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LOOKING AHEAD
11.12.2008

November 30, 2008 (the date of publication in Russian)

Marine Voskanyan

THE END OF THE ERA OF CONSUMPTION

Will the crisis be able to change principal values of modern society?

Latest news about the world crisis gives no reason for optimism. Messages about beginning mass dismissals, wage cuts and even civil disorders come both from the USA and the EU. Associated Press says that the march of protest in Reykjavik ended with riots and conflicts with police. People went outside to express their resentment with the policy of the government, which basically led the country to bankruptcy. Police had to arrest one of demonstrators, and the day after that furious crowd decided to take the police office by storm, trying to break the doors and demanding to release their "brother-in-arms". Law and order attendants used tear-gas in response and forced demonstrators to step back. RBC says there were victims.

It's quite possible, that in a few months the same will happen in other countries [the article was written before riots and social unrest in Greece had begun – Editor]. Storm-clouds of "new poverty" overcast Europe, which had been an example of social-consumer calmness and confidence for Soviet and Russian people for a long time. The term "new poverty" can now be heard, for example, in the reports on EuroNews TV channel Ц about Belgian mother, who lacked money to feed her children normally, so she had to eat only bread herself; or about Portuguese pensioner, who had no money to pay his water bills and had to go to catholic charity center to take shower. And this was not a Soviet broadcast about the "grin of world imperialism", but news from a European channel on November 2008.

Of course, while the crisis had that dramatic effect only on the most unprotected Europeans Ц those who live for social welfare provision. But the majority of middle-class Europeans (and Russians also) will have to face a serious decrease in the level of consumption. Seems like this event is unpleasant, but quite traditional for humanity Ц there are periods when life is better, and periods when we have to tighten our belts. To be exact, this was traditional at all times, but in present epoch of post-modernism and consumer society the very situation might lead not only to financial difficulties of the "golden billion", but to deeper social, cultural and world-outlook problems. As consumption in modern society is much more than just a satisfaction of material needs. It's the life philosophy, the system of values, the space for self-affirmation, and in essence Ц new religion and ideology.

Many understand consumption only as a gain of some things, goods and services. But that's a mistake. We live in the world of symbolic consumption, and for a long time we have been paying money not for things, but for image, for self-identification signs, for the "feeling of belonging". The world with no ads, trading and entertaining centers would shock modern average man the same way, as sudden disappearance of all the cathedrals and priests would shock average medieval man. "This is impossible" Ц our remote ancestor would decide. Modern society thinks the same. It can stand living in poverty for some time, but fundamental changes will ruin the basis of the world of globalization and neo-liberalism. The world, which had announced its total and final victory over the whole planet few years ago, assigning two decades more to solve "technical missions" like submission of "outcast countries" and developing resources of "not enough globalized" regions. But don't count your chickens before they hatch. Today the vertigo of success changes to understanding that the status of the victorious and only right system can be lost easily. People won't like going to job by bus and not by private car or eating cheaper sausage, but will be able to bear it. But the collapse of creed and world-outlook will influence them much harder.

IS A MAN WHAT HE BUYS?

The attitude to consumer society differs in Europe and Russia. European philosophy and sociology made a deep analysis of what consumption is in its present condition long ago. So, the work of Jean Baudrillard, an outstanding European researcher of consumption phenomenon, called "The Consumer Society: Myths and Structure" appeared in 1970. European XX century intellectuals traditionally had more or less anti-bourgeois views Ц actually because they were able to see the world of fat middlebrows in details and noticed all vices and total unfreedom that hides behind its pleasant mask. But it all looked absolutely different from under the cover of the USSR: the world of inaccessible capitalist prosperity appeared to be paradise. The difference between "tourism" and "emigration" was discovered by Russians only years after, when the country lived in strange capitalist hybrid, which absorbed the dark sides of both Soviet and Western systems. And then so many eyes opened Ц it turned out, that in the consumer society the term "goods" means not only clothes, cars and food, but Ц oh god! Ц also art, health, private time and social status, and sometimes even life itself. But in spite of it all, the majority of our citizens accepted this system sincerely. Why?

At first sight it's obvious, that after living in the world of compulsory equality people got the possibility to work and earn, which can only be approved. But that's not the point. Consumption as a world-outlook is a very serious rival to any ideological constructions.

This system has integrity, that's comparable with any religious or philosophical doctrine. It indicates what aims of people's existence are (to increase the level of life and consequently the level of consuming); explains how to reach them (economically effective career); gives complete picture of the world (everything explained in terms of buying-selling and profitableness-unprofitableness) and a chance for individual happiness (we all build the world where everyone has a chance to succeed). All the arguments are simple and clear. Far not everyone is ready to live for a happy future, world peace or closeness to God. But who doesn't want tomorrow to be better than today? Who doesn't want to have spacious homes, attractive clothes and comfortable stuff?

It seems that the main weakness of consumer society is in its being too materially-minded. Many critics of consumer society often make a mistake, when they exclaim: "Oh, what a time! Young generation isn't interested in anything but money!" Nothing of the kind, the consumer society is mostly the society of consumption of senses. Wealth itself has no meaning. Buying a new car, visiting prestigious clubs and wearing exclusive clothes, a man buys image and status. That's why consumption replaces traditional norms of self-affirmation. If yesterday you needed to write a novel, play some sincere melody or make fiery speech to say something to the world, then now label on bag, cigarette brand and the restaurant you visit will do it for you. Plus you can be whoever you want every day: glamorous inhabitant of night clubs, equipped traveler or Yuppie. In this "society of performance" everyone is a spectator and an actor at the same time. Christopher Moore, the professor of Glasgow Caledonian University, is sure that shopping isn't just jogging around the markets: it's the whole diapason of human problems and relationships. He says that what we buy brightly describes us and what we want to be. That's why self-affirmation became much easier in the world of consumption. Once individuality was positioned as the result of intellect, character and personal strains; but now it's easier to buy it. Not the primitive cult of money, but the possibility to live, playing and self-affirming, makes this kind of life that attractive.

But all this "image-building" is possible only in case of favourable economic climate, in particular in the situation of growing economy of services with weighty nonproductive sector. Right in the economy, which is now falling into the crater of crisis. Possibly that's why one of the latest issues of The Economist was published with a very expressive cover Ц a figure on the edge of an abyss and the words "World on the edge".

THE SOCIETY OF TOTAL UNWELFARE

We shouldn't have illusions Ц no one will voluntarily renounce consumption as a sense, because the world, which guarantees comparative prosperity for everyone, just like this laissez-faire capitalism, appears to be a total welfare. Only the most radical idealists can dispute it. But in practice the consumer society isn't the promised material benefits and conciliation, provided by economy. In reality the growth of profits is impossible without the growth of consumption, which means the growth of needs.

The society, where everyone is pleased with his prosperity and wants nothing else is a nightmare for any businessman, as no business growth is possible in this situation. And that is the cause of modern problems. If in the sphere of reasons consumers were for a long time "spurred on" to constant craving for consumption by means of different ads and marketing methods, then in practical level inhabitants of many countries were tempted by cheap and profitable credits. Things, which break up right after the warranty period ends or which are replaced only because they become "old-fashioned", provided the system with the means of subsistence. And it all took place when ecological problems and lack of natural resources were on the agenda on the highest level.

A person, addicted to living on credit, is very comfortable for government Ц easy to manipulate, dependent, he can't change his life suddenly, as he becomes a hostage of his own so-called welfare. At that, the poor will not be allured with a luxurious limousine Ц he knows the borders of his possibilities. But the representative of middle class is easy to persuade to buy on credit something more expensive, than he could allow if he lived on real money. "You can afford it" Ц that's the main trap, which always makes you spend more than you earn. For example, last year's appeals of British officials to inhabitants of the country Ц not to use credit cards as far as possible and not to take credits at all Ц were not noticed. And now the British, and actually people all over the world, will have to pay for this life pattern by increasing unemployment, manufactures' bankruptcies and compulsory decline of the level of living.

Another point is that consumption creates the illusion of equality. You can buy things similar to those which belong to famous actors or sportsmen. Look at all the broadsheets, where celebrities call: "Come to us, be with us Ц we let you now, whoever you are!" They propose people to feign Cinderellas at the ball with princesses and princes. All these games are rather unattractive and ugly, as they cultivate the inferiority complex instead of the will to become better.

And Russians (at least those ones, who have above-average income), in contrast to Europeans come into the crisis zone right on the top of demonstrative consumption. The main argument for this is that no one can prohibit living well. For some reason no one recalls, that the equality consists not only of common rights to earn on the side and buy a new food processor. But it contains equal rights to social facilities, getting education and participation in civil institutes. However, young Russian Yuppies, carried away with their careerism, hardly think about the world of equal possibilities. The world of "winners" and "losers" looks really attractive for those who know they'll win beforehand. But many will have to face another destiny in the nearest future, when "luck hunters" will be turned into "losers" not by some left-radical patriots, but by the economic system, which had been their idol for many years.

NEW ALTERNATIVES

Even if the present crisis doesn't lead to radical changes in economic construction of the world and only becomes a serious shock for it, the crucial has already happened Ц neoliberal economic model, which had been glorified for a long time, will no more be considered as the only good one. What can the other models be then?

First of all the new idea of justice will be relevant, when the primitive egalitarianism will be replaced by keen demand for private initiative, and speculative "soap bubbles" will be impossible. Secondly, people need other aims, which would differ from endless consuming. Neoliberals do love the expression "capitalism is what people do if they're left alone". But developed consumer society with its carnival of non-material symbols for sale proves exactly the reverse. If a modern person has enough money, he begins to satisfy his desires in spite of augmenting his funds. Yes, someone's desire is a business-success, and someone primitively wants to buy a status. But the very fact of readiness to pay more for image tells that people don't need success Ц they need the feeling of successfulness. By the way, the same thing is confirmed by the great amount of computer games produced Ц a modern human is looking for self-affirmation, no matter whether it's real or virtual. So any model of life, which will offer the society another way to self-affirmation and self-realization, can become relevant. New aims also can differ Ц beginning from fighting with poverty and ending with building socialism of XXI century.

In that sense "obamomania" which now grabs everyone, is not occasional. It's possible, that the new US president will not change anything. But his election clearly revealed the will for changes and the dream about new tomorrow among millions of Americans. But not only they Ц many others around the world dream about this "new tomorrow", so the crisis will only intensify these expectations. To give the society new standards of success and usefulness and a new guiding line to approach them Ц that's the main mission of those, who want to go ahead to post-crisis social and economic models.


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