Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Consumer Ethos

There is an wonderful moment in Solzhenitsyn's The Cancer Ward when Kostoglotov is released from the hospital on a gorgeous green spring day. After months of sickness and disease, the ordinary world is suddenly coming to life again. It's like he's been reborn. He buys a skewer of meat (shashlik), a cup of wine, and stumbles into a department store. Initially he's astonished at the new consumer goods on hand. TV, 'photo-telegrams', cameras and accessories--technology seems just as fecund as nature. Then, standing at the silk shirt counter, he hears a man ask for a size twenty-five shirt with a size fifteen collar. "It staggered Oleg like an electric shock." After years of war, imprisonment, exile, and finally cancer, he is finally brought low by consumerism. A world in which you can stipulate collar sizes is entirely foreign to his sensibility.

We usually think that the Soviet system failed in part because it could not satisfy its citizens' desire for worldly goods. But people have survived for centuries without grumbling at their lack of electronic toys. It's equally possible that it was the collision between a Soviet culture that lionized production and creation with the sweeping global expansion of passive consumption. At this oversated moment in our history it's strange that we don't hear more about the importance of work. Obama emphasizes responsibility, education, and other core values, but he says little about work as a tonic for overconsumption. No one wants to slow the economy any further. But somehow we have to figure out how to balance our accumulative desires with our need for creative outlets, and in this era of a persistent degradation of the work experience, that is quite a challenge.


  1. Love this description. Any chance you may have seen the documentary perestroika or the Sony classics film Goodbye Lenin?

  2. My colleague wrote this nice post. I've seen Goodbye Lenin and loved it. I have yet to see Prrestroika but will try to soon.