I consume, therefore I am
It all began in elementary school. My first year coincided with the end of the Soviet regime. The first sign of change came when we stopped having to wear ugly brown dresses with black and white aprons that had a striking resemblance to the uniforms of European maids. Later, an endless stream of western goods, unknown before, stormed our provincial industrial city. Suddenly, in order to be considered “cool” you had to have those packages of bubble gum with stickers inside and Chinese pencils with eraser on the top. If you had a backpack with pictures from American cartoons, everyone wanted to be friends with you. If you still wore a brown dress or a dark blue suit and did not have any bubble gum or pencils, you would have been regarded as a total loser by your classmates.
This stream of goods became stronger and stronger as I grew up. Cell phones, brand-name purses, and sports cars, belonging to the children of “nouveau rich” eventually replaced those once-cool pencils and backpacks. My university years were a constant competition: who had the smallest cell phone; most expensive purse or nicest dress. The university classrooms and hallways resembled a Parisian fashion show. Students from provincial cities often worked several jobs in order to survive in an increasingly expensive Moscow and saved their money to be able to purchase a brand new cell phone (old ones usually got tossed with the release of a new model) in order to keep up with the Moscovites.
Moscow of the 1990s and 2000s was all about brand name clothes, expensive restaurants, and fancy cars. The most popular and widely used English words were “VIP”, “dress code”, “exclusive” and “trendy”. People still remembered the hyperinflation that had swept away all the savings of the older generations, so even poor and middle-class families tended to spend all their money. Everyone was afraid that this consumer paradise would end someday and they would wake up back in the USSR with its empty stores and food coupons. The slogan of post-Soviet Russia was, I consume, therefore, I live.
Is western society any different or just pretending?
When I moved to Canada, I expected things to be different. At first glance, North Americans seemed to be less obsessed with brand names and to my great surprise, people here did not replace their cell phones every three months. However after being almost trampled by a mob on Boxing Day, I realized how wrong I was. In Western society, mass consumerism may be less evident, but it still exists on a large scale. If you watch any show on North American television, the sound during the commercial break is much louder than the voices of actors on the show. People are being bombarded by magic words like “sale”, “discount”, “best offer”, and “brand new”.
Like their Russian counterparts, young professional women in North America toss shoes, dresses, and jackets that could last for many years in order to keep in synch with current trends. I started to believe that concept of changing fashions was created by large corporations in order to make people buy more, like the now- popular Santa Claus was invented by Coca Cola to boost its sales. If we look back on the 18th and 19th centuries people wore similar types of clothing for decades, and now you are in trouble if you are wearing a pair of last season’s pointy-toe shoes. Technology corporations constantly release new products that are lighter, slimmer, and more elegant and all with more functions- most of which you will not ever need. Who cares that the primary function of a cell phone is supposed to be a phone? Now a cell phone also has to be an MP3 player, camera, TV, toy and more. It is even better if a gadget doesn’t last too long so that you can justify buying a new model.
Consumption has also dramatically changed the labor force everywhere in the world. Nowadays there may be dozens of engineers who actually develop the product, several hundred blue-collar workers, who are involved in the manufacturing process and thousands of marketing, sales, advertising and communications professionals who promote the product. These are the ones who tell you that if you are young and cool you absolutely need to have a MacBook and an IPhone; that using their anti-wrinkle product will make you look like a 20-year-old model overnight; that flat shoes are so last season and are worn only in Newfoundland and Nunavut.
Banks also help to hook you on the consumer drug offering unlimited credit cards with sky-high interest rates, lines of credit and loans that you will be paying off for the rest of your life. Those in the western middle class live in constant slavery, working hard in order to pay for things they cannot afford and often don’t even need.
I want to confess: I love luxury women’s magazines. I love reading them even more after September 2008, after all those bankruptcies, stock market crashes, and sky-high unemployment numbers. On page 14 you see a Hermes bag for $2,500, on the next page, you see an article on how to save money in tough times in order to afford this bag. It makes me wonder: “Are people in Western society all that different from my elementary school classmates?”