to the Readings in Part One
The Consumer, the Laborer, The
Capitalist, and the Nation-State
Problems and the Culture of Capitalism we suggest that the culture of
capitalism can be understood through the relationships between four historically unique
social entities: the consumer, the laborer, the capitalist, and the nation-state.
The role of the consumer is to accumulate goods, that of the laborer to accumulate wages
through the sale of his or her labor, and that of the capitalist to accumulate capital by
profiting from his or her investments. The nation-state serves to regulate, in some
fashion, the relationships between consumer, laborer, and capitalist largely by gaining a
monopoly on the use of armed force, ensuring the orderly circulation of goods, and taking
for itself a share of the national income. We suggest further that money is the language
of social relations in the culture of capitalism. At it simplest level, these
relationships can be represented as follows:
We assume, also, that understanding the
relationships among these entities is necessary if we are to appreciate the impact of the
culture of capitalism on the world.
The readings for Part One all address, in
one form or another, the origin, nature, and consequences of the actions of the consumer,
the laborer, the capitalist, and the nation-state.
I Readings on the Consumer
|The consumer is essential for the culture of capitalism. Not
only must consumers buy, they must buy more every year, and still more the year after
that. Without perpetual consumption, the economy would either decline or collapse. The
sign of a healthy national economy, after all, is measured by the Gross National Product
(GNP), and the GNP is a measure of the quantity of goods and services people consume. This
raises four questions that will be addressed in the following articles. First,
historically how was the consumer constructed; second, why do members of the culture of
capitalism feel compelled to consume as much as they do; three, what are some of the
consequences of our levels of consumption; and, finally, how would you characterize your
own commitment to consume?
A. The History and Nature of Consumerism
||In Global Problems and the
Culture of Capitalism we suggest that the emergence of the consumer represents a
unique development in the history of the human species. The following articles discuss
this development in the United States.
1. The State of Consumption Today
||An overview of the material on global
consumption contained in the Worldwatch Institute's publication, State of
the World 2011. The overview contains information on the growth of
global consumption, inequalities in production, and the social and
environmental problems created by the growth in consumption.
|Reading 2. The History of Affluenza in
||To accompany its documentary on the history
of consumption, or affluenza, as they called it, PBS developed this timeline of the
development of consumerism. Read each stage of the process and learn, not only about key
developments in the history of consumerism in the United States, but also about the
periodic resistance to it. Later you will have an opportunity to check the extent to which
you are infected with affluenza.
||Our culture often masks from us the consequences of some
of our most simple acts. Take washing our clothes, for
example. How much water do you think you use to keep your dresses,
slacks, shirts and other items of apparel "sparkling
clean"? This brief set of statistics from Grist Magazine should
give you some idea.
|B. Turning People into Consumers
||People have, of course, always consumed things, either making these
things themselves, bartering or trading for them, or purchasing them at markets. But it is
only in the past few centuries, and largely in the past 100 years, that mass consumption
has become an essential ingredient of our culture. Furthermore, as we discuss in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism people
are not naturally consumers; consumers had to be created. The following articles discuss
how people, particularly children, are transformed into consumers.
||Advertisers are quite specific
on who they target. This article discusses how different
corporations target different youth groups, summarizing
a number of different books on the exploitation of children.
|Reading 5. How Do Our Kids Get Caught Up in
||In Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism we describe
how the meaning of childhood was transformed in the United States in order to turn
children into a key segment of the consuming public. In this article Brian
Swimme maintains that "Advertisements are where our children receive their
cosmology, their basic grasp of the world's meaning, which amounts to their primary
religious faith, though unrecognized as such.... The advertisement is our culture's
primary vehicle for providing our children with their personal cosmologies."
See if you agree.
|Reading 6. Zapme! A New Corporate Predator in
||This press release from Commercial Alert, an
organization devoted to exposing the dangers of advertising to children, describes
some recent attempts by corporations to infiltrate schools. This is not the first, nor is
it likely to be the last, attempt. Corporations and advertisers have long been interested
in getting access to this captive audience in a setting in which their message is imbued
with the legitimacy of our educational institutions.
The Fast Food Trap: How Commercialism Creates Overweight Children
||This article by Gary Ruskin discusses the rise of childhood obesity in America.
Childhood, says Ruskin, has been redefined by American commercial culture
to make children increasingly vulnerable to corporate marketing. The corporate redefining of childhood,
says Ruskin, "employed four main tools: television, the marketing of junk food, the commercial takeover of the schools, and the starvation of the public sector."
These factors, combined with the decreasing influence of parents over
their children has resulted in, among other things, the fattening of
American children. At the end of the article, Ruskin lays out some
actions that parents and others can take to deal with the problem.
You also need to be aware that the food industry has its own campaign to
convince people that "food freedom" is under attack, and that
scientific studies that indicate that obesity is a problem are
flawed. Check out the website for the Center
for Consumer Freedom, particularly the section on food
police. The website is a good example of how industry responds
when their interests are threatened,
Children as Consumers
||Anup Shah's Global Issues page on how kids are targeted as consumers.
Excellent articles and some basic facts about consuming kids.
$14 Trillion Spent Annually On Trying To Look Cool
||A report on how much American spend on looking cool. Great spoof
from The Onion
|C. The Consequences of Consumerism
||One of the essential features of the culture of capitalism is
masking from the consumer the effects of his or her consumption patterns. Yet the effects
are far-reaching; our patterns of consumption influence virtually every facet of our
lives, from the way we allocate our time, to the nature of our social relations, to the
state of our environment, even the meaning of our bodies. The following articles discuss
some of these effects.
|Reading 10. Waste a Lot,Want a Lot:
Our All-Consuming Quest for Style
||How do you drive people to consume? One way is to ensure
that they are dissatisfied with what they have, make them, in effect, slaves to style. In
this article, Stuart Ewen traces the history of style in America, and discusses some of
the consequences of this for our society.
|Reading 12: The New Cannibalism
||In the culture of capitalism virtually everything is
available only as a commodity, that is something to be bought or sold. The
neccesities of life, for example, such as food, shelter, and health care, exist only as
commodities; without the means to "buy" them, people starve, are homeless, or do
without medical treatment. Even our bodies, as this article from New Internationalism by
Nancy Scheper-Hughes illustrates, are becoming commodified. She describes the
booming market in human organs, as increasingly impoverished peoples sell their body
parts for transplants to rich buyers. The results are the reduction of the human
body to bits and parts that can be bought or sold on increasingly globalized markets, and,
in some countries, a terrified citizenry that fears they will be killed for their organs.
|Reading 13. Emulation and Global Consumerism
||At the end of the first chapter of Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, we pose the question of
what happens when the rest of the world tries to emulate the consumption patterns
characteristic of the culture of capitalism? In this article, Richard Wilk discusses the
reality of that prospect, and offers some suggestions for other scenarios.
|Exercise 1. Reverend
Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
||Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping is
devoted to bringing the message of the dangers of consumerism to whoever
will listen. At the site you can get all kinds information (and
links), as well as the movie,
with an Unknown God.
|D. How Badly are you Infected with
||It is sometimes difficult for us to appreciate the extent to which
our behavior is a consequence of what we really want to do, and how much is a consequence
of our culture. In Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism we use the analogy
of the Navaho sandpainting to illustrate the extent to which our culture determines our
behavior. This exercise is designed for you to discover the extent to
which you are embedded in the sandpainting of the culture of capitalism.
|Exercise 2. Do you have affluenza?
||Take this test yourself and see to what degree you're
infected with affluenza.