Portland, Ore., where I live and work, is known for lifestyle niches such as veganism, raw foodism, friendly bike and pedestrian culture, pirate festivals, and zoo bombers. It’s one of many versions of what they call lifestyle politics. You might say it’s an ideology of living day-to-day in harmony with the earth and humanity. This ideal entails composting, bicycling, growing and canning your own vegetables, sowing your own clothes, buying only products from recycled materials, and like that.
Nothing is really wrong with any of these things. But turning them into a philosophy of life is not progressive. They don’t make a dent in halting the human exploitation and environmental devastation that defines life under the profit system. They feed the illusion that harmony without justice is possible. And they foster rugged individualist behavior that suits capitalism just fine.
A great deal of energy goes into individual organic gardening and other alternative lifestyles. It bleeds away the energy it takes to organize against police brutality, improve working conditions, defend civil rights, and build for revolutionary changes. The more that people simply try to modify their styles of life and monitor their carbon footprint, the more time Wall Street has to grow its gold bars — as icecaps melt away, imperialist wars escalate, and the majority of human beings become poorer.
Lifestyle ideology hinders class consciousness. In fact, it is downright anti-working class. Instead of targeting the almighty profit system of the ruling class, it blames us workers for the world’s ills, saying we make “wrong” consumer decisions. Some bloggers I’ve read actually take out after car-driving consumers instead of BP for the oil spill!
This “blame the working class” stance divides workers and feeds a backward view of human nature — that we are essentially stupid and greedy. It also dismisses labor history. The 8-hour day, vacation and sick time, the right to organize, healthcare coverage, affirmative action, child labor laws — they all came from struggle, not harmony, with the bosses.
Many “consumerist” actions and beliefs are based on the lives of the more privileged, not those of ordinary and poorer people, and this further dims the class struggle reality. The majority of workers are just struggling to get by, paying rent, utility and grocery bills. We can’t afford hybrid cars, organic food and clothing, and natural remedies uncovered by health insurance (if we’re luck enough to still have it).
The focus on individual self-reliance to grow and process your own food and make your own clothes is especially a drag on women, because we are expected to do all these ‘little prairie’ self-reliant activities. What woman has the leisure to do any of this when it takes two jobs to make ends meet?
A recent book, Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes, focuses mainly on privileged white women giving up their professional careers and returning to their homes to be full-time housewives. It’s part of embracing anti-consumerism apparently. They don’t buy from big corporations, because they grow and can their own food, sew their own clothes, and often home-school their kids. They constantly toil away, pooped out and unpaid, I should think. Such homemaking would not be a viable alternative for most single mothers or working moms whose husbands don’t make enough to support the family.
Well, you guessed it. A socialist feminist active in Portland like me is not the least attracted to Hayes’ idea of “radical.” I’m part of an organization eager for women to join the work for revolutionary political and social change, not retreat back to the farm days of the 19th century.
The best way to change the system is not to opt out but to opt in — to the struggle for a sociable world with a socialist economy. Learn about the history of struggles for labor, women’s and civil rights. Get training on how to write an op ed, make speeches, cook for a crowd, defend immigrants, organize strikes. Join an organization like the Freedom Socialist Party or Radical Women, which have a rich history of struggling successfully for social justice and genuine change.
We all need to educate and debate more on what lifestyle politics is all about. In my opinion, it’s become an individualistic and dangerous mode of life that elevates style over content, and is a bad substitute for genuine anti-capitalist or socialist organizing.
Hmmmm . . . I wonder why books like Radical Homemakers get so much publicity.
Emma Allen is president of Portland Radical Women, an office worker, and ardent film fan. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.