I finished reading Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American last night and found myself annoyed by her description of “downshifters,” people who self-consciously cut back on their consumption and live in places such as Seattle which allegedly facilitate a simpler lifestyle, where people pay less attention to positional goods and restrain emulative spending. Written in the mid-1990s for the mass market, the book felt a bit dated, and nowhere more than in the section on “downshifters.” Didn’t these people have anything else to worry about than their own budget? Confronted with the current American political situation, it’s hard to image such compacency, where the only thing to worry about was making a political decision to drink fewer lattes. No wonder the right-wing coup succeeded.
What’s frustrating is that the people Schor describes are doing the things that I generally believe to be the right things—spend less, ignore status goods, organize processes to help neighbors share things, waste less, etc.—but as Schor describes them, they come across as self-involved ninnies who want a pat on the back for saving money and expect our sympathy when they turn down meals at expensive restaurants or wait until movies come on cable to watch them. It seems the whole point of curbing consumption is to try to remove yourself from the system by which your place in society is affirmed because of your cosumption choices. It becomes a radical individualist goal, but individualism is what reinforces our current social system. But this goal is probably impossible to achieve, because ultimately spending is always a social activity—its means are determined socially, the ends toward which it is directed are determined socially. Downshifters come across as though they believe they can transcend all this and set up their own rules for society by an individual force of will. Schor wants us to pity them for the sacrifices they make by removing themselves from the mainstream of society, wherein most sociality is fostered by spending and consumption. But by virtue of being singled out for the book’s purposes, they come across as smug holier-than-thou types utterly detached from the larger poltical situations—like people who think because they recycle they have done their part to make a difference, even though recycling achieves virtually nothing, and does nothing to stem the flow of waste and pointless packaging. (It may in fact rationalize it to an extent.)
The downshifters probably weren’t looking to be congratulated for the example they might set; it just comes across that way in the book. They whine about how hard it is to make sacrifices, which has the effect of making readers think they are blind to what a luxury it is to be able to choose to opt out. They seem ignorant of the many sources of social validation they can retain by virtue of having already had money and status. The lower classes, who have none of the social capital that comes from being raised in a certian class and absorbing their socially approved habits and demeanor (the idea behind Bourdieu’s “habitus”), can’t afford to stop playing the consumption game because it is the only avenue capitalist society offers for gaining status that one isn’t born with; it is the only open route to achieving more social recognition—spending more to make oneself a more significant blip on the social radar. But this ostentatious spending compulsion becomes a lower-class marker itself; moreso as thse above them “downshift” and make their habitus, the thing that can’t be bought, stand out more prominently as the essential class marker.