The Saturated Society: Governing Risk and Lifestyles in Consumer Culture


Pekka Sulkunen

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new intellectual movements.

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    Roy Boyne, University of Durham

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    This book sets out to address a simple question. Why is it so difficult to implement preventive policies on lifestyle problems such as alcoholism, smoking or other health-endangering practices in contemporary societies, even though we know the risks, and we know how policy can minimize them? At first, the answer seemed simple and obvious: neo-liberalism. The regulation of alcohol use, nutrition, physical exercise, sexuality, mobility, housing and other relevant choices, would interfere with the free market, and also with consumers' freedom. In the political circumstances in which we live, this would be highly controversial and would raise objections not only from the industries concerned but also from consumers. Market forces seem to have too much power against the public interest; there is no health lobby strong enough to weigh them out. The free market is a fundamental doctrine of the European Union, the World Trade Organization and other powerful institutions, and any attempt to contradict them in this matter will be doomed to failure no matter how good the intentions. This is how it seems.

    As is often the case when simple questions invite simple answers, the questions that arise next are so much more complex. Why, if there is public interest, does it not take effect through the market? Why do governments spend so much money and energy trying to persuade consumers and citizens, to commit themselves through policy programmes, partnerships, plans, contracts, empowering advice and other means, which intuitively make sense but, according to most experts, have little effect?

    To answer these questions, and to write this book, took several years longer than I had foreseen. Not only did I feel the need to gain a much more detailed understanding of the mundane ways of reasoning on these matters among policy-makers, prevention workers, treatment experts, and actual and potential risk-takers themselves, it was also necessary to review what academic social science and dominant policy ideologies had to say about justifying public intervention in private life in modern societies. These two interact and influence one another in a way that makes the understanding of one necessary for the understanding of the other.

    As a result of these studies, I can now offer the reader a new perspective on how modern industrial society has turned into consumer capitalism. Arguments that can be used to justify – or to challenge – public policy in lifestyle regulation have changed. The modern ideals of progress, universal individualism and the nation have become saturated. These ideals have justified policies on central aspects of living in modern society: work, consumption, the family, education, culture. They have been the arguments in negotiations and struggle between social groups. By saturation, I mean that these ideals have not ceased to exist, but the conditions of their application have been radically transformed. Progress towards a society of free consumers, citizens and members of a nation has been a dream that has kept modern capitalism together. Today this dream is the context of everyday reality for most people in western countries. Inequalities do persist, exclusions are frequent but expectations of self-responsibility and participation confront everybody on all sides. The structure and causes of inequalities are no longer the same as they were even half a century ago. Unless we understand the past in which current ideologies and public policy evolved, we are likely to misinterpret the present social world in which we live. Good intentions to alleviate inequalities are likely to be mistaken, too. The unreflective assumption of a conflict between society and the market is one such misunderstanding.

    I have felt no need to add to the panoply of horrors and injustices related to lifestyle problems. I have not taken it as my task to convince the public and the authorities once again of the need to do something. Public opinion in all quarters is already filled with agitated opinion about these questions. I am merely offering the reader an understanding of and an explanation for the complexity of the debates.

    My deliberately adopted position as a theoretical fence-sitter over policy issues does not mean that the explanation I offer is without practical bearing. I intend to make a sociological intervention into the dominant (dominant because they seem so self-evident) assumptions concerning politics and the regulation of life in consumer capitalism. Ulrich Beck's analysis of the risk society, and the debate that followed it, have in many ways been my inspiration and starting point. However, the diagnoses of post-, trans- or late modernity, including Beck's, have tended to adopt a position of either environmental pessimism, or of political optimism – or both. First, reflexive modernization understood as a generalized spirit of the time may offer social theorists reason for anti-bureaucratic but easy optimism. This book is specifically about the justification of the modern social order and how it translates into contradictory and not always very reflexive politics on lifestyles. Second, sociological critiques of modernity tend to adopt the traditional position of productivism. My starting point is that industrial societies are now a danger to themselves not only by taking over ‘nature’ and exposing themselves to side-effects beyond human control; they have also succeeded in transforming their internal structure in a way that stresses the value of agency in everyday life. Unknown side-effects of production are not our biggest problem; it is the well-known effects of consumption which we are unable to control. The side-effects of production can be restrained, as is demonstrated by several sectors of industry and farming that only a couple of decades ago seemed to be the incurably mad cousins of our well-being. What we cannot control, and what the market as well as public policy seem to be powerless to curb, are our desires and the way they lead us astray in our private relationships with nature. The thesis of this book is that it is not the strength of the desires themselves, nor the strength of ‘the industries’ to usurp them, which cause the difficulty, but the way that desires are socially produced and regulated. This is where political difficulties start rather than stop, and this is where old political institutions are being put to new uses.

    One particular obstacle to understanding the problem of regulation is the myth of modern society as a ready-made product of the Industrial Revolution. This myth includes post-traditionalism, individualism, secularization, differentiation, parliamentary democracy and the growth of scientific knowledge. These are not unreasonable assumptions to characterize our contemporary reality. What is unreasonable in the myth is neglect of the fact which is the object of this study: the very recent historical reality in which these characteristics have come into their fullness of being. This book will make historical explorations of the nineteenth and late eighteenth centuries, but the focus is on the last third of the twentieth century, when the arrival of the consumer society occurred in Western Europe – retarded by the Second World War, about one or two decades behind the United States.

    Of my references, Daniel Bell's classic The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism has a special place, because it first opened my eyes to the parallelism between the rational and the romantic spirit of capitalism. Robert Castel's and Jacques Donzelot's work on the rise and the metamorphoses of the social question in France have been an indispensable complement to my Nordic and British perspective. The French sociologist Luc Boltanski is frequently mentioned, because his work on the new middle class and his work with Laurent Thévenot and Eve Chiapello on the problem of justification have been a great source of inspiration to my analysis. At a more abstract level, the reader will probably be as surprised as I was in the course of my studies to find such close affinities between the work of Adam Smith and Pierre Bourdieu, not in the fault they have been unjustly accused of – utilitarian thinking – but in their most significant contributions to anti-utilitarian social theory. The ground for these affinities is their relationship to the sociological concept of society, Smith only approaching it and Bourdieu making a break with it.

    As a diagnosis of the kind represented by this book, the reader might rightly expect a prognosis of the future contours of those processes which I now clain to be saturated. This I am reluctant to venture. Too many externalities may occur before industrial modernization reaches the corners of the world that so far have remained outwith its sphere of influence. Within the internal processes of contemporary affluent capitalism, however, at least the most dismal predictions often put forward do not seem to hold. I see no reason for the optimism of those who see ossified modern institutions opening up to the plasticity of anti-bureaucratic (and extra-parliamentary) action, nor do I go along with the pessimistic paranoia of those who see power and repression everywhere, masked in a rhetoric of agency and freedom. Fears carried over from the old (American) mass society theories of the 1950s and 1960s, of a return to pre-modern totalitarianism, seem to be invalidated by my study. The value of agency in consumer capitalism is so fundamentally anti-authoritarian that any attempt to discipline and homogenize lifestyles in the name of order will be unlikely to succeed even temporarily.

    On the contrary, most Westerners would consider the homogenizing lifestyle policies of the past century inadmissible today. We are so accustomed to our individual sovereignty that we in fact tend to forget how normative modern societies have been about the content of the good life. We have not lost our moral sense. The main consequence of saturation is that it is different from the morality that guided lifestyle regulation in the process of modernization. Policy deliberations on sexuality and the family, food and alcohol, smoking, drug addictions, gambling, and so on, do not concern the intrinsic value of people's choices. They concern justice: rights to health, security and well-being. We tend to abstract the ethical and aesthetic issues of lifestyle regulation into issues of justice alone.

    Our sense of justice stresses the need to protect the innocent rather than reform the guilty. The more innocent the victims – children, foetuses, disabled, animals – the more strongly we feel about the injustice when their rights are violated. The victim's point of view is the flipside of the emphasis of agency in advanced consumer capitalism. Those who do wrong should be punished for their acts; those whose autonomy is threatened should be protected.

    The extra years that I spent on my studies to clarify and validate my original argument have not essentially changed my intuitive starting point. Even the title of the book is the same as I had in mind when I decided to write it. I have learned in the process how important it is to see mundane reasoning in the context of social theory, and vice versa. This is reflected in the way that the chapters usually juxtapose theoretical thought with selected results of my studies of mundane reasoning. Chapter 1 presents the summary of the argument and develops a model of basic concepts to analyse the problem of justification. The other chapters, although constructed as a sequence of steps in the argument, can be read in isolation and in a different order. It goes without saying that readers are consciously encouraged to use them as a source of their own reflection and critique, but especially the last two chapters, on the nature of contemporary consumer capitalism and the failure of traditional social theory to grasp it, are pointedly intended to be provocative and polemical.


    This work would not have taken so long, but nor would it have been as accurate and rich in detail, without my students and colleagues involved in the specific studies I often draw on. All authors of Broken Spirits: Power and Ideology in Nordic Alcohol Control (2000) deserve both individual and collective thanks. Katariina Warpenius, Kati Rantala and Mirja Määttä have been particularly helpful as co-authors of articles that I use extensively in this book. My students have been very important, not only offering their own work for discussion and inspiration but also commenting on drafts of the chapters. I am very grateful for comments by Dr Eric Landowski of the C.N.R.S. and Ecole des Sciences Politiques, and by my colleagues at the Department of Sociology at the University of Helsinki, docents Arto Noro and Klaus Mäkelä. The department has generously tolerated the absent-minded professor, and allowed me to spend several months in Paris during each of the four final years of writing. The Bibliothèque National de France with its main library in rue de Tolbiac deserves the warmest thanks not only from this author but also from a huge number of other scholars and students who have used the wonderful collection of over 50 million books and other documents for their research. The Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris is to be thanked for hosting the exchange visits. Grants from the Academy of Finland have made them possible. When I started writing this many years ago, Professor Sue Scott invited me to the University of Stirling and Professor Alan Warde to the University of Manchester, to have an opportunity to stay in an English language environment, which helped me realize the dimensions of the challenge of writing an essay in a foreign language. Both gave me valuable comments on the plan and encouraged me to surmount the difficulties, which at the time sometimes seemed more than I could face. My wife Jaana Lähteenmaa has been an excellent support and conversation partner on sociological issues and ideas.

    The completion of this project would not have been possible without my research assistants Aino Manninen and Varpu Rantala. They not only helped me out with the daily work in the office thus giving me time to work on ‘the book’; Varpu Rantala also read the first complete version, closely and critically, gave me excellent comments, asked challenging questions, helped with translations and filled in sources and references. Finally, I wish to thank the series editor Chris Rojek for his advice, loyalty and patience in letting this project take its time, hopefully for the benefit of the readers.

    Publisher's Acknowledgements

    Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu, translated by Richard Nice, p.172, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1984 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd.

    Durkheim, Émile. (1984 [1893]) The Division of Labour in Society. De la division du travail social. Transl. by W.D.Halls. Basingstoke: Macmillan. Reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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