Once upon a time, human beings produced in order to survive. Then they started producing, with ever-greater refinement, for comfort, enjoyment, and spiritual and aesthetic pleasure. Today, consumption is the activity that determines us; it defines what we are. ‘Economies’ no longer simply produce objects or commodities of consumption; they also relentlessly produce the ‘consumer’ on a daily, hourly basis.
The ‘consumer’ is neither simply a person who consumes in order to survive, nor is she the rasik who partakes of aesthetic enjoyment for the sheer pleasure of it. She is also not simply one who just wants to make life a little more comfortable by spending to buy things of utility, comfort or even luxury. The consumer no longer buys a car that will survive a lifetime, but must be possessed by the thought of buying one and keep track of every new model that comes along. The consumer has to want to change cars like one changes clothes. The consumer is someone who lives to buy; who buys first and thinks later about where the payment will come from. The ‘consumer’ is a special creature, a product of recent times, one who consumes and must consume in order that the ‘economy’ may live and prosper. If the consumer ceases to be a consumer, economies can find themselves in crisis. Strange though this may sound, it is not the economy that exists for the sake of the consumer; it is the consumer who exists for the well-being of the economy.
Economies now no longer produce for ‘needs’, however broadly defined. They produce for strange entities like the ‘Sensex’ or ‘GDP’, which have little to do with what ordinary people produce or consume…The GDP (Gross Domestic Product), an entity that is just about 70 years old, has to keep going up and it can continuously go up even when people’s conditions worsen— for instance, in a war!
Becoming a consumer is not a simple and natural affair. We are made consumers. In late modern societies, there is an elaborate network of apparatuses and relations that produce the individual as consumer. The individual is thrown into a world of fantasy, whose lifeline is ‘Credit’— another magical thing that entices you into the Dreamworld and lures you into becoming a consumer. Economies in the early 21st century would not survive for a day if people were to simply buy what they can afford. Credit agencies who seek you out to offer ‘cheap credit’, advertising billboards that beckon you to holiday in style, builders and developers who introduce you to a future utopia that can be yours, the neon lights and the phantasmic night world of the city that carry you into nowhere, your favourite film-stars or cricketers who invite you in, on behalf of the company that has bought them— all of these form part of a loose but rapidly spreading network of ‘relationships’ that make you a consumer. An automobile company that invites you to ‘drive home a relationship’ is not necessarily lying. It is actually trying to enrol you in a relationship as a loyal ‘brand consumer’.
The idea of ‘consumer sovereignty’ is the biggest myth invented by neo-liberalism. The consumer is precisely a consumer to the extent that s/he has surrendered to the magical beings of this Dreamworld of Consumption.
In the compendium of tales, the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, there is a mention of the Magical Land of Hoshruba (literally, that which enchants the senses). Hoshruba is ‘a land of dazzling illusions and occult realms, inhabited by powerful sorceresses and diabolic monsters’. ‘Hoshruba’, in our late modern times, is this Dreamworld of Consumption, inhabited by seductive commodities and images, the glittering lights of the shopping mall, neon signs of global brands, all of which have a life of their own. People enter this land and consume, and they go back convinced that they— the consumers— are the real sovereigns.
This fantasy ends the moment you fail to pay the ‘EMI’— your life turns into a veritable hell. But that is another matter. Every society must have the strictest punishment for defaulters and there is nothing wrong with it. After all, you have willingly entered into this deal, with open eyes.
At the very heart of this story of ‘Development’ today, is the ‘automobile’.
We do not drive the automobile; the automobile is the Desire that drives us, for it embodies all our other desires: for control, speed, comfort, for privacy on the street, for the ‘good life’.
The initial entry of the ‘automobile’— especially the private vehicle— was experienced by many, by those who could afford it, as a kind of liberation. Working-class migrants, of course, had no option but to wait endlessly and put their lives in danger as they clung to overcrowded buses to reach their workplaces. But what does Development have to do with the working class or the poor?
The advent of the automobile also provided others with a new kind of space— a mobile but private space and another sense of control. Before the 1990s we rarely heard of something like rape in a moving vehicle or mowing down of sleeping pavement dwellers by speeding cars. In the period since the 1990s the car has become a virtual space for the playing out of desire—exhilarating and liberating on the one hand and a space of darkness and crime on the other. The car became an extension of the male self— a vehicle for the display of sexual prowess and displaced sexual gratification through speed.
At one point, the car ceased to be something external to its possessor. Sitting behind the steering wheel brought out one part of the self that we did not quite know ourselves. Domination of the street through sheer size and speed produced a new sense of palpable power among many wayward sons of the bourgeoisie. Fast-moving automobiles soon crowded out slower traffic— especially cyclists and pedestrians. Another grammar of power on the streets and public spaces began to come into visibility.
In this new grammar of power, it was not merely the street that was transformed. The new entrant in our lives demanded space and more space. Like the fabled tale of the Arab and the camel, its demands for space turned out to be insatiable. It gobbled up every bit of available space— places where people would go for walks, get together for a cup of tea by the wayside— everything was colonized by the automobile, in motion or parked. When every open and relatively unoccupied space was taken up by it, it went for the green spaces in the cities. Finally, its cannibal eye rested on the poorer settlements of the cities.
Increasingly, owners of cars, who have paid only for their vehicles, now effectively control the land where they park their vehicles in different parts of the city. There isn’t a single Indian city where settlements of the poor have not been ruthlessly torn down to make way for this new creature. Its advent has decisively spurred the colonization of urban space in favour of the rich.
Aditya Nigam is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). He blogs at Kafila
Shania Hits the bulls eye with her Song Ka-Ching!
We live in a greedy little world--
that teaches every little boy and girl
To earn as much as they can possibly--
then turn around and
Spend it foolishly
We've created us a credit card mess
We spend the money that we don't possess
Our religion is to go and blow it all
So it's shoppin' every Sunday at the mall
All we ever want is more
A lot more than we had before
So take me to the nearest store
Can you hear it ring
It makes you wanna sing
It's such a beautiful thing--Ka-ching!
Lots of diamond rings
The happiness it brings
You'll live like a king
With lots of money and things
When you're broke go and get a loan
Take out another mortgage on your home
Consolidate so you can afford
To go and spend some more when
you get bored
Dig deeper in your pocket
Oh, yeah, ha
Come on I know you've got it
Dig deeper in your wallet
Can you hear it ring
It makes you wanna sing
You'll live like a king
With lots of money and things
What the author says surely rings true. We are consumers first and foremost. And the automobile is the king.
People stockpile even on medicines, if prescriptions are for a long time. I mean, the idea is, that stock might run out, at the retailer, but first at the distributor. Naturally, if I like a particular soap, I buy more than I need, for the same reason, because I like soap, and it isn't as important as might be medicine. It makes no sense, to buy soap, like medicine, and because we don't need to see the sense, we feel it is most sensible.
A popular leftist idea for decades is the demonization of consumption. Consumption is the engine of a market economy which in turn helps the triumph of capitalism over socialism. Without the need for more consumption the capitalists would not have produced and sold more goods for their own sustenance. The socialist countries have tried to put artificial restrictions on consumption by limiting product choices to consumers issuing fewer manufacturing licenses and banning imports . As per that ideology product advertising is also evil for it fuels consumption and the profit motive is as evil as shareholder value,- a company should exist to cater to the employees and the general society without caring for the need of the consumers or the ultimate shareholder (mostly government in state owned companies).
Those of us who lived in a socialist India can tell how ridiculously impractical implementation of such ideology was. We had to buy shoddy products from manufacturers because they faced no pressure of free competition to woo the customer needs. We saw scarcity of all consumption goods including basic food items at times, smuggling of western consumption goods from a poorer country like Nepal, dominance of public sector companies that offered lousy products, pathetic services and fabulous benefits for their inefficient employees and unions in exchange for colossal losses to Indian tax payers. In that Utopian land of "self sufficient, self dependent, self reliant" India we had slogans of "garibi hatthao" and poverty alleviation programs, but all of us were poor, if not very poor. The gate keepers to this ideology- the netas, the babus and government employees of all cadre could enrich themselves thanks to the license-permit raj. That was the real socialist means of poverty alleviation by curbing consumption undertaken by India's left-thinking intellectuals and politicians.
After two decades of living in a free markets economy that gave India faster economic growth, a sizeable and perpetually growing middle class, wider consumption choices for even the poor, and some improvement in quality of services from state run large companies and departments, I believe it will be ridiculous to even talk of those prehistoric ideas that were tried for decades and failed spectacularly in India. ( If India had taken family planning even half as seriously as China the per capita income of Indians today would have been a lot higher benefitting the poor even more.) Of course, we need debate and fresh thinking to figure out new ways to reach the benefits of the nation's economic growth to a large section of the population. There is need for road plans and parking restrictions in urban areas to manage traffic congestion and auto pollution. But we certainly don't need clamp down on consumption of cars in the name of helping the cause of the poor.
The leftist thinkers in the 21st century needs a reality check especially after the loss of popularity of socialism around the world. Humans around the world -rich and poor alike- seek to improve the standard of living for themselves. The preference for consuming better goods and services is universal. Affordability is the only barrier. That's why even the poor seek better consumption goods when their income goes up. If majority of the human beings had not sought increasingly better standards of living, newer products and services would not have been discovered to improve living conditions of successive generations and human civilisation would not have advanced over the years from prehistoric nomadic societies to increasingly technology driven modern societies. Without the innovative products a lot more humans would not have come out of extreme poverty into increasingly upward economic classes over generations. Electricity, television, cellphones or processed foods that even poorer families are taking for granted did not exist even for the richest humans two centuries ago.
In conclusion, the consumption driven capitalism generates wealth and improves living conditions of everyone even if the share of the benefits is dissimilar. Excess consumption leads to hedonism, unfettered consumption leads to environment problems and reckless free market capitalism increases huge disparities. Constructive environment policies and progressive tax policies should be there to check excesses. But reverting to those bankrupt socialist pipe dreams should not be an option.
No wonder you live in Kolkata!
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