Shopping with a Post-Communist Conscience

Yugoslavia’s black market forced teenagers to make tough choices. Today, everything is available and one’s own responsibility recedes

Opinion | Slavenka Drakulic | May 2012

These days it is difficult to defend yourself against the lure of shopping. As you walk down the street, you can see signs offering discounts of 50% or 70%, as shops seek to clear their floors for the summer’s merchandise. Perhaps the signs are not as exciting to youngsters as they are to my generation, especially those of us who have lived under communism.

My generation, growing up in former Yugoslavia, had to travel to Graz or Trieste for shoes and dresses, not to mention coffee! As if this wasn’t enough, we had to smuggle foreign currency acquired on the black market. There were no credit cards back then in the 70s and 80s! However, the worst part was choosing between books and a pair of jeans, between cosmetics and vinyl records. So it is still hard for me to get used to today’s multitude of things available at affordable prices. A man’s shirt costs the same as a kilo of veal, a pair of shoes as a kilo of good cheese. And a jacket that I just bought the same as two loaves of good bread! As much – or as little. It was a fine jacket, produced in China.

When it comes to sales, your first reaction, of course, is to be happy about getting hold of a pair of insanely expensive boots or a coat, whose full price, if you paid it, would make you feel like a fool. But my generation – the 68ers – all over the world was also marked by anti-consumerism, even people growing up in poor, communist countries. It means that, when I decide to shop, even during sales, I am still in the grip of my very old-fashioned, guilty conscience. To others, this may look silly: Why should I not buy something that I both want and can afford?

However, this logic reveals the very heart of the issue: The fact is that I buy something because I can afford to buy it, not because I really need it. After all, who needs a twentieth shirt, or yet another pair of trousers?

And so, a jacket that I bought for less than €5 bothers me. Okay, this is a cheap price for a jacket.

But all the same I am aware that I do not really need it. The question "why not buy it if you can?" then turns into a different one: "Why buy it if you don’t need it?" As if need ever had anything to do with fashion...

The longer I dwell on that hat, the angrier I become with myself. Angry because of that cheap hat?  Isn’t that overdoing it? It doesn’t matter what item it is, I am angry that I am incapable of controlling my need to own superfluous things. Much like a spoiled child who wants to have it all and to have it now. The truth is, I am afraid of my weakness, because I don’t just see seasonal sales as an opportunity to renew my wardrobe. I also see the pressure from the clothing industry to get rid of their "old" stock in order to sell "new" garments. I realise that consumerism is not a consequence of desire, but the cause of it; advertising functions to create a sense of need. Worse, I can see how consumerism shapes society’s values.

We have all heard about bullying among teenagers, and specifically the bullying of a child at school because he or she doesn’t have a mobile telephone or some other status symbol. A group isolates individuals because they are different, whether it is their skin colour, their nationality, or simply their lack of new clothes and gadgets. In such cases, the democratisation of consumerism seems to boil down to aggressive pressure on an individual: If today everyone can have a mobile telephone, they should have it! A school-age child has to adjust to norms, because successful socialisation demands it.

In our culture today, a person is admired for what he or she owns. But if kids in primary school are already being bullied because of what they do not have, what lessons are they likely to draw? These children will grow up to be obedient consumers, buying not only mobile phones and hats, but much, much more. All in order to sustain an economic model based on the continuity of growth. The same one that witnessed a collapse in 2008, whose consequences we all feel today.


Slavenka Drakulić is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, including the essay collection How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (Hutchinson, 1992). Born in Croatia (former Yugoslavia) in 1949, she today lives in Stockholm and Zagreb.

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