The fiction of retail

Since the beginning of the barter system (that is, from the time people learned to share reliance on others to fulfill their wants), the expenditure of money has acquired multiple and various characteristics. For those of us not on the leading edge of anything, buying stuff boils down to housing, groceries, clothing, gasoline and then what I would generally label as personal retail expenditure (furnishings, artwork, automobiles, jewellery and accessories).

Adam Smith ought to demonstrate that markets (and economies) pre-existed the state. He argued that money was not the creation of governments. Markets emerged, in his view, out of the division of labour, by which individuals began to specialize in specific crafts and hence had to depend on others for subsistence goods. These goods were first exchanged by barter. Specialization depended on trade but was hindered by the “double coincidence of wants” which barter requires; i.e., for the exchange to occur, each participant must want what the other has. To complete this hypothetical history, craftsmen would stockpile one particular good, be it salt or metal, that they thought no one would refuse. This is the origin of money according to Smith. Money, as a universally desired medium of exchange, allows each half of the transaction to be separated.

This explanation of the evolution of the modern monetary system is subject to debate.

No ethnographic studies have shown that any present or past society has used barter without any other medium of exchange or measurement, and anthropologists have found no evidence that money emerged from barter. Nevertheless, economists since the times of Adam Smith (1723–1790) often inaccurately imagined pre-modern societies as examples to use the inefficiency of barter to explain the emergence of money, of “the” economy, and hence of the discipline of economics itself.

Of greater certainty in my opinion is the necessity to spend money to fulfill one’s needs (and the use of the word “economy” seldom figures in the assertion). Where however the prerequisite (“need”) is less than indispensable is in the arena of personal retail expenditure. In that latter domaine, the scope is broad, less immediate, at times enigmatic. Critically the desire to spend money for personal retail is confined by more than want; it is an appetite fed by desire and passion.

And here’s the thing: personal retail is a fiction.  I say this not to be alarmist (as though retail constitutes a deceit); rather to be candid (such as the notion of the country being a democracy is a polite fiction). Fiction is a belief or statement that is false but is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so; not necessarily that it’s fake but just that it involves some stardust. And who am I to disagree? My interest in transparency has never contaminated my opinion of either monetary or economic systems. Frankly I willingly accept the system we have.  By contrast the matter of personal retail expenditure (furnishings, artwork, automobiles, jewellery and accessories) is of far more interest to me both universally and haphazardly; and its ingredients are far more extensive.

Considered as an overview, the personal retail expenditures cover features beyond what we normally call the necessities such as food (and water), shelter and clothing. Or what in other parlance is labelled sanitation, education and healthcare. The personal retail expenditures exceed those elemental characteristics. And I think that a good deal of time is spent by some of us upon nurturing those secondary and tertiary appetites.

The first thing that occurred to me early in life as I began my retail voyage into the stratosphere is that there was never enough.  Naturally this laughable conclusion was the expression of an addict or intemperance. In later life I reversed this mode and opted instead for “less is more”. But that intelligence grew not from mere expiry of time but rather the heartfelt insight that it was part of the fiction of retail that commodity trumps oddity. It is a blessing to have discovered the “necessity” to downsize. I can now accommodate my interest in stuff more amply and fairly when there is less to consider.  It’s perhaps just a variation of Frank Sinatra’s excuse for old age in “It Was a Very Good Year“.  The passage of time is memorialized as a distillation process in a cave.

“It Was a Very Good Year” is a song composed by Ervin Drake in 1961 and originally recorded by Bob Shane with the Kingston Trio. It was made famous by Frank Sinatra’s version in D minor, which won the Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Performance in 1966 and became Sinatra’s first number one Adult Contemporary single, also peaking at No. 28 on the Hot 100.

Paradoxically it isn’t only old age that has its metaphors. The acquisitions which command our attention as youngsters are similarly poetic and emblematic. The bald conclusion and confession of old age is that personal retail expenditure is exhausted with use and prolonged contemplation.  I suspect that there are very few things which with the effluxion of time would linger as necessary. This is part of the fiction of retail.  Shamefully many of us are glued to the magic of our furnishings, artwork, automobiles, jewellery and accessories.  Entire kingdoms and country estates have been constructed on the fiction of retail expenditure, the expression of which is in many instances outstanding and unparalleled.

This backhanded condemnation does not however contemplate the greater indiscretion; namely, that removal from the expression causes its own psychological inadequacy. If indeed it were true that retail is a fiction (and frankly I believe it is axiomatic to say so), then what are we left with?

But now the days are short
I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs

It poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year

As ambitious as I am to fathom an enduring significance to retail expenditure – and as reluctant as I am to adopt the example of a Diogenes – the inescapable truth is that there is little of an eternal nature in a stick of furniture.

Diogenes (born, Sinope, Paphlygonia—died c. 320 BCE, probably at Corinth, Greece) was the archetype of the Cynics, a Greek philosophical sect that stressed stoic self-sufficiency and the rejection of luxury. He is credited by some with originating the Cynic way of life, but he himself acknowledges an indebtedness to Antisthenes, by whose numerous writings he was probably influenced. It was by personal example rather than any coherent system of thought that Diogenes conveyed the Cynic philosophy. His followers positioned themselves as watchdogs of morality.

Diogenes is the subject of numerous apocryphal stories, one of which depicts his behaviour upon being sold into slavery. He declared that his trade was that of governing men and was appointed tutor to his master’s sons. Tradition ascribes to him the famous search for an honest man conducted in broad daylight with a lighted lantern. Almost certainly forced into exile from Sinope with his father, he had probably already adopted his life of asceticism (Greek askesis, “training”) when he reached Athens. Referred to by Aristotle as a familiar figure there, Diogenes began practicing extreme anti-conventionalism. He made it his mission to “deface the currency,” perhaps meaning “to put false coin out of circulation.” That is, he sought to expose the falsity of most conventional standards and beliefs and to call men back to a simple, natural life.

For Diogenes the simple life meant not only disregard of luxury but also disregard of laws and customs of organized, and therefore “conventional,” communities. The family was viewed as an unnatural institution to be replaced by a natural state in which men and women would be promiscuous and children would be the common concern of all. Though Diogenes himself lived in poverty, slept in public buildings, and begged his food, he did not insist that all men should live in the same way but merely intended to show that happiness and independence were possible even under reduced circumstances.

This is a conclusion I hadn’t fully anticipated when I alluded at the outset to the fiction of retail. I had initially expected only to clear some of the fog surrounding the mischievous attraction of shiny objects; and the unanticipated corollaries. Indeed the worse I had foreseen upon the distillation or evaporation of the retail experience was the loss of entitlement or benefit of exercise. The precipitous nature of the decline does however illustrate an elemental and underlying theme to retail. At this advanced stage of my life I have at least retained the privilege to waffle upon the vulgar subject with a degree of legitimacy.