Capitalism eats itself alive

—Kyla Wazana Tompkins

Every year I promise myself that I will start couponing and then I get lazy about it. I think I once took couponing seriously for about two weeks and managed to save tons of money on it. But then I lost all of my links, and the printer wasn’t working, and life got in the way, and to the back burner went my good plans for penny-pinching, for buying things I do and do not need in bulk.

A few months ago I made myself watch an episode of Extreme Couponing, which if you’ve seen it, you’ll know is an appalling display of capitalism gone monstrous. In essence these families—it’s usually the mom who gets pinned as the driving force, but everyone gets involved, at least while the cameras are running—get ultra-organized about clipping coupons and then, racking up savings (doubling! tripling!) on their Vons or Safeway cards, they go out and buy all of this stuff they don’t need. And then they turn the interiors of their homes into replicas of the store.

Is she in the store or at home?

There’s a clear link for me between Extreme Couponing and, say, do-it-yourself movements. Both seem to me to responses to the extreme coerciveness of capitalism, which markets false choice and an ethos of individual responsibility to a public that increasingly equates success with public visibility. Can’t afford it? You’re not organized enough. You should make it yourself. You’re not trying hard enough! And of course: feeling invisible? Get on TV! Blog! (Ahem.)

It’s a tricky thing, this living within capitalism. Can you really exert any control over what you buy, or how much you spend? For my part, I find extreme couponing, just like the DIY movement, sort of apocalyptic. No, not sort of: definitely. Sure, the latter movement, with its focus on “reuse/recycle,” offers constructive responses to the environmental disaster we are all living within.

But how much difference is there between houses piled to the rafters with extreme couponing bargains, and the nuclear fallout shelters of the 1950s? I’d say little, except that the impending threat of disaster, no longer nuclear, is capitalism itself imploding, or eating itself alive on a planetary level.

Cold War anxiety, or coupon heaven?

Maybe the correct aesthetic reference should be to the many pop and modern art images of grocery store culture gone mad (see Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andreas Gurkey’s 99 cent, or Lyza Danger’s Grocery Store-zilla). It’s the new landscape, I suppose. I’m the first to admit that I find a lot of beauty in consumerism and I’m an avid bargain hunter. But neither seems to be bolstering my despair at our planetary sunset any more, and I think, given the freneticism of the seemingly anti-capital new consumerist movements, it might not be for others either.

Kyla Wazana Tompkins is Associate Professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies at Pomona College, and author of Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (NYU Press, 2012).

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