Depression Modern

by Rob Horning

8 January 2009


Photo (partial) of Aldi district manager by Xiaomei Chen from

If recession is such a great thing, maybe we should have initiated a financial conflagration a lot sooner, right? A few firings and foreclosures to get the virtuous ball rolling—any volunteers?

Preaching the silver lining of austerity seems more than a little dubious, a matter of letting nostalgia for a fictitious golden age blind us to real pain of deprivation. Prosperity is not the problem with consumerist societies, and there’s nothing wrong with a high level of consumption. The problem with consumerism is its marketing-supported ideology, which leads to environmental abuse, intensified stress, political inertia, and isolated individuals who are perpetually unsatisfied. But these problems won’t be cured by our all being denied the potential to consume.

In a post at the American Scene, Matt Frost calls this the Nothing But Flowers fallacy (after the Talking Heads song): “the tendency to count on economic disruption to bring about salutary social change.” Rather than open a space for us to be more involved with the community, sudden changes in our standard of living will probably introduce more anxiety and friction into everyday life. On his blog, Gary Becker summarized some of the psychological effects of recession: “Surveys of reported happiness find that workers who become unemployed are less happy than they were, and persons whose incomes have fallen reported a decline in their happiness, at least initially. Divorce rates and even suicide rates also tend to rise during major recessions, as does crime, discrimination against minorities and immigrants, and pressure toward greater protectionism.” Already the recession is taking its toll on well-being, according to data economist Justin Wolfers presented on the New York Times’s Freaknomics blog.

Even if we make salutary changes to our lifestyles, it may not make much lasting difference if we feel awful about having to make them. This misery may merely strengthen our resolve to make fewer compromises and be even less prudent in the next upturn in the cycle.

Maybe we could learn to find satisfaction in taking our time, buying less, reusing what we already own, joining voluntary-simplicity movements, making our own household products, and all the rest. Evolving economic conditions may establish new definitions of what “normal” is. For example, extreme commuting could recede from the threshold of acceptability and will again be considered way beyond the pale.

But for better or worse, when given the opportunity to detach from the community and cocoon with consumer goods, our parents seized it. It’s not clear why we would feel any better about being forced to reverse that choice. As Frost puts it,

If we arrange our families and our living spaces poorly when affluence gives us choices, we are unlikely to suddenly flourish when those decisions are forced upon us. Hard times won’t compel Americans into becoming their better selves, and if we are heading into some bleak days, it’s best that we all understand that in advance.

So rather than indulge in daydreams about all the eco-friendly and post-consumerist benefits the New Frugality may bring us, it may make more sense to first think about what we’ll lose. In the Boston Globe, Drake Bennett wrote a speculative essay about what life in the US might be like if a new Depression really took hold. Much like the champions of the New Frugality, he at first traces the lineaments of an anti-consumerist paradise. The new frugal America will have a thriving thrift infrastructure. “Lean times might kill off much of the taboo around buying hand-me-downs, and with modern distribution networks—and a push from the reduce-reuse-recycle mind-set of environmentalism—we might see the development of nationwide used-clothing chains.

But it didn’t require a recession for such chains to develop. They already exist, especially if you count Goodwill and the Salvation Army as secondhand-store franchises. I’ve been to Savers and Value Villages from Seattle to Phoenix to Providence to Montreal. The thrift infrastructure has been building up for years, but it is premised on other people not being frugal, not valuing their belongings, and giving them away for nothing. Thrift stores rely on people replacing perfectly useful things with new versions out of a sensitivity to fashion or a burning itch to spend. But with economic hard times, the fashion cycle could, in theory, slow down. People may suddenly discover all this extra use value in goods they might otherwise have discarded, and only the truly worthless junk would make it to Savers. It may be that second-hand stores thrive in flush times and stand to be depleted in a downturn, from an initial surge of customers and then a drying-up of quality donations.

But if our culture’s return to use value threatens thrift stores, at least it might also take out the brands. Bennett writes, “We might see more former lawyers wearing knockoffs, doing their back-to-school shopping at Target or Wal-Mart rather than Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch.” Sure enough, a Wall Street Journal story from 6 November reported on how consumers are suddenly discovering generic products, offering several suggestive, near-comic anecdotes to illustrate how brands could be losing their hold over us:

When Summer Mills visited her local CVS drugstore recently, to save a few dollars she bought the store-brand facial scrub rather than the Olay version she normally uses. “I thought I’d be able to tell the difference, but I couldn’t—I looked at the ingredients and they seemed almost the same,” says 30-year-old Ms. Mills, a stay-at-home mother of two in Ardmore, Okla. On her next shopping trip, “I’m going to buy the store-brand moisturizer and cleanser—it’s less money.”

You don’t say.

It seems silly that people would need to discover that there’s little qualitative difference between branded and unbranded goods, but that recognition is possibly reassuring nonetheless, since it guarantees we’ll experience no actual austerity. We can basically get as much stuff as before, just without the brands. In flush times, we generally ignore this obvious fact about brands—that they don’t alter the product so much as change what others think of us for using it—because it impedes their main appeal. Brands let us experience the lifestyle marketing for various products vicariously; they allow us to turn the soap we use into an expression of our inner truth, they make buying a new shirt our momentary entrée into a world of glamour, they make our paper products seem to secure our spot in polite society.

There’s no reason to believe that in a era of frugality, the need to signal one’s identity would become any less pressing. Does that mean that during recessions, everybody becomes more the same, since they lack the luxury goods with which to express their distinctions? Without branded goods to differentiate ourselves, would we feel ourselves merging into a Soviet shade of gray?

The impact of a depression, then, may be gauged not in terms of material deprivation—not by whether we are eating dog food and taking up residenece in Hoovervilles— but how expansive our identities can become. Bennett cites anthropologist Grant McCracken’s “surging vs. dwelling” explanation of consumer behavior:

The difference, as he wrote recently on his blog, between believing that the world “teems with new features, new things, new opportunities, new excitement” and thinking that life’s pleasures come from counting one’s blessings and appreciating and holding onto what one already has. Economic uncertainty, he argues, drives us toward the latter.

Consolidation, “dwelling,” is a matter of retreat to more traditional self-definitions—family, religion, etc.—what McCracken dubs “homeyness” and what others would possibly call domestic suffocation. “Surging” is embracing the material richness of capitalism as a means to do some freelance self-fashioning along the lines dictated by our dreams, or more likely, by what seems to be endorsed in the larger world of mass media. This subjects us to various forms of media manipulation, but at least we are fooled into thinking we are autonomous.

The danger in a depression now is not so much that people will starve but that we will be deprived of the usual consumerist tokens we have come to depend on to express our identity. We won’t be able to afford to spend on brand distinctions and will in effect feel declassed. Chances are we wouldn’t get “homey” or immediately snap into those virtuous behaviors that could supplant consumerism. More likely we just feel disoriented, transformed from a somebody into a nobody. We would have to learn to make for ourselves the things that grant us self-knowledge, the stuff we are used to that lets us manifest what we want to believe about ourselves. But the working knowledge of how to be more self-sufficient has been mostly lost—part of our pleasure in technological advances has been the pleasure of forgetting such rituals and skills. And without the vast marketing industry helping us forge social meanings, our homebrew status symbols may seem lackluster and irrelevant.

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