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All-Consuming Century

by Gary Cross


Space aliens might think us too bizarre to be worth conquering.  We let dogs lick our faces, yet avoid slightly dirtying our shirts. We anthropomorphize inanimate objects. We act as if automobiles were royalty. We know how many times Roseanne Barr married, yet could not guess how many million people died of infectious diseases last year. We are loyal to evil individuals within our groups, even when those evildoers annihilate us. We waste the great commodity of time, yet get agitated because one method of wasting time is slightly worse than other methods of wasting time. We treat ordinary folks in arbitrary out-groups as if they were slime. We treat powerful individuals in out-groups with respect merely because of their power. We respect people in proportion to their fame, looks, power, or inoffensiveness of their rhetoric. We consume and consumption consumes us.


Fitting into the school of cautious optimism, Gary Cross delivers the clearest, and easily the best, history of American consumerism. The century, observes Cross, began with Americans trading in frontier values for the ideals of consumption. Increases in manufacturing productivity made it possible. Hostility was muted by asserting that we were merely enjoying our freedoms. We claimed we were not asserting status, maintaining status, or trying to obtain a bit of status. We were merely pursuing tastes. Individuals tended to think that if any manipulation went on, it was other people being manipulated, not us.


Attempts to keep up with the Joneses ended in failure because the Joneses were moving faster. The century could be summarized as the pursuit of more. The world beyond goods and services was seen as boring or frustrating or both.


In America, failure meant having a crappy job. Even ruthless criminals did not hesitate to hold an individual wearing a fast food uniform in contempt. The criminal at least enjoyed media adulation for being an outlaw.


During the century, ideologies that completely blamed individuals or the system evolved into new ideologies that completely blamed individuals or the system. Cross writes that early consumption critics fell into four camps:

·        Simple life purists.

·        Consumer rights advocates.

·        Protect-consumers-from-themselves activists (or more specifically, protect us from the ravages of our current genes and environments).

·        Defenders of private and public spaces (including communications technology).


Later, the counterculture “politics of style became just style, another market segment easily integrated into the merchandising system.” Hip consumption replaced unhip consumption. But the pursuit of ever new instant gratification led to long-term dissatisfaction, the paradox of hedonism. The 1960s counterculture produced few good solutions.


As Russell Jacoby wrote elsewhere, “Pluralism, rejected as shallow, has been resurrected as multiculturalism. Pop culture, disdained as conformist, is now seen as rebellious.”


The most intriguing section herein covers the past two decades, perhaps because their influences echo. In the 1980 to 2000 period, power markets and impulse first ideologies multiplied. Cross asserts the government played only a small role. Mass markets, he alleges without evidence, depend more on markets than politicians.

The best sellers of self-absorption are executives, not drug dealers. An unstated goal of power marketers is getting citizens to spend their free time on activities that cost money (or at least on activities that that advertise other activities that cost money).


The narrow New Right--assuming power markets are almost always right and that consumer preference equals truth revealed--thinks we misuse freedom only when pursuing illegal or non-market indulgences. Deregulation, Cross writes, led to even greater immersion in advertising. General Mills went so far as to package Fruit Gushers candy as a volcanology curriculum for science teachers. Hardly a complaint was heard. (Perhaps if General Mills packaged Fruit Gushers as part of a sex ed curriculum, complaints would arise.) Cross claims Ronald Reagan slashed government programs, but a cursory look at the record would reveal that Reagan increased federal spending by an inflation adjusted 22 percent, though most of Reagan's increases can be attributed to population increases and defense profiteering. Reagan's policies were spend and tax shift rather than slash and tax cut.


Ever more cleverly designed, habit-forming toys led to greater isolation for both adults and children. Multitudes of consumer choices availed themselves from eco-tourism to slot machines in South Dakota. Public life and private life became domains of market life. Children were not sheltered from much, except sex and profanity, and those two only until the near teen years. Children were, of course, sheltered from the rigors of an exceptional education.


Many recent Americans developed a work hard ethic, but it came with a spend harder ethic. Hard-earned money was almost certainly not for pursuing some distant, noble end. Many no longer compared themselves with the Joneses. They compared themselves with celebrities. Those feeling brief anxiety, because they did not measure up to favorite celebrities, had the option of undoing the anxiety with new toys, new pills, new gurus, and new TV channels. Computers offered more choices and less passivity than television, yet they were also isolating.


Advertisers and consumers engaged in a weird tango that ended with consumers in ever narrower niches, “personal cocoons” where lovers of rugby, Toyotas, Bill Murray, and Foster’s Beer might care little about lovers of Andre Agassi, BMWs, Thomas Kinkade, and Beck’s Beer, except when the former saw how the BMW could help his status, or the latter got bored with Beck’s and experimented with Foster’s. Community equaled just about anything from isolated bird watchers to gated neighborhoods intended to keep inmates and almost everyone else out.


Markets and various narrow moralities—left and right—offered little to reduce the distances among individuals. One “morality” that combined ravenous consumption with an “edified” spiritual detachment from the very same possessions (ascetics in Mcmansions!) looks especially ludicrous.


The ideas of the weekend and the Sabbath declined. Moonlighting, up 20 percent in the 80s, and working wives were trends. In 1996 sixty-one percent of wives worked. Commutes became trips from one suburb to another suburb.


Cross calls it an ambiguous legacy. Smoking decreased. Gambling and promiscuous sex increased. “Americans found it difficult to want or even to conceive of more satisfying options.” Critics derided consumer culture as superficial and purposeless. Americans scorned or ignored critics they considered elitist, especially since critics offered little in the way of alternatives. Some critics merely criticized the consumption of the poor while ignoring others’ consumption. Products replaced other sources of identity and connection.


Advertisers and peer pressures did not merely passively manipulate consumers. Consumers were active participants. “Americans who learned from birth to identify with an endless parade of goods would not easily appreciate quiet walks in the woods, the pleasures of lifelong friendships, or the deep gestures of acknowledging the grief and joys of others.”


Goods are a way to display oneself without having to engage in difficult developments of character. Cross writes it is easy to conclude that goods are an easy heaven compared to the hell of other people.


Cross hopes the future will deliver neither the nanny state nor unfettered consumerism. Americans, he holds, should realize that several shifts occurred, not merely a shift to more goods, but trends toward personal goods such as entertainment via headphones versus the social board games of the past.


Cross denounces spacey, elitist critiques of consumerism that held ordinary Americans in contempt, yet this work veers close to a different problem, an ideology that says most Americans are too stupid or lazy for a life other than the trough or the treadmill. It is therefore okay to cater to “needs” (meaning destructive self-indulgence) because at least it prevents despair and tribalism—or so the experts allege such prevention exists.


Cross seems to recommend little more than some minor restrictions on where and when people can sell, advertise, and act vulgar. His recommendations are little more than token measures, yet they will create mutually destructive fights with hedonism activists. Does it really matter whether someone who plays video games for ten hours a day plays video games having less profanity for ten hours a day? Changing a tiny segment of the market from R-rated to PG-13 does not accomplish much.


Consumer excesses should be dealt with by progressive consumption taxes, better bankruptcy laws, larger taxes on externalities, better ethical and academic standards, not first amendment restrictions. Restictions on speech could lead to dystopian nightmares. No one would bother with Channel One if schools were so good they could not afford to waste time on classroom television.


Some consumerist critics were unpopular, but they were also right.

Cross grossly understates some of the human tragedies that occur with the triumph of consumerism. No children should die in mangled vehicles because their parents are carting them all over the countryside for trivial reasons.


While reading this, some comments from Jonathan Rowe and Edward Luttwak reappeared in my mind. If we value other things, “why conduct the economy as though the sole purpose is to pile up more stuff in the garage?” Luttwak notes that the natural environment is increasingly protected; yet personal and social environments increasingly belong to power markets. The law requires clean air, and the law requires kids to watch the detritus on Channel One. Recommended.           

Book review articles by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009.


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