Sunday, May 11, 2008

So you thought those beliefs were your own

The Gospel of Consumption - Orion Magazine

[T]he industrial elite represented by NAM, including General Motors, the big steel companies, General Foods, DuPont, and others, decided to create their own propaganda. An internal NAM memo called for “re-selling all of the individual Joe Doakes on the advantages and benefits he enjoys under a competitive economy.” NAM launched a massive public relations campaign it called the “American Way.” As the minutes of a NAM meeting described it, the purpose of the campaign was to link “free enterprise in the public consciousness with free speech, free press and free religion as integral parts of democracy.”

Consumption was not only the linchpin of the campaign; it was also recast in political terms. A campaign booklet put out by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency told readers that under “private capitalism, the Consumer, the Citizen is boss,” and “he doesn’t have to wait for election day to vote or for the Court to convene before handing down his verdict. The consumer ‘votes’ each time he buys one article and rejects another.”

According to Edward Bernays, one of the founders of the field of public relations and a principal architect of the American Way, the choices available in the polling booth are akin to those at the department store; both should consist of a limited set of offerings that are carefully determined by what Bernays called an “invisible government” of public-relations experts and advertisers working on behalf of business leaders. Bernays claimed that in a “democratic society” we are and should be “governed, our minds . . . molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

If you're interested in the history of consumerism (and if you've gotten this far, you must be), I also highly recommend the National-Book-Award-nominated Land of Desire by William Leach.

LATE ADDITION: As I meant to note earlier, Kaplan's advocacy of a shorter work week obviously is a poor solution for those of us whose wages barely cover the essentials. We need every paid hour we can get. Indeed, many employers today are all too happy to cut hours (while the notion of a compensatory pay raise would at best yield feckless sympathy or a hearty horselaugh). Further, as a condition of providing even these reduced hours, employers will often demand "open availability," making it next to impossible for the underscheduled to take on a second job. For many employees, therefore, needless gewgaws aren't even on the radar screen. Fewer hours simply mean less money for food, medicine, and other necessities.

More broadly, businesses may want to consider the contribution their stagnant pay scales, coupled with their ceaseless inflammation of consumer desire, have made to the credit crunch and the state of our now-sputtering economy.

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