Possession Rather Than Ownership
Alternative economic approaches – based on commons – have emerged around the turn of the century. Are we heading towards the “ecommony”?
Revolutions smash capitalism – not. Instead consumer’s disobedience will, says this intriguing short story. (Maybe.)
He walked into the store, began strolling through. How many months had it been since he was here last? The rack with the outfits in a dark orange bordering on red caught his eye. Timo opened the booklet tag: “Minimum wear time: 14 months. During this time, the buyer agrees devote their time to the organic cultivation, production and supply chain of blood oranges.” This was followed by an address, presumably that of a blood orange farmer in Spain. “The buyer also agrees to eat five different types of fruit per week and at least one whole piece of fruit per day.” He resisted the urge to laugh.
He flipped a few pages. “Dark Orange Guard” followed by a flood of words. His head was pounding. He turned around. A slender, extremely slender woman, still young but not for much longer, clung to a grey-green kimono behind him. Curious.
Suddenly decided, she grabbed the grey-green garb and marched to the counter, pulling her Facebook ID card out of her bag as she went. Her intentions would be posted online for everyone to see as soon as she made her purchase. She studied the similarly lengthy booklet tag on her new outfit. Now was his chance: Giving in to his curiosity, he strolled over to the rack from which she had selected the striking ensemble in grey and green. “Stop-Smoking Smoking Jacket”. What? Boredom gripped him, his disappointment palpable. Green for hope, grey for tobacco. His interest in the beautiful woman evaporated like so much smoke.
All the hype about Germany left him cold.
How exactly had it come to this? It was so exciting at the start. They wore white, whole hordes, clad in white. Monday was the day, and an item of white clothing indicated participation. There were no long manifestos. He could not recall the initial impetus. But he did remember how good it had felt initially. The brief statements issued hadn’t involved any anti-capitalism sentiments. No one could have predicted it, but the stores remained empty that day. Hardly anyone bought anything on that particular day. Just because. Or maybe just because not.
He remembered the sense of pride he’d felt, some time before the Mondays began, when the Americans criticised Germany for its drop in domestic demand. Before the words pride and nationality could never have occupied the same sentence in Timo’s mind. All the hype about Germany as an economic paragon and Europe’s saviour left him cold. It actually caused him discomfort. He did not enjoy the envious admiration expressed by some of the French, English and Americans, fearing instead the targeted fury of the Greeks and Portuguese.
He was trapped in a vicious circle: Just when he thought he had overcome the sense of shame for his nationality that had made itself felt on each and every class trip since the sixth grade, the Euro crisis unfolded and the shame returned in full force. The fact that he even associated his nationality with an emotion like shame made him feel ashamed as well. Shame begat shame. He was forced to accept that his ability to consciously control his emotions was limited. As hard as his intellect tried to fight it, an echo of feeling remained. He was ashamed of his shame on principle, and also ashamed to be German.
It was very hard to see behind or beyond the mask in any personal encounter.
Yet the moment he heard the Americans mocking Germany’s export surplus, their loud insistence that the Germans ramp up domestic demand, he decided domestic demand wasn’t a particularly good thing. A warm feeling of pride began to swell. So the Germans weren’t buying that much. Good, he thought, right. We don’t need all that stuff anyway. He was truly moved by his fellow countrymen and – stopping for a moment in front of a mirror – briefly reminded of granddad. Of how he used to potter about, skilfully repairing any and everything. Timo didn’t disparage consumption, but he couldn’t help but wonder how it had gone from being the mainstay of our economic prosperity to the mainstay of our very selves. This, he concluded, was probably the moment he was seized with the desire to punch the organic, whole-foods crowd and all the fashionistas and clotheshorses in equal measure.
It was very hard to see behind or beyond the mask in any personal encounter. Everyone was so trapped. It was a self-imposed entrapment. We had allowed our personality traits to be completely consumerised as the exhausting need to render the self-visible with all the clothes, handbags, push chairs, furniture, interior decorations and bicycle accessories consumed us. Putting our values on uncertain display, reassuring ourselves over and over by using and exhibiting the objects meant to represent us. Our selves became tangible, externalised. (How else could we know for certain who we were?)
What would his grandchildren learn about all this in school one day?
Timo gave up on expressing his fury and frustration. Critiquing consumption tended to stop a conversation cold. Everyone agreed with you to a certain extent and then, well, there was no point in taking it any further. Doubt cast serious doubt on our daily routines. You avoided such topics in your circle of friends, holding forth constructively about the self-evident instead. Better to go along than to get too dark, none of us were 17 anymore, after all, and serious reflection just spiralled down into uncertainty. Better to stick to the superficial, that same bland surface they all enjoyed attacking with their disdain for small talk. The risk of thinking too far, of losing the ability to connect, losing touch with your own timeline, was just too great. He had accepted that he could not express and experience anything of real consequence.
Then White Day began. White Day took up the dark, essential questions, calling for a response the Federal Intelligence Service would declare a threat to the system. One year after the first C. Day, the three German organisers were dragged before the court to face charges of sedition.
What would his grandchildren learn about all this in school one day? Would the ideal of the constitutional state, would the constitutional state itself survive this corruption? How could it be fixed? The three young, naïve, overenthusiastic ‘children’ – which is what they were – had initiated a day without consumption. So simple. There was no need to criticise growth or engage in debate on domestic demand. Consumption seemed increasingly absurd to them, and they mere caricatures. Maybe it was a rare moment of inattentiveness by advertising. Perhaps, he mused, the advertising industry looked away for just a tick, ignoring the mob of youthfulness for a split second in favour of the real target group, the no-longer young. Ad execs turned their gaze on the older consumer a moment too long, overlooking the young, who revelled in this rare sense of freedom and took full advantage of it. They filled the vacuum, leveraged this moment of freedom quick as a wink. After which White C. Day, the day of no consumption, had grown, expanded uncontrollably, like a Facebook party in the sixties. No-Shop Monday.
He ordered large quantities and only told a select few workers about his intentions.
White clothing was a signal of participation in this white Ramadan, this consumer remembrance day, the day of abstinence. Which soon became a day of profit. Except for the three kids who whiled away their days in a cell in Stammheim. While Timo wandered around this odd shop that owed its very existence to White Day. White shirts, trousers, white dresses of all lengths. On Mondays, the streets looked like something right out of a commercial for laundry detergent. Europe’s Instagram users posted in brilliant white, whiter, the whitest.
In Bangladesh a foresighted foreman had used his own money to buy white cloth and begun making white shirts instead of the red, yellow and green t-shirts everyone else was producing for Primark and their ilk. Foreman Fardin’s superiors were already watching him with suspicion, as his interest in founding a workers’ union had not gone unnoticed. Purchasing cloth had once numbered among his duties, so he knew just how to go about it. He ordered large quantities and only told a select few workers about his intentions. White t-shirts instead of the colourful ones on order. This intended act of insurrection spelled unexpected, overnight success for his company when demand suddenly skyrocketed. From BTV to Bijoy, the national media recounted Fardin’s rebellious triumph. Thanks to YouTube, his story made the leap to the German media as well, and was never far from Timo’s thoughts as he roamed the rows of colourful clothes, trying to understand all that had transpired.
Buy nothing. White Day was not an intellectual challenge to senseless consumerism. It was an emotional response and the surface tension could not take the strain. The final straw dropped, breaking the back of a camel everyone agreed was already on its knees and had been for ages. Suddenly a way was revealed, simple, universal. It seemed to unite everything, play off the trends for making your own clothes, growing your own food, and bartering.
A lot of white was worn and little bought on Mondays. That was all.
First there was one White Day a month, then one a week. Every Monday. A lot of shops, especially the small, friendly ones, joined in, staying resolutely shut on Mondays. The Metro PLC was not amused, not in the least. They launched an unprecedented campaign to discredit the Monday White Days. The mass media suffered unparalleled losses. Surprisingly though this didn’t spell the end of the movement. The people, the masses so ready and willing to be manipulated, were doing fine. There was no need to issue counterstatements to the belaboured reports. The reports that never tired of depicting the movement’s instigators as left-wing radicals, paedophiles, anti-Semites or right-wing radicals, depending on mood and time of day. A subtle countermovement began in response to the government and media’s defamation campaign, as they made every effort to declare White Day, spreading through Europe like wildfire, as a threat to the system. A lot of white was worn and little bought on Mondays. That was all.
Small alternative economics gained traction. People bartered, created local depreciating currencies, started making and giving away so much. It was simply Monday. Everyone continued to follow their own routines. Domestic demand dropped. What dramatic results! Nothing happened. Government earnings fell, value added tax was raised. Much fussing and cursing ensued. Some of the larger alternative currencies were outlawed, some of the over-enthusiastic landed themselves in jail – it was once again possible to be declared an enemy of the state. Ströbele died.
His girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend Lara, who made it a habit to know everything, released bitter tirades against the politicians. Against those liars and thieves who had done nothing. Nothing at all. They could and should have levied a value added tax that truly taxed luxury goods a long time ago. Demanding 40% sales tax from someone buying a Rolex would have been so simple in a society where social equilibrium was so under threat. It could have been done so easily, then it would not have come to this, she argued. But how far would it have gone? Not as far, as already noted. Consumption dropped. End of. That was enough to knock some things completely out of whack. But even under siege, the system could have adapted.
Unbeatable, this ability to adapt, he thought, as he headed for the counter.
Now here Timo stood, incredulous and slightly bewildered in this odd new shop. In which each item of clothing purchased entailed an additional obligation. Someone had had an unprecedentedly creative idea; inspired by the kids’ approach, an entrepreneur was cashing in on the concept. If the white craze had ever given Timo a real sense of hope, as he stumbled though the shopping mall it began to dawn on him that he, the fat, fatty Mr C. was unbeatable after all. Invincible. You inevitably bought more now. Your purchases were no longer a hollow commitment, a finite product with external limitations. Instead you bought a statement of intent, a strengthening of the will, a commitment. Being what you owned was no longer an illusion. You became what you wanted through what you bought. Erich Fromm was slowly dissolving into bright, neon molecules against a black backdrop.
He picked up a stylish cotton hat that required the purchaser to learn 15 minutes of French a day. It came complete with a textbook and an app that automatically recorded and monitored your progress through the study units. Unbeatable, this ability to adapt, he thought, as he headed for the counter.