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Politicizing Consumer Choice

Ethical Dimensions of Consumerism in the United States

Christian Gunkel

This book investigates various forms of political and ethical consumerism in the United States and delivers a comprehensive conceptualization of the consumer’s role in the marketplace. Both aspects, the potential impact of market-based activism on corporations in America and the socio-structural dynamics that may prevent the possibility of far-reaching social change through forms of alternative consumerism, are equally important in this regard. The historical ties between politics and consumption in America, and the diminishing role of the government as a regulatory force in the market since the end of Fordism, has spawned a unique form of consumer politics directed at the corporate world. The underlying question to be answered is whether the consumer is truly a force to be reckoned with.
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1. Introduction


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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