Dignity in a Consumer Society: Thinking with Bauman and Hochschild

Advanced democratic societies are in need of new models to understand the politics emerging under the labels of neo-conservatism, ethno-nationalism, the alt-right, and, occasionally, anti-politics. The ostensive failure of polls to predict Trump’s presidency, alongside the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation politics in Australia (among countless other examples in Europe and Britain) has not deterred political commentators from drawing on the logic of party politics – that is, that individuals and communities are seeking representatives to support their ideologies or interests through positions of power.

For example, an article published by Rationalist Society member Hugh Harris earlier today probed the One Nation Party’s ideological support base through the keyhole issue of terrorism:

Growing levels of support for One Nation and other parties of its ilk are amplified by the infuriating determination of major party leaders to deny the link between religious belief and Islamism… Refusing to acknowledge what is so obvious and in plain view fuels an ardent desire to hear someone talk honestly about it.

Surely, we can acknowledge the influence of the Islamic fundamentalism in groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram, while calmly recognising that these extreme views are held by only a minority of Muslims. Concepts such as jihadism, martyrdom, hard-line sharia law and Dar al-Harb (House of War) are central to Salafi jihadism, and inseparable from Islamic terrorism.

The assumption that the One Nation Party continues to gather support because its leaders promise to address this issue by abolishing those “who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own” implies knowledge about her voting base. However, a short trip down the page, to the nefarious comments section of Harris’ article reveals a petri dish of discontent and admiration.

Besides the derision of the “PCs”, the “Lefties”, “Greenies”, and “babbling” Liberal and Labour leaders who attack society’s most vulnerable are qualifications about support for Pauline Hanson. The most common qualification is: “I don’t agree with all her views… she fills a gap in the political market”. The characteristics of hers often admired are her “pragmatism”, fearlessness, patriotism and resolve – claims that mirror the praise of neo-conservative supporters for their leaders abroad.

(via Greg Wood/AFP/Getty)

The continuing growth of political analysis demonstrated here needs sociological context. Continuing on my reflections of Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (in my previous post), in this blog post I seek to extend Hochschild’s toolbox for analysing political divisions through Bauman’s Work, Consumerism and the New Poor.

Firstly, to recap from last post: Hochschild asks political analysts to look beyond the often repeated clichés about Tea Party advocates and Trump supporters, to understand their “deep story” and scale the empathy wall built of our own prejudices and unconscious biases. Her narrative is one of seeking understanding before explanation, a quest in the practice of interpretive sociology.

Despite my new found appreciation for the complexity of emotions and narratives beneath the Tea Party label, I am still troubled by the diversity of political opinions that become, often begrudgingly, huddled under the Party Politics of groups such as the Tea Party, Trump’s Republican Party and One Nation. And although these groups are popular signifiers for the socio-political phenomenon that I wish to understand, I suspect that these opinions aren’t limited by how individuals act at the voting booth. As Yanis Varoufakis noted in The Guardian, in the USA post-2008 “the establishment habitually blamed the victims of predatory lending and the failed health system”. The legitimacy of the state has long been contentious.

In 2005, the late Zigmunt Bauman published a refined commentary of contemporary “developed” societies’ treatment of the poor, at home and abroad. In Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, Bauman develops a model for understanding the social exclusion of the poor. In his introduction, he claims,

It is one thing to be poor in a society of producers and universal employment; it is quite a different thing to be poor in a society of consumers, in which life-projects are built around consumer choice rather than work, professional skills or jobs. If ‘being poor’ once derived its meaning from the condition of being unemployed, today it draws its meaning primarily from the plight of a flawed consumer.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but two claims warrant close attention: (1) Our society primarily values human agency where it resembles the action of the consumer, invoking the image of a broad societal pattern in which individuals often evaluate their own behaviours in terms of better or worse “choices”; and (2) The poor individual is one who has made, and could be suspected to continue to make, poor choices. As you may guess, Bauman takes issue with a monolithic reading of “the poor” or “the underclass” as a unified category, opting to interpret its existence as the result of an act of social classification, rather than reference to an actually existing (coherent) collection of persons.

However, the non-existence of “the poor” does not dismantle the ideological power of this category. In a phase of capitalism where desire is driven by the struggle to find “the good life” (be that the American Dream or some other vision of pleasure, security, or happiness), choice has become a variable in the calculus of justice: poor choices should beget poor people. Post-welfare democracies are riddled with such rhetoric.

Recalling how states and politicians cope with the existence of the poor is invaluable to understanding neo-conservative politics honestly. The recession of the welfare state took with it the political hope that governments could ensure “something more than sheer survival: survival with dignity”, as Bauman claims. No longer needed to fulfil the role of a reserve army of labour, the poor have become increasingly viewed as a cost rather than an asset to the industrial-state complex.

Banksy brilliance, ongoing stigmatism

Means testing for government intervention into the survival of the poor has become a tool to both distinguish the deserving from the undeserving poor, as well as confer the status of the failed consumer on those who succeed in passing the means test. In Bauman’s description of consumer society, both the middle class and the poor have reason to feel cheated by their state and politicians: the government supports the livelihood of bad “choosers” and confers shame on those individuals seeking to make it despite their bad luck.

In the midst of describing the perpetual decay of the welfare state and societal social support programs, Bauman questions: “How can it be… that the majority of voters in a democratic polity give freely their support to the increase of social inequality?” For the middle class, the provision of welfare programs, through means testing, become associated with those least able to politically defend their needs, making them easy prey for news stories extolling “fraud, deception and abuse” of those programs. For those accessing welfare programs, any admission of their “special status” is also an admission of defeat – a loss of dignity.

The moral semiotics surrounding poverty have the potential to contribute to our understanding of contemporary populist politics, and the great distrust that neoconservative voters and politicians share concerning conventional party politics. Hochschild has already provided some analysis of the love of the “free market” and distrust of government regulation discussed by many of her Tea Party friends. But what her story lacks is a grounding in a political historical context, such as that which Bauman brings forth in his work. Such reflection allows us to connect a moral semiotics, which Hochschild describes at length, with the transformation of societal attitudes towards those most politically vulnerable. The Tea Party phenomenon is emblematic of segments of a global population who feel both the loss of dignity and the sense of being cheated out of the good life.

Bauman’s analysis of the ethics of a consumer society may also lend some explanatory power to why political discourse has taken a “post-factual” turn. In considering the impact of trumps politics on the future of higher education in the USA, John Morgan argued that

This [post-factual] attitude to facts may perhaps be linked to an indifference to, or resentment of, education. [George Washington University President, Steven] Knapp says that the presidential campaign evidenced “to some extent, I think it’s fair to say, a bit of an anti-intellectual tone; a kind of rebellion against expertise; a sense that… people who were left out of universities were being left disadvantaged by the elitism of the educated classes”.

This populist resentment of education may be, in part, an attempt to re-write the rules of “successful” and “failed” choices; the educated are wrong and therefore their families’ choices to indoctrinate them in the education system are wrong. Kellyanne Conway’s coining of the term “alternative facts” and William Davies’ excellent analysis of how statistics lost their power both demonstrate that knowledge is always discursive and political. Being right, being seen as making good choices, is not a matter of truth – it’s a matter of honour and dignity.

I hope, in future research and activism, that intellectuals and other members of political communities will find the time to investigate the transformation of ground-level politics further. This analysis cannot simply be transferred onto other democratic societies (as I would like to accomplish in the Australian setting) because of the differences in the stories that nations and communities tell one another about the good life, justice, truth, and self. I don’t believe such a feat may be achieved through scanning the comments section of political journalism alone!



The Deep Story: A Reflection on Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land

The eruption of contemporary populist politics across states and within the global news media has elicited a whirlwind of reactions from the interwebs and braniacs alike. For many, the message seems simple, perhaps reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s infamous quip about the best argument against democracy. The success of president-elect Donald Trump, the United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum (Brexit), and – perhaps smaller but not less worthy of comment – the One Nation party’s senate success in Australia have turned the attention of many political commentators to the media of communication. As Mark Chou and Michael Ondaatje have argued in relation to the Trump campaign,

Citizens who depend on the media for reliable campaign coverage and substantive analyses of candidates’ policies will be left either unsatisfied or none the wiser. In the worst case scenario, the public will begin to believe that style, performance and drama are what ultimately matter when it comes to understanding electoral politics. That is bad both for individual citizens and for democracy as a whole.

Employing a dramaturgical analysis, they question the authenticity of Trump’s presidential persona (as, no doubt, many of us have) by describing the affectations of his melodrama: ‘Building the wall, keeping Muslims out, demonizing China, provoking Islamic State, championing the rights of “everyday” Americans – all these are “policies” which would fit perfectly within a melodramatic paradigm’. While there is little doubt that the Trump phenomenon is a socially engineered one, reminiscent of Trump’s persona on The Apprentice, it is not so clear whether the revelation of this engineering is a threat to his public image. To understand the meaning of the theatricality of populist politicians, attention must be focused on the context of reception – on how audiences use popular imagery, language and politics in their own lives.

Perhaps one of the most direct (and certainly most readable) commentaries on the emergence of populist sentiment in the United States to date has been Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild’s book is an exercise in overcoming the emotional and cultural barriers that divides the politics of the ‘North’ and ‘South’ of the USA. Although the geographical imagery is a loose guide to the divide that she is attempting to bridge across, Hochschild argues that it is vital for understanding the cultural semiotics that individuals use to frame their political kinship and adversaries. Hochschild’s interview participants (snowball sampled from the southern state of Louisiana) are all white Tea Party supporters from the middle, lower-middle and working classes who share a ‘deep story’ about the progress of American society and their place in it. This deep story is not a factual account of history, but rather ‘a narrative as felt’ (p. ix). Hochschild describes this feeling-narrative thusly:

A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story. (p. 135)

The analysis of ‘deep stories’ require putting aside the moral and emotional objections that one has to a claim in order to reproduce the logic of feeling associated with the claim. For Hochschild, this requires scaling ‘empathy walls’ – in other words, overcoming the knee-jerk reactions that feel when in the presence of the politically contentious or outright abominable. These walls are ‘obstacle[s] to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances’ (p. 5). This is not a call to embrace racist, sexist or otherwise prejudiced politics, but rather an invocation to seek out the interpersonal logics that influence how others engage with politics in the first place. The medium of communication says nothing about the message without the context of reception.

Generalising from Hochschild’s methods, what her book offers is not only an analysis of the undercurrent of Tea Party politics in the USA, but also a tool kit for the exploration of the politics of ‘Others’ in politically bifurcating societies. For Hochschild in the United States, the empathy walls that she faced as a Berkley-educated-and-professor-emerita sociologist were those generally between the Democrat and the Republican, or more accurately between the progressive and the conservative in that nation. However, the interaction rituals, communication formats and structures of feeling that allow such chasms to emerge are not specific to the United States.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has already surveyed the sites of disintegration of moral debate in his book, After Virtue. At the heart of modern politics is a distrust of political speech that takes the form of moral claims. Moral claims are popularly attributed the status of opinions, attitudes, feelings or preferences (a theory that MacIntyre terms ‘emotivism’) and are unlike factual judgements, which are either true or false. As MacIntyre notes, within this emotivist mindset,

moral judgments, being expressions of attitude or feeling, are neither true nor false; and agreement in moral judgment is not to be secured by any rational method, for there are none. It is to be secured, if at all, by producing certain non-rational effects on the emotions or attitudes of those who disagree with one. We use moral judgments not only to express our own feelings and attitudes, but also precisely to produce such effects in others. (p. 12)

Emotivism is not an ideal for MacIntyre, but rather a response to a specific historical malaise – a theory about the use of moral expressions. Emotivism has historically emerged when individuals ‘use moral and other evaluative expressions, as if they were governed by objective and impersonal criteria, when all grasp of any such criterion has been lost’ (p. 18). In other words, emotivism rests on the premise that we cannot provide satisfying objective (or agreeable) justifications for moral claims. If the failure of the radically ‘left’ and ‘right’ of politics to communicate with one another reflects an historical political trend, it may rest within the disintegration of the Enlightenment ideal of rationally justifying moral claims. The task facing those who seek to repair public and political arenas, as sites of agonism or authentic communicative action, is to bring divergent political identities into a common sphere of conversation where moral claims are not brushed aside as sacred expressions of incommensurable attitudes or treated as the basis of stereotyping persons.

Hochschild’s work is valuable here because she has partially succeeded in overcoming the folk theory of emotivism that breeds suspicion between the wings of politics. Although I’m unsure how successful such a text will prove in inspiring a new agora in American society, Hochschild has certainly provided some interesting tools to think and write with beyond the United States context. In Australia, for example, where the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party has sent a shiver through the progressive and left-leaning, a cultural semiotics of the party’s voting base would perhaps bring progressives and regressives closer to communication.


Please feel free to comment/criticise on these remarks. I’d love to discuss your take on this.



Hochschild, Arlie R. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York and London: The New Press.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 2007. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, third edition, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.