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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Radley Balko on Consumer Culture

Radley Balko announces:

Tonight, I'll be speaking in a panel discussion at American University called, "Marketing Cool: The Buying of Young America."...

The debate, as you might guess, is over whether or not evil corporate America is exploiting young people through marketing and advertising and, if so, what we ought to do about it.

My positions will be "not really" and "not a damn thing," respectively.
"Evil" and "corporate" as it may be, today's consumer culture doesn't have a whole lot to do with free markets. Mass advertising and installment buying had their origins in the 1920s, and were introduced in the context of a state-cartelized economy that was seriously overbuilt and prone to overproduction. Joseph Stromberg has written in considerable depth on how New Left historical analysis of the process dovetails with Rothbardian analysis. I've also written on the subject, using Stromberg as a starting point; the final product was kindly published by the Libertarian Alliance.

Add to that the role of the state in creating a unified national market (by building the national transportation infrastructure without which firms serving a single national market couldn't exist), and in making possible a national advertising market (by subsidizing the early telecom infrastructure). Then throw in the role of the state's "intellectual property" in making pop culture profitable, and you've got a mass-consumer culture that's almost entirely a state construct.

I tend to agree with Ivan Illich's critiques of contemporary culture (see esp. Tools For Conviviality). He was wrong only in seeing it as the inevitable result of some technological or market imperative that had to be prevented by the state, rather than as the result of a corporate revolution imposed from above by the state. J.L. and Barbara Hammond described the Industrial Revolution, coupled as it was with the land expropriations and enclosures of the early modern era, and with the social controls of the early nineteenth century, as a systematic dismantling and reconstruction of society by the ruling classes--much as an occupying power would treat a conquered province. Stuart Ewen, in Captains of Consciousness, described a similarly deliberate reconstruction of society from above in the 1920s, aimed at creating a culture of mass consumption and bringing the realm of private consumption as well as production under industrial control.


Anonymous Larry said...

This is one more example of how disgusting these pseudos are. I have also seen them apologizing for child labor, the Robber Barons, the tobacco industry, and the auto industry. Anything the corporations do is right say these these Neocons in black drag, any criticism, no matter how slight, is a result of ignorance of the magnanimous nature of the capitalists, due to “hysterical leftism”, and “populism.” (as though that were a bad thing) This is definitely not the libertarianism of Rothbard, Hess, Stromberg and the people around them.

February 11, 2005 7:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Um, yea, but that doesn't say anything about advertising or marketing or whatnot.

When I read your writing there is always some sort of disconnect. You have some really great points and reasons to have leftish sympathies, but usually you don't end up justifying their biggest points. So, yes, the market isn't free and the government favors the wealthy. That does not mean that advertising is some form of brainwashing or that there is something wrong with a culture that places a high value on consumption.

Put another way, the left seems to be attacking a symptom, advertising, for reasons that seem totally wrongheaded and dangerous. You go after the cause, but seem to totally miss the debate about the symptom--which is where everyone else seems to be at.

Mike Enright

February 11, 2005 10:27 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


You want to see a libertarian apologize for something REALLY abhorrent, check out Rudy Rommel's call for WWII levels of press censorship. And he doesn't just mean censorship of stories revealing sensitive information--he means suppressing anti-war opinion in wartime, because it gives "aid and comfort" to the enemy.


As far as the symptoms go: I believe subjecting people to any kind of nonstop propaganda probably influences behavior and attitudes. The schools certainly have an effect with the statist ideology they foster. The American political culture has been changed beyond recognition after a century of it. Same thing goes for the mainstream press, Karl Rove's talking points, etc.

Advertisers, government propagandists, and the PR industry all devote massive resources to an effort to change people's way of looking at things, and seem to think it works. Certainly the advertising culture as Ewen described it in the '20s didn't just aim to persuade people to buy particular things; it aimed to change the culture. And there's a huge turnover of personnel between government propaganda apparatus, and the civilian PR and advertising industries, all operating on a similar view of human psychology.

It's hardly controversial to say that people's mental picture of the world is influenced by the messages they absorb. Culture itself is nothing but a set of attitudes and beliefs we internalize from the messages we're constantly bombarded with. And mass advertising, I think, socializes us with a higher propensity to consume than we otherwise would have.

All the stuff above, for me, is a given.

The interesting questions are how much effort it takes to resist such messages, what the countervailing influences are, how much higher the level of bombardment is than it would be in a free market, and whether the difference is enough to have a decisive effect on the culture. I think it probably is.

In a free market, I figure it's up to the individual to decide whether the messages he absorbs from the mass media are harmful enough to justify the effort of developing a capacity critical thought. If not, caveat emptor. But when the state and its corporatist economy stack the deck, and raise the level of effort necessary to avoid such conditioning, that's a different matter.

Shee-it. If I'd known this would end up being so long, I'd have done it as a post.

February 11, 2005 5:14 PM  

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