Consumerism and the New Capitalism

Essay by R.Cronk

The traditional cultural values of Western society are degenerating under the influences of corporate politics, the commercialization of culture and the impact of mass media. Society is awakening from its fascination with television entertainment to find itself stripped of tradition, controlled by an oppressive power structure and bound to the credit obligations of a defunct American dream.

For the public at large, the integrating and transformative experiences of culture have been replaced by the collective viewing experience and by participation in consumer trends. The American public has been inundated by an unending parade of commodities and fabricated television spectacles that keeps it preoccupied with the ideals and values of consumerism.

Consumerism is the myth that the individual will be gratified and integrated by consuming. The public fetishistically substitutes consumer ideals for the lost acculturating experiences of art, religion and family. The consumer sublimates the desire for cultural fulfillment to the rewards of buying and owning commodities, and substitutes media-manipulated undulations in the public persona for spiritual rebirth. In the myth of consumerism, there is no rebirth or renewal. And there are no iconic symbols to evoke transcendent truths.

While consumerism offers the tangible goal of owning a product, it lacks the fulfillment of other cultural mythologies. Consumerism offers only short term ego-gratification for those who can afford the luxury and frustration for those who cannot. It exists as an incomplete and inadequately engineered system of values substituted for a waning cultural heritage.

The egocentricity of Western society made it an easy target for the transition to a consumer society. As deceptive advertising and academic nihilism gutted culture of its subjectively realized values, the public was easily swayed onto the path of consumerism. In the midst of a major identity crisis, will America realize the lack of morality and humanitarianism in a world based on media image and the transient satisfaction of ownership rather than the ontological value of the meaningful cultural experience? The reduction of cultural values to economic worth has produced a situation in our 'enlightened' society where product availability, as opposed to survival needs, becomes ethical justification for political oppression.

The hallowed dollar is a cheap substitute for cultural values lost to greed and ambivalence in post-modern America. Economic worth has displaced traditional cultural values defining self-worth. Self-worth is gauged by buying power. The acts of buying and owning reinforce self-worth within consumer society. You can see it in the haughty and demanding attitude of the consumer as he stands before the cashier. No longer does the purchase have to be justified by purpose.

Mass media perpetuates the myth of consumerism as a priority of the New Capitalism. As America settles into its nightly routine of television viewing, corporate profiteers are quick to substitute the lure of material luxury and consumer gratification for the fading spirit. Media advertising sells an image -- an empty shell. Corporate America placates its flaccid public with despiriting pastiche. There is only fraudulent illusion. Instead of Swiss clockworks encased in hand carved hardwood, the consumer is offered a cheap imitation of routed particle board and computer chip technology. Who cares as long as it looks good?

In its duplicitous plot to throttle the public, corporate policy assumes only the self-interested exploitation of the consumer market and environmental resources. Corporate priorities and the business ethic are not intrinsically humanitarian or ecologically sensitive. Within the corporate hierarchy the salaried employee does not have the incentives of the entrepreneurial capitalist. The humanitarian ethic associated with small business (the obligation of the proprietor to his customers) is lost. The consumer is no longer courted by the competition of small businesses. The small business has been crowded out by the corporate capitalist to insure less competition and greater profit.

Big business is too often the enemy of the people. Behind the butchery of symbolic values by media advertising, the mercantile machine smiles as it folds the green. More than to simply insure a profit, consumerism is the means by which the New Capitalism maintains control of its buying public.

Consumers are only beginning to realize the political power they wield as a collective buying force. This potential has been tested on a small scale by union pickets and grassroots economic boycotts. It is my expectation that in the future, as the public tires of the shallow gratifications and empty promises of consumerism, it will turn to large scale boycotts to control the abusive tactics of corporate policy.

In corporate (monopolistic) capitalism the consumer is a target -- he is acted upon. Controlling interests commodify culture and sell it to a public weaned on media advertising. Selection is reduced, not to what the public wants, but to what it will accept at a greater profit for the stockholder. This includes the availability and variety of commodities as well as their quality. Our choices and freedoms are limited by corporate policy.

As we become acclimated to life around the television set, collectively striving for a media-produced image, our choices are made for us. Choice is reduced to brand name. We sacrifice self-knowledge for consumerism. Consumerism, like communism and fascism, is a secular religion restricting freedom of choice.

Beneath its smug persona lies an insecure America striving to fill an image projected in media advertising. Self-awareness and self-worth have been distorted. We are what we wear. In the New Capitalism's seduction of the television audience, the individuating personality identifies with advertising fantasies and consumer ideals. Who we are merges with roles and images portrayed in the media. Ever so subtly we are losing our ability to act independently of the justifications of consumerism. This constitutes a qualitative loss to the individuation process. The affront on human values by mass media advertising has left a well actualized consumer but a poorly individuated personality.

Something in the essence of perceived reality has been lost to the despiritualization and commercialization of culture. Perception has lost its richness. Extensive exposure to duplicity in media advertising has weakened the grasp of consciousness on subjective knowledge of being (or any meaningful sense of truth). While capitalism has been linked to the origin of consciousness, consumerism and advertising deceit have become potential threats to consciousness.

When the Beatles' anthems of the 1960's started showing up as background music in Nike shoe commercials they lost their value as symbols for the ideological struggles of the era. While the product may have been temporarily graced with the aura of these famous recordings, the songs were drained of their transcendent value in the process. The references to running shoes and advertising overshadow the associations with the cultural flourish of the 1960's.

The affectiveness of the sociocultural symbol diminishes as its exploitation in the media siphons ineffable content to attract the consumer. As its power is depleted by the parasitic deconstruction of the commercial production, the symbol's tentative bond with being is broken. Advertising deceit defiles and defuses the symbol, and corrupts the illusion of a timeless ideal. By associating the symbol with a product rather than letting it exist as the signifier of its framing experiences, advertising robs the symbol of its meaning and sense of truth. The commercial exploitation of culture is widening the rift between ideal and being, between word and truth.

As advertising duplicity invades the ideal realm and appropriates subjective value for product enhancement, the established conventions of language, art and cultural traditions lose their ability to inspire metaphysical truth. This debilitation of the symbol has played a significant role in undermining the ontological ground of Western culture. With the defamation of the sociocultural (aesthetic, psychoanalytic) symbol, the substantiating experiences of culture recede into the shadow.

Copyright © R. Cronk 1996 - All Rights Reserved

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