Vibes And Pressure

This is an excerpt from a book I’m studying at the moment called The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch in which he sums up consumer culture beautifully. It was written in 1979 about American culture so some of his examples, especially towards the end, are a bit dated but I think his ideas can easily, and worryingly, be transferred to present day Britain.

The Chapter is called “The Banality of Pseudo-Self Awareness: Theatrics of Politics and Everyday Existence.”

The sub heading is “The Propaganda of Commodities.”

“In the early days of industrial capitalism, employers saw the workingman as no more than a beast of burden – ‘a man of the type of the ox,’ in the words of the efficiency expert Frederick W. Taylor. Capitalists considered the worker purely as a producer; they cared nothing for the worker’s activities in his leisure time – the little leisure that was left to him after twelve or fourteen hours in the factory. Employers attempted to supervise the worker’s life on the job, but their control ended when the worker left the factory at closing time. Even when Henry Ford established a Sociological Department at the Ford Motor Works in 1914, he regarded the supervision of the workers’ private lives merely as a means of making the men sober, thrifty, industrious producers. Ford’s sociologists attempted to impose an old-fashioned Protestant morality on the labour force; they inveighed against tobacco, liquor, and dissipation.

Only a handful of employers at this time understood that the worker might be useful to the capitalist as a consumer; that he needed to be imbued with a taste for higher things; that an economy based on mass production required not only the capitalistic organisation of production but the organisation of consumption and leisure as well. “Mass production”, said the Boston department store magnate Edward A. Filene in 1919, “demands the education of the masses; the masses must learn to behave like human beings in a mass produced world… They must achieve, not mere literacy, but culture.” In other words, the modern manufacturer has to “educate” the masses in the culture of consumption. The mass production of commodities in ever-increasing abundance demands a mass market to absorb them.

The American economy, having reached the point where its technology was capable of satisfying basic material needs, new relied on the creation of now consumer demands – on convincing people to buy goods for which they are unaware of any need until the ‘need’ is forcibly brought to their attention by the mass media. Advertising, said Calvin Coolidge, ‘is the method by which the desire is created for better things.’ The attempt to ‘civilise’ the masses has now given rise to a society dominated by appearances – the society of the spectacle. In the period of primitive accumulation capitalism subordinated being to having [my italics]; the use value of commodities to their exchange value. Now it subordinates possession itself to appearance and measures exchange value as a commodity’s capacity to confer prestige - the illusion of prosperity and well-being. “When economic necessity yields to the necessity for limitless economic development,” writes Guy Debord, “the satisfaction of basic and generally recognised human needs gives way to an uninterrupted fabrication of pseudo-needs.”

In simpler times, advertising merely called attention to the product and extolled its advantages. Now it manufactures a product of its own; the consumer, perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious, and bored.
Advertising serves not so much to advertise products as to promote consumption as a way of life. It ‘educates’ the masses into an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfilment. It upholds consumption as the answer to the age-old discontents of loneliness, sickness, weariness, lack of sexual satisfaction; at the same time it creates new forms of discontent peculiar to the modern age. It plays seductively on the malaise of industrial civilisation. Is your job boring and meaningless? Does it leave you with feelings of futility and fatigue? Is your life empty? Consumption promises to fill the aching void; hence the attempt to surround commodities with an aura of romance; with allusions to exotic places and vivid experiences; and with images of female breasts from which all blessings flow.

The propaganda of commodities serves a double function. First, it upholds consumption as an alternative to protest or rebellion. Paul Nystrom, an early student of modern marketing, once noted that industrial civilisation gives rise to a “philosophy of futility,” a pervasive fatigue, a “disappointment with achievement” that finds an outlet in changing the “more superficial things in which fashion reigns.” The tired worker, instead of attempting to change the conditions of his work, seeks renewal in brightening his immediate surroundings with new goods and services.

In the second place, the propaganda of consumption turns alienation itself into a commodity. It addresses itself to the spiritual desolation of modern life and proposes consumption as the cure. It not only promises to palliate all the old unhappiness to which flesh is heir; it creates or exacerbates new forms of unhappiness – personal insecurity, status anxiety, anxiety in parents about their ability to satisfy the needs of the young. Do you look dowdy next to your neighbours? Do you own a car inferior to theirs? Are your children as healthy? As popular? Doing as well in school? Advertising institutionalises envy and its attendant anxieties.

The servant of the status quo, advertising has nevertheless identified itself with a sweeping change in values, a “revolution in manners and morals” that began in the early years of the twentieth century and has continued until the present. The demands of the mass-consumption economy have made the work ethic obsolete even for workers. Formerly the guardians of public health and morality urged the worker to labour as a moral obligation; now they teach him to labour so that he can partake of the fruits of consumption. In the nineteenth century, elites alone obeyed the laws of fashion, exchanging old possessions for new ones for no other reason than that they had gone out of style. Economics orthodoxy condemned the rest of society to a life of drudgery and mere subsistence. The mass production of luxury items new extends aristocratic habits to the masses. The apparatus of mass promotion attacks ideologies based on the postponement of gratification; it allies itself with the sexual “revolution”; it sides or seems to side with women against male oppression and with the young against the authority of their elders. The logic of demand creation requires that women smoke and drink in public, move about freely, and assert their right to happiness instead of living for others. The advertising industry thus encourages the pseudo-emancipation of women, flattering them with this insinuating reminder, “You’ve come a long way, baby” and disguising the freedom to consume as genuine autonomy. Similarly it flatters and glorifies youth in the hope of elevating young people to the status of fully fledged consumers in their own right, each with a telephone, a television set, and a hi-fi in his own room. The “education” of the masses has altered the balance of forces withering the family, weakening the authority of the husband in relation to the wife and parents in relation to their children. It emancipates women and children from patriarchal authority, however, only to subject them to the new paternalism of the advertising industry, the industrial corporation, and the state.*

*Family life, according to Nystrom, inherently tends to promote custom, the antithesis of fashion.

Please note. This is not an advertisement!

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