Conservative and liberal capitalists often attack a supposed lack of gratitude among the disaffected. Among the young, among environmentalists, socialists, take your pick. It’s said that they don’t appreciate the pleasures and securities that the modern world affords them. Their dissatisfaction is a mark of lack of awareness.
But this seems to me to be a coded attack, which uses ‘gratitude’ to wrap up and disguise servitude. The attack isn’t really on a lack of awareness, but on a lack of conformity and subservience.
I know of no one more appreciative of warm duvets than the most dedicated eco-activists I know. When you’ve spent days or weeks up a tree in February to prevent it being cut down, or huddled in a dank tunnel to protest an airport expansion, your gratitude for creature comforts inevitably dwarfs the numbed appreciation of the willing slave to modern life.
Ever since I began to fully appreciate the perilous trajectory of our voracious dependence on fossil fuels, I’ve never been able to ease myself into a hot bath without a deep, reflexive surge of gratitude. No bath is taken for granted; each one conjures images of futures without such luxuries. This consciousness works to both reduce my use of luxuries, and to intensify my appreciation of them.
Not only is there no contradiction between environmental protest and gratitude for creature comforts, they’re often mutually reinforcing. And conversely, placid acquiescence to or enthused participation in industrial capitalism often blinkers one with the delusion of business as usual ad infinitum… and appreciative gratitude gets slowly, quietly anaesthetised.
In fact, it’s almost a banal observation that the engines of modern capitalism are fuelled precisely by a lack of appreciation for what you have. A constant dissatisfaction is necessary to its ultimately doomed goal of perpetual growth. To a large extent, counter-capitalist currents are driven by a refusal of this debilitating dissatisfaction.
Of course, any activist actually appreciating a modern luxury, sipping a cup of posh coffee while decrying our economic system, is immediately dismissed as hypocritical. Again, the attack isn’t what it seems. When you imagine confronting the attacker with someone presenting the same arguments from an off-grid shack, wearing a tatty hair shirt, you immediately hear them muttering something about puritanical self-denial, and walking away in disgust. Their problem isn’t at all with the hypocrisy or asceticism of the other person — it’s with the argument itself, and they’d rather try a dismissive decoy before getting into the thorny business of actually engaging with the substance of the argument.
Ironically, appreciation of capitalism’s tremendous productive potential is thoroughly entwined with the roots of the modern left. Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto:
Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?1
‘You don’t appreciate what capitalism has done for us’ — put to the traditional leftist, this is, yet again, a misplaced quip. They just hate capitalist exploitation.
Perhaps environmentalism has a deeper anti-capitalist pedigree, often tangled up with all manner of traditionalist appeals to pre-modern harmony with nature. But here, once we’ve realised that nostalgia for pastoral idylls is misguided or useless or both, we approach the deeper issue raised by the idea that we should stop protesting ecological devastation and be grateful for what industrial capitalism has done for us: what do we really value? Gratitude can only be for something we value.
Most people value security, basic comforts, a sense of belonging, nurturing social connections and having fun with others. Many value the non-human living world, too — a deeply ingrained sense of communion with the biological systems which sustain the fundamentals of life.2
On all counts, most environmentalism emerges from an intense gratitude for the presence of all these things — a gratitude which naturally inspires fear that they’re being dangerously undermined by our out-of-control economic system of voracious growth.
Our economic system values growth — nothing more. The luxuries are a side effect. And they come bound up with a plague of other side effects which undermine our future security, fragment social being into alienated enclaves and competing units, and grind real fun down under the weight of work obligations, remedying this with frantic frivolities which feed back into the ever-growing consumerist behemoth.
The idea that those calling for collective environmental action are ungrateful is just one part of an immense system of misdirection in the service of this inhuman behemoth. Current capitalism can only sustain its ideology through disingenuous decoys.
Current capitalism is the driver of a luxury Cadillac, accelerating towards a cliff edge.
Passengers voice their concern, but the driver’s staring in the rear-view mirror at a distant, clapped-out Trabant.
‘Look at that wreck. You’ve got heated leather seats, you ungrateful bastards. We’re going forward!’