Hard times forced many Americans to struggle to find and keep work, to feed their families, and to hold on to their homes or pay their rent. Yet increasingly they were being viewed by policymakers—and were thinking of themselves—as consumers, as purchasers of goods in the marketplace. Even as many people were barely making ends meet in the thirties, two images of the consumer came to prevail and, in fact, competed for dominance. On the one hand, what I will call citizen consumers were regarded as responsible for safeguarding the general good of the nation, in particular for prodding government to protect the rights, safety, and fair treatment of individual consumers in the private marketplace. On the other hand, purchaser consumers were viewed as contributing to the larger society more by exercising purchasing power than through asserting themselves politically.
|Published (Last):||22 January 2012|
|PDF File Size:||14.84 Mb|
|ePub File Size:||13.30 Mb|
|Price:||Free* [*Free Regsitration Required]|
Yet it a question whether this shift bodes well or ill for our democratic political traditions, our natural environment, or our global future, whether we should be proud of the manifold wealth we have created or instead ashamed of our prodigal capitalist system.
Of course, consumerism cannot be judged in terms of pure utility alone; the very concept, like that of the good life itself, entails a complex psychology as well as an ideological framework that must be analyzed. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies.
I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off my skin like so much rain.
These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit. In doing so, she writes a stimulating alternative history of postwar American politics that recognizes the importance of everyday economic activity for shaping the destinies of women, African Americans, suburbanites, senior citizens, and many others. Cohen, who is Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies in the Department of History at Harvard University, achieves two laudable ends through her innovative approach to writing the history of the late twentieth century.
Through the citizen consumer ideal, Cohen argues, the marketplace becomes a new, simultaneously public and private means through which to work for social justice, especially for groups like blacks and women. The latter figure, the purchaser consumer, represents the interests of business and the lassiez-faire philosophy of deregulated mass consumption leading to trickle down benefits for all.
These various foci are woven together masterfully, yet they form clear subdivisions within chapters, permitting students to quickly focus on their particular interests. Blacks in particular used the venue of the market as a means to exercise new powers as citizen consumers: white supremacist businesses were boycotted while black-owned ones gained popular support. Such grassroots practices worked well in tandem with the dominant economic policy, taken from Keynes, which held that government intervention was necessary in order to motivate massive demand and revive the general economy Given the importance attached to building a broad consumer base and fostering mass consumption plus the willingness of government to actively support them, consumers were uniquely empowered during this period.
The majority of Americans experienced circumstances quite unlike those of the Progressive Era or the s boom. New rituals of patriotic citizenship evolved-obeying OPA price, rent, and rationing regulations and reporting violators; participating in recycling, scrap, and waste fat drives; planting Victory Gardens [.
Within the context of this patriotism and egalitarian empowerment, the continuing discrimination against blacks at home would serve as one of the sparks that lit the Civil Rights conflagration according to Cohen. Nonetheless, wartime regulation of consumption, redistribution of wealth, and challenging of hierarchies were tolerated by the majority of Americans only as a temporary condition, accepted in return for promises of post-war abundance.
Bill of Rights and the new income tax codes were used in order to establish the economic and cultural hegemony of white heterosexual male homeowners. For instance, in the case of suburbia, a broadly stratified urban space with its de jure Jim Crow racism is replaced by a newly, more rigidly segmented space, the suburbanized metropolis with its de facto racism.
Ironically, then, instead of having to rigorously police boundaries in the old city because blacks and whites actually share public space, the lack of a public sphere in postwar mass suburbia allows the fantasy of equal access.
Thus, real estate economics serves segregation as much as, in the era of consumer advocacy regarding perishable goods, the market seemed to hold the hope of integration and equality. Chapter 6 takes a fascinating look at the rise of the shopping mall in the late s.
Chapter 7 addresses the shift in marketing and advertising during the s away from mass marketing towards market segmentation. Of course, this recognition of differences occurs under the aegis of the dollar sign, which leads to a commodification of all radicalism and an even more insidious segmentation of culture and space than what existed before. She successfully shows how different strategies such as the brand indoctrination of children, motivation of spending over saving in seniors, and the colonization of minority business all worked to further economic growth while retaining the status quo.
The citizen consumer model worked best within the context of a war against fascism, at a time when the United States was still a clearly bounded entity and broad political consensus was possible, a situation that probably cannot be replicated. The Vietnam War failed to motivate patriotic, responsible, citizen consumerism in the way that WWII did because by the s, the nation state paradigm was giving way to the global Empire of postmodern capitalism, and wealthy Americans had less in common with poor Americans than with their wealthy counterparts elsewhere.
The Cold War historical paradigm that she discoun ts in the prologue, whatever its flaws, is at least valuable for its ability to consider American activity within the global context.
Perhaps the task for future historians, therefore, is to decipher the international ramifications of the everyday behavior of the American consumer. DeLillo, Don. White Noise: Text and Criticism. Mark Osteen. New York: Penguin, , p. Andrew Reynolds is a Ph. This entry was posted in Miscellaneous and edition Issue 3. Bookmark the permalink.
Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
Yet it a question whether this shift bodes well or ill for our democratic political traditions, our natural environment, or our global future, whether we should be proud of the manifold wealth we have created or instead ashamed of our prodigal capitalist system. Of course, consumerism cannot be judged in terms of pure utility alone; the very concept, like that of the good life itself, entails a complex psychology as well as an ideological framework that must be analyzed. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs.
A Consumers' Republic
Cohen also offers a provocative argument about the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the s. She contends that a working-class "culture of unity" broke down ethnic divisions and animosities and made possible widescale industrial unionization. Building on her interests on architecture, planning, and the built environment, the book is particularly noteworthy for its engagement with earlier work on the politics of suburbanization by scholars like Kenneth T. Logue, whose shifting approach to the post-World War II urban crisis tracked the changing balance between government-funded public programs and private-sector initiatives. Cohen probes the destructiveness of federally funded urban renewal, but also its successes and progressive goals. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.