There are two fundamental themes that the philosopher and sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky (Paris 1944) frequently discusses: individualism and the contradictions of life. In this interview he presents a straightforward and candid analysis of the paradoxes of our society of abundance.
Postmodern individualism has brought great autonomy and freedom of decision, but also loneliness, which leads to anxiety and depression…
Our lives used to be regulated and defined by tradition, but this has been eroded by individualism. Societies of the past didn't isolate the individual from the social group, and so people were unable to feel lonely. In the individualistic society of today - especially in the consumer society - individuals are no longer obliged to be integrated within the group. So it's inevitable that they feel lonely, as they carry the burden of having to construct their own lives. The more freedom we have to construct our own lives, the weaker the social bond. It's no wonder that nowadays many people feel different, not like others. It's one of the trademark qualities of individualism. And now people use pets to compensate for their loneliness. Animals don't let us down. But human beings always do, as they're free. It's the combination of all these factors that makes modern life difficult and gives rise to feelings of loneliness and, similarly, the sense that we can't communicate with others. People think that they can't communicate because others don't understand them; they don't feel understood.
There is also a contradiction between improvements to our quality of life due to the development of capitalism, and compulsive, rampant consumerism. Is consumption an option or an obligation?
Since the 1950's a number of studies have purportedly shown that consumption isn't an option but rather an obligation. With all the advertising campaigns and fashion trends, capitalism supposedly forces us to consume, it's a new type of obligation. This is related to mass communication, and so on. I don't agree. I think this view overestimates the power of advertising and marketing. I don't think that individuals are obliged to consume by advertising and by shops. I don't think 'obliged' is the right word.
Would you say then that consumption is an option or what is it?
It's a complex issue, because in this day and age it's almost impossible not to consume. For example, we can't go out and chop firewood to heat our homes, we're obliged to pay for our heating; if we want to listen to music we have to buy CDs. So we have to consume. The problem with consumer capitalism is that almost all the experiences in our lives have been turned into commodities. We can't escape consumerism. In other times, in the country, people didn't need to buy so many things, money had a much more limited role. Having said that, I still don't think that 'obligation' is the right word, because consumers have a certain degree of freedom. We can choice to not buy what's being offered to us. There's no obligation to consume comparable to social obligations such as obeying the law or showing respect for other people. And yet it's not entirely an option because nobody can avoid consuming. I'd say it's a temptation, I think that's the right word.
You talk of romantic love as one of the most desirable things for personal fulfillment and satisfaction. But you also point out that it requires dedication and sacrifice, which conflict with individualism. Does this contradiction explain why there are now so many breakups and divorces?
I think there are so many separations and divorces because our individualistic cultures prioritizes the individual above the institution. In other words, the core value today is no longer the family, but personal happiness and freedom. In the 19th century, in Catholic countries, it was almost impossible to get divorced. That's not because people used to be more committed, but because there was a collective pressure. But in this individualistic society, the most important thing is for each person to be free and able to devote themselves to their personal development.
How is this exacerbated individualism affecting sexuality?
Free sexuality is no longer condemned and this has had a great impact upon women. For a long time, women weren't allowed to have sexual relations before marriage. But now they use contraception. What we see now is the hedonisation of sexuality. Many studies show that couples enjoy more erotic sex than a century ago. A hundred years ago, men had sex for pleasure with prostitutes; sex with their wives was to conceive children, which is why it was quick, lasting only a few minutes. But now it's more hedonistic. Statistics show that sexual practices are more varied. We devote more time to sex then we used to. It used to be thought than if sex were no longer taboo, society would degenerate and our lives would be full of lust and orgies. It was believed that if nothing were prohibited, people would enjoy a full, gratifying sex life and that they'd be having sex everywhere. But it's not true. People have a few more sexual partners than in the past, but not that many. Sexuality has somehow regulated itself without prohibitions. Having said that, one place where there is an intense, unbridled sexuality is in the imaginary consumption of sexuality; in pornography. On the Internet people have access to films and photos that are... outrageous!Online, people consume sex in images more than in real life.
One of your works is entitled paradoxical happiness. What do you mean when you refer to the happiness of individualistic man as paradoxical?
Everything in our consumer society celebrates happiness and perpetual satisfaction; in the shops, fashion trends, advertising. The world we live in is an Earthly paradise compared to the past with its wars, famine and exterminations. The main causes of tragedy have disappeared.
And yet people don't experience that happiness...
People nowadays worry about a lot of things: their children, their work, they're not happy in their relationships, they have self-esteem problems. When I talk of a paradox, what I mean is that we have the objective elements of happiness, but in our everyday experience the happiness we feel inside isn't proportionate to those objective factors. There's a discrepancy. We worry even more intensely than in the past because there are no longer traditions, religion no longer defines people's behaviour, it all depends on us. That's why we're so concerned about finding our place in the world, about our future. It's like a pair of scissors, rising on one side and falling on the other. That's the paradox I was trying to analyse.
Why do you think citizens have lost interest in and commitment to public life and politics?
It's not that interest is lacking, but rather that it's become individualised: people are interested in some things and not in others. Citizens no longer trust their politicians, as they are insincere and fail to represent their interests. Politics is no longer the stuff of dreams. The big dreams - revolution, nation, all the mythologies of modernity - no longer move us. But I don't think we're seeing a total disconnection from political life. At least part of the population take action to support various causes such as the environment or culture, but outside of the political parties. So I think we need a more nuanced diagnosis and should avoid adopting an apocalyptic view of our era. What have disappeared are the religions of politics: communism, the revolution, the conquest of democratic societies. All of that was accompanied by fascination, zeal, passion. In my opinion, it's political passion that's declined because real passion is now directed towards the private sphere: being successful in life or in our work, being happy, having a good family life, ensuring that our children are happy. Politics no longer gives meaning to people's lives. But that doesn't mean people aren't interested. Just look at the disastrous election of Donald Trump. Traditionally, political participation in the United States is weak, but even there we see new forms of protest. It's not true that there's a total apathy, it's more complicated. There's a whole patchwork of contrasting trends.
Do you really think there are no ideologies in politics?
There are no longer any overarching ideologies. Political life, with its various interests and its elections, has been reduced to a form of management. Politics is now considered a profession, there are no statesmen left.
That depends on our interpretation
Well, ever since Tocqueville and Nietzsche it's been said that our Democratic society creates mediocrity. But that's a very pessimistic view of the world and I don't agree. There are elites who continue to develop, the number of people who go to University continues to rise, science continues to perform miracles. The human drive discover truth through science is a fascinating adventure.
We continue to advance technically and scientifically, but what about socially? Is there less solidarity nowadays?
I think when it comes to solidarity we tend to over-idealise the past. We now know that in ancient civilizations, in small towns... it's not true that everyone showed solidarity. There was appalling hatred, witch hunts, rivalry, jealousy. It's true that a materialist society encourages people to think more about themselves. But the idea of solidarity is not dead, it's just been reconstituted in another form. It's less driven by religion and more by human rights; it's embedded within a more secular culture. In Europe we have institutionalised a welfare state which is probably the strongest in the world. We could argue that it's not enough, but we can't say that we live in a world without solidarity.
How can we experience morality and spirituality at a time when traditional values are being transformed by individualism?
It's not true that values are disappearing in our society. What's changed is that they're no longer orchestrated by religion. Values are being individualised. For example, everyone recognises freedom as a value, but not everyone understands it the same way. Those who support gay marriage are affirming their faith in freedom, and they see it as something legitimate and good; whereas others think just the opposite, saying that's it bad because of it's effect on children, and so on. Morality is no longer controlled by tradition and religion, it's determined by society and by the individual.
And that leads to conflict
Yes, and it's up to the State to establish a set of rules by which we can still manage to live together. It often used to be said that without a major, strong tradition, society would fall apart, because there would be nothing left to bind the people together. But that's not what we see. Traditions have lost their importance, but this hasn't led to violence and destruction. And this is the paradox: the unity that was created by tradition has disappeared, but this hasn't brought about the disintegration of society. This shows that we can live in detraditionalised societies, and even live in peace.