary justifications. Moral, social, and altruistic behaviours also evolved – precisely because they gave humans a survival advantage.
Yes, it’s true that “selfishness and altruism exist in all of us.” But human behaviour is shaped by socio-cultural and situational circumstances. Consumer capitalism is in large part a function of a system that rewards hedonism, greed and selfishness. “But,” asserts Jackson, “when social structures favour altruism, then empathy and kindness flourish and selfishness is penalized.”
And it is at this point that Jackson draws on French philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality – the art of government – “the way in which governments try to produce the citizen best suited to fulfil governments’ own policies.”
Neoliberal regimes have, for decades, practiced “the governmentality of the consumer society” calculated to favour materialistic individualism in the pursuit of consumer novelty – a sure prescription to keep the economy growing.
And as Jackson pointed out in Section 4, “The erosion of commitment is a structural requirement for growth as well as a structural consequence of affluence.”
More to the point, it undermines government’s role as a commitment device in nurturing the development of altruistic and conservative human values and behaviours.
In his concluding paragraph to this section, Jackson writes:
“The importance of governmentality lies in the recognition that this process doesn’t just happen by itself. Government plays a crucial, indeed an active, role in it, precisely because it bears a responsibility for the stability of the macroeconomy.”