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Consumer Refusal

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Monday, Oct 18, 2010

Mark Thoma linked to this analysis by Mary Daly of the San Francisco Fed, which included the following chart:


The warning the chart is intended to convey is that the U.S. could be in danger of emulating Japan’s “lost decade” of minimal growth and near deflation, which makes bubble debts linger on and on and discourages consumer spending, since you can theoretically get more for your money if you wait. This in turn, if you believe economists, dampens animal spirits (which aren’t so “animal” after all). 
  
Jodi Dean, responding to this NYT article about Japan’s “Great Deflation,” offers another way of interpreting this slide into stasis.


Young Japanese people no longer fly to Manhattan to shop. They save their money. “They refuse to buy big ticket items like cars or television.” and they lack “their elders’ willingness to toil for endless hours at the office…”
The revolution? The dismantling or undermining? It reminds me of descriptions of the last decades of the USSR (not the exciting Gorbachev years but the dreary years of Brezhnev). Of course, the rhetoric is embedded in US capitalism where anything but BUY BUY BUY is a threat. To take this seriously means to note the real threat in not buying, not working endless hours at the office. To take another path.
They aren’t buying it.
And perhaps increasingly we aren’t either. Maybe “can’t buy” is becoming “won’t buy.” Or maybe can’t buy now means can’t buy the lie that capitalism lifts all boats.
What goes along with not buying it? Making what we need.


In other words, Japan may be a model of a society in the process of rejecting consumerism. But is the “shrinking population and rising rates of poverty and suicide” that the Times article notes the price for this ideological reorientation? I daydream sometimes about the possibility of mass refusal of consumerism, but this is a purely egocentric fantasy of everyone choosing to live as I would have them for my own comfort. In reality, rejecting consumerism when you’ve been brought up to be a consumer is painful, and I wouldn’t want to have to do it myself without much more mental preparation and institutional support of some sort.


This question ties in with what I was trying to get at in my post at Generation Bubble about consumerism in China. In the context of the Western insistence that Chinese consumers pick up the consumption slack for economies like Japan and the U.S., I wonder how quickly cultural attitudes toward consumerism can safely shift without creating ideological chaos that makes individuals’ lives confusing and intolerably insecure. Will the U.S. start manufacturing more consumer goods if China rebalances? In a zero-sum global economy with respect to labor competitiveness, are Americans ready to become the immiserated reserve army poor, relatively speaking, and absorb declines in their standard of living as measured in terms of consumption?


In Cyber Marx, Nick Dyer-Witheford darkly suggests that globalization’s “deindustrialising process comes full circle, by creating in the old metropolitan areas zones of immiseration so deep that they then become low wage areas which lure capital back from its flight to the one-time periphery: Scotland and Ireland are now attracting Japanese and Korean investment with industrial wage levels comparable to those in parts of Asia.”


Incidentally, he also notes that globalization requires that consumption be reorganized in new consumerist lands through the media, another point I was trying to make in the Gen Bub essay:


a global projection of consumerism into zones previously entirely relegated to economic marginality demands a reconstruction of needs and desires—of cultural traditions, religious prohibitions, dietary habits, sexual mores, traditions of self-sufficiency—similar to that experienced by the Euro-American proletariat in the first part of the twentieth century, but exceeding it in scale. In this process the vanguard organisations are the great media corporations—characterised by concentrated ownership, vertical and horizontal integration, and mastery of world-spanning arrays of convergent technologies….Globalisation means that everywhere, all the time, it is “video night in Kathmandu,” as the habits of media spectatorship are stimulated and implanted worldwide.


“Video night” is outdated—it’s internet time everywhere, and Chinese consumers, as the McKinsey report stresses, are eager adopters of the medium. BAsically, the internet is first and foremost a consumerist training tool from capital’s perspective, which is why it will continue to be difficult to make it into something subversive. Lots of minds are working hard to make it strictly consumerist, and they already have come up with the iPad to further their machinations. Hopefully people aren’t buying that either.

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