Critique of aesthetic capitalism

Aesthetic Economy is a theory of the recent development of capitalism in our national economies. Basic needs are easily satisfied and, as a result, most commodities are no longer intended for consumption, but for the staging of our lives. That is, they are used to produce atmospheres.
Applications of the theory are found wherever staging is performed: in commodity aesthetics, in marketing, as well as in the sphere of production. As to technology, we find a turn from useful to joyful technology. And the technology of entertainment has become a huge part of the general economy. Similarly, a further horizon of Aesthetic Economy is to be seen in the aestheticization of politics, the staging of sporting events and the management of culture.

Gernot Böhme (born 1937) studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy at Göttingen and Hamburg, and completed a PhD in 1965 at Hamburg University. As a research scientist, he worked at the Max-Planck-Institute with Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and Jürgen Habermas. From 1977 to 2002, he was Professor of Philosophy at Technical University of Darmstadt and, from 1997 to 2001, he was Speaker of the Graduate School Technification and Society. Today, he is Director of the Institute for Practicing Philosophy, IPPh, and Chair of the Goethe-Association/Darmstadt.

Excerpt from the book

“Aesthetic economics sets out from the ubiquitous phenomenon of an aestheticising of the real, and takes seriously the fact that this aestheticisingis an important factor in advanced capitalist national economies. To understand this situation, the concept of aesthetic work is first introduced. Aesthetic work refers to the totality of activities aimed at giving things, human beings, towns and landscapes an appearance or look, endowing them with a radiance or glow, an atmosphere, or producing an atmosphere
within ensembles. This terminology deliberately dispenses with a qualitative evaluation of the products of aesthetic work, that is, with a distinction like that between art and kitsch, so fundamental to the theory of the culture industry.
The concept of the aesthetic worker covers the whole spectrum from the house painter to the artist, from the designer of products or stage sets to the producer of muzak.It encompasses all the human activities which impart to things, people and ensembles that something more which goes beyond their physical presence and availability, their thing-ness and utility. Because this something more has taken on an economic meaning of its own, the term staging value or show value has been coined for it.
A decisive feature of the aesthetic economy is that a quantitatively significant sector of the total economy is devoted to creating show values, so that providing a commodity with show value plays a major part in the production of that commodity. The aesthetic economy is therefore one which, to a large extent, produces values that no one actually needs, and thus shows itself to be a special stage in the development of capitalism. I have called the phase of capitalism in which we are now, that is, the phase which comes after the development of capitalism through the economic saturation of the private sphere, aesthetic capitalism. I use this term because further economic growth in this phase is possible only through the enhancement of life, through the production of means for staging oneself, that is, through the production of aesthetic values.
There is a difference, which is important for us here, between a need in the narrower sense, which can be satisfied, and a desire, which is intensified in being met. The social conditions governing this situation, summed up here by the catchphrase discontent in prosperity, especially the economic conditions, must be held responsible for this malaise. But as these conditions cannot be expected to change, but, rather, the economic compulsions are likely to intensify further, one has to ask how the individual is to come to terms with this situation. In view of the finitude of existence, one cannot afford to go through life with a constant feeling of dissatisfaction, suboptimality and stress. One should learn not to allow needs to be transformed into desires in one’s emotional economy, in the same way as one avoids addictions. This act of caring for oneself is, admittedly, related to classical asceticism, but it certainly does not mean simply a renunciation of consumption and enjoyment. It does, however, require the discipline of not letting oneself be drawn into an upwardly-open spiral of increase, as urged by the consumer world in the aesthetic economy. To achieve this discipline one needs to gain insight into the structure of that world, and an awareness of how one’s own emotional economy can be shaped by it. It is the aim of this book to help to promote that awareness.”