A World After its Own Image

The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified that the idea of anything specific to themselves now persists only as an utterly abstract notion: personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”—Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” (1944).

This passage from Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic essay speaks to the wonders of capitalism: the ability of the system to get people to attach social meaning and influence to consumption. Our identity is so interwoven with what we buy, that our modern global society has created hierarchies where people are measured by what they consume. A truth rings in the saying, “The suit makes the man” that does not point to the freedom of individual expression, but rather to a slavish relation to commodity production and consumption. The suit therefore doesn’t simply make the man, the man is the suit. Our freedom extends so far as we are able to participate in the reproduction of our slavery.

Nothing reveals the truth of capital more than the spectacle it creates in countries where capitalist consumerism is young. Take the recent the article “Go on the ultimate fantasy holiday – by lying in the sun,” from the Times of London. The article chronicles how Muscovites are paying an agency called Perseus Tours for “virtual” vacations. A customer pays not for an actual trip to Peru or China, but for the items that make the trip “real”—photographs, souvenirs, even an itinerary and a storyline. All of this is done in the name of thrift and prestige. The “virtual tours” cost a fraction of the real vacation, but still provides all the same social and cultural capital that comes with actually visiting Peru or China. We in the West may gawk at the ridiculousness of this venture and laugh at the hopeless Russians who knowingly buy into the lie. But does not capital do the same every time we buy into the idea that consuming a product brings us prestige and influence?

“We sell the dream — and with that comes the social status,” says Dmitri Popov the 26-year-old head of Perseus Tours. . . “Status is so important here. If you say you’ve just come back from Brazil or China, people understand that it cost a lot and that you’re an interesting and experienced person.”

The move toward virtual consumption is of course a result of economics. Buying social capital is difficult without economic capital. Thus is the magic of the capitalism system—alternatives are always possible:

Today, however, regular holidays in South East Asia, Western Europe and even farther afield are part of life for Russia’s fledgeling middle class. Nastya is a typical Perseus customer, a 25-year-old events manager in a public relations company, earning ?500 a month.

In September, she bought a two-week “virtual tour” to Peru for ?275, a tenth of the real price. “I wanted to be out of touch,” she says. “And I wanted to make my colleagues think I’d been to Peru because that had been my dream for so long. I’d been telling people for the last year that I was going there. It was a status thing.”

She also hoped to impress her fiercely competitive female boss, with whom she had mutual friends in Moscow’s high-rolling social elite.

Perseus provided her with tickets, a storyline and photographs of her in Lima, the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco and the ruined citadel of Macchu Pichu.

And they gave her souvenirs, including Peruvian clothes, jewellery, posters, a carved wooden chess set and some pan-pipes. All she had to do was memorise the storyline, head to the family dacha for two weeks, and book a couple of sessions on the sunbed.

When she returned, friends and colleagues thronged to hear about her adventures. It may have been coincidence, but within a few weeks her boss gave her a pay rise of ?165 a month.

Now Nastya is contemplating a “trip” to China or Japan. “I know it’s lying, but it’s not a serious lie,” she says. “It’s like buying a Prada bag, only a fake one.”

There is a darker side to the business. One client cut her own arm to authenticate an imaginary piranha hunt on the Amazon, Mr. Popov says.

One can witness the buying of fake Prada bags in downtown Los Angeles. The boutiques, malls, and shops are littered with “Nastyas”. This globalized phenomenon to consume the products that give one the status of elite makes Marx’s prophetic words in the Communist Manifesto a hard reality:

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.” [Emphasis mine].