The word ‘essay’ is the French for ‘try’ or ‘attempt’, and it’s what the 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne called his writings. Each one was an foray into an idea, and the whole point of calling them ‘attempts’ implies that some of them will miss the mark. An essay might end with a successful articulation of what he was trying to get at, or it might prove inadequate and abortive, something to come back to later. His life and writing is beautifully captured in Sarah Bakewell’s book How to live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.
This is not how I was taught to write essays at school. In education, an essay is to demonstrate what you have learned. There were facts and theories to be understood, and then you proved you had done so by parading them in your essay. There wasn’t much sense of exploration, of articulating something new. I remember being actively discouraged from adding opinions of my own, because I might be marked down by the examiner.
I consider the exploratory essay to be an under-appreciated form. (It’s why I do most of my writing on a blog.) One writer who I suspect would agree is Samuel Alexander, author of Beyond Capitalist Realism. It’s Alexander’s fourth volume of collected essays, which range across sustainability, consumerism, simple living, urban planning, economics and much more besides.
The title refers to the way that capitalism dominates the political imagination. It is so embedded that even more radical proposals such as the Green New Deal keep the basics of capitalism untouched, and focus on ‘green growth’ as a driver of change. (“That is merely going down the wrong road more slowly” says Alexander) If you start questioning capitalism, you are inevitably pigeon-holed as some variety of communist, and this too is a failure of the imagination. But ‘there is no alternative’ has never been true, whether your preferred ‘inevitability’ is free market capitalism or a communist revolution.
Alexander’s alternatives tend to run from the grassroots. They focus on sufficiency rather than growth. And they are honest about what might be possible – capitalism has proved a “dextrous beast”, and the dominant culture isn’t ready to hear the degrowth critique. All the more reason to keep trying out new ideas and new language. The essays in this collection explore “post-capitalism by design not disaster”, tradeable energy quotas, monetary theory, with a chapter on the aesthetics of degrowth, republished from the book Art Against Empire.
One topic that particularly jumped out at me is land. Often visions of simple living are unattainable to those on lower incomes. A call to go ‘back to the land’ implies you have a piece of land you can go back to, and of course that’s not affordable in many countries. A post-capitalist vision that only serves the wealthiest is hardly helpful, so how do we make land accessible? The policy suggestions here draw on legacies of public housing to create sustainable neighbourhoods that combine access to land with a modest basic income.
Another topic that I haven’t seen explored much is the ‘tiny home’ movement, where people reject mainstream consumerist aspirations and live simply in very small homes, sometimes on wheels. A couple of essays investigate the phenomenon, including the obvious question of “whether tiny houses express real underlying social preferences or imposed necessities”. Alexander has some real world experiences to learn from here, through the experimental community captured in the 2016 film A Simpler Way.
Finally, descriptions of sustainable living often focus either on the land and countryside, or on greener cities. The territories in-between sometimes gets forgotten, so it’s good to see some attention on the suburbs in the collection.
Like any collection of essays, there are some that will engage and some that you’ll skip. Some that you’ll agree with and some you won’t. The point is to keep exploring, to push back on what is considered ‘unthinkable’, and to not let the dominant culture determine the limits of our imaginations.
- You can get the ebook of Beyond Capitalist Realism on a pay-what-you-like basis, more information here.
- How to stay sane in an age of division, by the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, is another short and elegant example of the exploratory essay genre that came out this year and that I’d highly recommend.