Depression Modern

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my family started shopping at a discount grocery store, Jewel-T, where everything on the shelves was some peculiar “no-frills” brand. No-frills goods came to be a brand of their own, making a memorable appearance in the film RepoMan. The point there was that society was going to make you conform and be a no-frills person, but the opposite effect was achieved, in that the characters weren’t upstaged by brands. Perhaps the same could happen for us as branding is forced by recession to recede.

Lately, I’ve become obsessed with the modern version of Jewel-T, the German “hard discounting” chain Aldi, which the Economist profiled a few months ago. When they first started popping up, Aldi locations seemed a harbinger of poverty; the next would come rent-to-own showrooms, a bevy of 99-cent stores, and perhaps some predatory payday lenders. Your average middle-class family would probably much prefer to see Aldi’s antithesis, Wegmans, which sports a huge prepared-food area with a sushi chef and basketball-arena-size layout. But the era of Wegmans — with its endless, often redundant selection — seems to have passed. Aldi, though, perfectly suits the New Frugality. The company, which doesn’t advertise, offers a top-down anti-consumerism, with management that rejects brands and an absurd cornucopia of choices in favor of limited items presented with in standardized packaging:

“It’s the best business model for retail in the world,” says Philippe Suchet of Exane BNP Paribas in Paris. Discounters stock a fraction of the goods that a normal supermarket offers, resulting in fewer suppliers, a high volume of purchases and sales, and massive economies of scale. “You would find 16 brands of tomato ketchup in a normal big supermarket,” says Paul Foley, managing director of Aldi in Britain. “In my store you will find a choice of one.”

Foley sounds as though he relishes saying that, like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi: “No choice for you!”

At Aldi, goods are displayed with an absolute minimum of aesthetic fuss. “It is as far from the charming ideal of French farmers’ markets and small family-owned shops as you could imagine,” the Economist article notes. “Strip lights glare down on a narrow range of products in ugly packaging, displayed in cardboard boxes piled on the floor and on low shelves.”

In such an environment, shopping ceases to be represented as a fun experience in itself and is reduced to its utilitarian function, unadorned and perfunctory — a humdrum chore rather than the meaning of life. Expand Aldi’s model out across the economy and it becomes possible to imagine the end of shopping as an end in itself. Hence, Aldi offers a glimpse at an alternative world where consumption is separated from consumerism — we get the goods without the optional paralysis that stems from too many unnecessary choices and without the markup that’s needed to pay for brands’ marketing.

Ridiculous as this may sound, I find shopping there exhilaratingly liberating. I don’t have to feel anxious about the stuff I’m supposed to want to try, all these other selves I could aspire to be. Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 that “the increasing mass of objects” capitalism confronts us with increases “the realm of alien entities to which man is subjected.” He argues that new products are ultimately the expression not of use value but “a new potentiality of mutual deceit and robbery.” Stepping into Aldi is like walking into a zone where that potentiality has been drastically reduced.

But it didn’t require a recession to make me start shopping at Aldi — though it does give me an alibi for fleeing downmarket. For those who are forced there, it’s as likely that luxury shopping will be remystified and reglamorized by its sudden impracticality and remoteness. (It wasn’t that all that long ago that luxury brands were concerned that the democratization of luxury would extinguish their mystique.) The problem is that my attraction to Aldi is akin to the hipsters love for Pabst Blue Ribbon — I’m turning its anti-branding into my own personal badge of postconsumerism, but I thereby smuggle the logic of consumerism right back into the heart of my identity. I can’t by my own force of will make my economic decisions free of that taint. The context of consumption has to change around me.

Aldi may well be part of that new context, if one is truly taking shape. Ideally, the Aldi alternative is a compromise between what we fantasize about and what is likely, given our addiction to convenience, bargains, and self-expression through shopping. It’s potentially a first step toward weaning off consumerism, using bargains and the return to use value as a way back from the ultimately self-defeating use of brands to fashion our identities and our relying on conspicuous consumption as social communication. But for us to stop the self-branding, we need a way to garner social recognition that doesn’t have to do with consumerism. Will that social infrastructure be built in this recession along with the bridges and airports that the Obama administration is likely to propose in its recovery package? Or will we be lonelier than ever?

Consumerism lets us participate in a far vaster world than what’s available in our household by letting us share collectively the brands and designs that function as a language of distinction throughout society. If we buy a set of designer measuring spoons at Target, those spoons tell people we have never met just what we are trying to be. But let’s say frugality drives us to fashion our own out of blocks of polished wood. This would be quite a feat of Crusoe-like pluck, but the homemade version will speak a private, most likely incomprehensible language. Aldi’s goods also aspire to be mute. And absent some other public language, the sphere into which we can project our identity contracts with our loss of access to branded goods. Enter domestic suffocation.

As Bennett imagines it in the Globe piece, “Much of a modern depression would unfold in the domestic sphere: people driving less, shopping less, and eating in their houses more. They would watch television at home; unemployed parents would watch over their own kids instead of taking them to day care.” There’s no guarantee that this state would be transitional. The isolating retreat from a society grounded in the shared ability to spend could totally unhinge us; a richer vocabulary of selfhood that could supplant brands and hype and gadgets and gear and whatnot may never emerge. Instead, we may be left watching the social symbols of prosperity and status proliferate in the media while we claw at the bars of our cages, waiting for doors to fly open again at the first hint of a recovery.