Consumer capitalism has one goal: to devour and assimilate; divide and conquer. To eliminate all markets, economies, and human relationships that function differently. Its one part of one part of one part of this thing that this guy named Fredy Perlman called Leviathan. This is a post about one part of one of those parts.
Once upon a time, we lived in a vernacular world dictated almost entirely by our bioregions. From what our houses were made from, to what colors our clothes were, to what kind of alcohol we brewed, to what our instruments sounded like. But most of us in the developed world don’t really have that, and haven’t for generations. So we grope for that sense of vernacularity wherever we think we might get it: and right now, interestingly enough, stuff that looks like it came from 1850-1950’s America is the trend du jour.
You know the look: so-called hipsters with their leather wallets and waxed canvas backpacks, their plaid shirts, their Edison bulbs, their galvanized steel and rustic wood. Part John Muir, part George Bailey, and part Ozark coal miner, these members of the Oregon Trail generation walk around in the costume of a lost people: those who still had access to the American Dream. I read someone someplace compare this trend to a cargo cult, and it seems apt to me. With a country gutted of its blue collar work, no longer able to afford a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, we’ve taken the old adage of dressing for the job you want and are running desperately with it.
There’s a few problems with bringing these kinds of objects and products into contemporary life, though. The first is due to that aforementioned gutting of blue collar work and increasingly impossible dream of upward mobility, or of living a life on one’s own. One in four Americans is eligible for food stamps (only half that number use them), for instance. Materials like leather and steel were never cheap, so people usually had to scrimp and save to purchase those kinds of goods, and then make them last as long as humanly possible. But we rarely have that kind of buying power anymore – dollars are stretched painfully thin across a veritable tidal wave of products and services that are required to participate in modern life. From data plans, to internet, to legally mandated health insurance, to car insurance, to HOA fees, to school supplies and exorbitantly-priced textbooks, to electronic devices that need to be upgraded every year or two due to planned obsolescence, to gadgets that protect your other gadgets, to… well, you get the idea. Complexity nickel and dimes.
And that’s all on top of the fact that real wages have barely increased since the 1980’s, which has left many Americans struggling to keep up not with the Joneses, but with the fees required to simply exist in one place or another, or the technology required to even find work. These are hidden costs to living that simply did not exist 100 years ago – or even 50.
So the simple fact of the matter is that the effects of yesteryear’s wage laborer is too expensive for today’s wage laborer. Ironic, no?
Scarcity works like that, though. When plastic was introduced to the consumer market, it was intended to provide an alternative to rare and expensive natural materials, which I talked about a little in this post. It was a material for the wealthy and wanna-be wealthy. But as it became cheaper to produce, plastic began replacing everything, and by the 1950’s, plastic’s prominent place in the household was solidified. Note how the current trend of romanticizing blue-collar and pioneer life takes no cues from post-WW2 America – our zeitgeist longs for a return to a world full of things made “the old-fashioned way”, and there is no part of plastic’s manufacturing process that can be done without chemicals and machinery that fly in the face of vernacular sensibility.
The second thing that doesn’t work when it comes to making this old stuff new again is that our current culture was, in its early inception, actively designed to abhor it. The aforementioned objects are, in essence, slow. They are the products of slow fashion, slow food, and slow manufacture. (Well, slower manufacture.) And slow things in a breakneck world are luxuries, because bottom lines wait for no one. Take clothing, for instance. The average American of 100 years ago owned two, maybe three changes of clothes: a filthy, hard-wearing set for work, and a nicer set for Sundays. The garments were likely better made than the vast majority of what passes as clothes in contemporary fashion, and they were meticulously maintained, because a new shirt could cost you maybe half of your weekly wages. It probably didn’t take you very long to realize why this scheme wouldn’t work nowadays. Even if your two sets of clothes were made from the best materials around, were diligently washed, and, too, meticulously maintained, you would face social, and likely job-related, consequences for not having a varied wardrobe.
Clothes were constructed differently then, too, and styles that were deemed “professional” were often in accordance with what a housewife could sew by hand. Not so anymore. “Business casual” is the very definition of anti-vernacular: garment construction that relies heavily on synthetic fabrics and fibers to keep their shape instead of accepting looser silhouettes; knits, a low-tech kind of stretch fabric, and the irregular quirks that gives hand-sewing its charm are both considered sloppy and inappropriate for the workplace; the garments themselves are designed with extensive sitting in mind, not manual work or ease of movement. They are aggressively apathetic to culture, bioregion, and often the physical needs of the wearer.
Where once DIY items were made at or close to home, polyester garments that fall apart after a dozen launderings are now the norm.
It is also interesting to me to see just what sorts of people are appropriating the wardrobes and personal effects of the early 20th century blue-collar worker. More often than not, it is the pencil-pusher. Why should the WordPress programmer stuck in front of a computer screen all day want to look like a 19th century log driver? In the same way that body fat becomes attractive when food is scarce, someone that looks like they spend their days in the wilderness when we’ve got little wilderness left becomes just another consumer bid at novelty. But it’s also the “creatives” – people who are also increasingly spending long hours in the office, with fewer real art supplies at hand, and more technology. Funny that a commercial artist should romanticize the life of a laborer: someone who, for all intents and purposes, did not do very creative work.
Make no mistake, our culture is in the midst of a crisis. And thanks to generations of rule by neoliberal consumer capitalism, we’ve lost the ability to even put our state of affairs to words. It’s devoured and assimilated us; we have been divided and conquered. Our only recourse in this regime is to consume – to buy our way out of climate change, buy our way out of stagnating wages, buy our way out of an uncertain and fearful future. Individually, we know deep down that none of this will work; but collectively, there’s too much inertia behind it.
All trends of this sort are born from more than just the hand-me-downs of this season’s designer runways. They embody the collective consciousness of a culture, giving form to their hopes and dreams and expectations of the future. Look at the 1950’s again: the cultural obsession with space travel was more than just what the “cool kids” were doing. Sending rocketmen to Mars and beyond was the future on which we all hung our hats of national identity, and consumer capitalism quickly learned to feed on it. The same thing happened to the future as of 1970’s, where increasingly powerful computing technology was central to our vision of Tomorrow, and even so with the birth of the pop culture dystopia of 1980’s cyberpunk.
Even as our idea of what the future meant made a drastic turn from blind optimism to roguish pessimism, consumer capitalism remained in step, ready to appropriate whatever idea was central to the collective unconscious. Ready to sell it back to us with such aggressive insistence that it looses all meaning, and after a few years we’re forced to find a new future to bank on.
But we’re running out of futures, aren’t we? Since the twin birth of modern nationalism and industrialization, our concept of The Future has hinged on technological innovation, fossil fuels, and the conquering of nature to the betterment of all. The bitterness of the 1980’s flipped the narrative on its head, but it wasn’t something truly new: it was simply a diametric perversion of what came before, and it turned out to be just as unfulfilling. It’s left us scrambling for a new story. The 90’s, having witnessed the impotency of smug defeatism from the previous decade, thought it saw something altogether new in the internet, and we allowed ourselves to get unironically excited one last time – though that, too, failed to meet expectations when the corporations moved in like predators circling a kill.
American optimism suffered its final blow when the world trade center buildings fell at the dawn of the 21st century, and for the next decade we wandered aimlessly about our own cultural landscape, searching for pieces of ourselves among the wreckage.
We’ve found them, alright – or at least, it feels like we have. Too terrified to look toward Tomorrow anymore, we’ve instead turned to Yesterday. What have we found? Leather wallets and waxed canvas backpacks, plaid shirts, Edison bulbs, galvanized steel and rustic wood. We know that the American dream of the 1950’s was a hollow lie, but maybe, just maybe, the American dream of the pre-industrial age still has something to offer us. Surely, log cabins and subsistence farming and bespoke goods and knitting and Mason jars are sustainable, right?
And still the business interests have us fenced in. The log cabins have to abide by entire tomes’ worth of building codes and pass inspections cooked up by the stick-frame housing industry. The subsistence farming requires buying land (something most of “the pioneers” didn’t have to do) and navigating an entire farming industry that is still lost in the clutches of the green revolution. The bespoke goods require paying for local skill, the cost of which has skyrocketed due to the aforementioned higher cost of living and education. (We’ve also completely dismantled the old system of trade apprenticeships, so training must now be paid for by the next generation of tradesmen.) And both knitting and the Mason jar product have been co-opted by the crafting-industrial complex, which now provides an endless buffet of consumer-ready materials for us to project our wildest creative dreams onto with abandon.
Every single thing that we have tried to salvage from the past has been taken from us by business both big and small. Vernacularity once again ripped from its native context and placed in a zoo with tickets to be paid for by weekend warriors and rural tourists. While we sit and sip our $12 coffee flights, dandelion, chicory, and cassina languish in our neighborhoods. We don’t know what oilcloth is made from. We still want fresh tomatoes in winter.
When the obsession with our recent past, like the obsessions with the future before it, fail to deliver meaning or solutions for a world and planet in crisis, we’ll move on. We always do. Where do we go now, though? What story will we tell ourselves next?
I’m not sure, but it will be a reaction to all of this. Already there’s a resurgence in the old fever dreams of space travel and interplanetary manifest destiny, but whether that gains enough traction to shape our identity again is doubtful. We’ve been there, already: it gave us the cold war, and we can’t foot the bill anymore besides. The floor, as some are saying, is beginning to touch the ceiling. We’re being crushed.
One thing’s for certain, though: consumer capitalism doesn’t want you going back to basics. It doesn’t want you to buy it for life, it doesn’t want you to only own one, it doesn’t want you taking good care of it, and it absolutely, positively doesn’t want it being made sustainably.
Because odds are, that means it probably wouldn’t have been made at all.