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by Nicki Lisa Cole
Much is being written about the current “economic crisis,” or “crisis of capitalism,” as others call it. What will become of the world, as this is popularly understood as a global crisis, is a question that many are concerned with. Social scientists are quickly turning to the crisis to assess and analyze it, and predict how the crisis and measures for mediating it will unfold. But despite all the fuss, those who understand the history of the capitalist system understand that a periodic collapse of the designed-to-fail system is not only expected, but necessary. Capitalism has, since it was instituted as the dominant global economic system, periodically experienced a crisis of over-accumulation, to which it has responded by slightly changing the rules and destroying capital, thus preserving and strengthening the central structure and relations of the system.
Global capitalism isn’t going anywhere in the wake of this self-made crisis. More likely, it will emerge more forcefully entrenched and oppressive after its phoenix-like reincarnation because it will be popularly received as a global capitalism softened and contained by state intervention. Whether capitalism will survive is not a question to spend our time on, at least as it applies to this current moment.
What changes might be made in order to maintain its overall dominance, though, is a worthy question that many are addressing. How will the system of global capitalism adapt in order to persist? Can we see evidence of shifts and adaptations already? What cultural logic will accompany the changes to the system? What will consumption and consumer identity look like in the post-crisis landscape?
In this essay I respond to these questions by building upon a lecture recently delivered by Dr. William I. Robinson, Professor of Sociology and Global Studies, at the University of California, Santa Barbara (2009). In this lecture Robinson outlined five possible paradigms of response to this crisis of global capitalism based on his theory of global capitalism. In his work, Robinson recognizes the truly transnational nature of the relations of capitalism in our era, and the significance of transnational configurations of power and governance that accompany this organization of capital (1996a; 1996b; 2002; 2006).
Thinking about Consumption in a Recession
by Allison J. PughUniversity of Virginia
Other members of this research network are undoubtedly getting the sort of questions I am from journalists, students and friends: does consumption matter anymore, in this, the era of what Time magazine has called the New Frugality? Aren’t people saving more, eschewing excess, moving in together, turning to thrift? Is the recession doing what years of simple-living jeremiads, as Gary Cross (2000) dubbed them, have been unable to? Fundamentally, is the impact of this economic dislocation powerful enough to shift spending patterns, priorities, and the meaning consumers make from buying and owning?
I don’t think we can turn aside these questions solely because they are too glib, ahistorical or simplistic. I also don’t think the answers are totally clear; the data are still not yet in about how consumers are responding to the global downturn.
While retail sales overall are down significantly, they are not down uniformly, bearing out what scholars in this research network already know, that cultural meanings infuse economic behavior, transforming the straightforward (“we have to cut back”) into an uneven topography of desires, obligations and needs.
I looked at how financial constraints shape consumer culture among low-income children as part of the research for my new book, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture (University of California Press). The book is based on three years of ethnography in Oakland, California, where I observed elementary school children and interviewed parents in three communities, low-income and affluent.