The Primacy of Personal Lifeform; A Challenge and Invitation

Bob Corbett
Webster University
470 E. Lockwood
St. Louis, MO 63119
May, 1986

There are many people in the U.S. who reflect a profound disagreement with the directions and policies of our government. These people, many of them my friends and co-workers, seem to operate within one or more of the following general perspectives:

  1. Those who are strongly on the political left, feeling that if only more socialist or at least more socially oriented policies could be won in government, then improvement would occur.
  2. Those with a religious thrust toward social justice. These people seem to share many of the socialist prescriptions, though there is a distinctive emphasis on the "faith base" of their positions.
  3. Those who seem to share the social thrust of the first two, but are more ad hoc, more task oriented and demonstrate less concern for the larger questions of the social vision implied by their work.

All three of these positions are primarily reactive, especially in the present conservative tenor of American society, reacting to the latest government move which has outraged them.

My own perceptions of these struggles, and my participation in them, impress two things on me: There has been relatively little success in these political struggles; there seems to be a presumption that change in government policy is the focus of the struggle.

I find myself more and more in disagreement with this second premise. I believe there is a different arena for struggle which is more fundamental, more realistic, focused and likely to yield successful results. It is the purpose of this essay to lay out this alternative view and to open discussion of it with interested persons.

There are two presuppositions behind the views of my friends with which I disagree:

  1. That the arena for change is the direct affecting of government policy.
  2. The belief, reflected in hidden assumptions and behaviors rather than any overt positions, that if only we affected appropriate government change, then we could all get on with the pursuit of the American dream -- a life of personal concern and upward mobility. Most of my friends (and myself) would deny holding such a premise. But I will shortly explain why I believe this is in fact a hidden, unacknowledged, or even unknown premise.

My strategy is to disagree with this second premise and then suggest an alternative to the first, a new strategy which seems to be more likely to address the central issue and yield positive change.

  1. The primary issue must be our own lifestyles:

In the critiques of American foreign policy which abound among those cited above, occur recurrent themes that the root of U.S. mischief is a cultural imperialism aimed at protecting our own position of wealth and privilege in the world economic order. Critics cite U.S. strategies of protectionism for American markets and American exploitation of land, natural resources and labor in much of the rest of the world. Critics also point to American military aggression as rooted both in this protecting of American economic interests and in an ideology of thinly veiled racial and national superiority which justifies, even mandates, such domination.

These same critics rightly criticize domestic policies which keep a huge number of Americans in an underclass which makes participation in the American dream highly unlikely to occur. They also point up how this fact of a poorly paid underclass or army of unemployed aids in artificially propping up the benefits enjoyed by those of us not in the underclass, or at least not there by necessity.

Further, such critics of the American system rightly show that the one-minded pursuit of personal power and wealth causes many environmental problems both in the U.S. and abroad. The willy-nilly usurpation of limited and non-renewal natural resources, and the disregard for the effects our acts of production and natural resource gathering, create serious problems for all human and other life, on the planet.

Lastly, critics point to the incredible and special danger posed to all humankind by the American led development and stockpiling of nuclear arms -- ostensibly to protect our privileged position in the struggle for material acquisition and power -- which the U.S. political and military posture enforces on the planet.

I am in basic agreement with each of these criticisms. But what puzzles me is the inadequate attention to corollary questions like: What LEVEL of material comfort can the planet justly and universally support? Why trust in government to provide the framework for living justly? What has my own concern for world justice to do with my own private life of consumption and struggle?

These questions are asked, indeed. And many people within the movements I described at the outset have altered their personal lives as consumers on the basis of such considerations. One can easily observe that this group, as a group, tends to consume less, be generally suspicious of unbridled upward mobility and is generally concerned with environmental integrity.

My position, however, is that the centrality of lifeform or lifestyle has not been examined with enough care, nor emphasized sufficiently. I want to make the case that our own lifeform is the central issue, and that investigating this issue, modeling a universally harmonious lifeform, educating and convincing others toward this lifeform should be the central area of struggle. I believe I am right about this, but know that I cannot adequately nor persuasively make the case at this time.

What follows is a first approximation; an attempt to shift the focus of discussion away from the political and toward the personal and inter-personal. But, my project needs your help, especially criticism which can point the way toward a more successful case. Of course, if my whole view is wrongheaded and the political arena should remain primarily, then I need to come to understand that too. I invite and urge your participation.

Boldly and simply said my thesis is this: YOU AND I CONSUME AND DESIRE TO CONSUME TOO MUCH. WE PARTICIPATE IN A CONSUMPTION SYSTEM WHICH IS BASICALLY UNJUST, UNSAFE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, THREATENING TO ALL LIFE ON THE PLANET, AND THE ULTIMATE CAUSE OF MUCH SUFFERING AND MISERY IN THE U.S. AND THE WHOLE WORLD. The difference in my perspective and what I see as the thrust of my friends' positions is not to deny that America fosters such a system, but underplaying the fact that WE -- you and I -- are centrally implicated.

A question we need to ask is what is needed to be produced which could meet the following criteria.

  1. Be made readily available for everyone on the earth.
  2. Allow for the serious reduction of misery and suffering for all on the earth.
  3. Be produced in a way that does not seriously threaten or damage the planet's ecosphere.

In addition to the questions of production there is a similar question of social relations. What sorts of social and societal relations are necessary to reduce the misery caused by domination and the struggle for power and advantage.

I do not know the answers to these questions, nor do I know others who seem to have posited plausible answers to them. But, it does seem to me that any serious attention to these questions will make it obvious the MUCH in our lifestyles (those of us who are American and not willingly in the American underclass) , DO NOT consume within reasonable limits. Further, if we honestly and carefully examine where we are going -- what are our plans and dreams for our own future consumption patterns, I believe that most of us would see and agree that indeed, we are more a part of the problem than we would like to admit.

Suppose for a minute that we entertain a distinction between NEEDS and LUXURIES. What will be the criteria for such a distinction? Again, I don't know in detail (though there is a significant literature on this subject). But, such a distinction would seem to suggest that:

  1. Those things REQUIRED to maintain the mere fact of life would be needs.
  2. Other things would be luxuries.

In a nutshell I am proposing a value system where everyone's most basic life-preserving needs are ahead of anyone's luxuries. I think that many of you will share the essence of this value. If you do, then it is obvious in just a second's reflection that our (again -- the "we" here Americans who are not in the underclass by necessity) our patterns of consumption are shockingly excessive.

Many questions tumble out at this point:

and so on.

Again -- I'm not sure of the answers to these and similar questions. But, the troublesome problem for me is that these seem to be among the right questions and yet I observe precious little attention being paid to them.

My conclusion, challenge and strong suspicion is that we are much too wedded to an unjust system of consumption and privileged social relations. Thus we are in a contradictory position of fighting political and social structures which are in great measure creating and defending the very patterns of consumption which we, too, embrace and struggle to participate in. We want to destroy our cake and eat it too.

  1. We must shift the focus of our central struggle from the political and social world to the world of personal lifestyles -- ours and others.

If the first part of my challenge is wrong headed, then this second part has no hope. But, if you find any sympathy with my analysis to this point, then follow me on to the end.

Suppose that we are, in significant degree, the problem. We are wedded to a system of consumption and social relations which in great measure requires world domination, serious exploitation of foreign people and an underclass at home. We are wedded to a system of irresponsible treatment of the environment in order to provide for our own demands. If this is the case, then I propose new areas of primary battle:

  1. A knowledge frontier. We must know much more about what is possible to expect in a world of just production and consumption.
  2. A value frontier. We must reflect much more on patterns of human meaningfulness and fulfillment to discover more non-material ways to satisfy our needs for meaning, joy and participation.
  3. A daily life frontier and challenge. As a precondition to serious and successful social change we must come to LIVE a life that is consistent with just and universalizable consumption. We must model such a life for others and we must challenge them, too, to respond with their lifeform.
  4. A social action frontier. We must work to persuade ourselves and others that our primary goals are not political, but to understand and live a world view and value system which embodies a consumption, production, social and distribution system which lessens the needs and likelihood of life and death competition, imperialism, exploitation and excessive material expectations.

As Walt Kelley said, "We have met the enemy and it is us." We have let ourselves be lulled into a system of exploitation, over consumption, material expectation which causes incredible misery, suffering, violence and oppression. Then we have come to blame the social, political and economic system as though it were radically apart from us. But this is the very system that provides the privileged position for us in the U.S. We hide too much from our own complicity and the necessity of this system to our own lifeforms. We accept the spoils and even dream the dreams of the fruits of the very oppressive system which we oppose.

I believe a new thrust is called for. Not an abandonment of the political struggle. No, it too must continue. But a new thrust must emerge alongside the political and even take precedence over it. It is a struggle to identify in knowledge and live in our hearts and lives, holding it boldly forward to others, a LIFEFORM which encourages and allows all humans and the planet as a whole to live in peace, fellowship, simplicity and joy.

I am anxious to make this inquiry and struggle more central in my own life. I solicit your thoughts and your participation.

My Philosophy Page Webster U. Philosophy Department

Philosophy for Children Critical Thinking Current Semester Education Existentialism
Miscellaneous Topics Moral Philosophy Peace Issues Voluntary Economic Simplicity


Bob Corbett