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Thursday, 15 September 2011

Towards a More Inter-Disciplinary Understanding of Consumption, Ethics and Politics

Yesterday my colleagues Andreas Chatzidakis, Pauline Maclaran and Laura Spence organised an excellent workshop on Inter-disciplinary Perspectives on Consumption, Ethics & Sustainability as part of Royal Holloway’s Centre for Research in Sustainability. I participated in a panel roundtable discussion on the topic "Towards a More Inter-Disciplinary Understanding of Consumption, Ethics and Politics" chaired by Robert Caruana from University of Nottingham and including Rob Harrison from Ethical Consumer Magazine. I here post my comments.

I sought to make four observations about the nature of business scholarly interest on the subject of sustainability borne from interdisciplinary perspectives. This is not to say that the insights are absent from sustainable business discourse (though very often they are), but rather to re-emphasise what I think are four important points.
Firstly, I believe it is important not to bracket capital from discussions. Drawing on David Harvey’s recent book Crises of Capital, it is useful to think of capital as an active and objective agent that is extraordinarily determinate and principally concerned with multiplying itself. As Harvey states, the history of capitalism post-Industrial Revolution demonstrates an almost consistent compound growth rate of 3%. Should this continue, as it almost certainly will, we will have a doubling of global capital within twenty years – meaning that there may well be twice as much consumption and production. There is absolutely nothing sustainable about this and whilst sustainable practices may emerge, the growth and trajectory of capital and its ecological impact is fundamentally non-sustainable.
Second, I detect over-emphasis on nexuses of production and consumption as analysis very often follows process links between consumers and producers that feedback on itself and are often (or at least have the potential to be) mediated by ecological concerns and ethics. However such a focus is to miss what the political economists are telling us: that we live in the age of financialisation which has alternative focal agents. The vast majority of consumer expenditure does not take place in the ordinary realm of exchange which consumer behaviourists observe, but rather on servicing finance – for example rent, mortgages, interest rates, insurance and so on. Typically consumers have almost zero agency and limited awareness over these financial transactions that define the vast majority of our expenditure and the scope for mediating financialisation by ethical or ecological concerns is far less than in production-consumption nexuses. The danger is that financialisation is not submitted to the lens of sustainable business practice and the subject does not engage with the focal point of capital accumulation.
Third, in as much as capital functions hegemonically, it appropriates critical discourse and re-packages and re-directs it according to its own logic and needs (the classic example is the Che Guevara t-shirt widely sold by the Gap and through this mass commodification, the image loses its revolutionary political signification). Business schools are particularly vulnerable to this ideological appropriation. Where and how do we conceptually and strategically draw the line between analysis that is progressive and that which reproduces this ideological trick? How do we apply a reflexivity, critically engage with sustainable scholarship and maintain a necessary distinction between a good and bad politics? Is there a risk that in seeking to expand the subject area, that an anything goes spirit prevails that provides fertile ground for ideological appropriation?

Fourth, to what extent do we suffer from temporal delusion? The prevailing liberal logic maintains that markets, left to their own devices, will eventually act rationally with reference to global warming and that a series of innovations must be experimented before the solution is achieved. However with global warming it is important to note that we do not get this second chance and, as Zizek insists with his penchant for using extreme statements to shock people into realising what is at stake, the logic that would rescue us is not liberal patience but rather authoritarian terror. Alternatively, as Zizek argues in his most recent book Living in the End Of Times, we have already crossed the precipice: the destruction of our ecology is irreversible and we are now in the end game. Assuming eschatological times, Zizek suggests that a lot of the discourse contains disavowed knowledge, erasure and is typically defined by denial and bargaining rather than acceptance of our reality and a belief in the possibility, let alone inevitability, of catastrophe. Leonard Cohen, as per usual, puts it best: "I don't consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin".

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