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Luces Rojas

Private Habits, Public Affairs

Publicada 08/10/2013 a las 06:00 Actualizada 09/10/2013 a las 10:38    
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Forecasts decades in advance are an excellent deal, especially for those of us who have already reached certain age. If they turn out right, the author will be considered a visionary and if they do not, he will be so old that it will not matter at all. Thus, I will take my chances at making one such forecast: in the next decades questions about leisure and consumption will become first-order subjects of political debate in a trajectory similar to that followed recently environmental issues.

I do not refer exclusively to questions about the amount of leisure, although they form a crucial part of my argument. A good deal of the political history of capitalism in the last century and a half has turnedon the struggle around the amount of leisure and its distribution (e. g.: the length of the work week, vacations, retirement age). But my argument pertains rather questions about the quality of leisure and the very definition of what leisure is.

To some extent it is a counterintuitive forecast. A cornerstone of our modern liberal order is precisely the recognition of a private sphere for everyone, a sphere where the individual, and only the individual, decides what she wants and what she does. That sphere includes decisions about leisure and consumption. To open these decisions to political debate would seem to go against the very notion of liberalism, so dear to the citizens of advanced democracies. Yet I stand by my forecast for three reasons.

The first and most obvious one is that the amount of potential leisure keeps increasing as a result of productivity increases. Although work weeks have not shortened dramatically, it is clear that in modern economies only a small fraction of total work is necessary to cover the basic subsistence requirements. In the 19th century many respectable economists believed that measures such as the elimination of child labor or the reduction of the workday to 10 hours would destroy modern civilization. Productivity increases put pay to such arguments. As the available amount of leisure increases it is to be expected that, all else equal, the conflict around its allocation becomes more salient.

The second argument, or rather, set of arguments, has to do with changes in the economic structure. Leisure as we now know it is the result of two centuries of regulation and codification of social life linked to the development of capitalism with its requirements of discipline and predictability. But capitalism itself has changed and with it the structure of leisure. Both at the beginning and the end of the lifecycle the time a person spends outside of the labor market has lengthened. Higher education can now last into the twenties (let's remember that “school” comes from the Greek work for leisure) while today's retirees live much longer and in better health than when retirement became institutionalized.

On the other hand, as the current recession has put in evidence, the advanced capitalist economies have abandoned the consensus around full employment that they shared until the 80s. If the current crisis serves as a model, future economic cycles will send high percentages of the population into the unemployment rolls during the decisive years of their productive life with no political consensus in place to avoid this. This might open the debate about who has the right to work and the right to stay away from work and how to distribute such right without leaving the final decision to an impersonal and antidemocratic business cycle.

But the reason that interests me most here is the third. Our modern, liberal notion of leisure rests on the assumption that our preferences over consumption, over how to use our free time are sacred and that nobody, especially not the political process, should step in to discuss them. It is obviously a fiction: our preferences are not just an individual attribute but the product of our socialization processes in the family, school, social groups we belong to and so on. It has been a useful fiction to the extent that many of those socialization processes take place outside of the market. But if something has characterized capitalism in the last decades is precisely its ability to commodify even the socialization processes where preferences and status are generated.

Today's most successful firms do not sell products but lifestyles. It may be profitable to develop a good-quality convertible, but it is even more profitable to turn it into a symbol of youth so that each new yuppie that acquires it serves as an unwitting sales agent to recruit others. Regardless of whether organic, fair trade tea is of better quality than the others, what makes it profitable is that each buyer is displaying his interest in alternative lifestyles, Asian cultures and the well-being of peasants in India, all the while inviting others to participate buying not just tea, but CDs of instrumental music and yoga books.

I do not say any of this mockingly. After all, the previous order contained terrible injustices and inequalities. The patterns of consumption were ways to denote a status to which one could only aspire if born into the correct family or the right skin tone. The commodification of lifestyles makes more transparent the power structure that buttresses them. If before the arbiters of taste were elites legitimized for religious or political reasons of some kind, in the new order those arbiters are corporations that amass a fortune as a result of this.

It does not matter if we approve or not of this. What matters is that it is a fact put in evidence, ready to be the subject of political debate. Who has the power to set trends and create lifestyles? How much money can he accumulate as a result? Is it possible to create lifestyles outside of the market? Is it possible to discuss them? In the end, what is a good lifestyle? Who can pronounce on this? These are only some of the questions that will emerge in the political real as this process goes on.

In essence, my forecast boils down to saying that capitalism will do to leisure and personal identity what it has already done to the environment, work and finances: commodify them to the point that it generates new inequalities (I said new, not bigger or smaller), and making those inequalities more visible to the democratic process. After all, pure liberals have always tried to protect the markets from politics forgetting that markets are themselves a political creation.
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