Thursday, August 04, 2005

Consumer classes

The point I was trying to make yesterday, as I was grabbing stray moments during the day to work on the post, is this: Consumption was billed as the medium for democracy after World War II, where free and equal particpation in the marketplace and the world of goods permitted a kind of nominal equality, the fulfillment of America's promise to be a society where opportunities are equal -- we can all go into the store and theoretically buy the goods there, so we are all on a level playing field. It's a silly notion, but has a persuasive power as ideology, and makes the phenomenon of corpporations purposely reinforcing class with their marketing stretegies a bit surprising. If America is the land where everyone's equal as a shopper, then why are there special stores for the ghetto? Why no Jimmy Jazz on Fifth Avenue? But it profits retailers to play the game of catering to different classes; it allows them to take advantage of informational deficiencies. Or to put that into comprehensible English, it allows them to exploit the ignorance of the lower classes. As Douglas and Isherwood aptly point out in The World of Goods, poverty is less a lack of income than it is a lack of information -- whether it be the habitus to gain the networking connections necessary to succeed, the familiarity with what's socially important to get along with others, or the simple ability to shop comparatively and budget. When your income flow is unpredictable, you can't budget, and when you have no transportation that's reliable, you can't comparison shop. Uncertainty destroys one's ability to behave "rationally" as economists expect, and this failure to be "rational" leads to the poor being blamed for their own predicament. "Well if they wouldn't waste all the money on fees to Rent-a-Center, maybe they wouldn't be so poor."

Consumption, as Douglas explains, is about power. When consumption behavior seems irrational, it indicates the extent to which someone is disenfranchised. Control over consumption rituals is a way to protect class power and exclude lower classes from access to it. Consumers, by consuming and enacting these rituals, participate in the perpetuation of class as a matter of course, without any thought to their role in perpetuating inequality, thinking all the time that the ramifications of their behavior is basically private. Marketeers who target customers by income are reenforcing inequality knowingly, they groom the field on which the consumers play out class distinction and furnish that game its equipment.Because consumption seems fundamental and personal, it is the key way in which we participate in reproducing social ideology, in stabilizing the classification systems that structure our society. Consumption makes material this hierarchy and consumers, by shopping, animate it, invest it with its effective power and reproduce it. In a capitalist consumerist society, it is the fundamental way to create class distinction, it is the system by which class is knowable, and at a core level at which it feels given, unchangable.

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