by Rob Horning

16 May 2006


More about how optimism depresses me: In Walker’s “Consumed” column in last Sunday’s NYT Magazine he profiled a young optimist who had eagerly begun “challenging consumerism by participating in it” and buying anti-branded products, as though anti-brands aren’t also brands themselves. (Just as so many major-label “indie” bands in the 1990s had “no image”.) According to Walker, such products as the anti-branded Blackspot shoe is meant to appeal to the “cynical” consumer—cynicism being the slur used to discredit anyone skeptical of the status quo or the mainstream. The accusation of cynicism shifts the blame away from structural flaws in society to the individual cynic for his discontent—he is discredited as a malcontent complainer and probably some sort of hypocrite. Walker is ultimately able to call his sample cynic consumer an optimist because he embraces consumerism largely in the individuated, atomizing form it currently takes (The practice often isolates us, alienates us from others seen as competitors,  as we really on it to draw the outlines of our unique self, and it reinforces values of acquisitiveness and greed, etc, and suggests we can only buy our way into communities with the right goods.) The shoemakers say they hope “to establish a worldwide consumer cooperative and to reassert consumer sovereignty over capitalism,” which sounds pretty good, though I’m not sure how shifting brand allegiances necessarily achieves this. Yes, it’s better to consume products that have been made with less exploited labor and resource waste, but the underlying problem—self-definition through consumption—is merely strengthened. It may be that it can’t be reversed.

In China such patterns have not yet been firmly established, and the mores of consumerism are still in flux, the sorts of lives it will foster still open to adjustment. This article details a Chinese phenomenon called tuangou, or team buying. Consumers organize to meet over the internet and descend upon a retailer en masse ad demand better deals via their strengthened bargaining power. Bargaining itself has already been eradicated from most Western economies, where the fixed price is seen as a comfort and convenience rather than an arbitrary mark set to see how much of a sucker you are. Personally I would hate to have to haggle upon every purchase, but I sure as hell would be a lot more conscious of every purchase I was making and might decide to invest my energies elsewhere. In China, bargaining is still apparently the norm, and a group brings much more leverage to bear on any negotiation. This seems a much more direct way of reasserting consumer sovereignty over capitalism to me, far better than buying special products to display how skeptical you are.

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