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Symbolic misery: Global commerce and symbolic misery 2006-01-16
Lawrence Schlemmer

* Political sociologist and director of the Helen Suzman Foundation


Karl Marx was wrong in his major predictions of the future of capitalist society, but many of his insights were telling nonetheless. Consider his assessment that under capitalism “Money is the alienated essence of a man’s work and existence; this essence dominates him and he worships it” (Capital, vol. 2 and 3, 1884). 


His observation is true not only of capitalism, however. Money and other forms of exchange have been necessary as a means of survival for most people in most cultures throughout recorded history. When these resources are acquired in excess of that required for basic needs the practices associated with them have become more complex and have taken symbolic forms, often pervading large areas of values and culture. Consider how cattle as a resource and as a form of money in Africa and parts of the East have acquired prestige value and even religious significance. 


One of the more dramatic illustrations of this is found in Benedict’s account of the “Potlatch” among the relatively prosperous Kwakiutl Indian tribe in the American North West coast – a custom of acquiring and enhancing personal prestige through shaming rivals by giving them possessions they could not repay or by outdoing them in conspicuous self-destruction of own property (1). This was an early example of what has been described as conspicuous consumption by economic elites in industrial society (2). Today the equally conspicuous leisure and lifestyle habits of post-industrial society continue the same principle. However ardently religious, community, cultural and intellectual leaders may advocate non-material values, the status and prestige criteria of all societies today are dominated by fashionable commercial purchases.


What distinguishes the contemporary era, however, is the relatively greater standardisation of the criteria across international boundaries; a pattern that was previously rather more limited to the royal houses and aristocratic lifestyles of greater Europe. The symbolic features of commercial acquisition have become akin to a global uniform.


The benefits of global technology and commerce


The global uniform of products and the values attached to them are not generally or necessarily bad. Like the plough, spectacles, electricity, telecommunication, radio, television, mechanical vehicles, and a host of other commercial appliances have massively facilitated both development and communication within communities. Where local and regional cultures have been able to absorb the new technology and make it their own, one can unhesitatingly speak of enrichment and empowerment across international boundaries. Within the spread of benefits, however, critical problems have arisen, problems that deserve attention equal to the celebration of the benefits of “progress”.


Global technology and commerce as alienation


The core problem that exists within the wider benefits of globalisation is twofold. First it is not always possible – some would say less and less possible – for particular cultures to incorporate the values associated with international products without the distortion or destruction of core values and or tastes in that culture. Second, to the extent that relative wealth in the receiving area facilitates the acquisition of the new products, lifestyle divisions between classes and status groups in that culture are deepened far beyond their mere quantitative dimensions. The possession of wealth becomes the basis of social and eventually cultural exclusivity within a society. When Benjamin Disraeli wrote that: “ … the privileged and the people formed two nations” (1845, Sybil) he was predicting a far wider and deeper problem in the future world than the class system of England. In essence the spread of global values and products fit very uneasily with the veritable canyons of material inequality in the developing world, Africa in particular. 


At its base these problems arise because for the most part the commercial products of the global revolution are produced or designed in the most developed Western and Eastern economies. More effectively even than colonialism, this post-colonial economic “imperialism” of commercial exports and their symbolic effects have penetrated the status systems of the developing world and Africa. One irony is that some of the producer economies (e.g Japan, China, India, various countries in Europe) have retained more of their traditional styles and culinary customs than can be found among the elite consumers in Africa. In Nairobi and Abidjan the rich will eat imported Dutch, English and French cheese, German sausages, Italian pizzas and Indian curries while what is left of African cuisine struggles for markets in a few niche restaurants. The further irony is that the basic pattern of modern consumption was generated as a longer run consequence of an early anti-consumption ethic, that of Protestant-Calvinist bourgeois asceticism in Northern Europe and the USA, which still has a mild ameliorating effect on crass consumerism. In Africa, where the consuming elites have never known the ascetic tradition, consumerism is embraced with far less qualification. 


Hence, while all national and ethnic styles are embattled, even in Europe and the East, in sub-Saharan Africa the post-modern onslaught is most extreme, reinforcing the cultural displacement of colonialism and missionary Christianity and Islam. Most importantly, however, for most of sub-Saharan Africa there is, as it were, a “double distance” – one of global cultural influence and the second an internal distance created by material inequality.


South Africa as an illustration


Even in the continent’s most developed economy, South Africa, the two “distances” referred to above have some very dramatic consequences, and the core factor is inequality of wealth. South Africa is widely seen to be very similar to many developing nations in which a small elite group enjoys wealth and privileges beyond the dreams of the masses – a situation exacerbated by apartheid in the past. 


The changing but currently deepening inequality within South Africa is well documented. The Gini coefficient of inequality among Africans, which has increased from an estimated 0,60 in 1996 to 0,65 in 2005, is larger than the former inequality between Africans and whites. Due to recent economic growth and more generous welfare benefits, the proportion of people living on less than one US dollar a day is down from its peak of 9,7% in 2002 to 9,1% in 2005 but still much higher than the 4,5% in 1996. Between 1997 and 2002 people living below a poverty line of R214 per month reduced as a consequence of welfare grants but remained at over one quarter of the population even allowing generously for typical under-reporting of household expenditure. (3). 


At the other end of the socio-economic scale, the changes are much more dramatic. The very large and reliable “AMPS” Surveys of the SA Advertising Research Foundation present results in ten so-called lifestyle or “LSM” categories, based mainly on ownership of consumer durables. LSM categories 6-8 can be taken to be roughly equivalent to the skilled working and lower middle class, LSM 9 to a middle class, and LSM 10 to an upper middle class and the elite.


The rough socio-economic class equivalents of LSM categories among adult South Africans in 2005 are as follows:


Rough LSM class equivalents  All Adults   Africans

· Blue collar and poor:  61,2%    77,4%

· Upper working /lower middle: 26,9%    20,6%

· Middle:     6,4%   1,5%

· Upper middle and elite:   5,5%    0,5%

100% 100%


These results may look strange because the media tend to celebrate the size of what they call the black “middle class”, but in fact they are mainly talking about a heavily indebted lower middle class of cashiers, clerks, sales assistants, teachers, nurses and sundry junior officials. The results above show that the African core middle class and elite are still relatively small, eclipsed in size by larger numbers of whites and Indians. But the two higher categories contain nearly 500 000 African adults, and they are growing rapidly under the impact of government affirmative action and economic empowerment policies. Since 2001 the African LSM 10 category, for example, has increased by over 200%. 


This new African middle class and elite may be small but it looms very large in a population in which over 60% are lowly paid or poor, and at least a quarter live on less than US $33 per month. The African LSM 10 group in particular has political influence far beyond its numbers. It tends to live in wealthier suburbs and its leading members set the tone in matters of fashion and style. And as the African editor of one of the country’s largest newspapers recently lamented in a closed discussion, this class is drifting away from its languages and culture of origin. Its children attend English language schools and are losing their indigenous mother tongues. Some commentators refer to the “Afro-Saxons”. 


In this sense South Africa is becoming very much like many other African countries in which the elites live and move in circles very remote from the masses of the people. As elsewhere in Africa, the LSM 9 and 10 Africans have joined their white compatriots in the global consumer society. They have the means and all the necessary aspiration to integrate into the lifestyle norms and cultural practices that have spread across the world. They are fully part of the movement away from cultures and languages of origin that has pulled many people in other ethnic groups, like increasing numbers of Afrikaners, into the embrace of global uniformity. Both the African upper middle classes and very many Afrikaners are reshaping their identities and values to float in the tide of global consumerism.


Both the African and the Afrikaner classes involved do not necessarily deny their ethnic identities – in fact some take pride in and advertise their origins -- but these identities are in danger of becoming verbal tokens of a vanishing past. Both are inclined to eschew their ethnic traditionalism, although some may still admire it surreptitiously at a safe distance. Their actual engagement with traditional communities and ethnic organisation is minimal. Unlike some ethnic individuals, like many Jewish, Scots or Indian people for example, they often lack the extra confidence needed to embrace both the global and their particular cultures simultaneously in order to reconcile them within an enriched or expanded sense of self. Hence their transition to global cultural citizenship involves an ever-present danger of alienation from personal histories. This is the first distance to which I referred earlier.


It is the second distance, however, that is more tragic. This is the situation of the rest of the African and Afrikaner people who have been dragged some way along the path of global values and norms, and away from their root communities, believing that their upper middle classes and elites will lead them and be their role models. Most of the Africans are so poor that their participation in global culture is purely vicarious via television and the odd magazine or two. Others are less poor – the lower middle class – but their membership is based very largely on hire-purchase debt and all the anxiety that goes with it. The goods that they buy are cheaper variants of the real thing: ersatz consumer culture.


Unlike the upper middle classes and the elites, these people can never look forward to consolidating a new identity by achieving real success in the global economy. Their greatest risk is that they will lose their cultures and norms of origin without any replacement. They then become the atomised masses of modern consumerism, the cannon fodder of global commerce. And their elites will return to them only at election times or when advertising new product launches.


This is not a tirade against international capitalism as such. All large and heroic movements to capture power or markets exact sacrifice and create victims, and have always done so throughout history. Thankfully for South Africans, however, there are small signs that some poor Africans and confused Afrikaners are beginning to rediscover the need for solidarity. 



(1) Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.

(2) Thorstein Veblen, The theory of the leisure class, New York: New American Library, 1953.

(3) Fast Facts, quoting Global Insight estimates and Charles Meth, September 2005, SA Institute of Race Relations


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