Megan McArdle links to this post at The American Scene by Matt Frost about what Frost calls the Nothing But Flowers fallacy: “the tendency to count on economic disruption to bring about salutary social change.” (“Nothing But Flowers,” if you don’t know it, is structured a little like Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in reverse: Instead of paving paradise and putting up a parking lot, David Byrne sings about modern society falling apart and parking lots devolving into paradise as we get back to the natural way of things.) He finds Joel Kotkin committing this fallacy in a Washington Post article (reposted here) in which Kotkin celebrates the possiblities for a “new localism” in the breakdown of the financial system and the coming recession. He is not afraid to cheer for the possibility that the complacent, isolating consumerism we all know and love may be involuntarily displaced at last by hardship. And presumably he assumes that the fact we will no longer having to bowl alone will compensate for no longer being able to afford to go bowling.
Preaching the silver lining of austerity is the inevitable result of mistaking nostalgia for possible progress; or rather it is the result of failing to recognize the complications that troubled the past golden ages. (McArdle quoted Frost’s best comment: “according to Kotkin, our anomic communities will also be knit back together by high energy and food prices. A good pandemic flu, presumably, is all we need to complete the rebirth of American localities.”) Obviously you don’t have to read Studs Terkel’s Hard Times to know that the Great Depression was no one’s idea of a good fun. And suddenly changes in our standard of living is probably going to introduce more anxiety and friction into everyday life as opposed to open a space for us to be more involved with the community. For better or worse, when given the opportunity to detach from the community, our parents seized it. It’s not clear why we would feel any better about being forced to reverse that choice. As Frost succinctly puts it,
If we arrange our families and our living spaces poorly when affluence gives us choices, we are unlikely to suddenly flourish when those decisions are forced upon us. Hard times won’t compel Americans into becoming their better selves, and if we are heading into some bleak days, it’s best that we all understand that in advance.
As consumers began cutting back on spending, I wondered if they might not embrace the Aldi alternative—stripped-down shopping that makes the activity a humdrum chore again rather than an entertainment experience. But it’s as likely that luxury shopping will be remystified and reglamorized by its sudden impracticality and remoteness from ordinary people’s lives—after the democratization of luxury was threatening to totally extinguish the mystique of Tiffanys, et. al. Prosperity is not the problem with consumerist societies; prosperity doesn’t necessarily lead to consumerism, because consumerism, at least how I’m thinking of it, is not automatically synonymous with a lot of consumption. The problem with consumerism is the infrastructure of persuasion shaping our values and curtailing our freedom by narrowing the scope of experience and channeling us into certain kinds of consumption. Consumerism is an ideology, a destructive one that leads to environmental abuse, intensified stress, political inertia and, yes, isolated individuals who are perpetually unsatisfied. But these problems won’t be cured by our all being denied the potential to consume.