International Max Planck Research School on the Social and Political Constitution of the Economy
Micro-Foundations of Financialization: Status Anxiety and the Market for Consumer Credit in Chile
Studies on the Social and Political Constitution of the Economy. IMPRS-SPCE, Cologne 2015.
This project investigates why people in Chile acquired so much consumer debt in contexts of material prosperity, and asks what the role of inequality and commodification
is in this process. The case raises an important challenge to the literature. Insofar as existing accounts assume that the financialization of consumption occurs in contexts
marked by wage stagnation and a general deterioration of the middle classes, they engender two contradictory explanations: while political economists argue that people use
credit in order to smooth their consumption in the face of market volatility, economists maintain that concentration of wealth at the top pushes middle income consumers to
emulate the expenditures of the rich and consume beyond their means. These explanations do not necessarily fit the reality of developing countries.
Triangulating in-depth interviews with middle class families, multivariate statistical analysis and secondary literature, the project shows that consumers in Chile use credit to finance "ordinary"
forms of consumption that do not aim either at coping with market instability or emulating and signaling status to others. Rather, Chileans use department store credit cards
in order to acquire a standard package of "inconspicuous" goods that they feel entitled to have. From this point of view, the systematic indebtedness of consumers originates
in a major concern with "rank", "achievement" and "security" that – following De Botton - I call "status anxiety". Status anxiety does not stem from the desire to emulate rich
consumers, but from the impossibility of complying with normative expectations about what a middle class family should be (and have) that outweigh wage improvements. The
project thus investigates the way in which "status anxiety" is systematically reproduced by means of two broad mechanisms that prompt people to acquire consumer debt. The
first mechanism generating debt stems from an increase of real wages and high levels of inequality.
It is explained by a general sociological principle known as relative deprivation, which points to the fact that general satisfaction with one´s income, possessions or
status, is assessed not in absolute terms such as total income, but in relation with reference groups. In this sense, I explore the mechanisms that operate as catalyzers
of relative deprivation, by making explicit social inequalities and distorting the perception of others' wealth. Despite upward mobility and economic improvement,
Chileans share the perception of "falling behind," which materializes in an "imaginary middle class" against which people compare their status, possessions and economic
independence. Finally, I show that the commodification of education, health and pension funds does not directly prompt people to acquire consumer debt, but operate as
"income draining" mechanisms that demand higher shares of middle class families' "discretionary income." In combination with "relative deprivation," these "income draining"
mechanisms leave families with few options to perform their desired class identities, other than learning how to bring resources from the future into the present with the
help of department store credit cards.