The repair society

When Jean Baudrillard wrote about consumer society in 1970, he was looking back on almost 30 years of continuous economic growth. The French Trente Glorieuses, the glorious thirties, had quadrupled the GDP per capita and created unprecedented prosperity. The term “miracle”, as used by the Germans for their economic development, may never catch on in secular France, but the feeling was the same. Every year, more people could afford more. And things had to be bought and consumed. „Ich kauf mir was, Kaufen macht so viel Spaß! – I’ll buy something, buying is so much fun!“, the German singer Herbert Grönemeyer proclaimed in 1983 and succinctly expressed the self-image of the consuming citizen: “I already have everything, I want even more. Everything lasts forever, now we have to find something new.”

Baudrillard recognized early on that it was exactly the permanence of things that stood in the way of the essence of consumption. It is not about buying and owning amenities, but about their “destruction”. Only when I consume what I have acquired, digest it or at least wear it out over time, does the machine of renewal keep going. Consumption becomes an end in itself: desire for desire’s sake. The consumer is not concerned with the necessities of life, but with abundance. It’s about that little bit more that you can afford: going to a restaurant, going on a holiday by the sea, the new car, even though the old one is still „okay”. That little bit more that you don’t need, but desire.

The consumer society is not a society of scarcity, but a society of affluence. And its economy is less concerned with the efficient distribution of scarce goods than with the stimulation of consumption and desire: marketing and advertising are therefore gaining a crucial role in economic activity, so crucial that Google, Tencent and Facebook, three of the most valuable companies in the world, live almost exclusively on advertising revenue. The greatest success of marketing has been the radical acceleration of fashion and trends in almost all product groups: clothing, sports equipment, furniture, cars – everything ages faster because new trends are constantly being proclaimed. And the technical progress of the various “smart devices” and the associated apps is no longer much more than a fashion. For the average consumer, the difference between two generations of the same smartphone should be barely noticeable, with the advertised key performance figures not relating to some real world experience. He buys if he can, because he wants to buy. The protagonist of the consumer society is no longer homo economicus. His behavior can be better described as a game or as an addiction than as an optimization of one’s utility.

Today, 50 years after Baudrillard and 40 years after Grönemeyer, consumption is still ongoing, even more than ever before, but the focus of society seems to be shifting at the same time, because we are experiencing that things don’t last forever. The society of the 1960s and 1970s was not only on a constant path of growth and prosperity, it was also largely spared from the repair of the existing: houses, roads, railways, power plants, telephone lines – everything was new at that time. Today, everything is getting old, and these things demand our attention, our time, and our money. The new built of basic infrastructure in particular is giving way to repair. It is often no longer a question of consuming or expanding, but of of re-novating the old that was built before our time.

In Germany, according to the national Motorway Society, 400 motorway bridges have to be renewed every year. German Railways has announced a rehabilitation program of the most important railway corridors and stations, which will entail extensive closures and travel time extensions. Coal-fired power plants must be replaced by renewable energies and gas-fired plants with green hydrogen, and the power grids must be upgraded for electric cars and heat pumps. Moreover, the renovation rate of buildings must double, every year 2% – 2.5% of the existing stock: insulation of the roof and the walls, new windows and a new heating system. At the same time, our infrastructure must be prepared for the extreme weather events that are increasing with climate change: higher dams on rivers and more floodplains, more and larger rainwater retention basins in communities, a reduction in sealing and more green spaces in cities to reduce heating in summer.

Crucially, all of this is happening without any real increase in prosperity. We already travel by car and train, have electricity and central heating and live comfortably. It’s no longer about the little bit more we could afford. It is about the defense of what has been achieved. It fits into the picture that in this situation we are also spending more money on national defense. The enemy of prosperity comes not only from within in the form of corrosion, wear and tear and the nature we provoke, but now again from the outside. The imminent better equipment of the Bundeswehr, the German army, is far from a “rearmament”. It is about replacing previous technology that is either no longer functional or outdated, or simply about filling up ammunition depots so that we don’t run out of ammunition after a few days in an emergency – and can effectively defend what we have. 

The need for repairs to our infrastructure corresponds to the need for maintenance of ourselves. In Germany, the number of people in need of care is expected to rise from just under five million today to over six million in 2040, if you simply extrapolate today’s needs. We are getting older and older, and old people are more often in need of care. In addition, medical care is getting better and better, and more and more people are surviving more and more serious illnesses and will subsequently be in need of care. There will be at least one person in need of care in almost every family. Our view of the body will change, it will no longer be an object of desire, but an object of care.

Fifty years ago, we already repaired things, but we mainly built new. And fifty years ago, the elderly were already being cared for, but at the same time many more children. The future was open. Today, the equation described by Baudrillard “growth = abundance = democratic participation of all” no longer works because we have too much to repair. If democracy is to continue to function, it needs a different narrative than that of consumption, growth and progress. The long-standing narrative of progress that has been the glue for modern societies is becoming fragile. The discussion of whether there is still progress is pointless; it is simply subjectively experienced by less and less: many no longer work at all, and those who work do not work on progress or innovation, but they repair and maintain.

Who wants to keep society together and not watch this cohesion once again be organized by the national narrative and the demarcation from the outside world needs a different, more credible narrative, which this time cannot be a vision of a more prosperous future. It would have to build on the past, construct around elements of gratitude and responsibility for what has been achieved, which must be preserved for our (few) children. We would have to learn to be satisfied. To do this, we would have to leave behind the old consumer society and its marketing, which constantly persuades us that we need more. And to do this, we would also have to re-ask the question of distribution, since repairing and maintaining no longer grows the cake.

First publication : WirtschaftsWoche 35, 25/08/2023