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New frugality as old cultural war

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Thursday, Oct 8, 2009

I was thinking more about a line in the last paragraph of James Surowiecki’s New Yorker column about consumer spending.


But the evidence for a radical shift in the way we consume seems more like the product of wishful thinking (there’s a palpable longing among pundits for Americans to become more frugal) than anything else.


It’s what is in the parenthesis that interests me, that “palpable longing” that most likely refers to David Brooks, who pined for “economic self-restraint” in this recent New York Timesop-ed. Since I tend to think of cheerleaders for the consumer society as being situated ideologically on the pro-business right, I regarded this kind of rhetoric as a move by Brooks toward the crunchy left, with its preoccupation with environmental responsibility and conservation and recycling and the like. But an old Joan Didion piece about the Washington press corps during the Clinton years (aptly titled “Vichy Washington”), reminded me of the obvious point that Brooks is reaching back to an older tradition of conservative intolerance personified back then by Robert Bork:


Bork is worth some study, since it is to him that we owe the most forthright statements of what might be required to effect “a moral and spiritual regeneration,” the necessity for which has since entered the talk show and op-ed ether. Such a regeneration, Bork speculated in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, by one of four events: “a religious revival, the revival of public discourse about morality, a cataclysmic war, or a deep economic depression.”


This puts a religious-bigot spin on the The Shock Doctrine thesis: rather than use crisis to implement a neoliberal program of economic deregulation, conservatives should seize the opportunity presented by widespread economic misery to push through a variety of behavioral proscriptions. Didion quotes Bork’s outrageous dictum that “moral outrage is a sufficient ground for prohibitory legislation. Knowledge that an activity is taking place is a harm to those who find it profoundly immoral.”


This tradition makes it more understandable why pundits are “palpably longing” for a more frugal America and why they overlook the evidence that Americans have been spending more largely because the cost of housing, medical care and education have risen precipitously (thanks in part to the flood of credit inflating asset values). The new frugality seems malleable enough a concept to serve as fresh code for an old battle, that of restricting individual freedoms to preserve religious authority in society. Religious institutions once had a monopoly on meaning and doled it out in return for obedience. Consumerism, and the identity fashioning it enabled at the individual rather than community level, usurped that power, demanding only an obedience that often felt like liberty—the restriction of self-expression to choosing among a plethora of goods in the consumer marketplace. The longing for a more frugal America is one of way of renewing the call for a more “spiritual” America, which is a way of demanding the legislation of morality in the name of values presumed to be universal and incontestable.

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