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Consumer capitalism: 15th Maurice Blackburn Oration.

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Consumer capitalism

Is this as good as it gets? 15th Maurice Blackburn Oration Coburg Town Hall 25th February 2004

Clive Hamilton

Executive Director, The Australia Institute

Until recently, there has never been a time in human history when each of us could hope

to live a truly fulfilling life. From the earliest days, the hopes of ordinary men and women

were severely constrained by their cultural and material circumstances. For ordinary

people the binding constraint was economic and the most they could reaso nably hope for

was to achieve a modest but secure existence in the company of their families. For almost

all, cultural and social limits imposed at birth were also binding; one’s life course was

conditioned by one’s class, gender and race.

There were two dreams of liberation. Religious ecstasy in another life seemed attainable

for everyone. Political authority was comfortable with this opium of the masses. The

second dream, a society of equals, was much more threatening. Socialism promised

prosperity in a classless society; by means of revolution it would abolish both the

material and the social constraints on the full realisation of ordinary men and women.

In the end, it was not socialism that broke down the barriers of poverty and class, it was

capitalism itself. In recent decades, in the rich countries of the world, the forces that held

in check the hopes of the masses have for the most part fallen away. Despite pervasive

money-hunger, most people in rich countries live lives of abundance in conditions that

their grandparents would have regarded as luxurious. In the post-War decades, not only

did incomes treble but mass education saw class barriers crumble. And the liberation

movements of the sixties and seventies tore down the oppressive structures that confined

the aspirations of women and minorities. The sexual revolution freed us from our

Victorian inhibitions; the women’s movement freed women from role stereotyping; gay


liberation allowed free expression of sexual preference; and the civil rights move ment

eliminated institutionalized racism.

The rejection of traditional standards, expectations and stereotypes was a manifestation of

the deeper human longing for self-determination. Democracy, combined with the arrival

of widespread material abundance in the West, for the first time provided the opportunity

for the mass of ordinary people to pursue self-realisation. The political demand for

democracy of earlier generations became a personal demand for freedom to find one’s

own path, to ‘write one’s own biography’. The constraints of socially imposed roles have

weakened, oppress ion based on gender and race became untenable, and the daily struggle

for survival has for most people disappeared.

The democratic impulse - which until the seventies took the form of collective struggles

to be free of political and social oppression - has segued into something else, a search for

authentic identity, for self-actualization, for the achievement of true individuality. At last,

here was the opportunity for people to aspire to something beyond material security and

freedom from political oppression.

But it was not to be. Before we had an opportunity to reflect on our new-found freedom,

and to answer the question ‘How should I live?’, the marketers arrived with their own

answer to the quest for true identity. Over the last two or three decades, the agents of the

marketing society have seized on the primal search for authentic identity to sell more

gym shoes, cars, mobile phones and home furnishings. And what happened at the level of

the individual translated into society’s preoccupation with economic growth, an autistic

behavioural pattern reinforced daily by the platitudes of the commentators and the


Today, most people in rich countries seek proxy identities in the form of commodity

consumption, consumer capitalism’s answer to the search for meaning. The hope for a

meaningful life has been diverted into the desire for higher incomes and more

consumption. Why do we succumb? We continue to pursue more wealth and co nsume at

ever-higher levels because we are afraid of the alternative. The yearning that we feel for

an authentic sense of self is pursued by way of substitute gratifications, external rewards


and especially money and material consumption. That attaining these goals can never

satisfy our yearning leads us only to set higher goals - more money, a bigger house,

another promotio n. As Marilyn Manson declared: ‘Keep them afraid and they will

consume. Fear and consumption.’1

As the values and conventions of the past were undermined by the liberation movements

of the sixties and seventies, the values of the marketplace spread in their stead. The

counter-culture tore down the social structures of conservatism that, for all their

stultifying oppressiveness, held the market in check. Now many of the cultural leaders of

the protest generation work for advertising agencies and major corporations for the

benefit of capital. There is even a name for them - bobos, or bourgeois bohemians. The

women’s movement sought liberation but settled for equality. Gender equality has meant,

above all, unfettered opportunity for women to create themselves in the images invented

for them by the marketers. Whether a woman is a dutiful housewife or a kick-arse

careerist is a matter of indifference to the marketers, as long as she continues to spend.

The demands of the baby boomers for freedom in private life, for freedom from the

fetters of social convention, and for freedom of sexual expression were noble in

themselves, but it is now evident that demolition of the social customs and moral rules

did not create a society of free individuals. Instead, it created an opportunity for the

marketers to substitute material consumption and manufactured lifestyles for the ties of

social tradition. In the face of revolutionary changes in social attitudes in the West,

consumer capitalism has remained unruffled. Indeed, each new social revolution has

provided an opportunity for it to rejuvenate itself.


The economics profession has a lot to answer for. It has provided the intellectual cover

for the penetration of market values into areas of social and personal life where they do

not belong. When market values rule calculation drives out trust, self-centeredness

displaces mutuality, superficiality prevails over depth and our relationships with others

are conditioned by external reward and, above all, by money. In a world of ruthless

1 In Mike Moore’s film Bowling For Columbine.


competition where market values prevail, playing fair seems naïve. When a cricketer

walks or a mountaineer sacrifices the summit to help another, our admiration betrays our

despair at the usual state we have descended to. Let’s consider some examples of how

market values and the spread of economic thinking has corrupted much that is decent in


One of the earliest and most aggressive exponents of this economic imperialism was

Gary Becker, the Chicago economist par excellence, who in an article published in one of

the profession’s most prestigious journals applied the principles of microeconomics and

consumer behaviour to what he called the market for marriage. Becker defined marriage

as an arrangement to secure the mutual benefit of exchange between two agents of

different endowments. In other words, people marry in order more efficiently to produce

‘household commodities’, including ‘the quality of meals, the quality and quantity of

children, prestige, recreation, companionship, love, and health status’. The rational

person will base any marriage decision on quantifiable costs and benefits. The gain from

marriage has to be balanced against the losses - including legal fees and the costs of

searching for a mate - to determine whether marriage is worthwhile.

Becker went on to analyse the effect of ‘love and caring’ on the nature of the ‘equilibrium

in the marriage market’. To do so he defined love as ‘a non- marketable household

commodity’, noting that more love between potential partners increases the amount of

caring and that this in turn reduces the costs of ‘policing’ the marriage. Policing, of

course, is needed ‘in any partnership or corporation’ because it ‘reduces the probability

that a mate shirks duties or appropriates more output than is mandated by the equilibrium

in the marriage market’. There’s no need to put a padlock on the fridge if your partner

loves you. After pa ges of differential calculus, Becker reaches a triumphant conclusion:

since love produces more efficient marriages, ‘love and caring between two persons

increase their chances of being married to each other’. What Becker’s wife thought about

this analysis is not recorded, but in 1992 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was

sufficiently impressed to award him the Nobel Prize for Economics for this and related



We gasp, but are not pre- nuptial agreements a reflection of the economic approach to

marriage? Has not the decision to become a parent for many young men and women

become a ‘lifestyle’ choice’: what’s it to be, a baby or a beamer? Have not the

economists and the accountants managed to insinuate their ideas into the way we form

and conduct our relationships? If Gary Becker’s barmy ideas infected only the thinking of

academic economists then we would not have too much to worry about. But, driven by

growth fetishism, over the last twenty years the economic way of thinking has, like a

virus, invaded public and private spheres where previously it was alien. Let me give

another illustration almost as disturbing as Becker’s analysis of marriage.

In the early 1990s the chief economist at the World Bank was a man named Lawrence

Summers. He was later appointed by President Clinton to be the Secretary of the

Treasury. At the time the World Bank was taking an intense interest in global

environmental problems and was proffering advice to developing countries. In a leaked

internal memo, Summers argued that rich countries should ship their toxic wastes to poor

countries, writing that ‘the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the

lowest wage country is impeccable’ and that ‘under-populated countries in Africa are

vastly UNDER-polluted ’. How do we know this? Because in poor countries, Dr

Summers wrote, the forgone wages from illness and early death are so much less than in

rich countries. In other words, the life of an African is worth much less than the life of an

American. It must be conceded that, economically speaking, Summers’ logic is

impeccable; it’s just that we should not think about these things economically.

We marvel at Lawrence Summers’ chutzpah, but what’s the moral difference between

dumping our toxic wastes in Africa and refusing, as the Howard Government has, to

ratify the Kyoto Protocol and reduce our greenhouse gases unless poor countries do

likewise? In the lead-up to the Kyoto conference in 1997, small island states in the

Pacific expressed their alarm at scientific projections indicating that several of them

would be flooded by rising seas. The Australian Government’s chief adviser on climate

change told a conference in London that it might be more efficient to evacuate small


island states subject to inundation rather than require industrialised countries like

Australia to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.2

The values of the market have colonized our universities too. In the 1850s Cardinal

Newman affirmed that knowledge is capable of being its own reward, and wrote of the

attributes of mind that arise from a liberal education as ‘freedom, equitableness,

calmness, moderation, and wisdom’. Few would challenge this view in principle, yet all

around us we see the idea undermined by the commercialisation of universities, the

commodification of knowledge and the transformation of academics into industrial

drones. The intrinsic rewards of knowledge are today belittled and mocked.

I received a letter from a student who, after gaining a TER or ENTER score of 98.9,

decided to study Classical Greek at the University of Sydney. She wrote that through her

studies she is exploring what it is to be human. But she has been told by friends and

family that she is wasting her time, that while ‘it’s all very well to indulge in the

humanities while [you are] young’ sooner or later she will have to do something

‘practical’. In other words, the purpose of a university education is to obtain the highest

paid job one can. As more students than ever crowd onto our campuses, the reorientation

of our universities to vocational and commercial demands promises to produce a nation

of highly educated fools.

In a survey by the Australia Institute of academics in the social sciences, we were told

repeatedly that university teachers feel compelled to make the ir courses more vocational,

that is, more market-oriented. The changes have generally diluted their intellectual

content. Nearly ninety per cent said their universities place greater value on courses that

attract full fee-paying students than on other courses. The preference for money-spinning

courses is at the expense of courses of a critical or speculative nature, that is, those that

contribute more to social and cultural values. Many said that, increasingly, the ability to

pay is more important than the ability to pass. Wrote one:

2 See Clive Hamilton, Running From the Storm: The development of climate change policy in Australia (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2001) p. 79.


… the universities are no longer communities of scholars but institutions which

are aiming to satisfy rather undefined and unexplored market needs. This will

inevitably constrain freedom of inquiry often in non-transparent and non-coercive


The spread of cheating and plagiarism is entirely consistent with the instrumentalist

approach to education of the new enterprise university promoted by the economic

rationalists. Perhaps the universities should be honest about it and discard noble mottos

such as ‘First, to learn the nature of things’ (ANU), ‘Although the constellations change

the mind is constant’ (University of Sydney) and, ‘Seek wisdom’ (UWA), and replace

them with Shakespeare’s observation in Timon of Athens: ‘The learned pate ducks to the

golden fool’.3

Some academics have resisted and for their troubles have been accused by Alan Gilbert,

the campaigning former Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, of being

Luddites. If, in the face of rapid change, academics are behaving like 18th century

handloom weavers, it is because the managers of the enterprise universities are behaving

like Lancashire mill owners.

The values of the market are transforming not just our minds but our physical bodies too.

Huge industries are devoted to changing our shapes, our visages and our life-spans, all in

pursuit of the notion of happiness that the market has given us. In the USA, in what is

described as ‘the latest vanity craze sweeping the nation’, Botox parties provide a

conge nial environment at which the guests drink champagne and take it in turns to have

Botox injections to paralyze facial muscles. Botox is described as ‘the wrinkle- free

fountain of youth’.

But this is child’s play compared to the plot of a new US television program called

Extreme Makeovers, which has now made the inevitable journey across the Pacific.

Seven thousand people applied to win the chance to have their physiognomy remade.

While millions watch, the renovation is carried out by an ‘extreme team’ of plastic

surgeons, dentists, personal trainers, and hair, makeup and wardrobe stylists. One of the


winners, Melissa, had a nose job, breast implants, brow lift, tummy tuck, ears pinned and

Lasik surgery. She had her teeth whitened and straightened too. The other winner, David,

a 38-year-old member of the National Guard who believed his appearance has barred him

from promotion, had a nose job, chin augmentation, neck lift, brow lift, upper and lower-eye lifts, teeth whitening and porcelain veneers.4

The millions who watched thought ‘Wow, why not?’. The tragic answer, of course, is that

these extreme measures don’t work. An Australian study has found that women who have

had cosmetic surgery are also more likely to have chronic illnesses and use medication

for anxiety and sleep disorders.5 A Swedish study found that women with cosmetic breast

implants are three times more likely than the general population to commit suicide.6 It’s

not clear whether the psychological disorders lead people to cosmetic surgery or whether

cosmetic surgery brings on psychological disorders, although the Swedish researchers

refer to ‘the well-documented link between psychiatric disorders and a desire for

cosmetic surgery’. Cosmetic surgeons are sometimes described as psychiatrists with


The chances are that those who seek radical transformation of their bodies developed the

basic yearning as children. Childhood, of course, has become a marketing free- fire zone,

and the lounge room is the kindergarten of consumerism. We all know of the

extraordinary pressures placed on children to consume; what is less understood is how

the thick fog of commercial messages in which children now grow up conditions their

understanding of the world and themselves.

While teenagers with pocket money were once the target, marketers are increasingly

targeting tweens, children aged 8-14, not because they buy many of the goods marketed

to them but because they hope to build life-long brand loyalty that will pay off for

decades. According to the recently published and definitive marketing manual titled

BrandChild :

3 Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene III 4 Accessed July 3, 2003 5 ABC News in Science 17 June 2002 6 ABC News in Science 11 March 2003


…car companies, airlines, hotels and financial services are competing with

traditional kid marketers to establish a relationship with young consumers.

Initially targeted at teens, research and marketing programs are now seeking to

understand and develop a relationship with younger consumers in the hope that

their predisposition towards their brand will sway their purchasing decisions in

the years to come. The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of

advertising messages targeted at tweens … 7

Brands have become an inseparable part of children’s maturing consciousness. Nearly

half of the world’s urban tweens state that the clothes and brands they wear describe who

they are and define their social status.8 The manual notes that tweens are exposed to more

than 8,000 brands a day and that tweens influence close to 60 per cent of all brand

decisions taken by their parents.9

What has become clear is that more and more tweens define their worth, their role

in the social hierarchy, their popularity, and their success by the brands they wear,

eat and live with. … functionality takes a back seat to the belief that along with

ownership of a brand comes success and admiration. … [T]ween tribes … have

become active advocates for the brand.

The dramatic change in the role of brands has been part of the advertising

agencies’ long-term goals. It was initially the advertisers who envisioned turning

brand into a form of religion, to increase their sales. And it has worked. 10

Most children want to transcend the limitations of lifestyles manufactured by brands and

available to everyone. They want to achieve the new pinnacle of social success -

celebrity. Children do not see fame as the reward for achievement but simply as a state in

itself. And with the proliferation of celebrities whose fame owes nothing to any talent or

achievement, this is an accurate judgement. The worldwide survey of tweens for

7 Martin Lindstrom, BRANDChild: Remarkable insights into the minds of today’s global kids and their relationship with brands (Kogan Page, London, 2003) p. 46 8 Ibid. p. 77 9 Ibid. pp. 6 & 23 10 Ibid. p. 82


BRANDChild found that more than half say they want to be famous, with Indian children

(90%) and American (61%) children topping the list (and with Japanese kids at the

bottom (28%)). In Australia, when a talent hunt for Popstars was launched more than

120,000 young people put their names forward.11

Celebrity is a magic potion to be taken as an antidote to the affliction most feared by

tweens, rejection and social isolation. To attain acceptance they will go to extreme

lengths. A 1999 survey of tween and teenage girls found that 46 per cent say they are

unhappy with their bodies and 35 per cent say they would consider plastic surgery.12

Being sexy is being cool and that’s why even pre-pubescent girls are being sexualised. A

year or so ago the Olsen twins visited Australia promoting their brands of lingerie,

including padded bras, to their 6-12 year old fans. If adults sexually attracted to children

are called pedophiles, what do we call adults who set out to make children sexually

attractive? Advertising executives.


Sigmund Freud used to complain that his American acolytes had interpreted his

psychotherapeutic ideas as a technique for making people happy. Steeped in European

philosophical tradition, Freud believed this to be a trivialization of a movement whose

purpose was to understand the meaning of what people do and what their behaviour tells

us about the human condition. The purpose of life is not to be happy; it is to understand

ourselves so that we can achieve personal integration or reconciliation with our selves. It

is a process rather than a final state.

The marketers have not only sought to persuade us that they can provide us with happy

lives, consumer capitalism has redefined happiness itself. People have come to believe

that happiness can be achieved by maximising the number of emotional and physical

highs. The pursuit of short-term emotional highs swamps the longer-term and deeper

need to fulfill one’s potential and realize one’s life purpose. Twentieth-century consumer

capitalism has seen a progressive substitution of activities and desires that result in

11 Ibid. p. 81 12 Ibid. p. 196


immediate stimulation in place of the more challenging and potentially more fulfilling

demands of realizing one’s true potential. There is a trade-off that must be made between

short-term gratification and attaining deeper goals of self-realisation.

Yet it is in the superficial form of happiness that we are told to invest our hopes. Today,

the pursuit of happiness promotes a hedonistic, shallow approach to life. We don’t need

the psychological studies to confirm what our intuitive knowledge and folk wisdom tell

us - that a worthwhile life is one of inner contentment marked by self-acceptance, the

ability to maintain warm and trusting relationships, living in accord with personal

standards, having a clear sense of direction in life and realizing one’s potential.

This idea of happiness is hostile to the market because it cannot be provided by the

market and recognises that the market constantly conspires to corrupt it. Yet it is the

market’s superficial idea of happiness that finds a theoretical rationale in the economics

texts and that is reinforced every time a political leader offers us a fistful of dollars.

The market’s definition of happiness changes our values and thus the way we behave. If I

believe in the market’s idea of life’s goals then external rewards take precedence over

intrinsic goals. In that case, I would go to the marriage market to pick out a mate who can

best satisfy my own emotional and physical needs; I would never follow a passion to

study Classical Greek; I would not understand why it’s offensive to argue that Africa is

vastly under-polluted and that it’s cheaper to evacuate islands that will be inundated

because we refuse to cut our greenhouse gases; I would genetically select perfect children

and keep them happy by showering them with whatever goods they demand from me; I

would walk over others to achieve my career goals; I would respond to life’s vicissitudes

with drugs; and, I would hire cosmetic surgeons to put on display the best body money

could buy.


All of these forces coalesce in the idea of growth fetishism. Nothing more preoccupies

the modern political process than economic growth. As never before, it is the touchstone

of political success. Countries rate their progress against others by their income per


person, which can rise only through faster growth. High growth is a cause of national

pride; low growth attracts accusations of incompetence in the case of rich countries and

pity in the case of poor countries. A country that experiences a period of low growth goes

through a n agony of national soul-searching, in which pundits of the left and right

expostulate about ‘where we went wrong’ and whether there is some fault in the national

character. Throughout history national leaders have promised freedom, equality, mass

educatio n, moral invigoration and the restoration of national pride; now they promise

more economic growth. Citizens once hoped for a more equal society, a classless society,

a more compassionate society and a more democratic society; now they can hope for

nothing more than higher incomes.

Growth has annexed the very idea of progress. While once powered by belief in

technological advance, evolutionary biology or the ethical perfectibility of humankind,

from the 1950s material expansion became the driving force of progress and the measure

of success became growth of GDP. That is why we consult the quarterly national

accounts so closely, to know how well we are doing. This is convenient, for capitalist

firms became the central agency of progress and the entrepreneurs brought their own

thinkers to explain their role - the neoclassical economists.

The belief in progress is the counterpart in society of personal hopes for a better life. As

Charles Rycroft observed:

…all societies of any complexity seem to have a tendency to divide themselves

into purveyors and recipients of hope, the purveyors being special people -

shamans, gurus, priests, psychoanalysts - who receive an esoteric training and are

endowed with some sort of ‘mana’ or charisma by the others …13

The economists are the modern purveyors of hope; they are the priests who hold the

secret to attaining manna. The transformation of the idea of progress into the pursuit of a

higher growth rate has meant the hijacking of hope itself. The neoliberal revolution of the

last two decades has robbed us of hope because all it can promise is more growth and

13 Charles Rycroft, ‘Steps to an ecology of hope’ in Ross Fitzgerald, The Sources of Hope (Pergamon Press, Rushcutters Bay, 1979) p. 17


higher incomes. For those surrounded by abundance, more growth is nothing to look

forward to; it cannot give us a better society and so the economists are the thieves of


While economic growth is said to be the process whereby our wants are satisfied, in

reality growth is sustained only so long as we remain discontented. Economic growth

does not create happiness; unhappiness sustains economic growth. The vast financial and

creative resources of the marketing industry are devoted to a single purpose, to

manufacturing discontent and to persuading us to invest our hopes for the future in

greater material consumption. That is its historical task. It is a wonderful scheme:

pers uade people to commit their hopes for a better life to higher incomes, but don’t let on

that achieving those goals cannot provide better lives, so that the only apparent response

is to wish for even higher incomes.

Consumer capitalism has thus redefined what it means to live a successful life, and it has

done so in a way that ensures the vast majority will fail. If success is judged by material

reward then the success of the few is purchased by the failure of the many. ‘Hence, of

course, the pleasure many people take in the misfortunes, scandals and downfalls of the

famous’.14 The tall poppy syndrome is a legitimate and healthy defence mechanism in a

world that consigns most people to failure.


One cannot have hope without a vision. For a poor person, a practical vision is to be free

of the material constraints that poverty imposes and to live a comfortable existence. The

Republican candidate in the 1928 Presidential election, Herbert Hoover, famously

pledged ‘A chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage ’, a vision with appeal to a

generation where, even before the Depression, deprivation was the lot of most. But in a

post-scarcity society what can the vision be other than more of the same? George Bush

knows, subliminally at least, that promising ‘a nose job for everyone and two home

theatres in every house’ is unlikely to capture the public imagination, so he seizes on a

14 Ibid. p. 8


war on terror - a dark but visionary project in the bleakness of American consumer

society. Pity about the innocents.

The hope held out by growth fetishism and consumerism is a false hope. Under modern

consumer capitalism, hope is dead, and in Mary Zournazi’s words:

Without hope what is left is death - the death of the spirit, the death of life -

where there is no longer any sense of regeneration and renewal.15

We live in an era where the opportunities to live fulfilling lives have never been better

and yet where the danger of disappointment has never been greater. When the market

hijacks hope but cannot deliver what we need for fulfilled lives it no surprise that we see

so much social and personal distress. In a world of abundance, this fact is inexplicable for

those who are the prisoners of growth fetishism.

The epidemics of mental illness that have grown with affluence are a natur al response to

the serial disappointments and dashed hopes of the market. According to one study,

depression has increased tenfold among Americans born since the Second World War.16

Young people, the principal beneficiaries of super-affluence, are most prone to clinical

depression, evidenced in record rates of teenage suicide and other social pathologies such

as self-destructive drug taking.

According to the World Health Organization and the World Bank, the burden of

psychiatric conditions has been greatly underestimated. Of the ten leading causes of

disability worldwide in 1990 (measured in years lived with a disability), five were

psychiatric disorders - major depression (the number one cause), alcohol use (fourth),

bipolar disorder (sixth), schizophrenia (ninth) and obsessive-compulsive disorders

(tenth). Major depression is responsible for more than one in ten of all years lived with a

disability. While major depression is already the leading cause of disability worldwide,

when measured in terms of disability-adjusted life-years it is expected to leap from being

the fourth most burdensome disease in the world in 1990 to second place in 2020. Lat

15 Mary Zournazi, Hope: New philosophies for change (Routledge, New York 2002) p. 16 16 For references see my book Growth Fetish (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2003)


year, The Australia Institute released a report showing that nearly a third of Australian

adults depend on medications , alcohol or other substances for their mental wellbeing.

For decades now, the politicians and economists have told us that maximising economic

growth will take us on the path to a better society, yet we are now in the grip of an

epidemic of mental disorders and alienation. What does this reflect if not an endemic

sense of hopelessness? For if we can discern no light to draw us on, no way out of our

despond, then what else do we do? Mental illness is a natural response to the

hopelessness of modern consumer life.


The first step in the counselling process is to give the patient or client hope. To be cured

one must believe that life can be better, that there is hope. To achieve this the counsellor

helps the client to externalize the problem, to understand its causes, to enable some

objective understanding of it. In the parlance of the religious healers of old, we must

name the beast. That is what Growth Fetish does; in that sense, it is a remedy for

hopelessness. 17

In Growth Fetish I describe a post-growth society, one that is grounded in promoting the

things that truly can provide for more fulfilling lives. A post- growth society will go

beyond our obsession with growth and income and endless consumption. It will redefine

progress in a way that puts at the centre the contentment of all of its citizens, in which

everyone can become reconciled with themselves and find fulfilment in their vocations

and their relationships.

We can imagine a society in which education is devoted to creating more rounded

humans, where the purpose of jobs is first to provide fulfillment and meaningful activity,

where we take poverty, unemployment and disadvantage seriously once again, and where

we deal with the rest of the world on the basis of ethics rather than economics.

Radical as it might sound, the case for a transition to a post- growth society is by no

means far-fetched or utopian. Many people in Western countries have already made a


decision to reduce their work, incomes and consumption, a phenomenon known as

downshifting. Most downshifters are ordinary people who have decided it is in their

interests to step off the materialist treadmill and take up a more balanced and rewarding

life. A survey by The Australia Institute found that 23 per cent of 30-60 year olds have

downshifted, citing as their reasons a desire for more balance and control in their lives,

more time with their families and more personal fulfilment. The downshifters, often

people with no more than average incomes, expressed a desire to do something more

meaningful with their lives, and to achieve this aim they considered it was necessary to

consume less, work less and slow down.

The downshifters are the standard bearers in the revolt against consumerism, but the

social revolution required to make the transition to a post-growth society will not come

about solely through the personal decisions of determined individuals. The forces devoted

to buttressing the ideology of growth fetishism and obsessive consumption are difficult to

resist, and they are boosted immeasurably by governments’ obsession with growth at all

costs. Making the transition to the new dispensation demands a politics of downshifting.

A politics of downshifting promises a return to human values to replace those of the

market and provides a vision for a better world for, as Rycroft observes of us all:

… so long as they have some ideal, be it for wisdom, self-realization,

understanding, acceptance or truth, they will be able to transcend and survive

adversities and disappointments.18

We need a new politics, one that transcends growth fetishism, a politics that once again

takes our wellbeing seriously rather than fobbing us off with promises of more money.

We need a new politics that creates the circumstances in which we, individually and

collectively, can pursue fulfilment in our lives in place of an endless and futile scramble

for more material goods. We need a new politics that promotes a rich life in place of a

life of riches; a politics that can allow us once more to hope.

17 Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish (Allen & Unwin 2003) 18 Rycroft, op. cit. p. 9