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The importance of disappointment

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Thursday, Dec 25, 2008

This is not a bah-humbug post about errant Christmas gifts. Rather I have started to read Albert Hirschman’s Shifting Involvements, which offers a theory for why societies cycle between focusing on private consumption for satisfaction (a la 1950s) to becoming more involved in social action and political organization and public issues (a la 1960s). (Hirschman, however, does make this heartwarming observation about disappointment: “The ‘cost’ of disappointments may well be less than the ‘benefit’ yielded by man’s ability to entertain over and over again the idea of bliss and happiness, disappointment-bound though it may be.” Disappointment is the price we pay for all that holiday-spirit-style anticipation leading up to today. So cherish your disgruntlement!)


An analysis of how we shift from public engagement to self-involvement seems pertinent to proclamations that because of Obama’s election, as Joshua Errett writes in Now Toronto, “Hipsters essentially became hopesters.” (Barf.) Virtually every statement in the article strikes me as dubious—from the genesis of hipsters to the source of their resiliency to their evolution in response to political change. Hipsterism is not a trend so much as it is a disguise term for consumerist ideology. A hipster is a consumer, period. The term helps affiliate consumerism with youth trends, which are actually independent, subject to the fashion cycle. But consumerism, hipsterism, cannot go out of fashion. They describe the prevailing social relations, which will only change with a massive shift in underlying economic relations and ideological assumptions. If hipsterism is to disappear, it would involve a massive economic reorganization, not a change in youth fashions.


Perhaps the depth of the current recession may be sufficient to trigger such a change—though in Shifting Involvements Hirschman is eager to prove that such changes in consumer orientation are periodic and actually endogenous, that is they require no triggering events but fashion their own triggers through the inherent contradictions in collective social behavior under capitalism. Events don’t come as shocks but as culminations. His example for this dialectic is World War I, which trigger massive changes in people’s orientation toward satisfaction seeking, but was in itself, to a degree, a consequence of a widespread attitude of boredom with bourgeois prosperity. War was going to cleanse the world of decadence and bring back the time of heroes.It seems a stretch to say that the recession has been welcomed, prompted, as a wonderful return of volatility and market chaos and creative destruction after the so-called Great Moderation, but certainly some commentators take that tack when railing against bank bailouts and how they are preventing the system purge that history seems to be demanding. The resistance to Keynesian economics relates to this—as these quotes from Krugman gathered by Mark Thoma suggest. Keynes wanted us to stop regarding macroeconomics as a morality play, and recessions as something we deserve for some ideological deviation or another. I’m afflicted by this tendency when I want to regard the recession as our just deserts for consumerist myopia.


Anyway, Hirschman’s argument pertains to the question of whether this recession can prompt a lasting reevaluation of the consumerist way of life, or if it’s just another moment in a continual cycle that has already proven its resiliency. Hirschman’s chief point revolves around the contextual nature of disappointment and how it varies.


Acts of consumption, as well as acts of participation in public affairs, which are undertaken because they are expected to yield satisfaction, also yield disappointment and dissatisfaction. They do so for different reasons, in different ways, and to different degrees, but to the extent that the disappointment is not wholly eliminated by an instantaneous downward adjustment of expectations, any pattern of consumption or of time use carries within itself…“the seeds of its own destruction.”


Basically, consumption provides diminishing returns of satisfaction, and with durable goods that are not frequently consumed, the disappointment can’t be rechanneled into a purchase of a replacement. So we learn that buying a house is the ultimate reward in life, we do it, it inevitably disappoints, we stave that off for as long as we can and then we refinance and buy a bigger house. But that becomes unsustainable, with the outcome we are now seeing, which is a material expression of the escalating disappointment with a life centered around consuming housing as an end in itself. We tried bigger houses, but that reached its limit. Now we need a new option. Is it plausible to hope that it could take the form of greater public involvement with solving a collective problem like global warming. Will that disappointment be channeled into a green bubble, as we try to derive moral satisfaction from environmentally conscientious behavior?


The problem, though, as Robert Frank points out in his introduction to the new edition of Shifting Involvements, is that treating moral behavior as a consumption good, pursued for personal satisfaction, is that our motivation then weakens as the context changes.The moral satisfaction that we derive from behavior is relative to what everyone else is doing. When we are first on the blick with our Prius, our moral satisfaction is great and palpable. But when everyone already has a Prius, we get less satisfaction from buying one, as we will garner less recognition for our distinctive commitment to doing the right thing. As Frank writes, “the problem may not be that people are disappointed with the concrete results of their involvement”—the Prius still conserves fossil fuels—“or that the costs of involvement are high”—if everyone is buying Priuses, they should become cheaper—“rather, it just may be that it becomes increasingly difficult for participants to earn moral credit. Once the imbalance between effort and reward becomes sufficiently high, people’s attention shifts to alternative pursuits.” Hence there may be an endogenous limit to things like recycling, if we presume that people are participating for self-centered moral satisfaction and recognition. Such behaviors need to be removed from the sphere of pursuing satisfactions—i.e. they can’t be seen as part of satisfying personal wants and needs. They must regarded socially as being non-economic duties, a perception that ideology must produce. Hirschman points out that such things as “worship, mourning, family visits ...  are not compared with income-producing or consumption activities” thanks to certain “social arrangements.” He adds, in a crisp piece of econspeak, that “a good portion of our social arrangements is meant to prevent that equalization-at-the-margin of the satisfactions derived from our various activities which is the crux of the economic model.” What is dangerous then, when we extend a consumerist model of buying satisfaction in the marketplace and displaying our identities as though they are competing products on a social market, is that these activities protected by being considered noneconomic will be obliterated. When people fret about the commercialization of Christmas, they are targeting this tendency for economic thinking to come to govern social duties once exempt. There are no especially good economic incentives to make the trip over the river and through the wood to grandmother’s house.


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