Ethical Dimensions of Consumerism in the United States
Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.1
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson’s words appear like a bleak prediction of America’s materialist future, and indeed the “primacy of the market”2 has come to preside over most parts of the social space in the United States today. A number of social theorists and consumer activists alike frequently regard this as a negative development. Although consumption has played a central role throughout American history, it was only in the twentieth century that one could start to speak of mass consumption. The rise of Fordism, which brought about a variety of technical innovations allowing for the mass production of consumer goods, would spawn an unforeseen amount of consumption. Eventually, the Fordist regime culminated in the mass consumerism of the post-World War II era. And in the 1950s, consumer culture proved to be a fertile ground for the emergent consumer critique of the Frankfurt School. In particular, Herbert Marcuse’s theory of a totalitarian, one-dimensional society “[precluding] the emergence of an effective opposition” and in which individuals are “[…] kept incapable from being autonomous”3 would find great response during the following years, especially in the 1960s. In contrast to the theories of the Frankfurt School, which conceptualize the consumer as dupe4, there are theories of consumer sovereignty, which are closely related to the rise of liberalism. ← 1 | 2 → Conceptualizing the consumer as a sovereign, active, and creative agent, these theories regard consumption as “[…] a private sphere which must be...
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