Welcome to the eighth blog post in the Enough is Plenty Series from Anne Ryan, hosted by Feasta. If you like the post, please share it with your networks. You may also find it interesting to browse the Feasta website for other related articles. And please comment or get in touch with Feasta if you want to contribute to the discussion. We are at firstname.lastname@example.org, @feasta_tweets and our Facebook page is here.
In recent Enough is Plenty posts, I mused on coping, critiquing and creating. When I wrote my last post specifically on the theme of coping, the Covid-19 virus hadn’t hit Europe hard, though we knew it was going to.
My writing process for that last post brought me to some thoughts on the erotic economy and I resolved to develop those ideas in the next post. In truth, I didn’t give a subsequent post much thought for several weeks. Once the pandemic hit in Ireland, where I live, I became busy with the discussions of basic income as one of the structures that can both help people cope right now and help us all participate in rebuilding society and economy after the pandemic-induced recession.
But a couple of weeks ago someone who had read that blog asked me about the erotic. Then on May Day a friend’s social media post reminded me of the Bread and Roses song and of the fact that all people need basic securities along with beauty, joy and conviviality in their lives.
So I was motivated to explore the erotic a bit more and started writing this post on May Day, a very significant day in many cultures. It’s the threshold of summer in the northern hemisphere, celebrated in a big way in the Celtic and Scandinavian traditions. It’s also a day for celebrating workers – unpaid and paid.
At this threshold of the seasons, the Covid pandemic is forcing such big behaviour changes on us that it’s just possible we could be also on the threshold of a more just world with some measure of ecological stabilisation. The spread of the virus is the latest symptom of how our economies have inflicted damage on nature. Ecosystems and climate have broken down and we have species extinction and pollution of all kinds, in addition to large pockets of poverty and suffering for human beings.
Dealing with the virus has forced upon us the degrowth measures we should have been taking for some time now.
A planned and well designed gradual contraction of an economy to a steady state is very different from an involuntary recession where growth collapses in an unplanned way. Good planning and design can ensure that the changes benefit everyone equally. If we don’t plan for it, ecological constraints and disasters will cause a contraction to happen, but in the disastrous form of a severe depression. 
The abrupt degrowth in rich countries, unsettling though it is, is forcing us to examine the things that are truly important. If we lived in a society where everybody knew how to attend to their deep needs and was mindful of the deep needs and humanity of others, we might have a chance to halt some of the terrible things that have happened to the living planet and its people. If we could shrink the growth of harmful wants encouraged by a consumerist system that is indiscriminate about what is produced, and if we could grow society’s capacity to meet needs, we could move into a better future.
What has eros got to do with this possibility of a better future?
Conditioned as we are to the narrowest uses of the word erotic in our mainstream capitalist economy, most people think of the sex industry, pornography etc (cf Rubin) when the term is used. The pornographic has received lots of attention in our ‘old normal’ culture but the erotic has been underexposed and suppressed; in a time of darkness such as this one, however, the eye can begin to see things that were not clear earlier, including what eros really means.
In 1978, Audre Lorde showed how eros is the personification of love in all its aspects . Eros, she tells us, is concerned with being able to feel with our full capacity: it is how we know in our hearts what it’s like truly to be alive and to experience vitality. Pornographic attempts to meet deep human needs are manifest in consumerism, which consumes (in the sense of destroying or burning up) our capacity for satisfaction, contentment and joy. The opposite of eros is pornography, which commodifies sexuality, emphasises a narrow range of sensations without attending to the whole, feeling, person. It leads to erotic dysfunction and an absence of satisfaction.
Lorde makes a direct connection between the erotic and the idea that enough is plenty (the Latin word for enough is satis, the root of the word satisfaction).
The erotic is … an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.
…The internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others. Such a demand incapacitates everyone in the process. For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors brings us closest to that fullness.
Lorde focussed on women’s lives and how Western society does not want us to discover the true meaning of the erotic, because women would then be dangerously empowered. But it could be said that modernist Western culture in general has hidden the full meaning of eros from everybody.
The pandemic experience and the emergence of eros
Everyone is experiencing this pandemic time in different ways. Some are ill, some are caring for the ill and for others who need support. Some are bereaved. Some are being ‘shielded’. Some are still homeless and poor, relying on charity and foodbanks. Some of those staying at home feel safe, while others are subject to violence in their homes. Access to quality indoor space and to outdoor green space is unequal.
Some are working in essential food, care, transport, education, waste, utility and other services. Some are going to their workplaces but doing their jobs in changed ways. Some employees have been let go, others are at home supported by government subsidies until their ‘sleeping’ organisations start up again. Some are doing their jobs from home, some with a degree of freedom to organise their tasks, others under close surveillance. Some are watching redundancies around them and fearful for their own security. Some are trying to do their jobs while caring for children and supervising their learning programmes. Some are studying with support from their schools and colleges. Some are starting new businesses that in response to the changed requirements that they see in their communities. Artists, people in seasonal work and many other self-employed people are experiencing great uncertainty and anxiety about their futures. Women are over-represented in the care and service work that is essential but often badly paid or done for no pay.
“The wealthy and middle-class office workers can isolate themselves at home. The blue-collar workers, the nurses, the cashiers and the bus drivers, are exposed to enormous risks and bear the burden for the rest. Those with insecure employment and low incomes who are already sick and weakened by poverty suffer the most. At the bottom of the hierarchy, the ‘gig’ workers and the homeless struggle without any protection at all.”
In public discourse and media commentary, there is increased focus on what is valuable in our daily lives. It is becoming clear what kinds of work (paid and unpaid) are truly necessary; care, farming and growing, food preparation, health, art and music come to mind but that’s not intended to be a comprehensive list. Some are questioning the necessity of their work and wondering what it adds to the world.
Connection with others is recognised for its fundamental importance, even though we have to physically distance ourselves from other people. People are noticing and appreciating the natural world, even if that’s just from a balcony, or observing so-called ‘weeds’ growing in the street, or listening to birdsong from a window. Emotions are surfacing that may have been kept suppressed in the busyness of the ‘old normal’ way of life: grief, boredom, anger and fear for the future.
The ‘old normal’
Some people want nothing more than a return to the ‘old normal’, even though in that state, they were permanently coping with very busy, stressful lifestyles, with little time for critique or creating anything new.
In the ‘old normal’, eros, vitality and joy were lacking for many; we aimed for maximum ‘efficiency’ in our lives. Many coped with the demands of very demanding schedules by compartmentalising the different parts of life, taking little time to reflect or feel, organising ourselves with apps and other technology for maximum ‘productivity’. For many, a cycle of stimulation and sedation was the norm. When people were rushed, harried and under time pressure, they often coped through compulsive drinking, porn, screen time, television or shopping. We were encouraged to think that these ways of living were an unavoidable part of ‘progress’.
But consumerist wants are not a natural state for humans; they are a learned way of being in the world. Not all wants are ‘bad’; wanting a better, more just and ecologically stable world is essential. The ‘old normal’ includes climate and ecological breakdown, poverty and suffering, which I mentioned in the introduction. If a society is focussed on indiscriminately increasing aggregate growth, production and consumption, it ignores the deep needs of humans and planet and it is, in fact, erotically dysfunctional. ‘Eros is hijacked and perverted; it is rape rather than love-making’.
An emerging critique and desire
As many people decompress from the harried, stressed daily round of work, earn and spend, and as almost everybody is wondering to a greater degree than pre-pandemic what the future holds, a critique is emerging of the old coping mechanisms and social structures. A widespread desire is emerging to move into a future that gives everybody meaningful choices about how best to live. There is a re-focussing taking place, examining what might be ‘enough’ for good, liveable lives.
Some of the shifts in thinking that are going on during this pandemic are drawing a renewed attention towards the need for an enormous cultural shift to desiring differently. As we move on, we need a bridge between the self-alienation of the ‘old normal’ ways of life, to a place where we will be able to meet our deepest needs and to care for the planet. This bridge is
‘formed by the erotic – the sensual – those physical, emotional and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love in its deepest meanings’.
There is a need to connect with and recognise eros on a huge scale. Volumes have been written and spoken about the transformations we need and eros is not the only concept that can help us think about them. But all transformations start with desire for the very best, in the sense of the highest quality: desire to learn, contribute, care, create and participate, instead of competing, consuming and living constantly in coping mode.
The erotic economy and society
Desires are shifting for many people and one of those desires is for a structural framework in society that provides safety and security for everyone, along with ecological stability. This structural framework can be put in place by the state; it requires as a minimum a basic income, universal public services, safe environmental caps and limits, food sovereignty, labour rights, debt cancellation, fair taxation, wealth distribution, reduced job-hours, public banking and structures for participative decision-making about how to grow ‘goods’ and shrink ‘bads’.
Citizens are demanding that states and unions of states, representing their communities at large, create a social-ecological contract that facilitates all of us to take part in building an overall system that is better for everyone.
“Faced with these ecological crises, for which we are fully responsible, we need to rediscover the equalising power of the welfare state, which alone can transform uncertainty into risk, hazard into protection, chance into justice. In short, we must mutualise social risks to reduce them in the name of human wellbeing—starting with health, the key interface between people and ecosystems.”
Many groups and small communities have been trying for years to build this kind of world but no amount of individual or small-group effort can create a system; the state – if it will align itself with people and planet — can enable the emergence of sane, humane and ecological economies and societies. This was as true before the pandemic as it is now. But maybe now – in some of the spaces for critique and desire opened up by the pandemic — more people are awakening to its truth and to the need to make new demands of governments.
I’m not naïve; I am fully aware that
“every powerful institution that is currently failing us is going to be chomping at the bit to sell us a heroic narrative about how returning to Normal is the best thing we can do. They will try every trick in the book to steer you away from any epiphany you may have experienced in this time away from the clutches of the perpetual stimulate-sedate cycle.”
Nevertheless, if we emphasise the erotic – the expression of love in all its aspects, including care — that many people are currently experiencing, we have a great foundation for demanding a just politics and economics. Eros can connect us with a deep source of energy that is renewable by its very nature and thus has the capacity to drive social and ecological transformation. With a better understanding of eros, we could all demand a social-ecological contract that supports human capacities for vitality, healing and health, care, creativity, innovation, diversity and contribution.
“…An erotic economy like this would underwrite and unleash everyone’s creativity and capacity for living, re-imagining economics not as a manipulative and mechanistic game but as a humanly crafted means to liberation.”
1. https://www.feasta.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/basic-income-leverage-anne-ryan-1.pdf, citing
Daly Herman 2008. A Steady State Economy. A Failed Growth Economy and Steady State Economy 27 Are Not the Same Thing: They are the Very Different Alternatives We Face. Sustainable Development Commission, United Kingdom.
Neva Goodwin 2014 ‘Prices and Work in the New Economy’. Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute Working Paper no 14-01: 8. http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/Pubs/wp/ 14-01GoodwinPricesWork.pdf
Romualdas Juknys, Genovaitė Liobikienė, Renata Dagiliūtė 2018 ‘Deceleration of economic growth: The main course seeking sustainability in developed countries’, Journal of Cleaner Production 192: 7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652618312733
2. Audre Lorde on the erotic economy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFHwg6aNKy0
3. Alastair McIntosh 2002 Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power. London: Aurum: 106-7
6. Alastair McIntosh 2002 Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power. London: Aurum: 106
Featured image: Maypole. Source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/maypole-1395906
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Anne B. Ryan is a coordinator of Basic Income Ireland and a former chairperson of the Feasta board of directors.