Monday, July 05, 2004

American independence and consumer revolution

Very appropriate July 4th reading, I guess, Breen's book, The Marketplace of Revolution about how a flooded colonial consumer market led to the American Revolution. Now that I'm half way into it, I can offer some tentative theses.

Breen's major point here is that the American colonies, as a diverse population with little in common as producers, little in common geographically, found grounds for unifying (necessary for their struggle for independence) in their common love of British manufactured goods. Because the colonists all believed they all loved these "British Baubles" equally, they were able to trust the sincerity of their displeasure with England when they committed to forgoing them in intercolonial boycotts. So a diverse population was made homogenous by a national marketplace for the same sort of manufactured goods: pottery, dishware, cloth, etc. Those who fomented about the banalization of America via "mass culture" in post-WWII America were then actually complaining about something, if we believe Breen, that was constituitive of America. Our national identity, from its founding, is as shoppers united in pursuit of a "richer material culture," as Breen calls it.

Breen, of course, assumes that consumption of goods leads to a better life, accepting it as simply inevitable. He relies particularly on the anthropological theory that a diversity of goods available to a population allows that population a greater range of self-expression. Breen melds this with the "levelling" argument -- that because colonial America has no social classes, they turned to consumer goods to differentiate themselves and make a claim to greater comparative gentility. Okay, but why goods, necessarily? Is this the only ground upon which to compete in society? (This kind of competition of consuming to prove gentility is linked to what Norbert Elias calls "the civilising process," something I ought to explain later -- I'd have to refresh my memory on that. But he sees a spreading captalist economy as relying on a spread of manners, which helps the spread of credit; civilising means puposely complicating the rituals of private life, and subject oneself to various prohibitions). Maybe it is, but I wonder, in a sort of utopian socialist daydreaming, whether that competitive impulse couldn't have been allied to something more collective -- who can contribute more to the collective grain store or something -- that's probably ridiculous. Breen also hints at the specter of the aristocratic discourse of luxury, that would forbid consumption from peons through sumptuary laws and strong social pressure exerted from a variety of pulpits (church, press, etc.). The American revolution would hinge on a rejection of this discourse, of a reconfiguration of non-consumption as a radical act, a political act, not an act of obedience and thrift. This makes consumption natural and instinctive, not the strange, troubling novelty it had been in the decades before 1770.

I'm just bothered by this narrative of American origins that posits us as always having been shoppers first and foremost, (hospitable, self-indulgent and insecure, Breen explains, thus ideal consumers) and that we have always seen our civil political duty as a matter of buying or not buying (Shades of Bush II telling Americans to resume normality after 9/11 by going to the mall -- that we "defeat the terrorists" by shopping more. Horrible.). Breen sees consumerism as the practice that links Lockean liberalism to everyday life, allows non-intellectuals to experience the ideas as specific stakes, as personally meaningful. So intellectual ideas would seem to lack substance without being tied literally to a marketplace -- a variation on the "Marketplace of Ideas" notion conservatives often tout. (Or that is made extemely literal in The Wisdom of Crowds, which hypes the idea of the market pooling knowledge to uncannily produce answers to questions individuals can't figure out alone -- truth is like a stock whose values fluctuates as individuals contribute their knowledge through various investment mechanisms -- be it web links counted by Google, or money invested in mock futures markets). I like to believe that ideas can exist and can affect one without being introjected into the marketplace. The marketplace shapes the ideas it touches and twists them into affirmations of its principles -- ideas consumed via the marketplace automatically affirm the market as arbitrator. (perhaps?) All ideas will boil down to variations of enlightened self-interest -- that knowledge is only valuable, only seen as knowledge if it is immediately practical.
This leads to instrumental reason gone mad, doesn't it?

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