Chatting recently with a Lebanese-Palestinian friend in Beirut, I confessed to him some of my online pandemic purchases made from the Oaxacan coastal village of Zipolite, where I’ve been since the start of Mexico’s not-so-quarantine last March.
I have, for example, acquired no fewer than three pairs of high heels, despite the fact that there is nowhere to wear high heels in Zipolite — and that I don’t wear high heels in the first place. I now own two fanny packs — one neon blue and the other rainbow — an accessory I have not used since I was six. And I’ve bought five yerba mate gourds, even though one has sufficed for the past fifteen years.
My friend informed me that he himself had just returned from the supermarket — which had been closed for various weeks in accordance with Lebanon’s lockdown — only to review with horror the contents of his shopping bag: bulk quantities of Philadelphia cream cheese, Oscar Mayer salami, and other subpar food that, he explained, he didn’t even eat.
A survey of other acquaintances produced accounts of similarly questionable quarantine investments. There was the friend who had stockpiled sweaters despite being stuck in Hawaii, and the friend who had stockpiled bras despite an aversion to using them. There were tales of Ninja Turtles boxers, sea-foam green sequin turtlenecks, and late-night Amazon binges resulting in the delivery of multiple Star Wars helmets. And there was the friend in Philadelphia who commenced an obsessive procurement of what she described as “vaguely Mormon linen dresses that will transform this dystopian nightmare (in which all the pleasures of urban life are stripped away) into something pastoral and picturesque.”
Of course, most inhabitants of the globe cannot afford to be running around buying high heels and helmets — or rather, sitting at home and impulsively clicking “add to cart.” For those of us with some disposable income, however, the Internet has indeed facilitated pointless consumption in the era of corona-capitalist dystopia.
Not that the pre-corona era was entirely different; after all, the logic of consumer capitalism dictates that we continuously buy things we don’t necessarily need, even as the public services we absolutely do need are left to rot. Somehow, though, the folly of the arrangement seems particularly absurd amid a global pandemic.
So what might be behind our frenzied buying behavior?
In a transaction-based world, the very act of purchasing can — depending on the circumstances — provide the buyer with a certain illusion of control over their immediate environment and the general state of things. A Washington Post article on pandemic purchasing quotes Stanford University psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, who suggests “there’s some comfort people can find in the physicality or realness of items they buy, because everything else can feel uncertain and undetermined…. A physical thing can become a tool to help anchor us.”
The authors of a recently published study on “pandemic buying” in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland take it a step further, proposing that “neuroticism, or traits which enhance perceptions of limited personal control over and uncertainty about the future,” influence over-purchasing. Anyway, I never said I wasn’t neurotic.
Much of the existing research on corona-consumption focuses on panic buying and the hoarding of more readily justifiable materials like toilet paper, canned goods, or the “Shuanghuanglian oral liquid” discussed in a paper out of the Harbin Institute of Technology in China’s Heilongjiang province. The “fake news” that the substance “could suppress COVID-19,” the report’s authors note, “was madly forwarded across social media platforms in China. As a result, this drug was immediately sold out overnight.” But perceptions of impending scarcity can also fuel acquisitions of a less explicable nature, if individual expenditure is undertaken as a means of anxiety control.
An analysis of online shopping motives in Germany during the pandemic, meanwhile, finds that “hedonic motivation is the best predictor of online purchase intentions, followed by utilitarian and normative motives.” Since consumers are unable to conduct their usual recreational activities under lockdown, the argument goes, they might instead “engage in online shopping as a pastime.”
What, then, to make of high heels and Ninja Turtles boxers, linen dresses in the middle of winter and winter attire in Hawaii? Do such purchases constitute leisurely activity in times of vast boredom, or are they a desperate attempt at distraction from mortality and apocalyptic doom — an affirmation of existence by credit card, as it were? Perhaps this is what happens when we’re left to our own devices — in more ways than one — by willfully negligent states that prioritize corporate over human health and prefer that the masses digitally self-medicate their existential crises on Amazon.
Previous eras of apocalyptic doom come to mind — like the early sixties of the Cold War, which witnessed a surge in peddlers of home fallout shelters in the United States. Ultimately, historian Thomas Bishop writes, citizens rejected this particular “state sanctioned vision of privatized survival,” also described as the “commercialization of survival,” and that was the end of that.
But sixty years later, as neoliberal capitalism propels us toward planetary destruction, private consumption is frequently promoted as the primary palliative for planetary ills caused by capitalism itself. The old phrase “shop till you drop” is acquiring more morbid connotations. And as we continue trying to survive in private, it’s no wonder we’re all neurotic.