Ethan Arpi

Consumer Culture in Latin America

nestorTo paraphrase Nestor Canclini, Argentina’s celebrated cultural critic, what happens when an anthropologist reads the Harvard Business Review and the McKinsey Quarterly, two publications that advocate selling to the poor?? From what I can tell, there are three common reactions.? The first reaction is characterized by a sudden burst of apoplexy.? As anyone who reads these publications knows, capitalist pigs, who play on consumers? insecurities to sell their products, are now employing the same manipulative tactics in the developing world.? The second response is marked by moral indignation, topped off with a dollop of self-righteousness.? If the corporate board room understood the value of culture and operated more like an Anthropology Department, things would be a whole lot better, even if meetings became significantly less efficient.? And the third response would call for calm and order, suggesting that low-income consumerism be examined within its broader political context.? This is exactly what Nestor Canclini does in his insightful book, Consumers and Citizens, which provides a new and refreshing look at the rise of consumer culture in Latin America.?

In the first chapter of his work, Canclini describes popular conceptions of consumerism.? ?In everyday language,? he writes, ?consumption is usually associated with useless expenditures and irrational compulsions.? This moral and intellectual disqualification is based on other commonplaces regarding the omnipotence of the mass media, which presumably incite the masses to gorge themselves unthinkingly with commodities.?But like any good critic, Canclini refuses to buy into the conventional wisdom and suspects that consumer culture is more than just the mindless consumption of goods.? He points to Latin America’s stultifying bureaucracy and inept politicians and argues that citizens in these countries have become fed up with traditional modes of civic engagement.? ?The insolvency of politics and the loss of belief in its institutions have created opportunities for other forms of participation.? Men and women increasingly feel that many questions proper to citizenship?where do I belong, what rights accrue to me, how can I get information, who represents my interests??are being answered in the private realm of commodity consumption and the mass media more than in the abstract rules of democracy or the collective participation in collective spaces.??

So what does this all mean?? In growing numbers, Latin Americans are turning away from the state and looking to the market for solutions to their problems.? This trend has made conditions ripe for corporations to turn a profit in the region.? On the one hand, some companies, like Coca-Cola, have been wildly successful selling goods that offer consumers little more than immediate gratification.? But on the other hand, Latin America’s growing interest in the market has created an unprecedented opportunity for private individuals to take the war against poverty into their own hands.? For example, Soluz, a for-profit solar panel business in Honduras, has stepped into the electricity market, the traditional domain of the state, and has made rural electrification a top priority.? In Honduras, people who were once ignored by the state are being served by the private sector.

Currently, the debate about low-income consumerism in Latin America revolves around two competing claims.? On the one hand, ?There are still some who fault the poor for buying televisions, video players, and cars when they don?t even own a home.? How can one make sense of families who squander their Christmas bonuses on parties and presents when they don?t have enough to eat and dress themselves throughout the year?? Don?t these media addicts know that newscasters lie and the telenovelas distort real life.?? The other side of the debate blames cynical corporate elites, who use low-income consumers as their own pawns and playthings.?

But in my opinion, this debate seems to miss the point.? Regardless of who is responsible for the rise of consumer culture in Latin America, it is a fact that the poor can only buy the products which are made available to them.? So if someone is really interested in changing the nature of Latin American consumerism, the best way to do it is to start a social enterprise that provides useful products at a price that low-income consumers can afford.?