Ever since I studied the history of consumption and commodities, I’ve been uncomfortable with the conventional terms of what James Twitchell has called the “jeremiad against consumerism”. I’m still uncomfortable with the proposition that what we now need to aim for in the resolution of our current crisis is an end state of material austerity, to shed all our worthless possessions, to give up consumer culture.
Part of my unease has to do with the argument of some experts that what’s needed is a short-term return to the consumer spending habits of 2003-2004 in order to boost the economy, then a managed, gradual “slow landing” to a much heavier emphasis on savings over spending to give the economy time to shed excess capacity in a sensible, graduated manner. That’s roughly the equivalent of expecting occupied Iraqis to universally throw flowers and parades to welcome the American military. Desire isn’t so easily managed, nor for that matter is fear. This vision of the way forward is made possible partly by mainstream economics’ lack of interest in culture, in psychology, in history, authorized by a belief that people are collectively easily pushed one way or the other by signals and incentives.
If eventually we settle into a new austerity, that is likely to be partly performative, an identity that we try to communicate to others for some of the same reasons we might have tried to communicate fashionability, luxury, discriminatory taste: because in our local worlds, that identity accumulates some kind of social capital. (Or it protects us from attack.) Some of the material underpinnings of everyday life are likely to remain the same, even if we present them as thrifty or moderate. Many of the staple goods and fundamentals of early 21st Century life will still be there, though middle-class American consumers may buy fewer of them, or buy more austere versions of them, or use them more carefully. Families may replace computers or cars on a much more extended cycle, and use them more parsimoniously, for example, but when those wear out, they’re getting replaced.
I’d still argue that a sense that the material world around us is dense in objects and spectacle, that we have a sense of what I’ve called fecundity, is important to middle-class well-being. A lot of professionals of my generation were already trying to make their peace with some kind of downward mobility before the crash of the last year, but that was not an adjustment from wealth to poverty, just a redrawing and relearning of limits within which comfort and material well-being were still very much available. So much cultural creation in the 20th Century has come from a sense that the world around us is materially and socially crackling with possibility, even from a sense of its excess and superabundance, and of course also the starkness of the absence of abundance and wealth from so much of the global life of humanity in the same time.
I struggled during a talk last December to explain that middle-class consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere can find that sense of abundance and possibility in the intangible. I partly meant this as a rejoinder to the argument that consumer culture is inevitably environmentally destructive, that it inevitably consumes material resources at a rate beyond replenishment. I also meant to give some of the manufacturers in the audience a sense that hope for them lies in hermeneutics as much as it does in economics, that a single commodity can carry enormous weight and meaning to people and that they will continue to prioritize acquiring and displaying and using that good if that happens, even when budgets are very tight. Desire works from intangibles and meaning far more than some fixed material utility.
If I had been clearer about my argument, I would have used the concept of “social production” that has cropped up recently at Matthew Yglesias and Crooked Timber. Middle-class well-being in the United States in the last ten years has been increased far more by social production than it has the addition of new material goods. Wikipedia, for all its faults, makes life better and easier. It’s true that Wikipedia happens to displace a material commodity, the encylopedia, and it does so without replacing the jobs that the publication of the Encyclopedia Brittanica provided. Not all social production is directly rivalrous with productivity in this way, but the key is that as social production rises, it supplements that sense that the world is fecund, full of wealth and possibility, it provides some of the well-being that material commodities also provide, and adds new kinds of well-being at the same time. In Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want”, it matters that the table is well-provided with silverware, that the home is safe and clean, and that there’s a big turkey on the platter, but at least some of the comfort and well-being in that scene is social and relational. Not everything that makes us feel wealthy and happy needs to involve the conversion of material resources into material objects.
At the same time, let’s not go skipping down the kumbaya path too far. It’s one thing to think along the lines that John Quiggan does in his Crooked Timber post, and point out that “there’s no reason to expect capital markets to do a good job allocating resources to supporting innovation”, and to look forward to an economy that aligns social production, creativity, knowledge creation, innovation and a leaner, more coherent vision of productivity. It’s another thing to think that this gets us to a mash-up Sunday-school/countercultural version of the thrifty good life where we all live in 9-foot square houses, wear burlap bags, eat Soylent Green supplemented by the modest vegetable garden on the roof of our huts, live in communitarian happiness with our neighbors while flitting about the virtual global village on our netbooks, while producing homebrewed mash-up music videos of our cats for posting to YouTube. At least some of the material culture that both attracts and vexes us is also a part of the Good Life and needs to remain so. It will and should continue to produce difference as well as connection, be haunted by inequality and attended by pleasure.
The Good Life also needs good booze and good food. It needs extravagance and flights of fancy in architecture or the design of everyday objects. The Good Life can’t be bounded everywhere by a mean kind of utility, by a cool external judgement of need and want. Desire can’t just be penned up into an interior reserve: it sometimes must leap out into the material world, to hold and to act. The prophets of thrift throughout the 20th Century were also always preachers on behalf of the intense disciplining of human subjectivity, to the management of time and the control of sensation and the rationalization of beauty, to a Taylorism of the soul. That we’ve given those thrifty, controlled disciplinarians up for their opposite numbers, a crazed frenzy of Dionysian racketeers who pretended to rationality while they engorged themselves, is a good sign that it’s time to rethink how and when we desire, to recognize the ways that social production enabled by innovative technologies have enriched us far more than SUVs or 4-bathroom suburban mansions. But it’s not a reason to stop wanting.