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The unqualified victory of consumerism in America was not a foregone conclusion. The United States has traditionally been the home of the most aggressive and often thoughtful criticism of consumption, including Puritanism, Prohibition, the simplicity movement, the '60s hippies, and the consumer rights movement. But at the dawn of the twenty-first century, not only has American consumerism triumphed, there isn't even an "ism" left to challenge it. An All-Consuming Century is a rich history of how market goods came to dominate American life over that remarkable hundred years between 1900 and 2000 and why for the first time in history there are no practical limits to consumerism.
By 1930 a distinct consumer society had emerged in the United States in which the taste, speed, control, and comfort of goods offered new meanings of freedom, thus laying the groundwork for a full-scale ideology of consumer's democracy after World War II. From the introduction of Henry Ford's Model T ("so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one") and the innovations in selling that arrived with the department store (window displays, self service, the installment plan) to the development of new arenas for spending (amusement parks, penny arcades, baseball parks, and dance halls), Americans embraced the new culture of commercialism—with reservations. However, Gary Cross shows that even the Depression, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the inflation of the 1970s made Americans more materialistic, opening new channels of desire and offering opportunities for more innovative and aggressive marketing. The conservative upsurge of the 1980s and '90s indulged in its own brand of self-aggrandizement by promoting unrestricted markets. The consumerism of today, thriving and largely unchecked, no longer brings families and communities together; instead, it increasingly divides and isolates Americans.
Consumer culture has provided affluent societies with peaceful alternatives to tribalism and class war, Cross writes, and it has fueled extraordinary economic growth. The challenge for the future is to find ways to revive the still valid portion of the culture of constraint and control the overpowering success of the all-consuming twentieth century.
Columbia University Press
— Lawrence B. Glickman
— Alan Wolfe
— Tom Engelhardt
— Margaret Walsh, University of Nottingham
— Norman Wirzba
The Irony of the Century
The beginning of a new century is a good time to reflect on the preceding hundred years. We need such spans to help us make sense of our past and to force us to think about our future. The twentieth century was an especially ironic time. Despite clashes of ideologies, two devastating world wars, and a forty-five-year cold war that ultimately made the United States the leading global power, the century did not culminate in the victory of American political ideas. Rather, the real winner of the century was consumerism. Visions of a political community of stable, shared values and active citizenship have given way to a dynamic but seemingly passive society of consumption in America, and increasingly across the globe.
The very idea of the primacy of political life has receded, despite the vast expansion of government. Instead, a very different concept of society has emerged — a consuming public, defined and developed by individual acquisition and use of mass-produced goods. Consumerism, the belief that goods give meaning to individuals and their roles in society, was victorious even though it had no formal philosophy, no parties, and no obvious leaders. Consumerism was the "ism" that won — despite repeated attacks on it as a threat to folk and high culture, to "true" community and individuality, and to the environment. Groups as diverse as the traditionalist Arts and Crafts movement of the early twentieth century, the modernist literati of the interwar years, and the environmentalists of the 1960s all fought it with vigor. Even though thinkers,politicians, and social organizers struggled against it, none produced effective alternatives.
Why Consumerism Won
Consumerism succeeded where other ideologies failed because it concretely expressed the cardinal political ideals of the century — liberty and democracy — and with relatively little self-destructive behavior or personal humiliation. Consumer goods allowed Americans to free themselves from their old, relatively secure but closed communities and enter the expressive individualism of a dynamic "mass" society. Commodities gave people a sense of freedom, sometimes serving as a substitute for the independence of the shop, craft, or farm that was disappearing as Americans joined the industrial work world. "Passive" consumption may have been an essential element in the emerging mass society of the twentieth century. Still, consumer goods gave people the means to establish new personal identities and to break with old ones without necessarily abandoning family, friends, and the common culture. For example, children of immigrants used amusement parks, new foods, and fashionable clothing to distance themselves from their parents without breaking with them. Even more important, consumer goods became a language, defining, redefining, and easing relationships between friends, family members, lovers, and strangers. Cars and clothes gave identity to young and old, female and male, ethnic majority and minority, telling others who they were and how they expected to be treated. Cosmetics and candy expressed both rebellion and authority, thus providing people with an understanding of themselves in an otherwise indifferent and sometimes unfriendly world. Moreover, goods redefined concepts of the past and future and gave a cadence to the rhythms of daily life when people purchased antiques and novelties and when Christmas became a shopping "season." The taste, feel, and comfort of manufactured objects, designed to maximize physical satisfaction and to intensify pleasure and excitement, created new understandings of personal freedom.
Consumerism redefined democracy, creating social solidarities and opportunities for participation that transcended suffrage rights or political ideologies. A vision of a world of goods available to American citizens in large part replaced the old ideal of a republic of producers and challenged class, religion, and ethnicity as principles of political solidarity. In particular, the promise of a democracy of consumers co-opted class identity. Consumerism was far more than a political smoke screen. It reflected real social needs and, ironically, often fulfilled those needs with less conflict than did other, more substantial forms of social solidarity. Communities, formed around ownership of suburban homes, country club memberships, and college diplomas, excluded and humiliated outsiders and the poor. But religious, political, and other social groups were at least as discriminatory, and these groups often caused even more resentment and hostility, especially if they made absolute claims. Social or faith groups may actually be less flexible than markets in adjusting to change because of their democratic participatory ethic. When voluntary leisure groups, for example, are dominated by their members, they often unintentionally exclude others or become fractionalized. It has been much easier for commercial companies like Walt Disney or Leisure World, who stand outside the markets they organize, to get people to join. There was less risk of humiliation in disclosing oneself as a "member" of a society of Porsche owners than in joining a group that demanded personal interaction. It was relatively easy to "buy" one's way into a community of shoppers, and there were so many from which to choose. Consumerism repeatedly and dynamically reinforced democratic principles of participation and equality when new and exciting goods entered the market. The American Way was affirmed as Americans moved from basic Model T Fords to stylish choices in cars in the 1920s and from the radio to the TV in the 1950s.
In the context of consumerism, liberty is not an abstract right to participate in public discourse or free speech. It means expressing oneself and realizing personal pleasure in and through goods. Democracy does not mean equal rights under the law or common access to the political process but, more concretely, sharing with others in personal ownership and use of particular commodities. Consumerism was realized in daily experiences, always changing, improving, and being redefined to meet the needs of individual Americans in their ordinary but still (to them) special lives as children and parents, wives and husbands, and in thousands of other roles.
In other ways, however, consumerism has been a threat to the kind of individual responsibilities and social solidarities that made political democracy work in the past. The fixation on personal goods has denied the necessity of sacrifice beyond the family. It has allowed little space for social conscience and confined aspiration to the personal realm. Consumerism had no interest in linking the present to the past and future (at least, beyond nostalgia and fantasy). Rear-guard defenders of the simple or cultivated life have had little impact. Indeed, their values have often been commercialized. Only the family, a most fragile institution, had the potential to pull the individual from self-gratification and break up the consuming crowd. Unfortunately, the family has hardly been a constraint on consumption — the home long ago was conquered by the market with mass circulation magazines, radio, TV, and other outlets for advertising domestic goods. And the family lacks stability and critical distance, reduced as it often is to a purchasing unit in a dynamic consumer society. Consumerism has produced a powerful but profoundly ambiguous legacy.
Americans have led the way toward a consumer society (and for this reason, at least, the twentieth century is the American century), but they are by no means solely responsible for it. Consumerism is not American Character incarnate, as European and American critics alike are accustomed to believe. Nor is it merely the extreme end of modernity expressed fully in the New World where, unlike in Europe, the fetters of tradition have always been weak or even powerless. Other cultures have created different mixes of consumerism. Accidents of history, geography, and economics have allowed Europeans to produce a greater share of public goods and services than the United States. European nations have been slower to abandon small-scale, class-segmented shops for discount/department store shopping. They have often spent more on cuisine and long-distance vacations than have Americans. After all, by the mid-1990s Britons and Germans worked merely 4-3.3 and 41.4 weeks per year on average, compared to the 4.9.2 work weeks of Americans. In contrast, the United States has led the way in private consumption of relatively large homes and cars. To be sure, the globalization of consumer and media industries has erased some of these differences. The declining power of nation-states and regional cultures has meant greater uniformity in consumption styles.
Still, differences remain, and America in the century of consumption has followed its own path. The predominance of markets over other social and cultural institutions in American history is particularly important. Many factors contributed to this. The absence of an established national church, a weak central bureaucracy, the regional division of the elite, the lack of a distinct national "high culture," the fragmentation of folk cultures due to slavery and diverse immigration, and finally the social and psychological impact of unprecedented mobility all meant that market values encountered relatively few checks. Americans have had a strong tendency to define themselves and their relationships with others through the exchange and use of goods. Americans were hardly unique in this, and important checks on U.S. market culture lasted into the twentieth century, but this tendency made goods especially central to American society.
Modern consumerism is a product of broad transformations of industrial society experienced worldwide. In some ways, it is the wedding of technology to the pursuit of happiness. Desire for comfort, variety, and satisfaction are hardly new to the twentieth century. However, in the past humankind was limited in its weak capacity to harness energy, to accelerate and direct chemical processes, and to mold, assemble, and deliver laborsaving machines, shelter, clothing, and nourishment. People were unable to defeat, even briefly, the terrors of nature. Preachers of constraint made sense when the unlimited desire of the rich and powerful led to the exploitation of the many and the horrors of war and conquest. By contrast, in the twentieth century the industrial West learned to release large portions of humanity from many of these natural fetters. The mass production of consumer goods was the magical key. Thus modern technology seems to have freed modern Americans from the need to restrain desire.
Consumer society also emerged when the ancient dual economy of mass subsistence and elite luxury gave way to an economy capable of delivering vast and diverse stores of goods to the general population. The introduction of Henry Ford's automobile assembly line in 1913 promised a dramatic new possibility — that industrial output could swamp demand for goods. Advertising and appealing shopping centers helped to create wants to match the growing supply of products. The "philosophy" of consumerism was embedded in the words and images of the ad agency and display designer, who welded human physical needs, impulses, and fantasies to packaged goods.
The twentieth-century United States and the culture of consumption have become so closely intertwined that it is difficult for Americans to see consumerism as an ideology or to consider any serious alternatives or modifications to it. Participation in the consumer culture requires wage work, time, and effort, often given without enthusiasm or interest. But this tradeoff seems natural today, an inevitable compromise between freedom and necessity. Maintaining a reciprocal relationship between consumption and work keeps the economic system running and orders daily life. This society of goods is not merely the inevitable consequence of mass production or the manipulation of merchandisers. It is a choice, never consciously made, to define self and community through the ownership of goods.
Failed Dreams of Public Life
Given the success of consumerism in 2000, it is ironic that few politically active Americans in 1900 expected that their new century would be one of consumption. The Left longed for popular control over political institutions and workplaces. Populists challenged political elites and radical trade unionists took on the power of railroad, mine, and steel mill owners. The Right defended authority with appeals to racial and social Darwinian ideas. The Center, in the form of Progressivism, labored for efficient and responsible institutions capable of translating American democratic and enlightenment traditions into the industrial era. All three groups thought in terms of citizenship and explained individuals and their relationship to society in political terms. However, over the course of the twentieth century, the self in society came to be defined by consumption.
At the end of the century, religious cults, nationalist violence, and political scandals still got the headlines. But such news was really on the fringes of modern American life, interesting as a sideshow. Identification with class, nation, and even high-minded social reform has declined sharply in the second half of the twentieth century. Religious communities, with their spiritual challenge to consumerist materialism, have gained influence since the 1970s, but their calls for prayer in schools and the banning of abortion hardly challenged the profound hold of goods on American life. In sum, there seemed to be no moral equivalent to the world of consumption.
These are bold remarks. We are not accustomed to understanding consumption as the winner over the ideological "isms" in defining public life. After all, consumerism is about private decisions, not political authority and community. Political ideas and power, most historians assume, drive history; consumption is what takes place when people are free of war, instability, and "abnormal" ideological controls and pressures. Fascism, communism, and other totalitarian "isms" stood in the way of this normalcy. The real victor in the twentieth century, according to this common view, was not consumerism but liberalism in its classic meaning of individual rights, self-directed institutions, political pluralism, unrestricted markets, and limited states.
A conventional view of the twentieth century has been repeated again and again in Western Civilization textbooks and articulated recently by Francis Fukuyama. It is the story of the rise and fall of totalitarianisms of the Left and Right. Arising out of World War I, these deviations from the logic of the market and the efficacy and justice of representative democracy were unhappy historical accidents. Totalitarian victories between 1917 (the Bolshevik Revolution) and 1975 (the communist unification of Vietnam) were, the story goes, the consequences of temporary crises in capitalist development, holdovers of absolutist and aristocratic traditions in a few unlucky countries, and the unfortunate influence of utopian intellectuals. These ill-fated deviations, expressed in Nazism and communism, took advantage of the upheaval of World War I and its aftermath, economic depression, and later, in the case of communism, of World War II and decolonization. The forces of liberalism, led by the United States, courageously strove to overcome the destructive results of totalitarianism through an Age of Dictators, World War II, and the Cold War. While the fascist aberration was crushed in 1945, it took another forty-five years to eliminate the other deviation, communism. The rules of rational society have finally been fully enshrined and "history" as an epochal striving has come to an end. The result has been the victory of democratic capitalism.
According to this common view, the consumer society today is merely the arena in which people have gotten on with life. The market is a natural setting of exciting change and constant adjustment. It is also where rational, disciplined, and imaginative individuals can compete, play, and win, free from coercion or unreasonable constraint. Without the "artificial" interference of big and "ideological" government, the inefficiencies of big business, big media, and big everything else melt away. From this perspective, consumerism is not so much a victor over the other "isms" as a natural world freed from utopian ideologies, pushed onward by the dynamics of technology and personal liberty.
To be sure, market liberalism and democratic capitalism seem to have won with universal acclaim. Centralized management of society has few proponents today. Russia, the birthplace of communism, abandoned its Marxist heritage, following closely on the heels of its erstwhile satellites. Even where communist parties still reign, like in China and Vietnam, markets have replaced dreams of collectivism.
There are, however, problems with this tale of the victory of democratic capitalism. First, the collapse of communism did not mean the triumph of a civic or open society. One reason is simply that the abandonment of communism had relatively little to do with the desire for political democracy and civil freedoms. Communism's failure was more economic than political; it did not come close to meeting the ultimate goal: "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need." For all of its claims of producing full employment and meeting everyone's basic requirements for health, education, food, and other necessities, the Marxist system was unable either to increase productivity or to meet the widening horizons of desire. The lack of incentives for hard work created a society in permanent slow motion that could never satisfy the demand for consumer goods. In the West, the linkage of discipline (at work) with freedom (in consumption) was able to do both. Employment brought income roughly commensurate with effort, and money bought an endless array of appealing items. Under modern capitalism, people accepted displays of wealth as tokens of achievement and as things for those who had "not yet" arrived to strive for. By contrast, the communist elite could not serve as a model of consumerist emulation without appearing to be "privileged." Communist regimes, based on economic planning and cultural isolation from the "decadent" West, could not make their people work harder or contain their desire for more goods. The communists were unable to create social solidarity and instead relied upon power. For East Europeans, the promise of mass consumption was preferable to the nightmare of solidarity even if it meant also the dominance of money and the private control of wealth. In reality, the fall of communism had more to do with the appeals of capitalist consumerism than political democracy.
It is no surprise that the seeming victory of liberal capitalism has not led to an unambiguous restoration of free institutions. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case in both East and West. Not only did the collapse of European communism in 1989 fail to revive civil society, but democratic values and institutions appeared to be in decline in the West as well. In the United States, the end of the external threat of communism created an "enemy crisis" and probably contributed to the "culture wars" between the secularists and religious absolutists that have helped create a stalemated political climate. Despite efforts of many to find identity in ethnicity, religion, or even gender, there seems to be "no golden past to recover." While sociologist Amitai Etzioni complained that Americans were unwilling to compromise between their longings for order and autonomy to create a more civil society, William Greider lamented the hollowing out of the democratic process in American political life. By the 1990s, participation in presidential elections had declined by 20 percent since 1960 and members of Congress were elected by as little as 15 or 20 percent of their constituents, despite escalating spending for electoral campaigns. More broadly, Robert Putnam noted the decline of American participation in the civic and social organizations essential for democracy.
At the end of the century, the decline of democratic political and social institutions was evident everywhere in the industrial world. Opinion makers agreed that the market alone could measure the will of the people through the billions of votes cast daily at cash registers. Politicians were sold like soft drinks in election campaigns. Even the growth of a new conservatism in the 1980s was not really a mass political movement. It was a sophisticated and largely successful sales effort promoting unfettered markets. It took advantage of the decline of communities and organizations that had once encouraged popular political participation and government devoted to meeting social needs. The 1990s changed little. The 1996 American political conventions featured promises to help or free families to make their own spending decisions. The conclusion is obvious: consumerism, not political democracy, won the century. Regimes based on mobilizing people around ideas of social solidarity seem to end up demonic, or at least bureaucratic and corrupt. And even the relatively open and undemanding goals of liberal democracy for public life have failed to compete with consumerism.
Our Ambivalence Toward Consumerism
In fact, consumer society has partially replaced civil society. This has not necessarily been a bad thing. Communities of shoppers have served as effective counters to the political and cultural solidarities that produced Nazism and contemporary ethnic or religious bigotry. Consumerism has created emotional and social outlets that ideological groups formerly harnessed for demonic, or at least authoritarian, purposes. As C. B. McPherson notes, "possessive individualism," that seventeenth-century "vice" of personal acquisition, was a substitute for the more disruptive passions of vengeance, glory, and domination. Similarly, modern consumerism has saved affluent countries since 1945 from many far more destabilizing and manifestly more destructive forms of behavior like ethnic feuds, racial bigotry, and militarism.
Mass consumption wonderfully combines hedonism with work, fantasy with hard-nosed realism, often maximizing extremes in a flurry of numbing activity. It surely has produced a harried society. But who would voluntarily abandon this way of life for the confining worlds of our ancestors or the stagnant and hypocritical existences of the former communist East? The consumer culture may be for cowards and the lazy, people who cannot find themselves or relate to others without the crutch of goods. But who among us does not fit this definition in some way? How many of us are really outside that culture? We have survived the twentieth century with consumerism. Could we have done so without it? Would we not have destroyed ourselves in ideological fratricide or succumbed to a coercive, corrupt, and stagnant society without the thrills and securities of material possessions?
Consumer culture may be the fate of modern democracies unable or unwilling to provide their members with deeper and more direct means of expressing individuality and sociability. But in another sense consumer culture is democracy's highest achievement, giving meaning and dignity to people when workplace participation, ethnic solidarity, and even representative democracy have failed. Of course, consumerism has done this without challenging manipulative power and inherited money. Indeed, the American Way of Life in the twentieth century, based on popular access to consumer goods, has replaced the older American Dream of property and independence. It has provided meaning while magnifying the power and wealth of American elites. It is easy to see why some might view this as a perfect world.
Still, most of us, no matter our politics, are repulsed by the absolute identity of society with the market and individual choice with shopping. After all, we support laws that restrict consumption at the margins at least, by prohibiting the free market in most addictive drugs and by regulating children's access to dangerous substances like tobacco and pornography that we otherwise tolerate on store shelves. When intellectuals point out that the personal desire for goods is sometimes irrational — shaped by frustrating efforts to compete with neighbors or even an elusive quest for happiness, youth, sexuality, or power — we, at least, find this true in other people. Despite the ads that identify our aspirations with material status, in our "serious" moments, most of us still claim to strive for more spiritual, rational, or sensitive selves.
We still long for a circle of friends and seek the fellowship of communities. And we do so in a thousand ways, from the playful exuberance of football games to the sober joys of worship. Americans still dream of a public life structured by government, education, and church. We desire a society sustained by shared traditions, collective sacrifices, and personal interactions. We lament how affluence — the ownership, care, and longing for goods — gets in the way of relationships and takes time and attention away from "real life." Many would even agree that the commercial bias, under which everything has a price and everything can be possessed and "used up" without regard to the living, dead, or yet to live, has frustrated what we really want for ourselves and our posterity. We complain that our society of shoppers has produced social relations that are more impersonal, ephemeral, and certainly less community-minded than we wish. Many lament the corruption and aimlessness at the center of political life; the various addictions afflicting families; the shallowness of our lives; and the irresponsibility of our culture toward both our grandparents and our grandchildren. Many people still feel that individuality and community experienced only through commodities is insufficient. Consumerism seems to stand in the way of greater happiness and friendship. Couldn't we do better with all of the material and technological advantages that the twentieth century has brought us?
It is possible that these sentiments are mere platitudes, subjects of Sunday morning sermons and the "expected" answers to survey questions — largely irrelevant to our actual behavior, impulses, and dreams. They may be no more than the tired refrain from the overplayed song of the old jeremiad against consumer culture. Throughout the century, writers as diverse as José Ortega y Gasset, Sinclair Lewis, Lewis Mumford, Theodor Adorno, and Jane Jacobs have attacked the commercialization of American culture and society. Their efforts were often insightful. Nevertheless, modern cultural Jeremiahs never understood why and how the consumer culture worked in the lives of ordinary Americans. They saw the consuming "masses," not the system of consumption itself, as the threat. They retreated into the idea of an "authentic" personality and often ended up promoting an individualism that simply created new forms of consumerism. Underlying their responses were the social interests and educational traditions of the intellectual elite, alien to the experiences of ordinary people. This negative reaction to mass consumer society had little chance of winning a popular following and often degenerated into "hand-wringing." Its echo can still be heard today in intellectuals' doubts about consumerism. As an effective critique or alternative to consumer culture, however, it has lost its power.
Many opinion leaders in the press and popular culture daily celebrate consumerism. Economists often insist that individual liberty is identical with the subjective desires of consumers. Stanley Lebergott, for example, mocks the jeremiad against consumerism as arbitrary or hostile to progress: who complains of the comforts of consumption, "housewives or specialists in American Studies?" Human needs are endless and irrepressible and to deny them is to deny our humanity and freedom. There is no disputing taste. Despite their homilies on patriotism and civic virtue, politicians commonly act as if the main point of government is to facilitate consumer choice by lowering taxes.
By the late 1970s, even a few academics in the humanities were getting into the act, claiming that goods were the main way that people communicated with each other. Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood's The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1979) led the way. It became fashionable to say that there are no "false needs," there is no language outside the market. These thinkers found futile, imperialistic, or even demonic any effort to get at a truth beyond the ephemeral consumer culture. Political and social ideas that projected holistic alternatives to current society were labeled "utopian" and illusory because no one could escape the market culture. These affirmative intellectuals attempted to reconcile art and thought with an eclectic popular commercial culture. They argued that architecture should learn from the glitter of Las Vegas and that youths made their own meanings and uses of clothes and commercial popular music.
At one level this rejection of the jeremiad tradition is a realistic acceptance of the victory of the commercial language of "adcult" over high culture and a positive rejection of the elitism of the artistic and philosophical canon. Relatively few Americans watch the "uplifting" fare on public television, despite gallant efforts to make it entertaining and to keep it free from annoying ads. Parks are relatively empty while malls are full. Celebrants of consumerism note that there certainly are no physical or even economic impediments to life beyond the market. Yet Americans have chosen consumer culture, and it is about time intellectual elites ceased their unwanted and presumptuous preaching.
Still, Americans have lingering doubts that consumerism will satisfy and work indefinitely. Neither the hard-nosed economist nor the pandering politician nor the cynical intellectual may ultimately have grasped the complexity of popular will and desire. Americans still want more than more shopping and more stuff. They often choose consumption because "real" community and "true" individuality are difficult, frustrating, and thus boring. Americans know that goods are about more than "meanings." Commodities are objects of individual desires that, even in an affluent age, must still be managed. Consumerism also means making choices between personal wants and public needs and among different uses of time and qualities of social and personal life. Buying more things and earning the money to obtain them takes time that otherwise would be free from work and the market. The fact that Americans work more than Europeans is no accident. It is related to the greater American emphasis upon consumption, and Americans are not entirely happy about the consequences. The unambiguous celebration of consumerism either ignores or is disdainful of these very real longings for a culture beyond consumption. Even more important, the affirmative school has largely forgotten that the culture of constraint has shaped and channeled consumerism in the past. In their energetic denial of the jeremiad tradition, they ignore the fact that this culture of constraint has largely been eclipsed in recent years. Reading a celebrant like James Twitchell would make one think that the jeremiad tradition was dominant at the end of the century. Far from it. Since the 1960s, advocates of personal and collective limits on consumer desire have lost influence in culture, society, and politics. The fact is that consumerism remains problematic even if the problem was never really understood by the Jeremiahs.
The dilemma appears to be that the American system, so successful at mobilizing resources to produce goods and services that individuals really want, also frustrates their hopes for themselves and their relationships with others. Individual striving and satisfaction are too often confined to objects and services while social interaction is reduced to "reading" each other through our possessions and by sharing goods and aspirations for them. Affluent America is more content than poorer countries, but only up to a point. Consumerism has costs beyond the spiritual and aesthetic, so long emphasized by cultural critics. The quest for meaning through possession obliges Americans to work more than they want doing jobs they often do not like. By focusing on individualistic wants, the market system undermines willingness to pay for public goods like parks, environmental protection, and community centers.
A Need for Perspective
We are right not to be comfortable with the future of consumer society, but we still need to know why consumerism won. We must acknowledge the failure of critics of consumer culture while recognizing the cultural and social costs of this victory. To do so we must understand the history of twentieth-century consumerism. Neither the jeremiad against consumerism nor the celebration of it will take us very far in understanding why it won the twentieth century and what that victory may mean for the twenty-first century.
A deeper and more mature understanding of the history of consumerism can take us beyond the simplistic, naive, and futile struggle between the handwringer and the cheerleader. In fact, that history will show a far more subtle and interesting world of the shopper than either side ever depicted. While the traditional jeremiad never explained how the consumer culture worked for Americans, the modern celebrant cannot see why it might not work in the future. The critic attempted to impose a culture of constraint that was undemocratic; the proponent tends to rationalize a consumer culture without constraints. Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 anticipated a world of manipulated and mechanized hedonism that never happened, but today's faith in an endless horizon of freely chosen "meanings" in goods is no more likely to come true.
This book explores why and how consumerism won the twentieth century by meeting American needs, and why it may not be able to fulfill those needs in the next century. It is divided into two pairs of chapters, the first covering the years 1900 to 1960 and the second 1960 to 2000, with a transitional chapter in between. In part, this is a story of new technologies, new businesses, and new economic realities. In part, it is an analysis of how and why Americans responded to the consumer goods that they encountered. The first pair of chapters show how a distinct consumer society emerged in the United States between 1900 and 1930 and how it was consolidated during the economic and social upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s and the seemingly placid 1950s. It was during these years that Americans encountered a dramatic new world of clothing, cosmetics, candy bars, and cars. These goods gave people ways of identifying themselves in groups when the old associations of family and neighborhood no longer worked. Consumers extended their personalities in the physical sensations of taste, speed, mood enhancement, control, and comfort. The complex appeals of new products prevailed over the apparent failure of capitalism in the 1930s, laying the groundwork for a full-scale ideology of consumers' democracy after World War II. The tone of this story is largely positive, explaining how and why consumer culture prevailed.
The next (transitional) chapter shows that this consumer culture has never been without its critics. Indeed, the United States has been the home of both the least restrained materialism and the most aggressive and often thoughtful criticism of consumption. This reflects more than hypocrisy, for these two value systems have complemented each other. Thus during the 1920s, when desire was released in an orgy of spending, Americans also outlawed alcohol, regulated the media, and preached a culture of personal simplicity. Regulation justified an expanding horizon of consumption by the very fact that it set boundaries. More positively, a culture of constraint tried also to provide a common language of limits and choices. Yet over the long run, this critical tradition floundered in binding or providing alternatives to consumerism. An explanation of why and how it failed provides a backdrop to the very different and far less positive story of the rest of the century.
The next two chapters tell of the rise and ultimate fall of movements to rationalize and constrain consumption. The 1960s and later 1980s produced opposing movements of the Left and Right that removed remaining limits to the consumer culture. The anticonsumerism of the "radical" sixties offered environmental and egalitarian critiques of a waste-making and addrenched culture, but these critiques did not impede the growth of that culture. Instead, the countercultural challenge to the conformist spending of the 1950s opened new channels of desire by breaking with the constraints of the postwar generation. The conservative upsurge of the 1980s and 1990s indulged in its own brand of self-aggrandizement by promoting unrestricted markets. The result was a consumerism that thrived without serious checks and turned in subtly but distinctly antisocial directions.
The book concludes with this dilemma: As the twentieth century ended, consumerism faced no practical limits, though it is arguable that it never needed them more. The failure of the culture of limits and the unwillingness of the culture of celebration to deal seriously with the need for constraint left the market nearly unfettered. As Americans faced a new century, the cultural divisions between Left and Right made any practical assessment and reform very difficult. Yet the history of our all-consuming century still suggests possibilities for new thinking and action — an appreciation for the meaning of goods in people's lives with, at the margins, an awareness of the need to reform and revive the still valid portion of the culture of constraint.
While the exhaustion of alternatives to the market is evident everywhere today, the fact that consumerism has won does not mean that it is either the destiny of humankind or sustainable in its present form in the twenty-first century. The past hundred years have been full of surprises. The good news is that we have made it through those turbulent times. The bad news may be the way we did it. The triumph of consumption in the past century is not a certain model for the next. It is one thing to note that the consumer culture may well have helped us survive the century by displacing the aggression and hatred that surely could have destroyed humanity in the arms race; it is another to argue that humanity can survive another century with six billion people and counting who increasingly define their existence by their consumption of manufactured goods. We need to understand the triumph of consumerism and how it has shaped our lives. And we need to go beyond this understanding to find ways of preventing it from absorbing human life.
Preface1. The Irony of a Century2. Setting the Course, 1900—19303. Promises of More, 1930—19604. Coping with Abundance5. A New Consumerism, 1960—19806. Markets Triumphant, 1980—20007. An Ambiguous LegacyIndex
Columbia University Press