It seems intuitive that a consumerist system would benefit from a high level of general prosperity within its population. Such prosperity would, in theory, provide citizens with more resources to spend within the system, and their level of success within that system seems like it would incentivize them to stay invested in it. Despite these obvious arguments, I’m beginning to doubt that this is really the case; in fact, I’m beginning to think more and more that such an economic system benefits from having at least a segment of the population mired in abject poverty.
I started thinking about this because of a passage from Crime and Punishment. An extremely poor, recently widowed woman is donated a small yet relatively significant sum of money. Despite her destitution, she decides to spend a seemingly unreasonable chunk of it on a funeral banquet that seems rather extravagant given her economic situation. Dostoevsky theorizes about why anybody would do this, arguing that it could be “that singular ‘pride of the poor’,” which causes “many poor people [to] strain themselves to their last resources and spend every last copeck they have saved in order to be ‘no worse than others’ and it order that those others should not ‘look down their noses’ at them.” (Dostoevsky, Penguin Classics, 451-52)
This is a woman who cannot afford to feed her children, whose stepdaughter resorts to prostitution to prevent the family from starving. The twenty roubles that she is gifted would be pocket change to some people (including some of her neighbors within the same apartment building), but to her, that sum is nothing short of temporarily life-changing. Given these facts, it may be easy to read this passage as a criticism of this particular woman; however, the fact that Dostoevsky frames his observation as a theory about the “pride of the poor” rather than about the pride of this widow is significant. It becomes an observation on one of the psychological effects of a money-driven society rather than a character analysis of Katerina Ivanovna. Her plight is the plight of anyone that resides at the bottom rung of a consumerist, status-driven culture, and her irrational compulsion towards frivolous spending in the face of crippling poverty is shared by them as well.
This “pride of the poor” is the exact reason that a destitute portion of a population helps to sustain a consumerist culture. These people, through no fault of their own, are often ironically the system’s most invested devotees. Because this segment of society exists within a culture that prizes reputation and material success above all else, they try desperately to prove to their peers, to those above them in the hierarchy, and to themselves that they, too, are making it, that they, too, have staked out their place within the system’s machinery and have found some degree of prosperity. Of course, this isn’t actually the case, but when material prosperity is the only benchmark of success that a person has known for their entire life, then what’s to stop them from spending every last resource that they have at their disposal to at least appear materially wealthy? This dedicated lower segment of society sets an example for societal investment, providing the rest of the population with a model and a warning: engaging in material culture is a requirement, not a choice, so do everything you can to succeed within the system.
This is, of course, a generalization. Not every member of a consumer society’s lowest caste tries in vain to play the part of a successful person, and those that do are not at fault in the least. It’s not my intention to stereotype an entire economic class, and I don’t think that this was Dostoevsky’s intention, either. The crux of the issue is that material culture ensnares people of all levels of prosperity; the “pride of the poor” is just a single prong of its machinery.