By Karuna Maharaj:
St. Valentine’s Day just passed us by. Most of us must have been busy making reservations at expensive restaurants and buying flowers, cakes, cookies and scented candles. It’s a festival of love. Family, friends and pets can join too. Apart from these, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Akshay Tritiya and the rest force us to conform to the norm of expressing emotions by buying ‘stuff’. Can we trace a connection between these festivals, which celebrate our relationships with each other and with religion, to capitalism?
Consider the following argument. In a capitalistic and globalised world, the fulcrum of the economic progression of society is based upon manufacturing desire. Capitalists are constantly trying to artificially produce consumerist desires in us and one extremely effective way in which it is done is by changing our culture. By culture, I mean the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. ‘Measuring’ success itself has capitalist overtones in the sense that prosperity is invariably linked to the economic status of a person.
Another clever way in which capitalism has succeeded in generating consumerism is by eliminating any sort of confluence of the different spheres of our lives. For example, our work lives, our lives at home, our religious beliefs, our lives as students etc. have been de-linked with each other, so that we can be sold suitable products in order to navigate through them.
To generate a market for a product which is not in demand (and not the surplus of that product or its substitute) is a tricky problem for capitalism. One way of doing it is by trying to bring about a cultural change to generate desire. This is not a linear arrangement but both feed each other in a positive loop. Two examples may be used to describe this relationship.
Here, capitalists have been successful in turning diamonds into objects of desire. Diamonds were, in the past, usually seen as an accessory of the aristocracy. The aim was to create a desire for it among the masses. To do this, a perception was created – that diamonds are rare, valuable, and are a sign of indestructible love. This portrayal of diamonds captured in the motto ‘A Diamond is forever’ is a result of a fairly recent advertising campaign. The word ‘forever’ signifies to the consumer that diamonds are not a resalable stone and, once bought, must become an inheritable object within the family. This emotional attachment to diamonds was fabricated to prevent people from buying diamonds as an investment and then re-selling them which would have resulted in price fluctuations.
In the 19th (around 1870) century, huge diamond mines were discovered in South Africa which created a surplus of the stone in the market. The capitalists who were involved in diamond trade realised that their investments were in danger and that the rarity and scarcity of diamonds were their only selling point. Therefore, to keep diamond prices from falling and to protect their investments, a cartel called De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. (owned by Cecil Rhodes) was created in 1888. Its purpose was to control production and perpetuate the misconception that diamonds were indeed rare.
The advertising campaign that was run by them was to convince both sexes that diamonds were a necessary precursor to marriage and courtship. Men were fed the idea that the size and quality of the diamond they purchased was directly proportional to their love and socio-economic status. Women, on the other hand, were told that diamonds are their ‘best friends’ and that they deserved a diamond.
Celebrities, the epitome of romantic love were to be showcased wearing diamonds that were presented to them by their romantic interests. Stories were published in magazines and newspapers to buttress the relationship between love, romance and diamonds. The fashion world was reined in to popularise this fake trend. Thus, desire was manufactured in the relatively poorer wage earners (the middle classes). The advertising agency for De Beers explained, in its 1948 strategy paper, “…We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say ‘I wish I had what she has.'” Even in societies where courtship and love marriages are not the norm, the desire for diamonds has generated a good market.
Few of us know how defining a role a Coca-Cola advertising campaign played in making the character of Santa Claus so ubiquitous. Before 1931, Santa had been depicted differently from the joyful, potbellied and obese Santa we know and love today. He was sometimes depicted as a small elf-like character, or scrawny and tall, sometimes as a classy intellectual and sometimes even as a scary character. In 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned the Swedish-American artist Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa Claus for the company’s Christmas advertisements.
Sundblom’s portrayed Santa as a kind, jolly human like person with prominent laughter lines, red cheeks, white beard and sparkling eyes. This grandfather-style Coca-Cola Santa fascinated and charmed people and as the company globalised its sales, Santa’s image, as established by Coca-Cola, was cemented in all our minds. Sundblom’s drawings were used in the company’s festive advertisements for the next 30 years further establishing in our psyche.
We have always criticised our contemporaries and our younger generations for aping the west. However, a lot of our prejudices and complexes are hidden from our analytical minds and exploited by the market. Capitalists tell us that fair is beautiful, that dark underarms are something to be ashamed of and that wearing jeans is a sign of modernity and liberty. Our food patterns are changing, with a lot of people now eating cereal in the morning for breakfast, shaking hands with all and sundry (as a way of greeting), listening to Electronic Dance Music and buying clothes from GAP. Even the universally accepted Indian dress, the sari, and the way we wear it now is not completely us. The blouse and petticoat were never a fixture of the garment.
Even our most valued labour laws (e.g. the Factories Act, 1881), which limits the number of hours men, women and children can work and provides for better working conditions were formulated to protect the profit margins of capitalists in Lancashire. The Indian cotton mills were giving tough competition to the British mill owners who lobbied for the enactment of labour welfare laws in India so that their cost of production goes up.
The irony is that in the past, business, commercial activity and wealth creation as an ideology and as an occupation was quite low in the varna system, with vaishyas being considered superior only to the shudras. With the advent of modern capital, this has now changed. The pursuit of wealth, commodities and material things is now being marketed a marker of growth and development and enjoys a higher status in society. Every action is our lives is dictated by the economic return on it, our education being the foremost slave of it. It shows our level of maturity as a capable consumer who can distinguish intelligently between various products in the supposedly free market.
So, we must carefully ascertain whether we are being manipulated into celebrating these particular days every year. Do we feel pressurised to join the mainstream culture of expressing our love through material things?