New Internationalist

Born To Shop

Issue 189

new internationalist
issue 189 - November 1988

Born to shop
When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.
Doug Smith assesses the bubble behind the boom.

There it is on the car ahead of me. The grand slogan of North American culture: 'I owe, I owe, so off to work I go'. Only in keeping with the bumper sticker, the driver isn't heading to work at all. We are both pulling off into Polo Park, a large two-storey shopping mall which is our city's pleasure palace of conspicuous consumption. We (the other driver, my daughter and I), are joining the 200,000 other people who will come here this week to shop until we drop.

In air-conditioned comfort we cruise through this mall, passing a disorienting array of small boutiques selling pricey clothes, electronic gee-gaws and speciality foods. We shuttle back and forth between the large department stores that anchor the mall. The feeling is not unlike being forced through a futuristic abattoir, and I'll buy anything if they'LL only let me out of here.

We are in the midst of a decade-long shopping spree. In Canada retail sales have been growing by as much as eight per cent a year, even after inflation. In the past 10 years Canadians have doubled the amount of money borrowed from banks to pay for consumer goods. Three out of four adult North Americans have at least one credit card. And the trend is international; since the early 1970s West German and Japanese families have doubled their household debt in relation to household income.

It is this willingness to buy anything, and our increasing ability to go into debt to do it, which is helping to power the so-called North American recovery. Once upon a time it was the stark factory with its towering smokestack and ceaseless assembly line which signalled North American economic superiority. But in the late 1980s it is the upscale shopping mall - post-modern in design, surrounded by a sea of imported cars - which symbolizes our economy.

The creation of the ocean of consumer debt now helping to float our prosperity, is a marvel equal to what Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to achieve with perestroika. Nor is the analogy as far out as it first appears. Gorbachev's 'new thinking' is designed to tackle the flip side of the problem besetting North American economies.

The famous scenes of Russians standing in endless line-ups result from Soviet industry's inability to produce consumer goods at a rate which begins to meet demand. As we stroll through the mall we can see signs of the opposite problem. Since our unplanned manufacturing system continually overproduces consumer products, we could be thrown into economic catastrophe by a lack of consumers.

In Russia customers queue for goods; in this fashionable men's clothing store, if we adopt the right perspective, we can see rows and rows of shirts queuing up in wait for someone willing to spend a day's wages on a monogrammed polo shirt.

When I was a boy - just 30 years ago - a store like this would have had a hard time surviving in this small mid-Western Canadian city. There weren't, and still aren't, that many truly well-heeled people here. And in the 1950s people did not buy things they could not afford - credit and debt were shameful things to be avoided. My parents, children of the Depression, had a credit account at the city's major department store which they kept up to date. To buy now and pay later wasn't just bad economics, it was next to sinfulness.

But the obvious success of this shopping mall speaks to the arrival of a truly 'new thinking' in North American society buying on credit. It takes a truly inventive society to turn debt into an attractive - perhaps the ultimate - commodity. And that is what we have done. Debt, or the ability to attain it, has now come to be associated with power. If you don't believe me, listen to what my bank has to say.

For this shopping trip is partially inspired by a letter I received today, outlining what an economic Titan I am. The letter acknowledges me as a mature and responsible individual, always paying my credit-card account on time. The enclosed pamphlet continues to flatter me, explaining that since nobody promised me a rose garden, I went ahead and grew my own. And for this reason I should move up to the company's Gold Card program. This, I am assured, is not merely 'the most comprehensive lifestyle and financial program one can apply for' (will I make the grade?) but is 'most distinctive' for the 'philosophy it represents'.

And just what is that 'philosophy'? Why simply that 'as an accomplished individual you have more stringent and exacting expectations' (banker's way of saying they hope I have more money than brains). 'And these must be fulfilled' (a banker's way of saying what we did for Brazil we can do for you).

So, with my credit card tucked into my wallet we head off to Polo Park to fulfill some of my high-grade expectations. The wonderful thing about a consumer culture is that the stores have everything you want. More miraculously they have things you did not even know you wanted: like a wall-sized television set.

If the boob tube is going to dominate your life, you might as well get one which dominates your living room as well. Even more mysterious are the tiny sets with four inch screens - television for people who don't mind if they can't see the program.

Last fall in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown I was in this very TV store, watching the noon news. An investment analyst was explaining what was needed to turn the economy around. 'A good dose of austerity. We have been living beyond our means for too long and had better start tightening our belts.'

'That's sure right,' chimed the store manager in agreement. 'Too many of these unions getting pay increases they don't deserve.' Maybe. But the same time as we were hearing that we should be cutting back, the news was also full of adverts. The key to economic recovery, if my lesson in the television store means anything, is for workers to take home less money and buy more goods.

In the shopping mall you can see these employees, working alone for little more than the minimum wage, surrounded by some of the world's most sophisticated monitoring systems. The same security system which prevents light-fingered customers from making off with the goods, also trains an unblinking eye on the shop-worker.

Small wonder our society is so schizophrenic - because the minute the clerk walks out of the store, she or he is immediately bombarded with messages which are in total contradiction to those they receive as employees. There is no need for control, no need to save, one must express oneself to the fullest - and the way to do that is to shop. There was a time when planned obsolescence was capitalism's dirty little secret - now it has become a selling point. You can buy disposable cameras; use 'em once and chuck 'em, don't worry about taking care of them - you can't take care of them. There are products to help with every activity - the local sporting goods store has specialized equipment not just for sports like hockey and baseball but even 80-dollar pants designed for walking.

But the growth in consumer debt should not be condemned as a complete descent into mindless consumerism. The neo-conservative economic policies in vogue throughout the West for the past decade have redistributed income upwards, creating the infamous Yuppies with their taste for BMWs and white wines. At the same time many working people have had their belts tightened for them as factories closed and unions accepted cutbacks. For these people going into debt is not a way to finance newer extravagances but the only way to maintain a lifestyle they have been brought up to accept as theirs by right.

When the going gets tough, the tough allegedly go shopping, and into debt. It is not surprising that so many North Americans feel they were born to shop. Just as a Soviet worker is surrounded by calls to produce, all of our social messages urge us to buy. Before we leave the mall with our senses battered, I drop my plastic card on a bookstore's check-out counter to buy a pop-up book for my daughter. Grimly we think to ourselves 'It had better be good'. Having done our bit to fend off a recession we head home, controllers of our destinies.

Doug Smith is a Winnipeg-based freelance journalist.

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