Less is enough: The disturbing mantra of Abstinence rather than austerity as a means to surviving economic crisis
The global financial crisis hit in 2008 with a devastating impact on the world’s national economies. The rest is history, as they say. The consequent unravelling of much of the postwar world’s capitalist framework has been dramatic.
But while the collapse of banking sectors and financial institutions has been uncomfortable, the collapse of global confidence seems to have had a more insidious effect. There are certain harsh economic realities that have had a detrimental impact on people’s lives and livelihoods, but there is now no clear understanding of, no real belief in, how we should get out of this mess.
Soggy hippies from the Hog Farm commune on their way to Woodstock - is the pursuit of the simple (minded) life a retreat to neanderthal crepuscularity?
Let’s take an example of construction activity, long a bellwether of economic performance. Currently, construction output in the UK is 15 per cent below its pre-crisis peak in 2007; and Forbes magazine notes that ‘from 2007 through 2011, construction hemorrhaged roughly 2.2 million jobs across the US, or 28 per cent of its labor pool’. But given that it is widely recognised that it was a construction bubble that caused the problem in the first place, we are left with a philosophical dilemma about whether growing the construction sector is the way out. On one hand we want to build more, on the other we know that building more − too quickly − could lead to problems. In the past, this was a fiercely robust Keynesian/Thatcherite public-political debate. Today it is simply a murmuring apology for stasis.
This seems to be the ideological impasse of our age. Seeing the future as a worrisome place to be, caused by problems from the past, means that we are somewhat paralysed in the present. This book attempts to address this issue … a worthy effort which fails miserably. On the plus side: it advocates a Utopian project, which provides an ambitious attainment target; a beacon of hope. On the negative side: it advocates a Utopian project; a mere evasion of the causal problem that it seeks to address.
Pier Vittorio Aureli is an architect who currently teaches at the Architectural Association in London. He has written widely on the subject of personal, political and architectural autonomy; he is avowedly anti-capitalist and is keen to reject the idea of austerity as a positive progenitor of a new dynamism. So far so good.
He rejects the idea that less is more, and challenges the notion that hardship concentrates the mind. However, in place of the positive spin commonly applied to austerity these days by those who seek to deflect attention away from the failures of the system onto the individual, Aureli prefers to opt out.
The book begins with an examination of monastic life. Aureli has a sneaking regard for those who have removed themselves from the mainstream while still retaining their critical faculties. He posits a version of Weber’s ‘religious virtuoso’, someone who is separate from everyday life but who seeks to attain perfection through self-discipline. From the outset, Aureli says, ‘monasticism manifests itself as … a radical critique of power, not by fighting it, but by leaving it’. As such, Aureli insists that ‘asceticism’ (self-training) is a better word −by implication a more progressive word − than ‘austere’.
In other words, Aureli advocates abstinence instead of austerity as a new form of self-discipline. This is moving the goal posts in order to score an own goal. Essentially, it is like arguing that in order to avoid the cigarette ban, you should give up smoking − that’ll show them! While Aureli thinks that this is an expression of power and decision-making, it is actually a sad reflection of the vacuum of ideas in today’s society. It is equivalent to self-censorship instead of the Leveson Inquiry into the British press; it’s emigration to avoid immigration laws. It’s redefining powerlessness as power.
So, what are we left with? Aureli’s celebration of self-restraint is analogous to the short-lived movement that advocated living ‘off-grid’: those people who protested against extortionate water rates and electricity companies by empowering themselves to shit in a bucket … in the dark. Admittedly, the difference between off-grid lifestyles and having your power cut off is all about intention and Aureli is keen to respect ‘self-enactment’ instead of pressure by others to behave in certain ways. But it is a funny kind of autonomy that will require ‘less individual freedom, although’, he adds, ‘that may be no bad thing’.
He concludes with an aspiration for ‘socially oriented ways of living such as co-housing or sharing domestic space … [and] the less we have in terms of possessions’ he assures us, ‘the more we’ll be able to share’. In effect, this kind of social justice through barter and collectivity was reasonably radical 200 years ago, but without an appreciation of the all-pervasive, anti-political contemporary climate, this is just so much romantic guff today. As Engels once wrote of the Utopian Socialists: ‘the more completely [the new social systems] were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies’. In essence, a secular monastic lifestyle, far from representing an engagement with social problems, is in fact the ultimate in cynical futility.
LESS IS ENOUGH
Author: John Pawson
Publishers: Strelka Press
Price: e-book £2.49