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!