I remember how I spent my first bit of money before I started going school. It was a five-dinar coin that I got from i do not remember who, and I decided to buy myself an ice cream in a shop that was a few blocks away from our house in the heart of my small industrial native town.
I knew about this slaščičarna — probably one of the most difficult words to pronounce in Slovenian — because my parents had taken me and my siblings there before. It must have been during one of our Sunday walks with my father. However getting to this paradise of sweets, a place by the name of Bakijević — a name that was obviously from the south of what was then Yugoslavia — made me feel like I was crossing an ocean. I was nervous. I did not know whether the man in white behind the counter — was he wearing a moustache? — would give an ice cream to a small boy like me. Would he ask me where my mother was, like stupid grownups always do? I was sweating. It was summer, and I was wearing shorts that made me look even smaller. I bought vanilla on a cone and felt guilty not sharing it with my siblings. I was alone in this. But while I wanted to keep my first purchase secret, the city was small and everyone knew our family — knew me.
The visit to the ice cream shop was a success, and if I recall correctly, I repeated the operation several times during that long-ago summer. Was I a consumer, then?
I was reminded of this by a piece that Frank Trentmann wrote in the Atlantic — “How Humans Became ‘Consumers'”:
It was in an earlier work, 1759’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that Smith put his finger on the social and psychological impulses that push people to accumulate objects and gadgets. People, he observed, were stuffing their pockets with “little conveniences,” and then buying coats with more pockets to carry even more. By themselves, tweezer cases, elaborate snuff boxes, and other “baubles” might not have much use. But, Smith pointed out, what mattered was that people looked at them as “means of happiness.” It was in people’s imagination that these objects became part of a harmonious system and made the pleasures of wealth “grand and beautiful and noble.”
In spite the fact that there was no way I could put my first purchase into my shorts pocket, it made me happy. But food was not considered a consumer good till much later, I gather, and just using money did not yet make me a consumer. Or did it?
If I was a consumer at this early stage, I definitely found a way to step out of my consumer nature later, when studying philosophy and reading the kinds of people who, according to Trentmann, were part of “the dominant negative mindset that went back to the ancients. From Plato in ancient Greece to St. Augustine and the Christian fathers to writers in the Italian Renaissance, thinkers routinely condemned the pursuit of things as wicked and dangerous because it corrupted the human soul, destroyed republics, and overthrew the social order. The splendour of luxus, the Latin word for ‘luxury,’ smacked of luxuria—excess and lechery.” As a student, I was therefore moving back through history, into a period before Adam Smith, regaining a mindset that definitely originated in a period before the industrial revolution and mass production. This was confirmed when I headed a protest against the opening of a shopping mall in Ljubljana. I was a book consumer then, and very pure-minded, too. That, at least, was what my friends and I thought of ourselves.
But then Trentmann continues:
To rulers and moralists, such a punitive, restrictive view of the world of goods made eminent sense. Their societies lived with limited money and resources in an era before sustained growth. Money spent on a novelty item from afar, such as Indian cotton, was money lost to the local treasury and to local producers; those producers, and the land they owned, were heralded as sources of strength and virtue. Consumers, by contrast, were seen as fickle and a drain on wealth.
There is a parallel between the anti-consumer regimes of 16th century that Trentmann mentions and the 20th-century communist regimes that isolated themselves from the global market for ideological reasons. I know this because I grew up in a society that saw shortages of consumer goods and that fell apart when this shortage became dramatic. But nevertheless, we — the youth of Yugoslavia — had not missed much compared to the young generation of the “free West,” since we were able to travel anytime and anywhere. And we had all possible access to books, movies, music and debate in one world. What you do miss in a society without a consumer mentality is learning how to handle money. Saving, spending, borrowing and earning were all part of a world that did not include a realistic value of the money — something that comes with investment and a market economy.
In this sense, it will be interesting to see what will happen in Cuba now that the main reason for the ideological walls that separated the two worlds has crumbled. Or was it not Fidel Castro, but the U.S. embargo that determined the nature of Cuban society by keeping consumerism out of the country? We all know what happened in China in a record time. And since America is a consumption society that stepped into endless Christmas shopping a day after Thanksgiving, it’s interesting to see how Santa Claus will hit the West with the boomerang we launched towards China a couple of decades ago.