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Into a bizarre future: why the liberal promise of true liberty is a lie
“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”. So wrote the 20th-century German philosopher, Theodor Adorno. He was referring to the kind of life which defenders of Western liberal capitalism have long claimed to be the ultimate model for all others. Widely criticised at the time for his apparent refusal to ever see the glass as half-full, Adorno’s phrase appears to have finally come of age. As Donald Trump establishes himself within the White House and countless millions of people in Western societies either struggle to economically survive or face profound insecurity, our time is increasingly as dark as Adorno once foretold.
The kind of melancholia which pervades Adorno’s vision has now gone viral. Look around you. Increasing numbers of people across different communities and walks of life are angry, fearful, anxious, unhappy and lack a sense of sufficient control over their lives. How does so much individual and social pathology reflect upon liberal capitalism’s longstanding association with individual liberty? Can so many of us be both free and so dissatisfied?
Of course, being free does not guarantee happiness. However, as philosophers over millennia have argued, being genuinely free entails the ability to individually and, in some cases, collectively determine and identify with one’s fundamental conditions. If we are free, we have no one else to blame for the making of our lives. If our lives cause us such pain, we have good reason to seek to change them. To simplify a very complex story, genuine freedom entails having the opportunity to actively and progressively determine our individual and collective destinies. If so many of us are so dissatisfied, why don’t we simply seek to change our lot?
While few will doubt my characterisation of the pervasive pathology of our current age, many will question my diagnosis of its causes. In defence of liberal capitalism, it could be argued that in both the political and economic spheres, many people do actively seek to change that which displeases them. Liberal capitalism presents us all with options from which we are able to choose and realise our individual liberty. Central to this account are the closely related spheres of politics and consumerism. It is frequently claimed that democratic elections and the free marketplace of consumables are the cornerstones of any genuinely free society. On this view, individual liberty is secured through voting and shopping.
Politics in the West appears to be sinking to unconventional depths, characterised by a populist, anti-liberal wave of resentment. Some construe this development as a consequence of democracy and a testament to many peoples’ desire for real change. Trump, Brexit and other such oddities are defended by some as evidence of many peoples’ desire for real change.
Genuine democracy, however, requires careful deliberation upon a range of substantive options which transcend mere soundbites and emotive tweets. But instead of genuine debate and deliberation, candidates pursue voters as advertisers pursue customers. A purportedly alternative political vision is reduced to simplistic and meaningless slogans such as “Make America Great Again” or “Take Back our Country”. Voters’ very real sense of vulnerability and loss of control are targeted and manipulated by those who have been rewarded so handsomely by the very system they now claim only they can fix.
Trump is not the antithesis of liberal democracy. Rather, his election is the consequence of the commodification and marketisation of democratic politics from which countless politicians have routinely benefited for decades. He has merely proven himself to be a more effective salesperson than others.
Consumerism to mask all ills
Speaking of buying and selling things takes me to my final area of our wrong life: consumerism. It would be absurd to simply condemn consumerism per se. None of us can live without consuming things. Recurring campaigns to dramatically reduce personal consumption, while often well-intended, typically do not address how utterly dependent Western economies are on personal consumption. Many people turn to consumerism as precisely the area of their lives where they are – given sufficient resources, the availability of personal credit, and by adapting their preferences to fit their resources – able to exercise their liberty. Condemning consumerism might thus appear to be going too far.
While no one can deny the subjective psychological hit which buying some coveted item can produce in many of us, a growing body of research identifies the extent to which what has been referred to as hyper-consumerism adds to, rather than remedies or compensates for, the widespread individual and social problems of our times.
Quite apart from the anxiety and stress associated with increasing levels of personal debt, a whole range of pathological symptoms have been identified in many consumers, including consumption as a form of addictive behaviour, buyer’s remorse and even so-called Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome, in which consumers feel trapped by their purchases. The promise of consumerism is as illusory as the promise of dumbed-down and hate-fuelled political visions. They both offer an entirely false remedy to the very pathologies they induce and profit from.
Critical voices are going to be crucial for us all as we collectively proceed into this bizarre future. We have to understand how we have arrived at this point in the development of Western “civilisation”.
We need to recognise just how endemic are the individual and social problems to which we are all exposed within liberal capitalist societies. Surely now, we need to collectively wise up and recognise the radical implications of accepting that our wrong life really cannot be lived rightly. As Primo Levi, another prominently critical voice of the 20th century once famously asked: “If not now, when?”
Andrew Fagan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.