For many years now I’ve been uncomfortable walking into a big crowded shopping mall and feeling the energy of the place. It generally feels like most people are there for entertainment, shopping for stuff they don’t really need. Four years ago I remember people joking about how it is very much a contemporary American cultural practice to “Shop ’til you drop” (STYD), but since the Great Recession, I rarely hear that any more.
Good riddance I think! The United States has had an economy that depended on ever increasing domestic consumer spending more so than any other major economy in the world. I’m no economist, but I suspect that one of the reasons our unemployment rate continues to be stubbornly high through our slow recovery is that many of the STYD folks have found it necessary to hang up their shopping bags and cut up their credit cards. Looks like the jobs that supported that superfluous hyper-materialism are just not coming back.
And reading the recent Yes! Magazine piece by Charles Eisenstein, “To Build Community, an Economy of Gifts”, I’m more convinced than ever its for the better. Eisenstein says we can trade that lost consumerism for community by returning to (or at least towards) a “gift economy”. He writes…
Wherever I go and ask people what is missing from their lives, the most common answer (if they are not impoverished or seriously ill) is “community.” What happened to community, and why don’t we have it any more? There are many reasons — the layout of suburbia, the disappearance of public space, the automobile and the television, the high mobility of people and jobs — and, if you trace the “whys” a few levels down, they all implicate the money system.
More directly posed: community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own. That is because community is woven from gifts, which is ultimately why poor people often have stronger communities than rich people. If you are financially independent, then you really don’t depend on your neighbors — or indeed on any specific person — for anything. You can just pay someone to do it, or pay someone else to do it.
Now neither Eisenstein nor I are saying to just sit back and enjoy getting poorer while the rich are getting richer. But tough economic times are as good as any to think about what is really of value in your life and spend your money more wisely on what really adds to that value. I think it’s really worth wrestling with his provocative thesis, that community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own.