We’re living through brutal and devastating times.

Apocalyptic scenes of mass bloodshed are being live-streamed to our phones by journalists who have millions of followers. Awareness of colonial brutality and conflict across the globe has permeated the minds of the Western social media generation on an unprecedented scale, as well as our government’s complicity in it. 

Yet life goes on in Australia and across the West. Every week, thousands march through the Sydney CBD to protest genocidal violence in Palestine. We gather in Hyde Park where Palestinians tell us of the destruction of their families and homes, and then we march, passing queues spilling out of high-end shops and chanting ‘while you’re shopping, bombs are dropping’. 

It feels as if I’m seeing the individualism that defines our consumer culture with fresh eyes. It’s always been there in plain sight, but suddenly I marvel at how obvious its function is, how it keeps us busy looking in the wrong direction by selling us an alluring dream. 

The difference between our everyday and theirs is hard to comprehend. Increasingly I find myself consumed by these overwhelming contradictions; grief at the hands of terror states and the need to keep living in our society of supposed positivity.

I’m questioning how much of my time and energy is wrapped up in searching for the dream-like abundance and pleasure that modern capitalism promises me, unpicking everything I thought I knew about what I wanted from life. How can you feel pleasure in the face of horror?

Consumer culture paints a vision of the good life that’s full of pleasure, relaxation and joy. Influencers sell us manicured images of sun, sea and luxury food, showing us what a free and fulfilled life looks like. But unreachable for many, we often end up seeking consolation in smaller consumer pleasures, distracting ourselves with whatever repetitive hits of relief we can find after we finish our days at work. Dreams of abundance keep people sustained in oppressive systems, searching for a sparkling life that never arrives for most of us. 

Dissatisfaction with this cycle of unfulfilling work and empty pleasure seeking has long simmered under the surface. But the lid is now off. The way meaning has been drained from our visions of the good life is brought into focus by brave journalists demanding we confront ugly truths. The daily effort to find pleasure, however small – the morning coffee, the new clothes, the office pizza parties, suddenly pale in significance to the scale and urgency of the problems that face us; the rot at the heart of our system has revealed itself. Discontent has turned to rage. Others feel it too – millions across the globe have been protesting for months on end, refusing to stay silent. 

Philosopher and writer Mark Fisher wrote about the emptiness he observed in how his students experienced pleasure. He thought that despite the abundance of instantly pleasurable activities they engaged in, there was still a widespread sense that something was missing from life. He argued that just because we have an abundance of pleasure accessible instantly, it doesn’t mean that life is actually more pleasurable. In fact, he thought the opposite was true.

Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it is by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure.”

He’s not the only one to observe a widespread emotional decay brought on by the constant consumption of quick fix, disembodied pleasure. Kate Soper, in her book Post Growth Living, argues that we must dissociate pleasure and our vision of the good life from the culture of consumerism that so often promotes mindless and toxic pleasure seeking. Like Fisher, she points out how a seductive vision of comfort and abundance so often results in a sterile search for contentment that never comes. She argues that we urgently need to redefine our idea of the good life, asking us to imagine how collective life could transform if we placed care and ethics at the center of our priorities rather than consumer driven gratification.

What both of these writers pick up on is how meaning has been drained from life under Western capitalism, and how pleasure is so often used to plaster over deeply felt doom for the future. They both remind us that sustaining and rich fulfilment does not come from instant gratification. 

I think many of us intuitively see that the most pleasurable things we can do with our lives are immaterial, found in the substance of considered, caring and meaningful relationships. What’s a much bigger task is to translate this into finding the pleasure in fighting for bigger social causes. To recognise that a good life must be built on an ethics of justice.

It’s about more than just making different consumer choices, about taking a few hours to go to a march instead of shopping. It’s about finding a set of values that you believe in, and acting in accordance with them, holding yourself and others accountable to the best of your ability with the time and resources you have. Acting with political principle is hard in a society that does everything it can to tempt you into hopelessness, but there is a growing appetite for it. In the face of unthinkable violence, so many have been searching for meaning bigger than the endless cycles of work and shopping. 

We first need to recognise that if we want to build any meaningful future for ourselves, we can’t turn away from the dehumanisation of others. The good life isn’t built on collective denial of blistering injustice – burying our heads in the fake comforts of consumerism offers us a bleak future. Our own search for meaning brings us towards our interconnected struggle: Palestine and other occupied nations call for us to fight for justice – our ability to live good lives depends on that justice as well as theirs. 

bell hooks said that there can be no love without justice. I think the same can be said for pleasure. 

copy license