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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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3. Politicizing the Consumer in America

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3.1 The Historic Roots of Political Consumerism

3.1.1 From the Revolution to the Rise of Fordism

Just as opinions on the political dimension of consumption diverge, for a long time experts have been at odds with each other over the emergence of consumer culture in America. Some date it back to the 1880s, to the aftermath of the American industrial revolution, and link it to the emergence of a managerial class.1 However, more recently, the view that the foundations for the American consumer society were laid in the mid-eighteenth century, even before the American Revolution, has become dominant. According to James Axtell, the “English ‘consumer revolution’”,2 which also effected colonial America, opened up an unprecedented variety of economic choices and consumer goods. Similarly, the historian T.H. Breen traces “the Birth of an Anglo-American ‘consumer society’”3 back to the same period preceding the American Revolution. By 1750, Great Britain had established a “virtual ‘empire of goods’.” However, this rapidly growing material culture also came with issues of economic and political dependency and imported goods were thus increasingly perceived of as “symbols of oppression.”4

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