So I’m reading Baudrillard and I’m digging it, because I’m a sucker for any critique of consumerism. Fair warning, stylistically he’s fairly unreadable.
Anyway, chapter 3 is basically about an endless consumerist loop which on first blush is pretty much pomo garbage but it’s sticking in my mind and I want to strengthen/empiricism it.
So Baudrillard’s critique basically goes “Consumerism/capitalism changes the value of an item from utility/practicality to status/position/symbol. Status/position/symbol values don’t increase as more goods increase, in fact, more production/growth generates more poverty because (basically unintelligible, my best guess) more production just increases the cost/amount of status goods you need, therefore in real terms status goods become more and more expensive and at some point we’re generating more poverty because so much income goes into status purchases.”
It’s confusing because it sounds dumb. Baudrillard thinks more stuff makes us poorer but that’s not how stuff works, more stuff is more, that’s how “more” works. If we have x things and then we get y more things, how is x+y<x? More concretely, this feels like a upper-middle class thing; sure rich-ish people might be wasting their money on Prada bags but poor people are suffering as serious lack of food/housing/transportation/[other real things go here].
So I want to make a defense of Baudrillard’s idea:
Poor people really want status goods. I’m not going to pretend I understand why but poor people empirically seek to buy status goods even at great personal risk. We could share stories of impoverished Indians spending 2-3 years of annual income on a wedding (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-slavery-child-marriage/wedded-to-debt-fathers-of-indian-child-brides-trapped-in-bondage-idUSKCN1PA03A) but there’s a paper I like on the spending habits of rural Chinese in Guizhou. These are China’s poorest farmers, think $120-$240 a year in 2004-2006 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304387810000593). Page 12, Table 3 has the gold, gift and festival spending is 7-15% of spending, behind food/medical care/education, but above clothing/fuel/telephone. Even the extremely poor spend money on status and they will do it at the expense of things that we would typically consider critical, such as clothing, higher quality food, or even education. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that all the villages saw significant growth in this period and the primary shifts in spending are less spending on food and more money of gift/festival spending and education, with more weight on gift/festival spending.
PS. I remember a lot more papers on luxury/festival spending among the global poor from grad school but I can’t find the papers. My search-fu is weak.
I think there’s a Maslow hierarchy thing here. Most of us accept that rich people waste money on status but we think of poor people as unable to afford to play status games. And therefore Baudrillard’s critique can’t really work; economic growth always helps poor people because that increased wealth/income/goods flows to the bottom of the Maslow pyramid to things like food/shelter/things with clear and important use value.
So I think the steelman/empiricist-legible version of Baudrillard is: Maslow is wrong, people will purchase status before spending on things with very high use value, such as stable housing/good healthcare/good food/etc.
This creates a weird situation where more growth can make everyone poorer, because status, while perhaps not zero-sum, doesn’t linearly scale like food/housing/useful things. Therefore, if the economic growth is a growth in status things, then poor people will decrease the amount they purchase of useful things in order to keep up their status.
Here’s the simple example: imagine you need a car to get laid. Getting laid is very important to young men, so they all buy cars. Then Toyota/Ford/whoever comes out with a new car with 100 more horsepower. This horsepower has no real use; speed limits mean you can’t legally drive faster. However, more horsepower is cool, it becomes the new status symbol, and everyone who wants to get laid has to buy the new car. In this scenario GDP goes up (new cars are more expensive=more valuable and everyone is buying them), income goes up (people get paid to make/design the car the car), but everyone’s cost went up (buying new cars). It seems obvious that we’re all actually poorer; we gain the production of the new cars but we threw away perfectly functional cars and the spending is likely more than the extra income, especially for the poor. And the poor are especially hurt by this, young men really want to get laid even if they’re poor so poor young men will eat beans and rice, avoid the doctor, and work extra hours just to afford a new car that has no utility value, it’s just a status symbol to get laid. So we went from a world where a poor young man making $1000 a month spends $300/month on his car to get laid and $700 on everything else to a new world where he makes $1050 a month, spends $500/month on his new car, and $550 on everything else. By GDP/growth/econ measurements our poor young man is richer, his income and consumption increased by $50/5% but his real consumption fell by $150 because the cost of his status symbol went up, even though not getting laid more than he was before.
In reality it’s probably more mixed; I doubt there are many pure status goods or pure utility goods. I would argue it’s something more like the iPhone. iPhone 1 through iPhone ~5 are great and have utility value. iPhones 6-10 or whatever don’t really have more utility value but if you’ve got an old iPhone that’s kind of lame and you lose status. The good starts as a utility item, all the opportunities to improve it are exhausted, and further profits require turning it into a status item. This would be a pretty good explanation for why EVERYTHING is branded/advertised; you can sell on utility or you can sell on status but a good capitalist sells on both.
I think Baudrillard would include this effort to increase profits by converting utility items into status items requires cheap items to acquire negative status, which actively hurts the poor.
Like I said, critiques of consumerism are my catnip. Still, the idea of a Gucci dystopia, where the primary importance of every item is status, and capitalism/Moloch actively seeks to turn everything into status because our monkey brains are super-sensitive to it and so we spend on it, that conversion of all real production into a pointless ouroboros of Gucci bags is really cool.