So far this year, our social media feeds have been peppered with calls to be vegan for the month of Veganuary, use less plastic, produce less waste, and make countless other lifestyle changes to create a better world. A plastic bag takes 1,000 years to degrade in landfill declares one video on my facebook feed, so we should use a fabric bag instead.
However, many activists and woke folks are suspicious of calls to action that focus on individual choices. They warn that consumerist activism, personal environmentalism and lifestyle politics are distractions from genuine social justice work. Instead, they tell us to focus on structural change. ‘Lifestylist’ solutions are a waste of time because they fail to address the structural causes of social problems; what’s also problematic is that they’re not accessible to everyone since they require investments of our own time and money.
In some ways these critics are right, but in others they’re wrong. The criticism that our own personal behaviours or consumption patterns are irrelevant to broader social structures is mistaken.
There are many reasons to be wary of lifestylism. The problem of capitalist co-optation of social justice movements is wide-spread. For example, what was originally a radical critique of global neocolonial trading systems in the early 1990s has now become commodified as a fairtrade certification logo that large corporations can put on their products even if they are subject to allegations of abusing human rights—though it’s worth noting that there are other fair trade certifications that are a lot more radical than the Fairtrade Foundation’s famous swirly waving person symbol, like the World Fair Trade Organisation which doesn’t allow corporations to use its logo.
Similarly, more radical takes on veganism and related movements—which started out as an ecological critique of capitalist profit-seeking and white supremacy—have been overtaken by the sale of vegan salad boxes in high street fast food chains. Lefties are right to reject these co-optations of what were originally radical movements. Simply buying a product that’s branded as ‘organic,’ ‘fairtrade’ or vegan because it makes you feel more ‘ethical’ is not only superficial; in many cases it also helps to fund the same high street corporations that are responsible for the environmental damage and human exploitation that we’re trying to stop.
Having said all that, it’s important to recognise that not all forms of lifestylist responses to social problems lack a structural critique. In fact there are radical forms of lifestylism that are firmly based on a critical analysis of social structures and how they can change.
A basic textbook definition is that social structure refers to “any recurring pattern of social behaviour or, more specifically, to the ordered interrelationships between the different elements of a social system or society” (that’s from the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology). Many radical people jump to the conclusion that structures live in centralised and formal institutions, so acting for structural change is usually seen as working towards changing laws, regulations or corporate policies.
For example, rather than asking every individual member of the public to stop using plastic bags, I’ve heard people argue that a structural approach would have to demand that the government legislates against their use, or ask corporations to stop using and selling them. Another area where this kind of criticism is common is antiracist and feminist work, especially the kind that focuses on unlearning internalised racism and sexism and intercepting the ways in which they affect our personal behaviour.
Focusing on the individual, these critics argue, is a distraction from the real, structural problems that are located in the law or in discriminatory corporate practices. But what these critics fail to realise is that structures are also informal, cultural and interpersonal, and they are constructed everywhere.
While it’s absolutely true that we need radical legal and policy changes, state institutions and the law are not the only places that are structural. As cultural marxists and anarchists have been pointing out for a very long time, understanding social structures as exclusively centralised and formal only serves to reinforce the power of the state and of political elites. If we denounce lifestyle activism and instead focus all of our attention on getting corporations and the state to change formal laws and procedures over our heads, then we reduce the majority of the population to passive service users, mere recipients of government and corporate guidance.
To continue the example of plastic bags, of course governments write laws that regulate what kind of plastic products we can and cannot consume, but our relationship to plastic and waste goes way beyond the law. We grow up with certain understandings of what freshness or cleanliness mean, with ideas of how much stuff we have the right to consume, and with theories around choice and individualism.
These attitudes—like racist and sexist attitudes—are things that governments couldn’t legislate away even if they wanted to, and since the state in its current form was built with the primary aim of protecting capitalist and colonial interests, it will never actually want to. Therefore we are going to need formal and informal structural changes which include, but aren’t limited to, educating the general public about how long it takes plastic bags to degrade, and what alternatives exist. Structural change requires public participation; it isn’t something that some breakaway vanguard elite activist group can sort out for the rest of us.
As for asking corporations to implement policies that make the world a better place, I cannot think of a more watered down political project. The existence of for-profit corporations is premised on the systemic exploitation of workers and the environment. Any change they can offer will by definition be tokenistic.
If we want systemic change we should abandon corporations, withdraw our support for the mainstream capitalist economy, and build alternatives by setting up, working for and buying from structurally different institutions: non-profit and democratically run workers’ co-operatives, for example, community interest companies and collectives. Only then can we move from reformism to radical change.
Besides, unlike waving placards at government buildings from behind a row of police officers in Whitehall, putting your own resources into alternative economies has the direct and tangible effect of taking Pounds, Dollars and hours of labour away from capitalists and putting them somewhere better.
Not everyone has the means to buy, work or live differently, a criticism that is often made about lifestylist approaches. Many people are too poor, busy or unwell, and that’s something everyone who puts out calls to action needs to remember. It is suspicious, though, that this criticism is only ever made of social movements that call for lifestylist actions like going vegan or avoiding plastic bags or joining a co-op.
Actions that target the government such as protests or direct actions aren’t accessible to everyone either: they also take time, money, specific physical and mental dispositions, patience and know-how. Yet most of us manage not to moralise over them or to condemn those who aren’t able to join in. It’s certainly problematic that it takes resources to change systems, but this is not something that’s particular to lifestylism. If we don’t have love and care for those comrades who are less able to contribute right now, or ever, then our movements are bullshit. This goes for all activist approaches, whatever their target.
Let us do what we can to improve the state and the mainstream economy for the short term, and build better, democratic, and more sustainable structures for the future. Targeting states and corporations is more reformist than radical lifestylism, but it isn’t more structural. Structures are everywhere, including in our own lives and personal relationships. It’s time we came to terms with that reality.
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