I almost recycled the Harry Potter-length 2011 Ikea catalog, before the cover copy caught my eye: “Hooray for the everyday.” Next to a shelf of decorative Scandinavian literature and a child of indeterminate ethnicity, the white words hang like an inexpensive piece of Ikea art, a sort of post-modern crocheted plaque. But instead of “bless this home” we have a cloying embrace of the quotidian. In the midst of economic crisis and sinking uncertainty, what does it mean for Ikea to urge us to enjoy the everyday?
The first paragraph of Thomas L. Friedman’s column “Really Unusually Uncertain” sums up the present moment well, “Over the past few weeks I’ve had a chance to speak with senior economic policy makers in America and Germany and I think I’ve figured out where we are. It’s like this: things are getting better, except where they aren’t. The bailouts are working, except where they’re not. Things will slowly get better, unless they slowly get worse. We should know soon, unless we don’t.” He concludes not with a solution, but a plea for an answer – any answer! – from the Obama administration. With all this uncertainty as well as sky-high unemployment it’s a tough market, even for cheap-and-stylish furniture businesses. In orthodox economic theory, people who don’t know if they’ll have a job in six months are less likely than the securely employed to buy couches. Even cheap and stylish couches. But despite day after day of bad economic news, we haven’t seen the price decreases that would indicate a corresponding fall in consumer demand.
Gopal Balakrishnan points to the formidable ability of the contemporary state to support consumer demand as an explanation for continued price stability. Credit has played a major role propping-up American consumer demand since the 70’s, and the financial crisis and following bailouts revealed once and for all the state’s dependence this prop. As Slavoj Zizek writes in First as Tragedy, Then As Farce, bank collapses constitute a crisis that must be resolved immediately, while the failure of General Motors is presented as a chance to deal a blow to organized labor fat-cats. Protecting easy credit is more important than protecting the jobs on which that credit is supposedly based. To preserve this system in the face of buyers wary of acquiring more debt in a time of insecurity, the financial crisis had to be sold as such. If Americans were to see the crisis as something deeper than the work unscrupulous financiers, if current levels of under- and unemployment were seen to constitute an ongoing crisis themselves, we risk a collapse in consumer demand and a day of reckoning for the ruling classes. It became essential that we return to normal as soon as possible, even if that normal wouldn’t be the one we were used to.
This idea of the “new normal” has entered into popular discourse mainly through the work of Nobel laureate economist and Times columnist Paul Krugman. In his August 1 column “Defining Prosperity Down,” Krugman predicts that authorities could declare current levels of unemployment “structural” and make no further effort to deal with the problem. In ocean ecosystems, heavy metal contaminants concentrate in the upper trophic levels as predators accumulate from their prey, this new normal would be the inverse, limiting the effects of the demand crisis to a growing class of unemployed. Exempting the sharks, who are too big to fail. But I’m skeptical that the state can accomplish this renormalization by itself. Enter Ikea.
“We’ve come a long way from being a one-store company in the stony fields of Småland. At the same time, nothing at all has changed. It’s still about doing more with less, challenging convention and not letting a single thing to go to waste (good for prices and the planet). . . . We’ve found people all over the world who hate to throw money down the drain. People who know that value doesn’t come from big price tags and are willing to work a little harder. People who are Smålanders at heart, just like us.”
There is no language of crisis here; “nothing at all has changed.” Even if that phrase ostensibly refers to the company’s founding, there’s a firmness to it that sticks in my throat. “Nothing at all has changed” is an injunction as much as a history, as if followed by “Am I understood?” We Ikea customers have been like this the whole time, the crisis acts as a reminder of our true selves, and we are (despite all evidence to the contrary) thrifty at heart. The new normal is thus positioned as the simple normal, a comforting return to the Protestant work ethic and harmony with nature. Of course Ikea is a component of this responsible consumerism, what with their low prices and ecological responsibility. Ikea does not take advantage of a crisis shock the way a smaller business might (e.g. “Stocks are dropping! Employment is dropping! So are prices at Eddie’s pre-owned car emporium!”), a firm of its size has a much larger responsibility to the maintenance of consumer demand. The catalog alludes to a feeling of insecurity, but insists on its normality: Nothing at all has changed, right? Even if it feels like Ikea is responding to decreased consumer confidence, the prices remain the same.
The prefect commodity example of the new normal may be the EKTORP three-seat sofa. In the 2011 catalog, it’s explained that the sofa is now a “customer assembly piece” (also known as a “you have to build it yourself, with only tiny Allen wrenches that will totally break piece”), which has made the EKTORP more environmentally sound and even cheaper. It’s listed for $599. In the 2010 catalog, the same couch without the self-assembly was listed for $499. I’m not sure how exactly Ikea gets away with saying the price has dropped sharply on the EKTORP, especially considering the only change mentioned in the 2011 catalog is that you now have to build it yourself, but I’m pretty sure it’s because no one bothers to check commercial claims any more. [Update: I spoke too soon, the $599 includes the grey cover rather than the white, which has dropped to $399. But I maintain listing a higher price next to a note saying the price has dropped is discursively tricky.] So in spite of all the rhetoric about us all being thrifty Smålanders, Ikea knows you don’t remember last year’s price. While the actual consequences for the demand crisis fall on the growing ranks of the unemployed, Ikea shoppers simulate thrift, just as they always have.
One of the consequences of crisis is that the quotidian ceases to exist as such; no one knows what will happen tomorrow or the next day. These kind of conditions make it hard to shop or construct your new Scandinavian furniture. Ikea and the federal government are engaged in the same task, to ensure that nothing at all has changed, whether it has or not. The new normal doesn’t appear novel because that would make it, well, abnormal. But when Ikea shouts “Hooray for the everyday” from its catalog cover, I fear today’s everyday is different than yesterday’s.