The historical foundations
of our consumer culture
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The Calculated Construction Of Modern Consumer Culture
Finding the Good through goods
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche famously summed up the cognitive turmoil of his age when he pronounced: “God is dead.”
In the United States, colonized originally by devout Protestants, and later by waves of immigrants from Catholic European nations, God may not have seemed dead, but he played a more limited role in the collective psyche.
By the late 19th century, a series of movements known as mind-cure religions took hold of the popular imagination, responding to the uncertainties of the time by emphasizing only positive aspects of the human experience. They taught that people could cure their own problems through positive thinking, and focused of finding salvation in this life rather than an afterlife.
With their emphasis on the benefits of worldly goods, the mind-cure religions can be seen as a grass-roots interpretation of the prevailing Protestant ethic that viewed personal wealth as evidence of one’s salvation status. Buoyed by characteristically American pragmatism, they hinted that salvation could be achieved through the manufactured goods themselves, finding – in the words of one historian – “the good” through “goods.”
The birth of the consumer
Another pervasive effect of 19th century industrialization was the systematic measurement and processing of human activity. This reached a new level of efficiency with the “scientific management” of Frederick Taylor, who introduced “time studies” in factories, where consultants would follow workers around with stopwatches, timing every activity, and suggesting improvements to every aspect of workflow, down to such details as how coal or iron ore should be shoveled.
Taylor’s vision reached its apogee in the factories of Henry Ford, who introduced automated assembly-line production of his vehicles in 1912, leading to enormous productivity gains across the entire industrial landscape. However, it was already becoming apparent to Ford and other industrialists of his age that these increases in factory productivity would be valueless unless they were accompanied by commensurate increases in consumption.
Out of these twin developments – increasing numbers of people seeking salvation in this world rather than the next, and increasingly efficient industrial producers seeking consumers for their goods – our modern consumer culture emerged.
In a bold move symbolizing the birth of the modern consumer culture, Henry Ford in 1914 decided to increase his workers’ wages by enough that they could aspire to buy their own Model-T Fords. The masses now had a dual role to play in modern capitalism: they were to be both workers and consumers.
Standard of living above all else
It didn’t take long for the more astute observers of that period to recognize that something significant had changed around them. Philosopher Samuel Strauss gave it a name – consumptionism. “It is obvious,” he observed, “that Americans have come to consider their standard of living as a somewhat sacred acquisition, which they will defend at any price. This means that they would be ready to make many an intellectual or even moral concession in order to maintain that standard.”
The industrialists who needed burgeoning markets for their rising production were only too happy to encourage this new material sense of the sacred, experimenting with such innovations as consumer trading stamps and advertising on billboards and the radio.
Controlling the “public mind”
A new breed of consumer marketers blazed a trail with new techniques to actively manage this rise in public consumption. A leading force was Edward Bernays, known as the “father of public relations.” Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew and used his uncle’s insights into the subconscious to develop his new methods.
“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture,” declared Bernays’ business partner, Paul Mazur. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
In 1928, Bernays proudly described how his techniques for mental manipulation had permitted a small elite to control the minds of the American population:
[T]he conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government that is the true ruling power of this country.
The following year, a Presidential report gave credit to the mind control espoused by Bernays for helping to create a limitless future of American consumption, explaining it had “proved conclusively… that wants are almost insatiable; that one want satisfied makes way for another. The conclusion is that economically, we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants that will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied … by advertising and other promotional devices.”
Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 20 | Consuming the Earth In the Modern Era
Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Boston: Pearson Education, 2008).
J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: Norton, 2001).
Al Gore, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (New York: Random House, 2013).