Until the end of the 18th century, most of the world’s population lived in separate production ‘units’. Whether small farmsteads or large properties, they were able to generate almost everything they consumed, with minimal surpluses that were traded in local markets.
The Industrial Revolution – the cause and consequence of all types of technological, economic, and social transformations – led to the exponential growth of available goods and services. This created a previously non-existent intermediate segment between the lavish aristocracy and the subsistence consumers of the rest of society. With first coal and steam and then electricity, with the factory system and then Fordism, produce became merchandise in the classic capitalist sense: mass-produced objects for an anonymous buyer via the market. The consumer society was born.
Consumption was largely held on the fringes of social sciences until the pioneering studies of Pierre Bourdieu revealed its reach and depth, and how the trends of certain privileged groups – what we now call ‘taste’ – became guidelines for the rest of society.
This explains why those in the popular classes often dedicate part of their income to purchases that are considered beyond their means. Many progressives are infuriated by spending on trainers and mobiles that are not just items but real social brands, an investment in status. And there is also an inverse trend: the incorporation of styles from poorer sectors into the middle class, like the baggy jeans worn by white university kids in the US but which originated when belts were banned in predominately black prisons. Or, in Argentina, the tropical music added to the playlists of parties in plush Barrio Norte and even the rise of some “posh cumbia” bands like the Agapornis.
But the central idea is that since its disruptive beginnings two centuries ago, consumption has been occupying more and more ground in our social lives. It has reached the point where, according to Zygmunt Bauman, people are turning into objects of consumption in the way they present themselves at job interviews, at immigration, or when sharing their “stylised intimacy” on social media.
That’s why consumption should not be seen as the symptom of some absolute alienation imposed on defenceless humans by an all-conquering capitalist model – as in a caricature of Marxism – nor as the choice of a free, rational, and informed individual as liberals maintain. Consumption is to buy, but also to desire, to dream, and to exhibit. It is a way of saying who we are and who we don’t want to be. It is a force, distributed unequally through society, that works to affirm identities. It is a powerful vehicle of aspiration and a way in which we build our symbolic relationship with the world, in daily life, the economy, and of course politics.
Political legitimacy can be achieved in multiple ways – from preserving a certain social order to fighting against an exterior enemy or joining with an opportune leader – that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Access to consumption has become key among these factors, part of a global phenomenon that is particularly intense in Argentina. Whether due to the influence of European immigration or the egalitarian principles behind public education and early access to social rights, it is clear that in Argentina consumption is the fundamental pillar on which power is accumulated.
It was this way during Juan Domingo Perón’s first term, with its focus on full employment, high salaries, and paid holidays helping create the then-novelty figure of a “worker-consumer”. This was reflected in the boom in sales of SIAM fridges, which investigations later showed to be a milestone event in the emotional history of working-class families. Or in the advertising industry’s use of gestures commonly seen in the bars and cafes of working-class neighbourhoods and until then considered tacky by the middle-classes.
Though more spasmodically, consumption also moved its way into a central role in the country’s political life. The influx of foreign goods as José Martínez de Hoz opened up the economy during the first years of the last military dictatorship, or the post-Austral Plan growth during Raúl Alfonsín’s term are examples of transient boosts to consumption that momentarily strengthened their respective governments. Yet the biggest spike came during the Carlos Menem years of the 1990s, when three factors – controlled inflation, strong currency, and a powerful political ruler – combined with a broader historical shift marked by globalisation and neo-liberal economics.
During its long decade in power, the Menem administration not only produced an enormous expansion in consumption but also incorporated a series of ‘first-world’ traits into Argentina’s daily life and social identity. From banking to IT, from Wi-fi to private health insurance, or from gated communities to cheap flights, the innovations of the 90s changed more than just scale: consumer rights were even enshrined in the constitution after the 1994 reform.
And then came the Kirchner era, responsible for Argentina’s second great consumption boom. This time, unlike the 90s, it was driven not so much by the availability of previously restricted goods and services but rather the new accessibility of existing goods to certain social sectors. Homes with microwaves increased from 7% in the 90s to 45% today, those with computers rose from 8% to 57%, and the number with TVs climbed from 93% to 97%. There were also mass upgrades to newer models: homes with non-automatic washing machines fell from 38% to 23%, while those with automatic machines jumped from 37% to 76%. In other cases, the rise was meteoric during both the Menem and Kirchner years: saving deposit boxes increased from 5m before Menem to 16m at the turn of the century and 32m today. The number of credit cards, meanwhile, soared from 5m to more than 20m.
Beyond these figures, though, the central point is that social values were also changing: the explosion of credit cards implied a shift away from the puritan and austere ideals of early immigrant families and towards a “live for today” lifestyle that was previously considered shameful. This new climate was reflected culturally in books such as ‘Vivir Afuera’ by Rodolfo Fogwill or commedian Peter Capusotto’s band ‘Con-Sumo‘, which proposed we “stop thinking, because to think is to entertain sadness, so go out and spend”. It was also adopted into advertising, including with the archetype couple of Banco Galicia: Marcos, the husband who takes care of the accounts, and Claudia, the compulsive-shopper wife.
As discussed, consumption is more than just buying things. Consumers become political when they search for ‘fair trade’ goods or in Argentina when they demand the cut-price goods included in the state’s Precios Ciudados programme. And when consumption gets political, citizens turn into increasingly vigilant consumers: rather than blindly following traditional customs or family values, they become ‘experts’ who look around and compare goods before choosing which to buy, people who will also vote for one political party one year and another the next.
President Mauricio Macri’s close political adviser Jaime Durán Barba knows this well, and in last year’s campaign told Macri to appeal to this emancipated voter and reject electoral alliances so as to create a purely PRO offering that ended up triumphant.
But now consumption is falling. According to the Argentine Chamber of Medium-sized Companies (CAME), sales were down 4.8% in the first quarter of 2016, while hotel occupation rates during the long weekend in June stood at 40%, far below the average during 2015. It is a pattern repeated across sectors, including food.
And in this way it is paradoxical that Macri’s government, with its faith in the market and a cabinet full of men from the private sector, shrewdly understood the supply and demand of politics but seems to have forgotten the importance of consumption as a driver of social expectations and source of political legitimacy.
Translation by Marc Rogers.