Crisis? What Crisis?

By now, we’ve all read the story, dozens of times. It goes like this: the financial crisis has brought down the Potemkin village of consumerism. The recession has exposed the internal contradictions and long-term impossibility of the neo-liberal order.

In a thousand community centres across Australia, in homes and kitchens and op shops, people are changing how they live their lives. People are cooking at home instead of eating out. Restaurants are responding by replacing gourmet with “home-inspired” meals. Friends are sharing clothes. Op shops are in fashion, a claim shown by talking to the fashion designer who picked up a pair of leather pants for (just!) $120 from the Salvos. Indeed, the Salvos have rebranded their stores as “Fashion with a Conscience”, making the leap from evangelical Christians with a focus on charity, to “urban recyclers” with celebrity endorsements describing the shops as a “new shopping hot spot”.

Sewing is back – here two youngish mothers are sewing pants for their children and have started a home-made homewares club that plans to meet every fortnight in a Brunswick community hall. Fashionistas are now recessionistas; “recession chic” has replaced all-my-pants-are made-out-of-Peruvian-diamonds chic. You get the idea.

But is consumerism really on its deathbed? I mean, we’re not even technically in a recession yet.

This narrative about the consequences of the economic crisis is just a little too cute to be true – it’s like prudence and thrift as seen through the glossy eyes of an upmarket women’s magazine. These are the kind of savings found by people whose share portfolio has dipped, not the financial savings that people who have been suddenly kicked out of work have to find.

If conspicuous consumption has really gone, perhaps we’ve replaced it with conspicuous frugality. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. Are expensive ripped jeans, popular long before credit began to crunch, meant to symbolise poverty or wealth? The developed world’s press – tabloids and broadsheets alike – have managed an apparently seamless transition from stories about “why the economy is growing but we’re all really sad” to stories about “starving in style”.

An unemployment rate of 4 per cent apparently makes us concerned about working too hard, and economic growth makes us depressed. But an unemployment rate just over 5 per cent evidently encourages people to discover their inner artisan and make their own hats out of felt.

Certainly, the retail sector has sputtered in the past few months. In February, retail sales fell 2 per cent. In March, sales increased more than 2 per cent, and April’s figures show a barely discernible increase of just 0.3 per cent. But, despite the ups and downs of the retail sector since the downturn began, RMIT economists Sinclair Davidson and Ashton de Silva found, in a study released this month, that retail sales figures were sticking closely to their long-term trend – and that trend is, even in these dark economic times, moving inexorably upwards.

Sure, this could be due to the $900 gifts that most people received a month or two back, although the economists pointed out that a mostly steady trend suggests this is unlikely. Nonetheless, if consumerism is really sinking, then the seawater hasn’t shown up in the retail sector quite yet.

Obviously, rejecting consumer capitalism for political reasons isn’t a new phenomenon. Back in 2006 The Australia Institute, a left-wing think tank, claimed that dumpster-diving was gaining in popularity. Skip-dippers are conscientious objectors to consumerism who aren’t forced by adverse circumstances to dig through other people’s rubbish, but do so as a political statement about sustainability and capitalism. And, according to the Australia Institute, skip-dippers aren’t just people who enjoy reupholstering furniture, but more affluent hobbyists shoving their hands in supermarket dumpsters until they touch the coagulating bin-juice at the bottom.

And people were sewing clothes as a hobby well before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. Indeed, in 2001, the satirists at The Onion wrote a piece titled “Gruelling Household Tasks of 19th Century Enjoyed By Suburban Woman”, pointing out that churning butter and making candles by hand are very strange ways to spend your free time.

Nevertheless, one somewhat more serious article in the British industry magazine Marketing Week claimed that the financial crisis comes at a moment in history when we are shifting away from consumerism anyway – the magazine described the future as a “premodern age”. According to this view, we’re seeing a new emphasis on social, rather than individual, production and we’re buying things less for instant gratification, and with social goals in mind. We’re thinking of the environmental impact of our purchases and the ethical questions they raise, and so on.

There is something to this. In 2009, there’s scarcely a product imported from the Third World that doesn’t have a fair trade equivalent. And environmental sustainability is now held as a goal not just for committed greenies, but for otherwise non-political types. After all, skip-dipping student communes can’t afford to install solar panels on their sharehouses, these basic but expensive home improvements are being taken up by largely middle-class buyers.

Rightly so. Psychologists and economists refer to a “hierarchy of needs” – once individuals have sorted out basic things like food and shelter, safety, and love, they start concerning themselves with ethical or moral questions. If you’re rich enough to afford imported cheese, you’ve also got more energy to think about where your food comes from, or what impact you might be making on the wider world.

But how seriously should we take the idea that the financial crisis is the final straw that will suddenly push us into glorious premodernity? Marketing Week pointed to the popularity of Lily Allen, whose pop music has an anti-consumerist tinge. Indeed, in the lead single of Allen’s latest album she mockingly sings: “I am a weapon of massive consumption, and it’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function.” Do you like her message? Have you already bought her CD? You might also want to buy the video from iTunes for $3.39. And ringtones of her songs are available from the Lily Allen Mobile Store, ensuring you can continue to collect Lily Allen memorabilia on the go. She does appreciate your support – The New York Timesreported that Allen spent $143,000 on clothes and jewellery just last year. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. It would be a stupid pop singer who didn’t offer her fans every kind of merchandising possible. And for a musician, multiple revenue streams are essential in an age of widespread music piracy.

But a celebrity’s failure to practise the ascetic lifestyle they preach does nothing to assuage that nagging suspicion that political views about conspicuous consumption can be as much a fashion as any brand-name T-shirt.

Even the popular anti-advertising culture-jamming outfit Adbusters puts out an overproduced magazine designed more for the coffee table than the barricades. Yet, the publisher of Adbusters decries our lazy consumerism: “We watch nature shows instead of venturing into nature. We laugh at sitcom jokes but not at our spouse’s. We spend more evenings enjoying video sex than making love ourselves.”

Does that description hold true for anyone you know personally? We speak of other people seeking out “status goods” – things purchased primarily to signal to others that they could afford them – and “conspicuous consumption”, but we are apparently never guilty of such irrationality ourselves. Soulless consumerism is easy to identify in others, not so easy to identify at home.

Just a few years ago, social critics were claiming that people bought iPods in part to show off their distinctive white earbuds. But as Apple reduced its prices and introduced new, cheaper models, it undermined the “status” value of its products by making them available to even more people. The presumed exclusivity of the iPod range was totally shattered. Yet since then, sales of iPods have increased exponentially.

I don’t know about you, but I buy things because I think they might make my life better in some way. Sometimes we all get it wrong – a book isn’t as good as we hoped, a piece of technology doesn’t integrate into our lives as smoothly as we would like, or we bought too many mushrooms to put in the risotto. Most of the time, we get it right.

So what is so “consumerist” about that? Is it really conspicuous consumption if the enjoyment we derive from stuff comes from when we use them, not just simply from purchasing them? And if it is, then what’s the problem? I suspect that the vast literature on consumerism and consumption can be reduced to one banal observation: life is getting better. We have more ways to raise our living standards, and some of those ways involve buying stuff.

There’s a funny thing about recessions: if – a pretty important “if” – you don’t lose your job, recessions aren’t really that bad a time to be alive. Interest rates tend to go down and panicky retailers aggressively discount their goods to try to draw customers back and clear stock. If you like your designer fashion or just no-brand accessories, they will be going on sale earlier and at prices lower than when the economy was booming. So, except for shrinking superannuation savings, there really isn’t too much to panic about. For better or worse, a recession needn’t precipitate any major changes to the way we live our lives. If you haven’t done anything stupid, like max out your credit card, or taken out a mortgage you couldn’t even pay off in a booming economy, then everything should be fine.

Of course, for the minority that lose their jobs, recessions can be very traumatic. Sure, the unemployed may be spared the consequences of “affluenza” – the crippling emotional emptiness of consumerism – but losing a job is widely considered a big risk factor for mental illness, poorer physical health and relationship problems.

As always, our historical linchpin for economic downturns is the Great Depression. We all know of parents or grandparents who acquired a distinct frugality during the 1930s. But it’s not like consumerism took a holiday during the Great Depression. The 1930s was a formative period in the development of the advertising industry, when marketers started to focus on marketing directly to the vanity of individuals.

Beauty products are famously counter-cyclical – that is, as the economy goes down, sales of lipstick and foundation go up – as people spend money on cheaper forms of self-improvement and satisfaction. This held just as true for the 1930s as it has for the recessions that followed. Yet this focus on the individual during an economic downturn doesn’t quite fit our idea of the communal, co-operative and fundamentally anti-consumerist culture in the period.

And, of course, we have to remember that, whatever cultural changes did occur during the Depression, that period was followed by a long postwar boom. The golden age of advertising built on the foundations developed during the 1930s and 1940s – two decades of apparent selflessness.

Economic downturns always end. Broad shifts in culture aren’t just brought about from an economic crisis. They take time. Maybe there are big changes afoot in society. But the activists and trend-spotters who treat the financial crisis as the harbinger of a global anti-consumer sustainability revolution are reading just a little too much into a few anecdotes about sewing and vegie patches.

Anyway, a green economy will require a little more than “reduce, reuse and recycle” – going green takes greenbacks. Energy produced by wind power costs much more than energy produced by brown coal; the cheapest electric car is far more expensive than the cheapest gas-guzzler. Whatever consumer preferences are shifting towards green products is only possible because of our historically unprecedented wealth. We’ll all need to buy our way into a cleaner future – energy-saving devices don’t buy themselves. The same is true for almost all other social and ethical causes. Concerned about global poverty? Producers in the Third World would appreciate our continued demand for their goods.

If before the crisis hit you were a reckless spender and debt-accumulator, then I’m glad a recession could come along to shock you out of your idiotic ways. And if you refused to share your clothes with your friends, but now that your investments have tanked you’ve been able to find just that little bit of residual neighbourliness deep within you, then that’s marvellous.

Nevertheless, for the vast majority of Australians, life will continue as before, largely unaffected by the economic downturn. The global financial crisis is a big deal. But it’s not that big a deal.