Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Consumerism and leveling (18 May 2010)

I don't often think of it this way, but my attitude toward consumerism was indelibly marked by my having grown up during the cold war, when the conflict between east and west was popularly depicted as a struggled between consumerism and a gray life of deprivation and standing in lines to secure soap and crusty bread. In the U.S., we were taught that people who had to stand in lines and who had no choices in department stores (let alone of department stores) were simply not free, in the most obvious and visceral of ways. As we were instructed to see them, the poor souls in communist countries were a featureless mass of lumpen people with no individual identity. They weren't allowed to express themselves, and the censorship extended beyond what they might have said or created -- with no consumer markets, no cornucopia of cultural products, what did they have to talk about anyway? -- to their very identity itself. Everyone was the same, and it was supposed to be awful.

Trapped in the angst of my teenage isolation, perpetually paranoid about both being sufficiently unique and included in the right cliques at the same time, that homogeneity didn't seem all that awful. I suffered from what seemed to me a kind of surfeit of identity, or at least a surfeit of potential identity. Every mundane choice about what I would wear or listen to or write on the front of my notebook seemed pregnant with obscure significance about who I was becoming, about what I was supposed to live up to, even though I desperately wanted not to care about any of it. I wanted to be in the endless eastern queue, waiting to be issued the standard package, my mind free to think about the things that mattered.

That was a conveniently rebellious attitude to have, anyway: Prosperity was a burden, and bourgeois conformity a crushing worry precisely because we weren't all issued Mao suits to wear. It was a relief to have the Iron Curtain countries out there as a fantasy alternative, as an anchor for resistance, even if at a deeper level, it represented an alternative no American kid in the 1980s in their right mind would have chosen when it came right down to it. Despite the optional paralysis, the hedonic treadmill, the invidious comparison, and all the rest of the vicissitudes of capitalism, I still wanted more stuff, not a one-way ticket to Leningrad. But still, it was comforting to have this concrete alternative to imagine, to think of an entire bloc establishing a limit to consumerism, promising that it was reversible, that people were still out there who were invested in the opposite ideal, that we shouldn't spend our lives competing to have better cars and clothes. One could imagine really existing egalitarianism and be allowed to regard consumerism as not merely the natural, inevitable way of life. One could imagine a time, or at least a place, where one could stop worrying about oneself.

Reading Slavenka Drakulić's early-1990s essay "A Communist Eye, or What I Saw in New York," about coming to Manhattan and encountering simultaneously the pressures of consumerism and the specific nature of western poverty, reminded me of my youthful fantasies, and to a degree, vindicated them. It turns out that people from the East actually did absorb an egalitarian ideal and were actually invested in a different way of life -- it wasn't merely a totalitarian state forcing them to surrender their innate wish to be better than their neighbors. QUOTE ABOUT COMMUNIST EYE. In the east, a repressive state channeled its people's ambition toward achieving freedom; in the west, already putatively free, our ambitions were turned subtly toward unfulfillable fantasies of self-aggrandizement in the name of sustaining endless economic growth. Prosperity replaces material deprivation with a psychic inadequacy that can't be meliorated.

In this n+1 essay about childhood in communist Czechoslovakia by Jana Prikryl are some hints that these differences in orientation may linger. She notes a UNICEF report that claims children fare better in the Czech Republic than in the U.S. because there's less comparative poverty, despite the U.S. being much richer in absolute terms. Prikryl explains that "the only economic advantage to being a child in the Czech Republic is that your peers are all about as poor as you are." Drakulić had noted something similar: "In socialism, we were not used to thinking of ourselves as poor," she writes. "The communist principle of uravnilovka (leveling) made us all live more or less under the same conditions. There were no ways, no means, not enough goods to establish a real, visible, palpable class distinction between poor and rich." In the U.S., virtually nothing is visible but such ways, means, and goods. Mastering through consumerism the constantly refining subtleties of the distinction between classes presents itself as the meaning of life.

Drakulić's essay vividly captures the way opulence and palpable inequality is oppressive in a different way than eastern grayness had been, an oppressiveness that in our own way we in the west were not permitted to admit. In our case, the proscription may have been more psychologically damaging because it was largely self-imposed, inculcated not directly by the State and by transparent propaganda but by what we voluntarily took in as entertainment, by what was directed at us from all sides by the existence of unnecessary goods we were invited to imagining possessing as our right. We conspired with the culture to make luxuries into necessities in our minds and to frankly enjoy the dubious pleasures of consumerism as though they didn't entail a sacrifice of an alternate ethical ideal.

In a passage about being dizzied by shopping at Bloomingdale's, Drakulić grasps much of what is unsettling and confrontational about consumerist ideology once it's made material and manifest in the commercial infrastructure -- invasive institutions of everyday life in the west that Americans cannot help but take for granted:
After a certain point, my eyes refuse to look, my mouth becomes dry, and I start to have a headache. I recognize this particular tiredness,... the feeling that it is just absurd to look at so many things and so many kinds of one thing, as if one is enclosed in a room with mirrored walls that endlessly reflect each other. It has to stop somewhere -- you think -- this multiplying, this plenitude doesn't make any sense. Coming from the world of shortages, one's idea of plenty is mainly of fruit, meat, vegetables, of shampoo, soap, or toilet paper. Here, you are murdered by variations on each of these and by the impossibility of distinguishing the differences. First you discover an immense greed, a kind of fever, a wish to buy everything -- the primordial hunger of consumerism. Then you discover powerlessness -- and the very essence of it, poverty. Moreover, you start to realize that Bloomingdale's for you is a museum, not a real store where you can buy real things for your real self.
And in that account of an afternoon's dislocation, Drakulić sums up an ideological education that Americans have drummed into them their entire lives. Americans learn that "real things" and "real selves" only exist as potentialities, though we are obligated to always pursue them.

Not that communism is a preferable alternative. Etc. The ongoing income inequality debate deals essentially with these alternatives of TK and TK, whether well-being is better promoted through leveling at the expense of economic growth, or whether growth enables general prosperity to obscure the misery of having less than some peers and the insecurity and intermittent guilt at having more than some others. The problem may be that some are better off under leveling, while others are better off with material prosperity, but no political system seems capable of embracing both possibilities, and so we alternate between them, leaving everyone worse off.

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