The End of the Consumer Society

by Rob Horning

20 July 2011

Do people want less stuff and are thus willing to work less? Do they choose unemployment over drudgery and better appliances? Are we all eager to take our share of the economic surplus in leisure?

When the financial crisis began in earnest, lots of articles began appearing about the “new frugality” and the inevitable change in values that would occur in the absence of easy debt financing for consumer spending sprees. Financial analysts like David Rosenberg were pushing the argument that we would experience “secular changes in attitudes towards credit, savings, discretionary spending and homeownership” (original link broken, I cited it here) that would prevent a return to a consumer-driven economy. Apparently that’s exactly what’s happening, judging by this column from Sunday’s NYT by David Leonhardt: “Consumer spending will not soon return to the growth rates of the 1980s and ’90s,” he avers. “They depended on income people didn’t have.” The evidence:

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently published a jarring report on what it calls discretionary service spending, a category that excludes housing, food and health care and includes restaurant meals, entertainment, education and even insurance. Going back decades, such spending had never fallen more than 3 percent per capita in a recession. In this slump, it is down almost 7 percent, and still has not really begun to recover.

Jared Bernstein is somewhat skeptical of this, pointing out that consumer spending’s share of GDP hasn’t declined and that the actual structural economic change is in residential investment. Though some economic commentators have been expecting an imminent housing recovery, Scott Sumner makes the case that housing seems unlikely to pick up because the rate of household formation has slowed dramatically, which he attributes to immigration crackdowns and the fact that more “20-somethings who can’t get jobs are living with their parents.”

This concatenation of persistent joblessness, frugality, economic stagnation, and grown-up children living with their parents is reminiscent of what happened during Japan’s “lost decade,” and it probably won’t be long it will be until we begin reading more about the American equivalent of hikikomori. I have been generally skeptical that consumerist attitudes would change regardless of income, because I see consumerism as a reflection of using goods to rearticulate status hierarchies, not as materialism as such. Goods are a communicative system; the new frugality alters the meanings of some of the terms but doesn’t impoverish the language altogether. Here’s what I wrote before:

Consumerist society has for too long emphasized possessions as the route to social recognition, not collaboration. The tangibility of objects seems to substantiate the argument—the inarguable presence of more stuff seems to testify to a richer life, and marketing gives all that stuff rich meanings and fully developed fantasies we can readily enter into vicariously. And our ability to soberly question consumerism’s role in our lives is hampered not only by our hedonism (the familiar and common-sense-seeming logic of “more is better”) but by the persuasion industry’s relentless collective efforts to invalidate ways of life that are not reliant on consuming products. Lifestyle magazines and the styles sections in newspapers help by making frugality into a trend that is marked by buying certain products and shopping at certain stores. The underlying message: We can spend less but remain consumers. So we don’t need to fear.
Taking its cue from the press, the ad business will try to sell us anticonsumer goods, goods that paradoxically promise to fit in to our new recession-minded lifestyle. This not only helps ad firms continue to sell ads in a downmarket, but also helps ads maintain their prominence in the sum of our daily thinking. Ads preserve a lever in our minds, so they can reorient us to luxury when the time comes.

And here’s another post I wrote in April 2009 about the “gleefully frugal”

But has the specter of slackerdom now been cast across the land? Has compulsive frugality moved us beyond competitive conspicuous consumption and the corrosive values of consumerism, despite those values’ deep embeddedness in the discourses that structure our society? In the face of the enormous bulk of advertising and the engrained notion that status must be indicated through savvy product choices, have we really started to turn our backs on consumerism and adopt a post-materialistic attitude, as so many cultural critics have long urged? Maybe those people living paycheck to paycheck who are running out of money at the end of the month are learning to see that it’s actually best that way. They are enjoying the really important things that deprivation can reacquaint them with—togetherness, family, nature, and so on. Likewise, underemployment is a chance to enjoy the riches of leisure, if you can block out the nagging insecurities of precarity from your mind.

At the Economist’s American politics blog, Will WIlkinson recently champions the post-materialist way, citing this survey as proof that prosperity engenders a shift in values toward autonomy and self-expression once economic survival is guaranteed. Presumably being able to show how creative you are on your own terms becomes more important than showing how much stuff you have after working hard for someone else. Wilkinson’s counterpart at the blog, Matt Steinglass, concurs, writing, “What I’m trying to say here is that it seems to me that people may just be sick of buying new stuff. Or at least of buying the kinds of new stuff that the consumer economy of recent decades has been based on producing.” Steinglass suggests arecovery will be driven by collectively demanded goods—infrastructure and the like—but of course that would need to be administered by the state, which is politically infeasible, given today’s GOP, which doesn’t care about economic recovery or rotting infrastructure but only its rentier clients.

Has there been a general shift in values, though? Do people want less stuff and are thus willing to work less? Do we choose unemployment over drudgery and better appliances? Are we all eager to “take our share of the economic surplus in leisure,” as it’s sometimes technocratically expressed? (I wonder if this is a reason new households aren’t forming. Opting out of parenting, say, is a frugal lifestyle choice.) Reading values from macroeconomic data seems like slippery hermeneutics. (The mere fact of a drop in consumer spending doesn’t necessarily mean a drop in the desire to spend, unless you assume revealed preference is the only reality that matters.) Wilkinson makes the case that for creative-class types, being an economic free agent isn’t so terrible once you choose autonomy over material goods. Rather than make as much as you can, you can be a “threshold earner,” make what you need for your minimalist lifestyle, and then segue into “medium chill” mode, to use David Roberts’s coinage: “This is me,” Wilkinson admits. “I don’t want to maximise income. I want to maximise autonomy and time for unremunerative but satisfying creative work.” To an extent, that is me also, and it’s indicative of my relative privilege and my inherited social and cultural capital and whatnot—it’s a reflection of having a safety net in place (in the form of supportive relatives, inherited income, social capital, etc.) and the confidence that one could find more work whenever necessary. But, as Wilkinson notes, “whatever our level of education, if unemployment benefits and odd jobs add up to enough to keep us above a socially acceptable material threshold, we will not be in a hurry to accept any available employment, no matter how unpleasant or unsuitable.” That sounds a little like work refusal and is perhaps why the safety net is under such systematic assault. This is precisely the sort of value shift capitalism can’t afford. If capitalists lose their leverage over labor, from whom will they extract surplus value? If you can’t force people to work for you and enrich yourself from it, what’s the sense of being a capitalist? (Ideally the capitalists would see it that way as well, surrender to the multitude, and help usher in the great socialist millennium.)

Consumerist values have always been deployed to militate against work refusal, but they don’t work as an effective carrot when there isn’t enough money in circulation, or enough wages, to permit people to play that game. (Section three of this article by Joshua Clover on the financial crisis offers an overview of how and why this can happen). You can try to get people to strive for alternate forms of currency (attention, status) but if that doesn’t work, that’s when the stick of precarity comes into play. It seems like the end of consumerism because the stick is out and the carrot has vanished. Leonhardt, et al., are arguing that the carrot can’t come ever back, which seems to imply precarity forever. If that’s the case, the natural ideological move would be to sell precarity as liberation, just as consumer choice was once sold, while fighting to assure that liberation never occurs in practice, the safety net is perennially endangered, and autonomy remains instead merely a plausible dream form most people.


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