Should we be thankful for the economic turmoil? Recently Drake Bennett wrote a speculative essay for The Boston Globe about what life in the U.S. might be like if a new Depression really took hold. He makes it sound like an anti-consumerist paradise:
two of the basics of existence – food and clothing – are a lot cheaper today, thanks to industrial agriculture and overseas labor. The average middle-class man in the late 1920s, according to the writer and cultural critic Virginia Postrel, could afford just six outfits, and his wife nine – by comparison, the average woman today has seven pairs of jeans alone….
I wonder about this comparison, since we now have so many new social contexts that invite different rules about what dress is appropriate. Because I don’t have to wear a suit to work, I have only one. I have about five nice shirts and maybe five pairs of pants that are not shabby or casual. Maybe we have more casual, disposable clothes — a way of chewing up our accursed share. But we probably don’t have much more than people from the 1920s did in the way of adult clothes. Beyond a certain point, more clothes is more clutter, creating unnecessary optional paralysis. (Then again, I am an advocate of the stealth uniform.)
If we look closely, however, we might see more former lawyers wearing knockoffs, doing their back-to-school shopping at Target or Wal-Mart rather than Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch. Lean times might kill off much of the taboo around buying hand-me-downs, and with modern distribution networks – and a push from the reduce-reuse-recycle mind-set of environmentalism – we might see the development of nationwide used-clothing chains.
These already exist, especially if you regard Goodwill and the Salvation Army as franchise for second-hand-store brands. And I’ve been to Savers from Seattle to Phoenix to Providence to Montreal. The thrift infrastructure has been building up for years, but it is premised on other people not valuing their belongings and giving them away for nothing. When people replace perfectly useful things with new versions out of a sensitivity to fashion or a burning itch to spend, this is even better for thrift stores. But such luxury spending would be cut first, if we are truly rational about cutting back. The fashion cycle could, in theory, slow down. People may suddenly discover all this extra use value in goods they might otherwise have discarded, and only the truly worthless junk would make it to Savers. So it may be that second-hand stores thrive in flush times and stand to be depleted in a downturn, from an initial surge of customers and then a drying-up of quality donations. (In other words, I would no longer be able to find a vintage IBM buckling spring keyboard for $6.)
Bennett addresses the return to use value as it relates to technology.
In general, novelty would lose some of its luster. It’s not simply that we’d buy less, we’d look for different qualities in what we buy. New technology would grow less seductive, basic reliability more important. We’d see more products like Nextel phones and the Panasonic Toughbook laptop, which trade on their sturdiness, and fewer like the iPhone – beautiful, cleverly designed, but not known for durability. The neighborhood appliance shop could reappear in a new form – unlicensed, with hacked cellphones and rebuilt computers.
The underlying idea here is that gadgetry fulfills our need to express our identity more than anything else. The alleged functionality improvements usually prove detrimental, at least initially, as reliability is surrendered to style. Bennett cites anthropologist Grant McCracken’s “surging vs. dwelling” explanation of consumer behavior:
the difference, as he wrote recently on his blog, between believing that the world “teems with new features, new things, new opportunities, new excitement” and thinking that life’s pleasures come from counting one’s blessings and appreciating and holding onto what one already has. Economic uncertainty, he argues, drives us toward the latter.
The impact of a depression, then, will be gauged in terms of how expansive our identities can become. Consolidation, “dwelling,” is a matter of retreat to more traditional self-definitions — family, religion, etc. — what McCracken dubs “homeyness” and what others would call domestic suffocation. On the other hand, “surging” is embracing the material richness of capitalism as a means to do some freelance self-fashioning along lines dictated by our dreams, or more likely, by what seems to be endorsed in the larger world of mass media. This subjects us to various forms of media manipulation, but at least we are fooled into thinking we are autonomous.
So, the danger in a depression now is not so much that people will starve but that we will be deprived of the usual consumerist tokens we have come to depend on to express our identity. We won’t be able to afford to spend on brand distinctions and will in effect feel declassed. Chances are we wouldn’t get “homey” or immediately snap into those virtuous behaviors I occasionally tout as replacements to consumerism — being more active and creating things for ourselves, etc. More likely we just feel disoriented, transformed from a somebody into a nobody without the trinkets that grant us self-knowledge, the things we are accustomed to that let us make manifest and material what we want to believe about ourselves. We would have to learn to make those things for ourselves, and this would be a painful adjustment.
Consumerism lets us participate in a far vaster world than our household by sharing the brands and designs that function as a language of distinction. It’s one thing to buy a set of designer measuring spoons at Target and feel classy, another altogether to try to make something equally as polished, with the same immediately apprehensible ability to serve as a social signifier. The spoons tell people you have never met just what you are trying to be; the homemade knickknack speaks a private, most likely incomprehensible language. The sphere into which we can project our identity contracts. Enter domestic suffocation.
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 would be transitional — that the isolating retreat from a society grounded in the shared ability to spend won’t totally unhinge us and that a richer vocabulary of selfhood would eventually emerge to supplant brands and hype and gadgets and gear and whatnot. But that’s the wager in praising the sunny side of economic stagnation.