A blog post

Consumer society – back on the agenda

Posted on the 05 February, 2021 at 3:54 pm Written by in Comments, Music, Research

One of the reasons why the 1960s can be classified as “optimistic” was that they had a clear topic in mind – “consumer society”, and what to do about it. Change seemed possible. Later, the topic turned into “capitalism”. This short essay tells why this was not a good idea.

Consumer society – back to the 60s future?

I read science fiction novels from the 1960s since I love their optimistic vision off the future, before all the bleakness and depression set in. Like I love the best music from that period. I listen to music referencing and critically reflecting the optimistic period, later, like A perfect circle: Motive (LP cover extract above).

Back then, from 1964-65 onwards, western culture was influenced by what was known as the youth revolt, commonly displayed by long-haired boys that challenged conventional gender norms by “looking like girls”. The youth revolt evolving into the counter culture had one main target, or obstacle – not yet defined fully as “enemy” – namely, consumer society. Later, by 1969, due to the repression of the youth revolt, a new image became dominant – there was an enemy, and its name was capitalism. Or the establishment. At the time, this was seen as a more “advanced” and mature analysis of society – the flower children finally growing up.

Was it – really? It is consumer society, not capitalism as such, that has contributed most to the current climate crisis. Doing away with capitalism has not lead to better climate performance (sometimes, the opposite, e g in the Soviet Union). The same production-consumption oriented economy has ruled society, regardless of political color and formal positions of power-holders. The “vague” and “fuzzy” consumer society analysis actually has grown less old, than the supposedly improved capitalism versions.

Back in the 1960s, as a young reader, I absorbed Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world, where citizens are indoctrinated into consuming, as well as novels by Philip K Dick and others detailing the problems of consumer society. Here is one of several 60ies novels where the traditional male role in consumer society was challenged:

Today, I think consumer society oriented analysis has stood the test of time better than most capitalism analyses. Although they may be combined, and consumer society analysis is somewhat blind unless it also has a map of core capital formations and political and economic processes. Its  main point, to me, is that it includes all and any in the diagnoses. It does not creep down to the level of “us” versus “them”. Like working class and capitalists. Or one ethnic group against other groups.

Consumer society analysis basically says, this is complex, we are all into it, one or the other, in different roles and positions. Research may find “classes” of consumer pushers, dealers, strong and less strong consumer adherence / addiction, and so on, but this is clearly a varied landscape, not like a class division. And what is more, it is clearly related or broadly relational, meaning that the choices of one individual are clearly influenced by those of others. It is partly collective and partly individual behavior. It is partly economic but cultural, social and psychological (etc) also – clearly interdisciplinary.

Consumer society theory, appearing from the 1950s onwards, was tuned to the economic, social and cultural contribution of the individual, including the possibility of change on that level – not just the positioning between classes within the consumption cycle. Later research on life forms, work and family, and similar topics confirmed the perspective. Briefly put, consumer society is not just an ordering of society, but also of ways of life. The role of the male breadwinner has been one primary social “driver” behind the system, although women contribute too.

Marx, already, recognized that capitalism affects this syndrome at various levels – in more or less “civil” forms – where “relative” surplus value, developing from more “absolute” value forms, could emerge. Relative surplus value production became tuned to the superior position of the male breadwinner – even though it was actually women (and children), not men, who were the main workers in the early capitalist industry that Marx witnessed. Capitalism “absorbed” and “redirected” earlier societal gender arrangements, and added discrimination forms on its own. Women were the  first main workers in the early industrial revolution, later replaced by men. When the “Russian proletariat” stood up in favour of the Russian revolution, e g in Petersburg, a majority of factory workers were still women – not men. It was only gradually that “industry” became a male bastion, and”consumption” a female affair, in the development of consumer society – with the US as leading force in the 20th century.