Quarantine and consumption withdrawal: will the coronavirus teach us how to enjoy life without being consumers?

By Charlotte Culine

There is more to life than our purchasing power. Beyond the lack of social contact, the quarantine measures set in most European countries have worried more than one about its repercussions on the economy. The coronavirus has indeed, and will, in the coming months, put the neoliberal capitalist system under pressure. One of the main reasons is that middle classes are stuck at home. It means that large part of the population in most European cities has sufficient purchasing power to sustain the capitalistic system and are, therefore, the main target for multinational companies’ advertisement strategies.

Quarantined, this cherished target-group is not able to consume as much as they usually would. In a world where overstimulating advertisements are omnipresent in the urban landscape, it has become difficult to step outside without ending up consuming anything, be it to get yet another pair of jeans, or to try the new vegan Starbucks triple caramel latte – two milks, one sugar.

Over the years the aim of going for a walk in the city has shifted from breathing some fresh air to shopping. In pre-corona times, taking a round at indoors malls had become a Sunday family activity. However, being confined into our home brings up two different things: first, the levels of stimulation are lower – without undermining the important part held by the internet and television in the stimulation for consumption in western households. We might be rediscovering a more “wholesome” way of living, enjoying life without necessarily having to buy a new pair of sneakers every two days. Second, for some reason, the trendy DIY tutorials, slow-living lifestyle blogs or online cooking lessons have been thriving all over the internet in the past weeks in order to keep the confined population entertained, by promoting activities that we had forgotten about. Because, yes, those activities were common only a few decades ago.

How many times have you heard your grandpa rambling about how, back in the days, only a wooden stick would keep him distracted for weeks? Well, he had a point. Baking kanelbullar  whilst brunching on some waffles with whipped cream and lingonberry jam on Sundays, singing in a choir – yes, I live in Sweden; sculpting candle holders out of pâte à sel – yes, I am French; binge-watching the complete work of Pedro Almodóvar, knitting your another-shameful nephew’s headband, weaving wicker baskets – my bad, no one does that anymore; playing puzzles, board games, going berry-picking, gardening, painting, reading, playing music, listening to music, which are not novelties. These activities have not been invented by hipsters trying to give a reason to live to the bored and confined; they had just been forgotten in favour of consumerism.

What about this European way of life that so many people have defended against the insidious settlement of mass-consumption-centred society creeping into our daily routine? Praising the arts, cherishing our social welfare system, agitating with pride the work of the great minds who lived on our continent, perpetuating our traditions, debating over our turmoiled and sometimes shared History, and embracing our differences and regional specificities, from the delightfulness of Italy’s cuisine to the rudeness of its drivers… This is what binds us. And this was even before climate change was an acknowledged issue for the sustainability of our societies. Never was over-consumerism a part of the European lifestyle. [1]

Maybe this coronavirus pandemic and the confinement forced upon people a reduction of consumption on the long term and the rediscovery of forgotten traditions. Maybe this 2020 is the modern version of the Enlightenment Period, moving away from another type of dogmatic Church this time [2]. It will have a strong impact on our habits and values, and finally the changes that our societies have been needing will come.

The boomerang effect

You might reach this point of this article thinking: Charlotte, don’t be a fool, as soon as the quarantine is over, the population will run into the stores and rush themselves into consuming anything they saw in advertisements during their time spent at home. And you would have a point. We shall not forget that, thanks to online shopping, no one needs any longer to pass their front door to find themselves in the socks section of almost any retail store on Planet Earth. We shall not forget the images of possessed-like people stepping on each other to reach the last full HD Led TV screen during Black Friday [3], fighting for the last 950-grams-Nutella-jar for only 1 euro and 41 cents in France [4], or camping in tents at the gates of Apple stores, just to be sure to get the latest version of the Iphone. [5]

The power of merchandising and marketing over the human mind and desires should not be undermined, and a possible boomerang effect leading to a peak of consumption directly after the end of the quarantine period, some kind of binge-buying to make up for weeks of frustration, can be expected. Shall we, nevertheless, just for once, force ourselves into optimism, and hope that at least for a part of the population, this short but intense episode in our lives will have given room for reflection, and will have taught us a lesson: we can be human beings before consumers.

We can be human beings gifted with brains with unexpected-and-not-necessarily-productive creativity, building the first “Applause machine” [6] and passionate for the small things which make life more ironic and senseless than meaningful, as Nathan W. Pyle [7] describes it. We can be human beings gifted with ears, hands, eyes, tongues and nostrils which would rather be used to enjoying all the aspects of freshly baked home-confined-made Irish scones than the arsenal of superficial sense simulators carefully set up in stores with the purpose of getting us to purchase an item. [8]

A little bit of self-checking: room for thoughts

In order to avoid as much as possible the boomerang effect, to all of my dear readers finding themselves in forced or self-quarantine at the moment, going through this article out of boredom, stubbornly unconvinced by the last paragraphs, allow your mind to wonder: restrained from the outside world, what do I need now? Forgetting about all of the marketing tricks which have created superficial needs in our minds, it is time to ask ourselves: what is necessary to my well-being? Is it social contact? Is it the feel of the breeze on my cheeks on a sunny early-spring afternoon walk? Is it the last Apple Watch? Do I miss the last Apple Watch? Do I need the last Apple Watch?

Without having to question our needs, but rather something definitely more human, our desires, let’s ask ourselves: what do I dream of now? Would I rather invite friends over and start a baking competition of the best Trump looking-like gingerbread cookie, or would I prefer to hang out in H&M for three hours deciding between a T-shirt made in Bangladesh, or the one made in China?

What if the most threatening factor to the capitalist system in times of Covid-19 was not only the world’s economic stagnation but rather the power of realization of individuals of their own freedom?

We will be free from consumerism by finally realizing that these needs of consumption were not real but constructed. That there are other ways to entertain ourselves than going for a Sunday walk at the closest mall. What better times for taking ownership of our free will than the time of constraint?

This article itself pinpoints the silliness of the situation: having to advise Western people to restrain themselves from over-consuming and heading back towards more traditional lifestyles while other parts of the world, or of their own society, are starving from poverty. Additionally, the implementation of more “wholesome, healthy and green” habits emerging from pure intentions, could turn very rapidly to hypocrisy, eating 15 Chilean avocados per week while living in Berlin. It could as well be pushed to its extreme, deciding to live secluded, becoming an anti-technology, collapsology theorist hermit living in Ardèche growing its own tobacco plants. It does not mean, however, that this message should be overlooked or ignored, nor that there is no right-middle to be sought for.

Finally, and before this article falls completely into the ongoing moralizing preaching contest, let this unfortunate, world-wide experience have the only possible positive impact on our futures. Being confined home, let’s reflect on our habits and try to set our priorities straight. After such a widespread and globalized situation, it might be time to ask ourselves: what kind of society do we want to go back to?

Picture: Colton Vond, Flickr

Acknowledgement: A big “thank you!” to Ala Sivets who has devoted some of her quarantined time to the proofreading of this article and provided me with great advices.

Sources:

[1] Understand me here: consumerism is inherent to Europe’s history of trades and expansionism tendencies, with the discovery of spices, fabrics, metals, porcelain, along the Silk Road and all over the planet. These commodities were, however, considered as a luxury and consumed with care and attention. Over-consumerism though, engenders quite different habits and almost compulsive behaviours and lifestyles. 

[2] L’Église de la Très Sainte Consommation, http://www.consomme.org/ 

[3] ‘Black Friday: Fights Break out after Shoppers Queue All Night For’, The Independent, 28 November 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/black-friday-police-called-to-stores-across-britain-amid-crowding-fears-9889137.html

[4] Kim Willsher, ‘“They Are like Animals”: French Shoppers Brawl over Cut-Price Nutella’, The Guardian, January 26th, 2018, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/26/ce-nest-pas-normal-french-shoppers-bra-over-discounted-nutella

[5] Rhiannon Williams, ‘IPhone 6 Fans Camp Outside London Apple Store’, The Telegraph, 9 September 2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/iphone/11084402/iPhone-6-fans-camp-outside-London-Apple-store.html

[6] ‘Simone Giertz’, YouTube, accessed 31 March 2020,  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3KEoMzNz8eYnwBC34RaKCQ

[7] Don’t know him yet? Go check out his Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/nathanwpylestrangeplanet/

[8] Texas A&M University B. S. and Facebook Facebook, ‘Psychological Marketing: How Our Senses Sell Us’, ThoughtCo, accessed 31 March 2020, https://www.thoughtco.com/sensory-marketing-4153908

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