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Is the "death of capitalism" also the death of consumerism?

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Monday, Oct 6, 2008

For a long time it has seemed that our improving standards of living were somehow bound up with intensifed marketing and the expansion of consumerist practices—as if frivolous consumption alone assured the growth that made us all more well off. The only way to grow our economy, it seemed, was to convince ourselves that we needed to consume (both products and media) to express our identities, and that alternative sorts of identities were peculiar, if not dangerous (think of the contempt we have for people who brag about being above fashion or watching TV or eating sugar or whatever). To this end, every consumer good was stylized and branded, and design-driven goods were hailed as an increase in the collective good, since we all now had affordable access to pretty things that might make us feel special, and we could all define ourselves in society’s eyes with nicer things. If you wanted to reject the design revolution, you were some sort of spoil-sport elitist who detested the democratization of fashion. 


But hitching our collective identities to the vagaries of affordable luxury is not looking so good right now. Many are proclaiming “the end of capitalism” now that Wall Street has collapsed and the government has made strides toward nationalizing the financial industry. Stocks are in free-fall along with house prices, and everyone feels a lot poorer and a great deal more insecure. But with capitalism, will consumerism also go? At the same time the WSJ reports that vacancies at strip malls are increasing, the NYT reports that consumers are cutting spending, citing this among many anecdotes:


Daniel Kimble, 31, was putting Mr. Driscoll’s theory into practice on Friday. An independent trucker from Oklahoma, he stopped his rig outside a Wal-Mart in Cleveland on his way to a nearby factory.
Mr. Kimble ticked off a long list of his money-saving steps, from driving his pickup truck less to using less laundry detergent to buying fewer clothes. And he has stopped eating at restaurants on the road, which is why he was parked at Wal-Mart.
“I’m going in to buy some lunch meat and some bread, whatever’s cheap,” he said. “I’ve got to save money, you know?”


Ever since the housing crisis began and it became clear that consumer spending, long fueled by easy credit, was inevitably going to grind to a halt in the U.S., I have been wondering if the tumult offered an opportunity to reverse some of what consumerism has wrought or was simply a coming catastrophe. In other words, could consumerism be thwarted without at the same time harming consumption levels, the standard of living to which we have become accustomed? Or to put this even more plainly, could we stop being brand obsessed without at the same time being forced to eat dog food to survive?


In Iceland, they may already be facing this question. Felix Salmon quotes an email to Tom Braithwaite: “The main supermarket can’t get imported goods because they have no currency. The shops are half empty. One of the store managers has advised people to start hoarding. We’re running out of oil. And winter came last night - about a month early.” Kevin Drum linked to this Guardian article, which notes that “people were buying up supplies of olive oil and pasta after a supermarket spokesman announced on Friday night that they had no means of paying the foreign currency advances needed to import more foodstuffs.”


We can only hope that we don’t find ourselves in the same predicament in America, but nevertheless, the financial crisis will most likely force us to discover if there is a difference between consumerism and consumption for us—that is whether we can find satisfaction in buying less, or moving more slowly, or reusing what we already own, or joining a voluntarily-simplicity movement, etc. We may be forced to limit consumption and therefore concentrate our self-fashioning energies in areas of our lives other than shopping. This may prove a difficult psychic adjustment, considering most of us won’t be making it voluntarily.


At Murketing, Rob Walker seems to be thinking about the same thing:


So lately what I’ve been wondering is whether — on an individual level, at least — there is a perverse sort of opportunity in the current ecomomic gloom, which is that it will force us to think about our consumption differently. I don’t know, really, how bad things will get, or really how much of the present gloom is actually overdone and exaggerated. But I would suggest that either way it gives us a reason to reconsider what really matters, and what really doesn’t, in our material lives — in a way that a mere book cannot.
What I’m trying to do here, in other words, is find some rationale for optimism, in a very pessimistic moment.


It seems as though nothing was going to make us give up consumerism voluntarily—not global warming, not the recognition of the hedonic treadmill, not the tech crash, not the blight of hipsterism, not the forced nostalgia, not the hypermediation of every aspect of life, not anything. Now that we may have no choice but to abandon consumerism, it feels as though it’s too late—that there is no redemption in a forced choice, only misery.

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