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