A word on behalf of free will

Posted by Rob Walker on April 9, 2009
Posted Under: America

I have very belatedly become aware of a critique of my various comments and writing about the downturny zeitgeist. The details aren’t important, but the upshot of the critique is that my resistance to statements like “cheap is the new sexy” or “frugal is the new cool,” somehow adds up to me being in denial about the economy.

I am most certainly not in denial about the economy. I do think some of the trend stories suggesting an overnight change in “values” are extremely suspect. But my real problem is that many of these sweeping statements about the zeitgeist suggest consumer behavior — and thus, by extension, human behavior — is solely a function of larger economic and cultural forces.

I think such assessments give short shrift to free will itself. Let me put it this way:

Is your behavior merely a reflection of cultural change?

Or does your behavior cause cultural change?

I know what I think the right answer ought to be. It’s the answer that motivated me to write Buying In and, more recently, to launch the newest iterations of the Unconsumption project. And it’s the answer that makes me resist the blithe pronouncements of the trend industry. What they have to say may well be useful to their clients (I guess), and that’s totally fine. But it is not, in my view, very useful to the rest of us.

I don’t really even have a problem with the endless musing about whether Americans will continue to be “thrifty” after this downturn ends. I don’t love those stories, but I know they have to be written. However, my point of view is that the mystery of what happens next isn’t, or shouldn’t be, determined by way of reacting to the uncontrollable. It should be determined by individuals making decisions. Exercising free will.

So my view is that ulitmately the answer to those questions I posed above about whether individual decisions reflect or cause cultural change, is … well, that’s up to you, isn’t it?

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I think something a little different may be going on with this particular recession-era trend. Let me see if I can articulate it.

I think what has happened is that it’s no longer taboo to admit you bought something at, say, Forever 21 and not at some spendy downtown designer boutique.

Likewise, it’s not as taboo to be seen shopping at down-market places. The taboo place to shop is the spendy downtown boutique. Unless it was like 75% off.

Women I know might have hidden their cheapies in the past, or admitted the source of their cute $30 dress sheepishly. But now the sheepishness comes if she has to admit buying it, say, Henri Bendel.

Before the crash, people in some circles pronounced Target as “tar-jhay” in a sort of self-mocking attempt to up-market the experience of buying cheap goods.

I haven’t heard that in a long time…

Not sure this answers your interesting question, but thought I’d throw in my 2 cents.

#1 
Written By Amy Shaw on April 10th, 2009 @ 11:54 am

I remember living in London well before the crash, in particular the Primark flagship store opening. There were lines around the block of girls vying for 5GBP to shirts (probably reduced from only 10GBP anyway). There was always a culture of thrift there, even with the glamourous girls with thousand pound handbags. I think what we notice changes during a recession, or rather the media picks up on thrift as a story during the recession, when it’s actually been there all along. In fashion circles anyway.

#2 
Written By Rebecca on April 12th, 2009 @ 11:23 pm

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