Making an asset of austerity

Inflation destroys the value of the dollar. By forcing us to revise our habits of consumption, however, inflation may strengthen social values which cannot be measured in dollars.

At the moment our sense of social values is in disarray, and well it might be. For decades an unremitting assault of commercial addvertising and political homilies has lauded material prosperity and urged us to count our consumer blessings. Now economic and political leaders are nagging us to tighten our belts, cut down on driving, turn off the lights, turn down the heat, and reduce our debts.

Austerity is being hawked like a new soap -- a brand that will cleanse us of sinful hedonism. This sudden reversal of public values inspires not only a well-justified resentment -- the bankers and politicians calling on us to repent are not noticeably cutting back on theirm consumption -- but also a pervasive mood of depression, apprehension, and confusion.

This collective state of mind was first described by Emile Durkheim, the eminent French sociologist in the late 19th century when modern consumer society was just taking shape. Durkheim proposed that personal and social well-being are found not in material accumulation at a certain level but in attainment of a stable equilibrium between means and needs at any level. In a time of economic and social stability, people at all levels of wealth enjoy a balance between their income as producers and their expenditures as consumers. When this stability is disturbed, individuals are thrown off balance into a state of anomie, which Durkheim defined as normlessness or moral disorientation. The cause of such disequilibrium could be a rapid rise in collective wealth, or a sudden collapse of prosperity as in a stock market crash.

Our present anomie is especially acute because we have experienced both causes of disturbance one after the other. First came the prodigious postwar increase in prosperity, followed by a relatively sharp decline in material expectations in the past few inflationary years.

From the perspective of the individual or family budget, the cutting-back imposed by inflation is depressing indeed. This is negative austerity: cutting back, cutting out, doing without, giving up. This private and passive austerity faithfully reflects isolated and privately owned, passive forms of consumption which have become habitual with us in our prosperity. The two symbols of mid-20 th-century American consumer culture, the television and the automobile, both incarnate those habits.

But there are other modes of austerity -- ones that are positive rather than negative, active rather than passive, creative rather than destructive, unifying rather than dispersive.

When Durkheim returned to the subject of austerity, in "The Elementary Forms of Religious Life" he concluded that an indispensable element of religious faith is self-denial. In this way, Durkheim contended, religious faith symbolizes the experiences of social life in general.

Through collective austerity -- not the individualistic type -- we can recommence our moral education in a way that augments both personal fortitude and social ties.

The fundamental premise must be that the sufferings of austerity are shared by all, that we all participate in the rites of self-denial. At present those who laud the virtues of economic hardship are the last to feel it themselves. The pains are cynically allowed to fall disproportionately on the poor, minorities, unemployed, elderly, disabled, and unorganized.

Sharing austerity also means rejecting the moral assumption that the individual consumer has the right, if not the duty, to maximize his own material self-interest. This means discarding the notion that any form of consumption is permitted if an individual can afford it.

The concept of sumptuary laws should be revived. We have already made a collective decision that no one should be able to wear the pelts of endangered species. We should make other such decisions -- for example, that no one should be allowed to own a car with an engine over a certain size because the shared costs in pollution, energy, and materials are too high.

Sharing austerity means reforming the workplace in the directions of more democracy and flexiblity. We can no longer use the excuse that tedious, authoritarian working conditions are tolerable because they allow us to enjoy an ever higher standard of living off the job.

Sharing austerity means a radical reexamination of government budgets, which are quantitative expressions of collective consumption. Across-the-board spending cuts evade questions of value. Instead we need item-by-item consideration of priorities in our collective spending, and especially consideration of the relative priorities of civilian and military spending.

Sharing austerity means experimenting with modes of consumption that will open up choices for individuals. More than we realize, our freedom is restricted by the dominance of privately owned commodities. The consumer should be able to visit attractive parks for recreation rather than being constrained to purchase a second home or install his own swimming pool because public parks are dirty and vadalized; to use a bicycle for commuting on safe bike paths rather than risking automobile-infested highways; to live in smaller, denser, but still pleasant housing rather than letting single-family dwellings on separate lots be the only desirable type. Sharing austerity means reviving consumer cooperatives, which in turn could establish relations with producer cooperatives, rather than having to rely on the usual modes of heavily advertised retailing.

We Americans must indeed reform our consumer habits but we can and should work towards a creative, shared austerity rather than limply submitting to the individualistic, depression version being preached to us now. Until now we have assumed that our well-being lies in the direction of ever greater material prosperity. In truth it may well be that greater freedom and happiness will be attained only when we give up intensive, private, passive consumption.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.