Crass Consumerism = Culture

Roger Koppl at ThinkMarkets says:

Some of us do think that designer labels will save our souls. That’s bad. But it’s a whole lot better than thinking that, say, the Führer will save your soul, or a crusade against the infidels, or nationalism, or a host of other collective salvations. When the inevitable disappointment from consumerism comes, it’s a private tragedy.  When the inevitable disappointment from a collective salvation comes, it’s a national crisis inviting some new, possibly worse, collective salvation. Until humans learn the wisdom of angels, I will remain a great supporter of crass consumerism and conspicuous consumption.

I think there’s probably a lot of truth to Roger’s claim, but my take is slightly different. We buy many things not for the functional purposes they serve, but for the meaning attached to them. A fair bit of this meaning today comes from the effort of marketers, but the symbolic importance of goods is not something foisted upon us by contemporary capitalism and Madison Avenue. Production and trade have always served social as well as material ends. Economic activity is not a separate sphere hermetically sealed from the rest of social life, but one aspect intermingled with others that economists find useful to treat abstractly. Humans have always produced and traded goods which serve no practical, material purpose. This is an incredibly important and universal part of human life; it’s called ‘culture.’

There are striking examples in preindustrial societies of economic activity entirely divorced from any material needs. The Kula trade of Papua New Guinea is a particularly striking example. Malinowski describes the Kula trade in Argonauts of the Western Pacific, but since I’m too lazy to find a good description from there, here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

The Kula ring spans 18 island communities of the Massim archipelago, including the Trobriand Islands and involves thousands of individuals. Participants travel at times hundreds of miles by canoe in order to exchange Kula valuables which consist of red shell-disc necklaces (veigun or soulava) that are traded to the north (circling the ring in clockwise direction) and white shell armbands (mwali) that are traded in the southern direction (circling anti-clockwise). If the opening gift was an armshell, then the closing gift must be a necklace and vice versa. The terms of participation vary from region to region. Whereas on the Trobriand Islands the exchange is monopolised by the chiefs, in Dobu all men can participate.

All Kula valuables are non-use items traded purely for purposes of enhancing one’s social status and prestige. Carefully prescribed customs and traditions surround the ceremonies that accompany the exchanges which establish strong, ideally life-long relationships between the exchange parties (karayta’u, “partners”). The act of giving, as Mauss wrote, is a display of the greatness of the giver, accompanied by shows of exaggerated modesty in which the value of what is given is actively played down. Such a partnership involves strong mutual obligations such as hospitality, protection and assistance. According to the Muyuw, a good Kula relationship should be “like a marriage”. Similarly, the saying around Papua is: “once in Kula, always in Kula” (Damon, 1980: 282).

The reason material goods have this sort of symbolic value is an interesting question. This paper by Sunstein and Margalit provides at least part of the answer. The abstract:

Contrary to a common picture of relationships in a market economy, people often express communal and membership-seeking impulses via consumption choices, purchasinggoods and services because other people are doing so as well. Shared identities are maintained and created in this way. Solidarity goods are goods whose value increases as the number of people enjoying them increases. Exclusivity goods are goods whose value decreases as the number of people enjoying them increases. Distinctions can be drawn among diverse value functions, capturing diverse relationships between the value of goods and the value of shared or unshared consumption. Though markets spontaneously produce solidarity goods, individuals sometimes have difficulty in producing such goods on their own, or in coordinating on choosing them. Here law has a potential role. There are implications for trend setting, clubs, partnerships, national events, social cascades, and compliance without enforcement.

I’m sure Virginia Postrel’s most recent book The Substance of Style, which I haven’t read, will also shed some light on the issue. The blurb:

From airport terminals decorated like Starbucks to the popularity of hair dye among teenage boys, one thing is clear: we have entered the Age of Aesthetics. Sensory appeals are everywhere, and they are intensifying, radically changing how Americans live and work.

We expect every strip mall and city block to offer designer coffee, a copy shop with do-it-yourself graphics workstations, and a nail salon for manicures on demand. Every startup, product, or public space calls for an aesthetic touch, which gives us more choices, and more responsibility. By now, we all rely on style to express identity. And aesthetics has become too important to be left to the aesthetes.

In this penetrating, keenly observed book, Virginia Postrel shows that the “look and feel” of people, places, and things are more important than we think. Aesthetic pleasure taps deep human instincts and is essential for creativity and growth. Drawing from fields as diverse as fashion, real estate, politics, design, and economics, Postrel deftly chronicles our culture’s aesthetic imperative and argues persuasively that it is a vital component of a healthy, forward-looking society.

Intelligent, incisive, and thought-provoking, The Substance of Style is a groundbreaking portrait of the democratization of taste and a brilliant examination of the way we live now.

Humans are extremely social animals and, especially in developed nations, meeting material needs and satisfying material wants is a minor concern relative to our desire for social status, community, and other social goods. You may or may not like this fact, but it is in no way the result of capitalism. It is human nature.

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