There is a nice cartoon of a father and son looking down the family driveway towards a large, modern house with two cars parked in front of a double garage and a huge plasma TV screen visible through the front bay window. Father has an arm around his son’s shoulders and proudly declares, ‘One day son, all of this … will be mine’. The punchline works (well, I like it anyway) because it draws on the common experience of cheap credit, routine indebtedness and material prosperity that the wealthy consumer societies perceive to be normal. Since 2007 though, the joke has worn very thin indeed.
Though some sociologists and economists long argued that a society built on continually rising levels of personal debt and consumerism could not last, the sheer pace of the credit crunch – a severe shortage of money or credit – beginning with large-scale defaulting on ‘sub-prime’ mortgages, plummeting house prices and falling consumer confidence, was still a major shock. Household banking names like Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual (both USA), Northern Rock, Bradford & Bingley and Royal Bank of Scotland (all UK) have closed or been effectively nationalised, whilst the global economy has entered a recession worse than any since the 1930s. Endless tales of greedy bankers taking massive bonus payments even as their banks failed have changed attitudes to the banking industry, maybe forever.
Hence, politicians now talk freely of an end to credit-led consumerism and tighter regulation of bank lending. UK Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, has spoken of the need for ‘a new age of thrift [in government] and personal responsibility’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/apr/27/david-cameron-conservatives-debt-spending). But just how likely is a radical change in consumer attitudes and behaviour in the wake of the credit crisis?
The possibility for immediate gratification, enabled by cheap credit linked to mass production, lies at the heart of our seductive consumerism. We no longer have to scrimp and save, live frugal lives of self-restraint or simply go without. Instead, we can have the things we desire right now and enjoy our lives today not tomorrow. After all, we only live once don’t we? Would the mass of people really turn their backs on this materialistic and, if we’re honest, highly pleasurable way of life? Sociologists have developed theories of the consumer society that may help us to answer this question.
In the short term, there is, no doubt, much tightening of belts (mine’s already pinching) and rethinking of personal finances. But over the long term, I think the consumer society will continue. That’s because, contrary to common assumptions, consumer societies are not defined as societies in which people buy a lot more things than in previous times. Sociology teaches us that, firstly, modern consumerism is driven by a ‘romantic ethic’ in a self-perpetuating cycle of ‘desire–purchase–use–renewed desire’. That means it is an ‘idealist’ not a ‘materialist’ practice, and one that can never be satisfied by purchasing a specific product. We will continue to want, and to enjoy the very process of wanting, even if we actually buy a bit less.
Secondly, consumer culture is the arena where social status competition takes place and personal identities are created and changed. We don’t just buy things and use them, but find and express our very selves through our behaviour as consumers, rather than having them created for us at work. And because modern individuality is so highly valued, the consumer society remains the most attractive form for its expression. Ultimately, that’s why reports of its death may be somewhat exaggerated.
And don’t forget daughter, one day all of this really will be mine. Probably.
Philip W. Sutton
To read more, see Chapter 5, pp. 185-9 for theories of consumer society; Chapter 12, pp. 495-6 and 507-9 for class and consumerism; Chapter 7 as a whole for the sociology of work and economic life