Delectable Materialism: Were the Critics of Consumer Culture Wrong All Along?

On January 31, 1990, when McDonald's opened in Moscow, Soviet citizens seemed stunned by the politeness of the people behind the cash registers who smiled and said, "May I help you?" They were delighted at the efficiency of the service despite a wait of two hours; many took home their McDonald's logo-laden refuse as souvenirs. Tongue in cheek, The New York Times wrote of hope-starved Soviet consumers won over to "delectable materialism." The Washington Post, similarly jocular, painted a portrait of a factory worker standing beneath the golden arches and said of him, "He had seen the future -- and it tasted good."

American journalists poke fun at the Soviet passion for American consumer goods because they cannot think of consumerism in the United States without ambivalence. It takes an immigrant, or these days a Soviet visitor, to speak of American abundance in beatific terms. Boris Yeltsin, now president of the Russian Republic, returned from a nine-day American tour in the fall of 1989 effusive about the extraordinary wealth of American life: Their supermarkets have 30,000 food items," he told supporters in his first public appearance back home. "You can't imagine it. It makes the people feel secure." Yeltsin urged that "at least 100 million Soviets must pass through the American school of supermarkets," to understand the American system. The leaders must be first."

While resembling the simple immigrant's astonishment at American abundance, Yeltsin's comments reveal something more. Abundance and choice, he is saying, provide a feeling of security, social and even spiritual comfort. This celebratory attitude toward American materialism is far from the skepticism shared by home-grown American journalists and intellectuals. The native American view of materialism draws on the anti-capitalism of the left, anti-bourgeois attitudes redolent of aristocratic values, and most of all a distaste for consumerism at the very heart of the American tradition. Jimmy Carter, in his famous 1978 "malaise" speech on America's spiritual crisis, had no trouble finding in his own evangelical Protestantism the anxiety that "too many of us now worship self-indulgence and consumption" and the affirmation that "owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning."

Criticism From Within
Contemporary social critics may imagine their critiques of consumer culture to be deeply radical and subversive, but they are generally only versions of a critique that American culture itself has long nurtured. And confused versions, at that. Take, for example, criticism of advertising, often attacked as the most egregious emblem of materialism, even as its cause. In fact, America was materialist, consumerist, and enterprising, as Tocqueville observed, long before advertising held much visibility or importance in American cultural life. Yet advertising is today the chief symbol, if not the chief engine, of consumer culture.

As the chief symbol of consumer culture, advertising has also been a chief subject of analysis for critics looking for the hidden springs of American life. David Potter, a widely respected American historian, got it wrong forty years ago in his classic study of consumer culture, People of Plenty (1954), and much American thinking about advertising and culture has yet to recover from the error he expressed more directly and clearly than anyone else. Potter held that a society that moves from a producer orientation to a consumer orientation must develop a culture to correspond to it. Advertising responds to "the need to stimulate desire for the goods which an abundant economy has to offer and which a scarcity economy would never have produced."

For Potter, advertising was one of a very few institutions that can "properly be called instruments of social control." And what is an institution of social control? It is one that guides a person "by conceiving of him in a distinctive way and encouraging him to conform as far as possible to the concept." Potter used as examples the church, which conceives of a person as having an immortal soul; the schools, conceiving of the person as a reasonable creature; and the free-enterprise economy, conceiving of the person as a useful producer. Advertising, in contrast, "conceives of man as a consumer."


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The trouble with Potter's argument is that advertising is not at all like church, school, and workplace, the institutions he lists as archetypal institutions of social control. (The sociologist would be more likely to list the church, school, and family.) Having recently watched my five-year-old go off to kindergarten, I have no illusion that the kind of control advertising exercises is half as determinative, controlling, influential, or potentially as destructive as that exerted by the institution of schooling. Even if children were to spend as much time watching commercial television as they do in school (and they do not -- television is turned on in the average American household seven hours a day but no individual member of the family watches it for that length of time), children would be able to exercise freedoms in front of the television that they instantly lose in the classroom. Before the television, they can come and go as they like; they can choose to attend or not to attend without fear of the punishing glance, voice, or raised eyebrows of the advertiser responding immediately to their inattention; they can like or dislike, scowl or smile as they wish, without the fear that thirty others will be examining and taking cues from their behavior. In short, the television advertisement can offer no social punishment, no social reward, no social reference group.

Potter, like many others, fails to distinguish the social control exercised by schools and churches from the cultural influence exercised by the mass media. Social control always has a cultural or symbolic dimension; symbols are one of the media through which schools, churches, families, and workplaces operate. These institutions use not only threats, coercion through measures such as confinement, and even physical violence, but more ordinarily symbolic inducements and enticements. The symbolic dimensions are so important that, mistakenly, we may even identify churches with their doctrines and schools with their curricula. But religions are defined as much -- if not more -- by their social practices as by their doctrine. Similarly, the schools inculcate patterns of behavior in children through a "hidden curriculum" of social control, as sociologists have described it in many studies since the 1950s.

But while social control always has a cultural dimension, the reverse is not true. A cultural or symbolic medium, like advertising, does not necessarily have a social dimension. Or, to put it another way, the social aspects of consumption do not depend on advertising. For example, when we feel good and think we look smart wearing a cashmere coat, we may be reflecting some influence of advertising. But we are just as likely reflecting the practices of other people in the social set to which we belong or aspire. Big houses give a feeling of privacy, space, and security; advertising does not induce that sensation. Owning a book rather than borrowing it, or owning a washer and dryer rather than using the neighborhood laundromat, gives a pleasure of possession, convenience, and self-possession that ads for Stephen King blockbusters or laundry detergents have no part in. If the things we buy did not satisfy or seduce, the images conjured up by advertising would ordinarily fade. The consumer culture is sustained socially not by manufactured images but by the goods themselves as they are used.


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Potter's analysis seems to suggest, as did other analyses of the 1950s that still guide our thought on this matter, that people need to be instructed in the emotions as well as the arts of consumption. People have to learn to desire more goods. That was the argument made by liberals like Potter and John Kenneth Galbraith and by the social critic Vance Packard. It was the point argued by Marxists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy and taken up later by Stuart Ewen. It is also a notion pushed by the people responsible for selling propaganda to business -- that is, by advertising agencies themselves.

Curiously, both the critics of advertising and its spokesmen seem to share the peculiar premise that material goods require force feeding. But is consuming so unpleasant? Is wanting more so unnatural? Is aping the neighbors or seeking to be fashionable so unheard of that a multibillion dollar enterprise is required to coax us into it? Is desire for possessions so rare? Is pleasure in goods so unusual a joy?

I do not claim that wanting more is universal. I certainly do not claim any universality for the peculiar features of the Protestant ethic that Max Weber identified as leading our culture to value hard work aimed at accumulating riches. But I do claim that in America -- which in the person of Benjamin Franklin best exemplified for Weber the spirit of capitalism -- no multibillion dollar industry was needed to make people want more and more or to breed in them a dissatisfaction that they could quell only in the marketplace.

In this society, as I read it, an insistent ideological campaign promoted self-discipline and self-denial. The assumption was that people would naturally want to consume more and that an elaborate ideological system had to keep desire in check. This Puritan superstructure aimed at constraining old Adam was in the nineteenth century increasingly directed at working-class and immigrant communities, as it still is in the class-skewed movement now against tobacco and alcohol use. Put this way, the underlying assumption in Potter and company seems preposterous. But, then, what is advertising for if not to turn us into desiring consumers? And why should people as smart as David Potter have tried to explain advertising as the instigator of desire for goods if this is so absurd a proposition?

What Does Advertising Do?
The first question is easily answered. Large outcomes, like the rise of advertising, do not require large causes. Slight ecological advantage may cause large institutional change. Men and women share all chromosomes but one; that little one-forty-sixth of the genetic makeup makes all the difference. Advertising is a complex, wasteful, often distasteful informational system for a consumer economy of competitive businesses and competitive, otherwise unsubsidized mass media. It is an important signaling system between business and business, business and consumer, wholesaler and retailer, consumer and consumer.

But it isn't more important than that. Along with films and novels, advertising provides the iconography, but not the engine, for abundance. Its emergence was not a response to a need to educate consumers' desires and tastes but a response to specific problems and opportunities in production and marketing in certain late nineteenth-century industries -- an adjustment by a range of manufacturers and retailers to a new urban life with central business districts, public transportation, and mass circulation newspapers.


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The second question -- why smart people should accept a notion with neither evidence nor logic to support it -- has to do with the availability, almost the inescapability, of long-standing intellectual traditions of distrust of material goods. Criticism of consumer culture has deep roots in America. Indeed, criticism of what today we call consumer culture originated before anything very closely resembling consumer culture had emerged -- certainly before advertising as the central institutional expression of abundance took root.

This criticism emerged not so much from a single tradition as from a set of traditions that have become intermingled in contemporary criticism of consumer culture. I see five principal traditions at work -- three that lie within bourgeois culture and two that lie outside it, critical not only of advertising but of bourgeois society and capitalism in general. Teasing out these strands of thought may help us to straighten out our own very conflicted relationship to the world of goods today.

Puritans, Quakers, and Republicans
I will first take up the three bourgeois objections to consumer culture. Some critics, whom I shall call Puritans, attack popular attitudes toward material goods in pursuit of spirituality; some critics, whom I shall call Quakers, attack features of the goods themselves in pursuit of simplicity; and some, whom I shall label republicans, attack the consequences of possession, notably complacency and the inappropriate transfer of consumer values to other arenas of life, in pursuit of civic virtue.

The Puritan critique worries about whether people invest an appropriate amount of meaning in goods. By "Puritan," I refer to the conviction, symbolized by the sturdy and sober New England colonists, that pleasure should be subordinated to duty and temporal concerns to religious obligations. In this view, the meaning people invest in worldly possessions should be less than that invested in spiritual pursuits. Yet the Puritan critics do not necessarily agree about what degree of meaning-investment in material possessions would be appropriate. Some critics have argued that American attitudes toward goods are not crassly materialist enough, that people find goods insufficient without investing meaning in them. The British critic Raymond Williams, for instance, referring generally to capitalist societies, writes that modern advertising is proof that people in modem capitalist societies are not materialist -- because the job of the ad is to convey added value to the product itself.

"If we were sensibly materialist," Williams writes, " would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young in heart, or neighbourly." For Williams, the trouble with contemporary attitudes toward goods is that goods in themselves are undervalued, in their associations, overspiritualized.

In contrast, the American intellectual historian and critic Christopher Lasch suggests that people underspiritualize goods. In The Minimal Self (1984), Lasch complains that manufactured goods are inferior to handmade goods in that they cannot serve, in the manner of Linus's blanket, to bridge the psychological gap between an individual's inner self and the external world. For Lasch, handcrafted goods have the mark of human activity upon them, while commodities are elements in a pre-fab dream world so far removed that they cannot aid us in gaining any sense of mastery over our experience. In his latest work, The True and Only Heaven (1991), he again writes with admiration of manual labor and craftsmanship or, at least, with resentment of intellectuals who fail to appreciate manual labor as he does. But his larger point is that contemporary attitudes toward goods are more satanized than spiritualized, that we are possessed by our possessions, in a word, addicted. As in his earlier work, The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch refuses to see this as conventionally hedonistic. He describes it as addictive, compulsive, and linked intrinsically to consumer capitalism.

There are implicitly empirical claims in the notion that Americans overspiritualize or underspiritualize goods, with little proffered evidence one way or the other. Is Williams right to suppose people do not find most advertising "insanely irrelevant"? My reading of the evidence is that people ignore the vast amount of advertising they see and distrust much of the little advertising they do take in. Is Lasch correct that mass-produced goods fail as "transitional objects"? I see no evidence, certainly not from my own children, that mass-produced blankets are inferior to grandma-made afghans as "transitional objects," although adults may be more discriminating and I wish that my daughter were as attached to the quilt my wife made or the afghan my grandmother made as to the cotton blanket we got from J. C. Penney's, but she isn't. Do I overspiritualize goods in this desire? Does my daughter underspiritualize? And what is the appropriate standard?


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The Quaker critique looks less at attitudes toward goods than at features of the goods themselves. It is less concerned with how people feel about goods than with objectionable features of the products themselves, usually their wastefulness or extravagance. This is part of Thorstein Veblen's attack on consumer society. Christopher Lasch, whose multifarious critiques of consumerism fit into just about all of my categories, has taken up the old complaint that modern industry is dictated by "planned obsolescence" or Sloanism, the annual model change that Alfred P. Sloan introduced at General Motors to coax people to buy a new car even when they have a serviceable old one. Here changes in products are not only useless but manipulative, aimed only at pointless product differentiation to which people will attribute unfounded meaning. The fashion industry in its various forms is a regular target of such criticism, as it was for the Quakers themselves in their adherence to plain dress.

Critics, however, have too easily generalized from a few salient examples. Does Sloanism actually guide American industry? Does it even guide the automobile industry? While General Motors was developing the annual model change, other companies were producing washing machines, radios, single-family homes, bicycles, phonographs, long-distance telephone lines, and bathroom fixtures that were designed to last, and did last, for years. Sloanism is an important aspect of the American economy, but it is a marketing strategy for a certain set of conditions rather than a strategic psychological tool or a deep cultural force.

In the case of the automobile industry, consumers were not, in fact, happily holding onto their cars for years until Sloan found a way to introduce wasteful fashion to utilitarian transport vehicles. Years before Sloan dreamt of the annual model change, the used car market was huge and by 1927 its volume outstripped new car sales. People were obviously "buying up" as they could afford to, reproducing in the automobile an objective correlative of already existing systems of class and status distinction. They were resisting the implications of Henry Ford's one model, one price policy. For reasons no more calculating, so were many of Detroit's auto makers, as historian Donald Davis has shown in a recent study. Many of Detroit's entrepreneurs were building more expensive cars, pricing themselves out of the lucrative mass market, and ultimately bankrupting themselves in a status-driven effort to manufacture cars of a sort appropriate to their own station, or desired station, in Detroit society. They went too far up-market while Ford controlled the lower end of the market and Sloan looked to the middle. As Sloan said, "Middle-income buyers created the demand for progress in their cars, for comfort, convenience, power and style. This was the actual trend of American life, and those who adapted to it prospered." The fashion-consciousness that Sloan helped institutionalize in the automobile industry may indeed be wasteful, but "planned obsolescence" as critics still call it, does not characterize most of American industry and was in its origins as much a response to the desire of consumers to be fashionable as a cause of fashion-consciousness.

But granting that some kinds of consumption are more practical, less ostentatious, and less wasteful than others, and therefore morally more defensible, what is the appropriate level of workmanship and luxury for products? This evaluative question is even more slippery than the empirical one of determining the extent of Sloanism. How should we weigh the Cadillac or BMW against the subcompact Chevy? The former may use more resources and be less fuel-efficient, but it also may be a better -- and safer -- car. Some practical and spartan products may not only be aesthetically unappealing but ecologically unsound. Paper plates and towels may be easier to use and dispose of than china and cloth towels that are designed for regular re-use, but they are wasteful.

Not that wastefulness is always easy to measure. "Polyester" has long been a term of abuse in some circles because it is artificial and, so go the rationalizations, it doesn't last like cotton. But the manufacturers have argued that the polyester takes less energy to produce and to maintain (never needs ironing) than the cotton shirt and, over the lifetime of the shirt, absorbs less of the earth's total energy and resources. A similar case has been made for disposable diapers. (See "Changing the Waste Makers," TAP, Fall 1990.) This is not to mention social expenditure, exploitation, and waste -- a product that never needs ironing, or a convenient diaper, saves not only electricity but human, almost invariably female, labor.

The Quaker critique, then, says goods should not be pointlessly differentiated or that goods should not be made useful, efficient, speedy, or convenient beyond some consensual standard of what level of usefulness is normative or that goods should not be multiplied if they can be made durable for sharing or personal re-use. But what is the standard of appropriate convenience and who is to set it? On what grounds is the Boeing 747 okay but the Concorde wasteful? In my house, the electric blender is acceptable but not the electric can opener, the electric toothbrush but not the electric blanket. On what grounds are such decisions made? How do we arrive at a baseline for consensus -- and, if we can't (and I think that we can't), then what is the character of the moral objection to excessive consumption?


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The last of the bourgeois objections to consumption, the republican perspective, is concerned not with attitudes toward goods nor with the wastefulness of goods themselves but with the corrupting influence on public life of a goods-orientation in private life. A goods-orientation or consumerist orientation seems to include two features. First, it is passive. Satisfaction with goods produces acquiescence in politics. People who transfer their passive orientation toward goods to the world of politics expect political life to be prefabricated and to participate in it simply by making a choice between predetermined alternatives. This conception of politics reduces a voting booth to a vending machine.

Second, the republican critique of consumerism objects to the priority given to goods-possession rather than to production as a defining feature of personal identity. "Lifestyle" surpasses a person's work life in a consumer society as the defining feature of existence. The republican critic sees this emphasis as not only a misunderstanding of human nature, but a politically conservative misunderstanding, since it diverts attention from the task of making our work lives more vital and democratic.

But is a consumerist orientation to goods necessarily passive? Some research suggests a much more "active" involvement by consumers in shaping the meaning of the goods they buy. In a study of automobile consumption, for example, H. F. Moorhouse examines the appropriation by young people of Detroit-made cars in the "hot rod" culture of the 1940s. Teenagers did not passively accept automobiles but decorated, redesigned, and even re-engineered them for their own purposes in racing (often illegally). The ethos of hot rod culture, in Moorhouse's view, was not passivity but commitment "to labour, to strive, to plan, to exercise skill, to compete, to succeed, to risk." One does not have to look back to the 1940s, of course, to find that kind of active involvement.

I do not mean to protest too much here. Certainly even the most active forms of watching baseball are on some dimensions more passive than the most passive ways of playing the game (like the daydreaming elementary-school right-fielder). But it is important to note that there are degrees of activity in consumption just as there are degrees of disengagement in labor.

The role of work in human identity is scarcely self-evident. Many sociological studies of labor, whether or not Marxist in inspiration, assume that only in labor can "real" satisfaction in life be attained; all other satisfactions have to be regarded as substitutes, more or less unsatisfying and illusory. But why treat consumption, a priori, as peripheral to key matters of human fulfillment? Labor and occupation are very important, but it is some brand of metaphysics that makes labor the defining feature of human life.

Look at a standard obituary. It ends with a list of the people the dead person is "survived by," an emphasis on social relations, not occupation, as definitive of the person. It is the rare headstone that will declare "an honest merchant" or "a loyal worker" rather than "beloved husband and father" or "cherished sister and daughter."

Socialists and Aristocrats
I will discuss more quickly the non-bourgeois or anti-bourgeois objections to consumer culture since, in a variety of ways, they have been bootlegged into bourgeois self-criticism. The Marxist or socialist objection is that however beneficent the economic system may appear on the side of consumption, it rests on the exploitation of workers under the capitalist system of production. Indeed, Marxists and others have argued, this is part of the point of the consumer society -- to distract the minds and bodies of workers, to serve as an opiate of the people, submerging dissatisfaction with life in the exploitative workplace.

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