Friday, July 29, 2011

Soviet Consumerism (10 Aug 2009)

Someone on Metafilter had linked to Real USSR, which offers essays and photos of Soviet material culture. It seems like a useful resource in imagining what a postconsumer (or non-consumer) society might look like. The Soviets apparently failed in achieving a positive example of such a society; its citizens, at least in Western representations, were hungrier than their non-Communist counterparts for branded goods and the world of status consumption from which they were by and large excluded. Their seemingly dismal lack of consumer goods was possibly the best propaganda weapon for the U.S. during the Cold War: Dowdy, nondescript proles standing in lines outside gray, barren Soviet distribution centers would be contrasted with the glitz of shopping malls and the endless opportunities for self-aggrandizement. Who wants to work for a collective goal when we can enjoy a solipsistic reverie in which all causes begin and end with ourselves?

Consumerism in Western society, at any rate, is strongly associated with atomistic individualism, offering the illusion of transcending social reciprocity for a higher convenience, in which pleasure is served directly to us through various purchases in well-stocked retail outlets. Pleasure is presumed to be a matter of accumulation -- is constructed to be that sort of thing, a matter of developing the richest self through consuming and mastering the greatest amount of stuff. In Soviet culture, consumerism must have meant something else entirely, carving out a space for subjectivity -- for an alternate currency of information, about goods and what they might signify -- in an authoritarian state premised on surveillance and information control.

Anyway, the posts at Real USSR give a glimpse of the resourcefulness of Russians in the face of deprivation and the ideology that was meant to justify it or excuse it. This resourcefulness is the kind of thing I tend to sentimentalize as what's lost in consumer societies -- only the Soviets probably didn't experience it as pleasure, despite the faint nostalgia of posts such as this one about DIY fashion. It was likely felt as necessity pinching in, complicating everyday life. It was official ideology impinging on autonomy in ways that symbolized how dominated the populace was:

During the Soviet times fashion was first and foremost, an instrument of propaganda of hard work attitudes and education of good taste. Therefore the way people were dressed was very strictly regulated – just like anything else, fashion had to be “planned” and “approved”.

In other words, old-fashioned sumptuary laws were in place to discourage fashion from becoming a medium for suggesting social mobility. The link between autonomy and personal display is maintained where ideally it would be dissolved. The inescapability of invidious comparison is still implied. The post mentions the "fashion neighborhood watch" -- a sort of inverse of the feeling I have when I walk around the East Village feeling helplessly uncool. I tend to aspire toward sartorial anonymity for very different reasons than the Soviets might have -- but then again maybe they are the same, a yearning for safety. Invisibility in a socialist society is suspect because everyone is supposed to be responsible to every one else (in reality, the state) in the collective project of society -- you have to be visible but undifferentiated. In a consumer society, visibility traps one's aspirations to individuality in the realm of fashion -- judgment of who we are remains on the surface level, and can't break through to the aspects of personality that are not so easily displayed. Consequently, the culture industries work hard to produce legible symbols for every possible personality trait, de-authenticating them in the process so that all identity can be regarded suspiciously as pretense.

This post, about Soviet brands, surprised me, because I had sort of assumed that there were no brands in the USSR. The post highlights a perfume called Red Moscow, the name of which suggests how branding was co-opted for propaganda purposes -- of course it makes sense that the state would invent nationalist brands. I tend to take it for granted that brands of products function only to help individuals brand themselves, to allow them to project certain traits along the lines described in the previous paragraph. (For producers, brands allow for the elaboration of differences between competitors' commodities where there are more or less materially indistinguishable.) But Red Moscow suggests that brands could be contrived to close off avenues for the development of a superficial self. Nationalist brands would enlist users into helping complete the ideological project of the state, not the self -- a state that may not allow for an autonomous self. Such brands would demonstrate conformity and obedience in a much more direct way than our brands, which entice us to show off our conformity to the general significance of participating in fashion and having a lifestyle. Consumerism is soft coercion in that sense; it allows for a space where conformity can comfortably coexist with rebellion -- the revolution is reduced to continually turning over one's personal affect within a game whose rules are thereby protected from change.

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