or, Failing Country? Buy More Stuff!
Few weeks ago I posed the question What Can We Do? It was an attempt to find some kind of positive path forward in the midst of dark days.
Since that post… well… er… ugh.
And so I’ve been thinking. About the bad things going down, but also about how people seem to be or not be responding. About an Election Day which just came and went in Illinois and what if any lessons can be pulled from that. About the book I’m in the middle of and how on point it seems to be for understanding things today, even though it was published at the beginning of the second Obama term.
And in the midst of it all I’ve been thinking about stuff. The buying of stuff.
I’ve written before how one of the paid newsletters I read is Judd Legum’s Popular Information. He’s kind of a 21st Century muckraker - a legitimate journalist who cals things out. He’s written a great deal about corporate money going to support particular politicians, with some emphasis in recent months on how corporations who put out tweets about how pro-gay or pro-woman they are have bad track records of donating money to politicians with very different agendas.
Initial reporting like this which he did in the aftermath of January 6 I believe to have been directly responsible for some corporate entities declaring that they would not donate money to certain politicians, at least temporarily. Now, these were mere declarations, and in a lot of cases it was temporary, but Legum seemed to have hit upon something notable which mainstream media had badly overlooked for years. Over time though I’d say that this reporting approach has encountered diminishing returns. It’s highly reliant on getting just enough attention on something to “force” larger media outlets to pick it up, and if at some point they just kind of stop paying attention because other things are going on (Ukraine, “inflation”, whatever)… well, that’s how it goes.
Anyway, Legum put out a survey, and got me thinking about the above, including the diminishing returns notion. In the process of all of it, it got me to thinking about how the kind of reporting he did was really useful in convincing someone like me to reorient the way I happen to spend money. And mostly, the answer is no. This may be because I’m already choosy about certain things. (I haven’t set foot in a Walmart in about 19 years.) This may be because there’s not really consumer choices available that differ from some of the bad actors. (If I want Internet, it’s either AT&T or Comcast.) When corporations get to a sufficient size, it’s frankly pretty hard to make very many meaningful distinctions, because they will inevitably give money to any all incumbents, will cop pretty much the same corporate woke messaging, etc.
Still, we have a lot of discretion in where a lot of our dollars go. And over the years we’ve been pulled in a number of directions regarding how to, and how not to, spend such dollars.
The first enlightened consumption campaign I can remember from growing up was the campaign to Buy American. I remember this being especially associated with buying American cars (as opposed to - shudder - Japanese cars) but I also remember there being that whole “Made in the USA” jingle and people being encouraged to check clothing tags and so forth:
Since I wasn’t a corporate buyer in 1986, I can’t speak very meaningfully to what exactly, say, KMart was or was not able to put on the shelves. What mostly occurs to me though is that a lot of people were very much inclined to buy American - if it was relatively simple to do so. Cars? Easy! Ford, Chevy, Dodge. Easy. Shoes? Hmm, maybe not so easy. My kid wants Air Jordans, are they still made in the US? Oh, maybe not. Stereo equipment? Uh, is there even an American option here at all?
I started to get politicized in college (right, right) and one of the things that sucked me in was the Free Tibet movement, and associated with that was trying to get American companies not to pack up and move operations to China. I specifically remember Levi’s moving manufacturing to China and that being a huge letdown. And there was a hot minute where it seemed like everything was made in China and nowhere else.
At some point, 1999 or so, I needed shoes that weren’t tennis shoes. There was only one brand I could find still made in the US, Dexter. I bought a pair of Dexters. Friends, those shoes killed my feet. After that I totally gave up.
I had a lot of disjoint ideas about where I would go from here. I originally intended to write a slightly more serious piece as a stand-alone META-SPIEL. Then I thought about throwing a lot of videos around. And then life intervened and I ran out of almost all time to get anything else written, and still really didn’t know where I was going, and I wrote a couple paragraphs here and honestly I’m kind of lost.
The main point I wanted to get to was this: No, we can’t buy our way out of deep social and cultural ills. But if we can’t even apply a little discipline to things like making good consumer choices, then we’re deluded to think we’re going to achieve major systemic change some other way.
I’ve been drawn to the concept of the citizen-consumer for a long time. Yeah, it’s a very Ralph Nader kind of thing. But, it’s not just that. There’s a rich social critique about the consumer society that is but also isn’t anti-consumerism, like when D. Boon implored the world to let the products sell themselves:
Ahh, if we could only all find a way to jam econo.
Short of being outright Zapatistas I think a lot of stuff was sort of protest operating from within the dominant paradigm. Certainly we could say that about Rage Against The Machine and other bands of their ilk.
I never 100% got the angle of this song, but that was okay. This is from The Gato Hunch and it’s one of the few hard rock albums from the mid ‘90s I keep coming back to. As is often the case, very surprised to find there was a video, and wow was it low budget:
This week’s subject is a complicated reference to a great many things, but chief among them was the very weird post-9/11 stimulus checks that the Dubya Administration issues. Alas, all of the weirdnesses I’ve tried to pull together, it all leaves me less satisfied than I’d hoped.
I maintain though that we have no choice but to be optimistic and to keep looking for better answers - not magic bullets, but waves of smaller positive things that we can be engaged in. Just maybe not by wearing shoes that hurt our feet.