Armenia: Symbols of Status, Culture in Crisis
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Armenian Republic, the tectonic landscape of Armenia, culturally, economically, socially, and of course political, has drastically shifted. Twenty years on and the ground is still unsteady, although clear patterns of change are emerging, and these changes seem less than positive. While political independence and the fall of communism are often hailed as opening the doors of freedom here in Armenia and elsewhere, this freedom seems superficial at best, and perhaps even illusory.
The new freedom prevailing in Armenia is the freedom Herbert Marcuse wrote about in a Western context 60 years ago, a quantitative and not qualitative freedom, or, as he put it, freedom to choose between “brands and gadgets.”
Before coming to Armenia from the United States I had never seen such blatant wealth disparity. On a daily basis walking around Yerevan one is confronted with obscene wealth (in the form of luxury cars and other goods) and abject poverty, both extremes coexisting in a contradictory and mind-boggling juxtaposition. Feudal capitalism, it seems, has not been kind to Armenia—or at least the masses of people living off the scraps let go by the oligarchs and their political cronies. And yet, this truth is as plain as day, the blatant, extreme, and clearly unethical income inequality, corruption, and lack of governmental accountability goes unchallenged by large swaths of the population. Why? The answer to this question has several elements.
The largest contributing factor to mass indifference toward the Armenian political process and the failures therein seems to be the poisoning effects of consumerism and commercialism on Armenian society. The work of Armenia’s leaders in politics and business has been as effective as their strategy is genius. They know that an individual has only a finite amount of energy to devote to any given number of tasks. If, then, the individuals’ finite energy supply is consumed on tasks other than effective opposition to government policies and Armenia’s feudal style economy, the leaders have won. Ubiquitous commercialism has allowed for just such an outcome. Opening the floodgates of capitalism in its most feral form, sowing the seeds of an all-encompassing consumer culture, has transformed the social structure of Armenia with far reaching effects on politics as well.
Brands and gadgets loom large in the Armenian psyche here, especially in the capital, Yerevan. Despite the fact that the per capita income in Armenia is under$3000 U.S. dollars, the perception of wealth and status rules the day. Turning life into a game, a game of appearances where each individual has not a life to live but a role to play. Even though most roles are obviously divorced from reality the game goes on, the players suspend disbelief and Armenia turns into a red carpet runway, an open air Paris boutique. The sidewalks and buildings are crumbling, social and government services are abominable, but fake designer clothes wash away the misery.
For example, one can walk into the relatively new “elite” boutique in Armenia: “Billionaire Italian Couture” (yes that is the real name) and buy an incredibly gaudy pair of jeans for about 389,000 AMD or Armenian Drams (about $1,000 US dollars). The shop is located in Yerevan’s trendy Northern Avenue, a street of faceless and incongruous looking shabbily built “luxury” high-rises, the space for which was provided by the government’s legally dubious wholesale demolition of the existing homes and structures already on that land, an Armenian version of eminent domain.
Clearly most of the individuals flaunting these ostentatious styles cannot be wearing genuine articles, the cost of which typically rivals the average Armenian yearly salary. It seems those who can afford this clothing buy it; those who can’t, the vast, vast majority of Armenians? Well, they buy knock-offs.
And of course this fact is widely known. Most people wearing such expensive labels simply cannot be wearing the real deal. But this is not the important issue. As said before, perception is what’s important. An obsession with wealth—and thereby status and power—serves effectively to set the masses of Armenia into constant competition with each other; divide and conquer as Machiavelli once said. A population obsessed with being seen as “elite,” being able to partake in “luxury,” or any other such social construct cannot possibly have the energy left to challenge those structures that force them into this game in the first place. Therefore, while the masses are left fighting over scraps to see who has the biggest crumb, those at the table, the politicians, the oligarchs, the modern day Armenian aristocracy are left laughing over the main course.
While the constant race and struggle for recognition and status is going on, if it has not, like flame and oxygen, consumed every last modicum of available human energy (available human energy, that is, after work is finished, meals are prepared, shopping is done, the children are cared for, and the rest of the daily list of necessary tasks is accomplished) then there is energy left that could congeal into a united and effective opposition to the status quo. But, leaders, fear not, modernity and the global digital society at large has solved that problem. Enter the new world of “slacktivism.”
While the place of the Internet, and specifically social networking sites, is still being decided and debated their use to express political and social opinion is firmly established in Armenia. However, as is the case with the new phenomenon of slacktivism, the activism stops there: with largely meaningless expression within an established online, and therefore largely fictitious, milieu. With the movement of struggle and opposition from reality to the pseudo-reality of the Internet, all that is solid turns to air. The power of activism is undercut in a misplaced satisfaction that something has been accomplished when, in reality, all that has been accomplished is the expenditure of finite energy lost in an irrelevant avenue.
With this black hole negating political expression, an outlet that seems viable to many and yet, in actuality, merely swallows up infinite amounts of misplaced energy to no real effect, the elite of Armenia are able to rest assured that, after hours of work, chores, and other jobs, if an individual has any effort to express their legitimate dissatisfaction with the powers that be, such expression will more than likely take place in this futile way. But what about Mashtots Park? Teghut? Mass environmentally based occupy style protest actions that—combined with online awareness campaigns—have garnered widespread attention and are having some effects? These actions are indeed laudable and deserve immense respect. However, we have seen the tactics adopted by the Armenian government when the outrage of the people overflows into actual and possibly effective demands for change. The fraudulent election of 2008, mass unrest, and a state of emergency declared by the conservative nationalist government that left ten dead at the hands of unprovoked and brutal police aggression.
The safe guards are in place. All eventualities are planned for.
So what is to be done? This question is a difficult one. In short, however, I believe the Armenian people need to start a meaningful discussion that leads to concrete action to reverse the tide of consumerism and misplaced outrage in this country. Episodes like the political action at Mashtots Park can serve as one example that effective political opposition in Armenia is not impossible. As well, there are many NGOs in Armenia that are doing good work and are attempting to chart a progressive way forward for an Armenia adrift. However, this is not enough. Niche movements will not solve overarching problem. As well, Armenian can no longer afford to be caught up in the non-productive nationalist rhetoric, emanating from leading politicians, or the dogged insistence of Turkish recognition of the Genocide. Such dead end policies only hold Armenia in the status quo and relegate the blame for internal problems to outside scapegoats. The new national discussion, therefore, should encompass all aspects of Armenian society, civil, economic, and political—as forces standing for illusory change are colonizing all of these spheres. This discussion furthermore, must be both general and individual. A rejection of superficial consumer culture begins with individual acts of resistance that multiply to be felt by society at large.
To clear up any confusion about the motivations for writing this essay I will emphasize the following. My goal is in no way to denigrate or patronize the people of Armenia; rather it is the opposite. My goal is to sound the alarm, to alert those who care about this country to what I see happening here. Armenian culture, once rich with literature, theater, music, art, is being eroded under the faceless, valueless, and utterly substantively bankrupt forces of consumerism and political corruption. The contradictions so clearly inherent in Armenian society are superficially glossed over with a veneer of a growing consumer culture and the inability to successfully and meaningfully express opposition to inequality and injustice. Furthermore, the phenomena expressed in this essay are, clearly, not unique to Armenia. The pacifying effects of consumerism and slacktivism can been felt throughout the world without limit, however, Armenia offers a clear and compelling example of the ravaging effects of these phenomenon to retard or even arrest the development of culture and pluralistic political expression.
The current republican incarnation of Armenia is still in its infancy. A mere 20 years after independence the country is just learning to walk and it is for this reason that the time is ripe for real change. Armenian society in the Third Republic, its government, and even its economy are still relatively plastic, still being formed. Therefore, the national discussion about the current course of Armenian society needs to ask one crucial question: where do we want our country to go? Should the spring of our country be our rich history, our art, culture, and language? Or, as is the current trend, should all of this be subsumed under the faceless and utterly vacuous Moloch of consumerism? Armenia, as I see it, is at a crossroads and the paths are clear and distinct. It is my hope that the people of Armenia, however, and not the elites choose which path the country should pursue, and that the people, free of delusions, choose the right path for them.
Zachary Goldsmith is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where he earned a BA in political science. He is currently a Fulbright Fellow based in Yerevan, Armenia. These views are solely those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Fulbright program or any other entity.