Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Freedom of choice

I just got a book from the library that was on hold for me, T.H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution, whic argues that the American revolution was primarily fueled by consumer concerns and employed consumerist tactics: boycotts and the like. I don't know if I agree with this thesis -- I haven't read the book yet, and I may end up being biased by an evisceration of his argument that appeared in TLS, but I wanted to investigate because it coincides with McKendrick, et al.'s case that the consumer society began to crop up in the 18th century, and not after the Industrial Revolution, as is commonly held. The essence of this argument is that the consumer demand that sustained the kind of factory building that the Industrial Revolution brought on was already percolating in the 1700s, and people were already eager for standardized, mechanized goods. I'm likely misremembering details of their argument -- much of it hinged on the wily practicality of a particular small time manufacturer, who exploited every advertising trick in the book to tap into a nascent consumer market. I had been interested in that because my pet thesis is that commercial novels, which emerge in the late 1700s, rely on essentially the same mental equipment that adverts do, that to enjoy novels is to be able to enjoy and be swayed by ads, and vice versa. Both ask you to suspend disbelief, to think non-rationally, to indulge in elaborate fantasy and enjoy these more than the concrete thing that instigates them. If that sort of psychological ad culture was coming into being then, and not, as many argue, in the early 20th century, then that serves my idea well.
Breen seems eager to ascribe to America the first mass consumer society as opposed to England, but the time frame is the same. I would still try to argue that burgeoning literary culture facilitated the consumer culture, and that books were one of the first mass produced commodities to hit the early modern market.
The dark side to this may be the implication that American politics are essentially consumerist, and therefore naturally take the form of a kind of marketplace of ideas -- that one should choose between candidates the same way one would choose between Coke and Pepsi (there is the same amount of difference between the two in each case) is the inevitable course of things for a country born out of a desire to drink untaxed tea. Or rather than buying power should inevitably equate to political power -- that spending money should dictate policy. The similarities between the voting system under democracy and the freedom of choice among commodities probably should be denounced rather than celebrated (I don't know that Breen celebrates this); Baudrillard, for one, ridicules this in his work on consumerism, seeing the sham political process as a ramification of the "code" of consumerism, the equivalence of everything as signs, taking over everything. You can't opt out of the code any more than you can vote for some real change in the way things are in America. Baudrillard came around to advocating the "fatal strategy" of silence, which most Americans have taken him up on, as it sounds a lot like voter apathy to me.
Lizabeth Cohen, in A Consumer's Republic, makes a similar case about ways that post WWI politics were driven by consumerism, that consumerist tactics were a way for marginalized groups (minorities, women) to unite and exercise political power thrrough boycotts, etc. But I'm reluctant to endorse any politics that involves shopping decisions as its primary mode. Again, I'm not sure Cohen endorses this, she just seems to be arguing it was the only option, the only way in, perhaps because in the end, no one in power is really threatened by people who are primarily shoppers.
The problem with politicized shopping is that ultimately you need to buy more to increase your political clout; boycotts are merely a negative expression of this, they are only as strong as how much money is being withheld from the market. And if you are spending more, buying more, seeing consumerism as the medium for your social life and expression, than you may have already lost the important fight.
There's also something to be said about the erosion of a public sphere for political discourse that mall-shopping politics has contributed to. If you go to the mall to participate in your society, then the owners of that space can banish an anti-shopping, anti-business voices. But anyway I'll have to finish reading Habermas first.

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