This may sound strange for a Marxist, but I love shopping. Long ago, I got over my guilt and realized that the spectacle serves three important purposes. First, it lets us survive in this world through a partial escape from it. Two, that escape provides a blurry, mirror-upon-mirror image of what a world freed of exploitation could look like: hedonism, the pure fulfillment of the senses. Three, it gives new insights into how capitalism works. I like the aesthetics of shopping, I like analyzing how an item’s uses are wrapped in a monstrous exchange process that mines the past for content and presents it in new ways. Postmodernism is endlessly inventive.
The older I get, the less time I have for those who denounce their fellow workers as consumer-slaves, for two reasons. First, capitalism is not a system of consumption, but of production. We could all stop shopping tomorrow and the system would adapt; if we all stopped working tomorrow, it would die. Second, the denouncers are usually people standing outside the labour process, who have the privileged of seeing ‘the truth’ of capitalism because they don’t have to hack at its coal face daily. Those who emerge covered in soot and photocopier dust know better than the critics how awful capitalism is: that’s what makes temporary escape so important. The end of the spectacle is not revolution but immobility and despair. The axis of boredom and anxiety that the work day pivots on cannot be broken through critique; it will be overcome through the self-activity of the masses. No self-activity in your neighbourhood? No time to join a co-op? Got a deep, yearning need for self-expression and groceries? Welcome to shopping.
I think this is a more honest position than the anti-consumptionists, or those who think trade can be made fair. The constant tension that individual rebellion needs isn’t sustainable under the pressures of work or unemployment. It either gets resolved into dropping out – a dead-end solution which is not only personally taxing but does nothing to address the root of the problem – or reproducing small-scale capitalism.
Shopping will not change the world. Only class struggle will do that. If you’d rather spin clay pots to feel better, then do it. But don’t judge those for whom the act of consumption, potential or real, holds some aesthetic, sociological or even psychological purpose.
From Shopping to Art
Just like spending all your time building model trains can give you bad skin and thick glasses, too much shopping can erode my sense of what the repackaged and resold signs mean altogether. I feel empty and crave meaning. I want something that can’t be sold, or something antique which was sold once, but which has been commodified in a new way. That’s the appeal of vintage: it represents a distance from the circuit of consumption. At least it feels that way. A used good – or, in Japan, a logoed good with no discernable purpose – allows me to attach my own meaning to objects, rather than the meaning the commodity was originally intended for.
Shopping = hobbies = art
This post does not mark my slide into Marxism Today-style anti-environmentalism. I recognize that shopping is a contradiction. However, I don’t think it’s the main one, and I think those who denounce it are unwittingly targeting coping, not selfishness. Think of it this way: consumption is an escape from alienation that ultimately binds you closer to capitalism – not through spending (individual consumption is a tiny part of the circuit of capital) but through giving you the strength to cope with one more day at work.
I’m reading Monsters of the Market, which has a wonderful quote about the role of fetish objects in pre-colonial, pre-capitalist (but not pre-market) Africa. These “were not societies which subordinated all aspects of socio-economic life to regulation by the market, which is why non-commodifiable goods were a permanent feature of social life.” (209) Shopping, hobbies and art are all distinct activities, but they share a common thread: a pursuit of a non-commodifiable good, one that ultimately allows you to maintain yourself in exploitation/dimly imagine a better world. It’s impossible to separate those two.
That said, sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the exchange-value of consumption, its celebration of inequality and ephemera, and I want to see things that are outside consumption completely, like an art gallery. Art (to be precise, an art object) is very good at representing that drive towards the inalienable. It’s much less good at representing the drudgery and turmoil of the work most people spend most of their lives enduring. That’s either because artists don’t come from the working class. Or they do and the experience of work is so traumatic they use their art to try and escape. Art is transcendent; work is concrete, which is painful when you land on it.
For those of us who aren’t collectors, art can only have use-value: I appreciate the artist’s intent and social context, and whether she melded and represented those two successfully. And even if I don’t like the art, I can still appreciate its existence outside of the circuit of consumption. (I’m not a connoisseur; I’m drawn to bright colours put neatly inside lines, like a mod-parakeet.)
An art piece is pure use-value, not meant to accumulate capital, even if that’s the purpose it eventually serves. It’s a personal statement of identity, a way of the artist saying ‘I exist, my thoughts and feelings are here regardless of whether they are sold or not.’ For that reason alone, I’m drawn to art, and I suspect most people are as well, whether they articulate it in that fashion. Like shopping, art is something outside work, and the endless struggle to accumulate and/or survive, and therefore art is good.
This is good art.
But lately that sense of relief I get seeing art, the feeling of being able to dive into a piece, inhabit an artist’s worldview or imaginary, however briefly, has been compromised. Partly by my return to wage-labour, which makes it hard to concentrate, but mostly by jealousy. I see their work and think, ‘How did you have the time and energy to do that while I, and most people, have to work non-creative jobs to get by?’ Worse, when designers make goods for rich people, I think, ‘You’re actively ignoring the misery of the vast majority to make the lives of the privileged even more comfortable.’
I should celebrate – or at least, learn from – every manifestation of the human drive for creativity, no matter how partial. But how can I, when I know that my own and many other people’s dreams of creative, fulfilling endeavor get crushed =? Capitalism is littered with the broken dreams of people forced under the grinding wheel of accumulation. Three examples from fiction (where else are they going to be?)
1) Any film by Ozu, whose characters embody quiet desperation and unfulfilled hopes better than anyone else:
From Late Autumn.
Killer of Sheep, about a man who hates his job and life so much he can’t sleep, while his son fights the realization that growing up means being as trapped as his father:
And for good measure, The Onion, which argues “Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life”. There are countless other examples.
Faced with that, I’m having trouble finding patience for art. Which in a way, is handing a final victory to capitalism. It’s like saying, ‘I’m so conscious of the system’s ability to alienate us from our essential drives that I’ve lost my own ability to appreciate those who, through luck of birth or sheer hard work, manage to create.’ I don’t mean to celebrate the beauty of hard work, which is so easily co-opted for capitalist or Stalinist ends. I mean the beauty of people whose drive to create is so strong that they have to, regardless of circumstance.
Haemil is an artist who dropped out of high school, and works a job she hated because she needed money. At nights she paints. Lest that sounds romantic, she makes very clear that her life was, and is pain: work, poverty and loneliness conspire to stifle her self-expression. Unsurprisingly, class society holds very little appeal: “If someone is living a life in which they get a little more different―a little privilege, I believe that that does not belong to them.” This suffering hasn’t silenced her – nor has it spurred her into a wonderful new life. She paints ants, who create order and society despite being tiny and in danger of being crushed. She survives to create:
These days, she works all day at her office and all night at her studio. She sleeps huddled up in the cold studio and goes straight to work in the morning. I asked her if she was lonely, and she said that loneliness was essential, and smiled.
In the face of unemployment, underemployment and crap jobs, how you assuage your alienation – shopping, hobbies, art or a combination of all three – is, ultimately, unimportant. What is important that you express yourself creatively, and work together for social justice, en route to ending capitalist exploitation.