Zizek’s coffee and my washing up

Zizek is fond of using a metaphor about Starbucks. In fact, he sometimes apologises for using it so much. It goes like this…

You spend a little bit more on a coffee from Starbucks because it makes you feel good. Maybe 5 or 10 cents on each cup goes to help Guatemalan farmers, or a little to a children’s education program.

It’s capitalism, but it’s green. You’ve treated yourself, but also salved your guilt at being a frivolous consumer by doing a little good along the way.

However, it’s still obviously capitalism. It may have a kernel of positive intention within it, but it won’t contribute to any sort of structural change. Extrapolating the analogy, if climate catastrophe is to be averted, it won’t be done by purchasing vaguely greenwashed tat.

Zizek’s yarn leapt into my head as I was doing the dishes the other day. For two weeks, I’d been balancing a nearly empty bottle of washing up liquid upside down to make sure I got the last of it out. This wasn’t rooted in any particular miserliness, but rather in ensuring that the resources and energy used in creating this product wasn’t wasted.

This is the type of disavowal that Zizek also often mentions (and does so in the video linked above) — the sometimes obsessive self-denial that we undergo lest we be reduced to a purely passive role in the face of environmental doom.

I’m reminded of nothing other than Father Ted’s character Mrs Doyle. On a visit to a department store, she’s confronted with a flashy demo of an automated tea maker. The slick salesman delivers his killer line: “Yes, the Teamaster really takes the misery out of making tea”.

The housekeeper, visibly miffed, saunters off with a verbal blow: “Maybe I like the misery.”

But as I squeezed some of the very last out of the bottle, I found myself being almost over-generous with it. “Don’t worry about it,” I heard myself think, “you’ve saved so much of this goop from landfill. You can be a little more liberal with it.”

Logically, this makes no sense. The whole exercise of frugality, the fortnight of tedious inverted bottle-balancing at my sink’s side, was to conserve the liquid.

Psychologically, though, I could detect that I’d felt a weird subliminal vindication. “You’ve done such a good job keeping all this extra resource! What a good boy you are. You deserve to use a little extra to help you get the job done.”

And so I tried to reflect on it, after the plates were clean. It was all a bit… Hegelian.

Zizek’s thesis rests on a philanthropic justification for a slightly decadent act: buying an ultimately unnecessary drink for a brief moment of (allegedly) tasty self-care. A privately held reason, but one rooted in a positive effect in the external world, which rationalises a selfish good (the coffee) while doing something objectively wasteful.

My sink-side experience was the antithesis: I’d been eking out this ritual of self-sacrifice, demurring from the convenient purchase of a commodity, to feel virtuous. A privately held reason, still, and one rooted in a positive effect in the external world, but used to rationalise a public good (the planet’s wellbeing) while doing something useful.

And yet here was the odd synthesis, where the virtue of the self-abnegation was fuelling the splurge. A privately held reason, rooted in my own internal world, used to rationalise a selfish good while doing something wasteful.

How had I got there? How had I got there through that?

I’m not quite sure what this really says, and if I’m honest that’s why I’m interested in it. How did I leap from a tiny virtuous action to a tiny selfish one? Is the endorphin rush of self-care, no matter how miniscule, inescapable? Did the waste feel good? Are our desires destructive? Do we desire them because they’re destructive?

I’m not convinced. To me, the more pertinent question is whether commodities, and the material world in general, really have such a grip on us, and to what extent we can loosen that hold. I think, I hope, we can wriggle free, if we’re self-aware/self-critical enough to notice when those tendrils are wrapping themselves around us. It takes effort, self-criticism and honesty, but I’m sure it’s worth it, because there’s no infinite growth on a finite planet. Living with a little less detergent, missing out on a few coffees, is its own reward, as long as it’s accompanied by the kind of structural changes that Starbucks can’t buy.

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