Thursday, October 15, 2015

Free Market Cults

(Warning: not about Steve Jobs, or about modern economics).

I have a post at the Monkey Cage on Putin’s recent prowess at the hockey rink and the sometimes dubious sports and artistic achievements of political leaders that may interest regular readers of this blog. (I am not responsible for the search engine-optimized headline, though I am responsible for all errors). In order to write it, I took the opportunity to read a neat collection of essays edited by Helena Goscilo, Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, which includes an updated version of an earlier paper by Julie Cassiday and Emily Johnson on what they call “Putiniana”: the weird and wonderful world of Putin-themed products.

These range from the sorts of things that would not be out of place in any normal electoral campaign (e.g., Putin-themed party balloons) to the weird and wonderful: chocolate portraits of Putin, stuffed bunnies that sing a pop song proclaiming love for Putin, a 2010 lingerie calendar where Moscow State University students express their love for Putin, and “dental flossers in packets with the President’s portrait emblazoned on the front.” There are DVDs that fictionalize Putin’s love life, and even a small subgenre of fanfiction novels (some apparently quite popular) that cast Putin as a hero, such as Aleksandr Ol’bik’s President, which begins as follows:
It’s the hot summer of 2001 […] Events develop swiftly and completely unexpectedly. The President decides to head out for Chechnia with a spetsnaz squad to destroy the rebels’ lair […] He does this and is the only one left alive. (Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, Kindle loc. 1169-1171).
And then there are “objets d’art” :
One key point to note about this sort of stuff (and about similar products elsewhere, like Chavez paraphernalia – I’m sure readers can come up with fun examples from all sorts of places, including American electoral campaigns) is that it is produced and sold in a reasonably free market. (Some of it is, of course, given away, but much is actually sold for profit). The weirdest Putiniana is not produced at the behest of the Kremlin, and though it is sometimes disavowed by it, it has not attempted to suppress it. Moreover, while some of the most over-the-top stuff is clearly satirical in intent (such as the “Superputin” webcomic; in English here), some of it is bought or consumed by people who support Putin and approve of his supermacho image. (Though I remain baffled about who could possibly want to buy some of the more expensive objects, like a $700 limited edition chocolate Putin (measuring 12” by 19”) produced in 2003).

That people will buy the paraphernalia of leader cults is not a matter of course, even when they are constantly barraged by propaganda and pressured by authorities to do so. For example, from Alexey Tikhomirov’s wonderful piece on the “symbols of power” in the GDR before 1961, we learn that early attempts to sell Soviet leader paraphernalia in East Germany were almost a complete failure:
The establishment of a planned socialist economy, with the organized production of party cult objects, heightened the intensity with which public space was saturated with the symbols of power. The party put in orders for such items and created a centralized system to sell them. A catalogue of objects with political symbolism was published in 1949. It offered consumers an assortment of busts, reliefs, posters, portraits, postcards, and badges with images of the “leaders of the workers’ movement.” As a rule, these objects were churned out on East German soil, using Soviet models, and then distributed, with monitoring from above, to mass organizations, party organs, the army, schools, and universities. Attempts to organize retail sales of personality cult objects were not successful. Consumer demand for these things was virtually nil. Thus the owner of a small store in Leipzig that sold pictures of various types admitted that almost no one was interested in portraits of Stalin, Lenin, Marx, and Pieck. The employees of the Soviet military administration, however, were some of the most enthusiastic buyers of “pictures that were artistically kitschy.” (p. 60; emphasis added).
The desire (or the need) to buy such objects in particular contexts will of course vary with how much people feel the need to signal identification with a leader, to conform to social pressure, and the like. Yet (at least in Russia or Venezuela today) the market for such objects is indifferent to the meaning people give them; whether people bought, for example, the 2004 stuffed bunnies that sang “someone like Putin” to show how much they cared for Putin, or because they thought they were funny, or because they were hipsters wanting to show their ironic detachment from dominant values, or because they wanted to show their friends how ridiculous they were, matters not at all to whether or not they are sold. And, as Cassiday and Johnson note, most Russians – not just people who are dissatisfied with Putin – do not take Putiniana entirely seriously; to the extent that there is something like a personality cult here (perhaps because the market is large and robust, and supports a wide variety of such products?) it is not because the meaning people attribute to these objects and stories is clear and unambiguous. In fact, it seems to me that trying to “read” the meaning of a leader cult from the fact that, say, dental floss emblazoned with a picture of Putin is produced seems to me to be a fool’s errand; under reasonably free market conditions, there is no single meaning that is even intended, much less perceived, in the many manifestations of a leader’s image, nor any way to tell directly how people think of the leader, even if they approve of him (as seems reasonably clear in the case of Putin).

No comments:

Post a Comment