Monday, November 28, 2011

Consumer Citizens

Black Friday just happened. And now Cyber Monday will be happening. This highlights something very interesting. The role of America and consumerism in the modern world. Businesses, local and international look forward to the days where Americans can consume $52 billion dollars in one day. That is a lot of products. If one factors in the discounts and downed economy—a weak dollar, constricted spending, and the industries that don't report in on their gains—there's even more to deal with.

America is huge. Many people would consider themselves consumers. Part of the economic machinery. Americans spend more time being economic units than they do being political ones. We make purchases on a daily basis but only vote once every two years (and that's for especially active ones). The average American identifies themselves on a regular basis more for their economic contributions rather than their political ones.

Why is that? Why have Americans removed the word citizen from their daily lingo? I think exposure is a key factor but even more important is the rise of a global market that re-imagines the world in terms of economic rather than political potential. I think that citizenship doesn't have potency anymore because it is actually seen as ignorant to some degree.

If you can buy a scarf that was dyed in India finished in Indonesia and sold through a third-party scarf distributor based in France one can easily imagine the themselves a world traveler, versed in the nuance of foreign culture.

Being a citizen on the other hand never really breaks the national scale. And most of the time it's just for positions on the local school board. Voting, in addition to being rare, feels—well, insignificant. You go to a private little voting booth in some elementary school gym, spend five minutes reading names you have never heard of, and then join a faceless mass of people who have an equal say in the outcome.

In the economic realm however, there is power. In some twisted Orwellian perception of our country spending has become our way of saying “all animals are equal, but some are more equal.”

Spending appeals to core American values: individualism, entrepreneurship, uniqueness, and paradoxically a strong sociality. No one shops alone really. It is nearly as taboo as drinking alone. Shopping and being a consumer is all about the sociality of it. “Where did you get that? I have to go get one like that.” The operative word being 'like' as in similar. Be unique, shop with a friend, get something similar, and spend openly.

Americans are vocal. We love to be gaudy and say how frugal we are. We are not a minimalist culture. But we aren't about excess either. Everything has a use, our Protestant guilt still directs us in the oddest ways. That iPad can do less than a netbook but it does have a touch screen that is super functional (unless you need to do anything tactile). Americans love to say how much they saved on such and such, “but it was more than worth it; it was a great deal actually.”

Thus being an engaged citizen proffers few benefits without ease while being a consumer helps define one's identity through appearance, can be social, imparts a sense of worldliness, and reinforces those aspects on a regular basis. That Americans have come to define themselves in economic terms is not surprise. The surprise comes in the perceived trade-off with citizenship.

Somehow we would rather wait in a Wal-mart line at 2am for several hours every year rather than vote once for five minutes every 2.