Consumerism has become a powerful and evocative symbol of contemporary
capitalism and the modern Western world. Indeed, in the climate of 1991, faced by the crisis of the environment and the radical transformations in Eastern Europe, it is perhaps the most resonant symbol of all. Highly visible, its
imagery permeates the physical and cultural territories it occupies. Modern
identities and imaginations are knotted inextricably to it. This much is clear.
However, intellectually and morally it has not been easy to make sense of, and
troubling questions have been raised both for the left and for the right. Within
the social sciences and cultural studies it has been a recurring concern,
particularly since the consolidation of the consumer society in the aftermath of World War II, and investigations of it have spanned a range of disciplines and theoretical debates. It will not come as a surprise to hear that these accounts offer no consistent explanations or responses. Some authors have condemned consumerism, others have welcomed it. Less predictable, perhaps, is the conclusion that the different arguments are not easily categorized politically. In fact, theories about consumerism (they are of course not unique in this respect) appear to owe as much to the general cultural climate of their formation, to their intellectual genealogy and to personal disposition, as they do to a consistently worked out political critique.
My project in this paper then is to trace the history of these different
theorizations in order, first of all, to draw attention to the influence of the
political and intellectual contexts from which they emerged, and secondly, to
show how they in turn have shaped and placed limits on the way in which
consumerism has subsequently been thought. More specifically, I want to show how, during the 1950s and 1960s, both Marxists and conservative critics
expressed their condemnation of mass consumption in similarly elitist terms,
and how, partly in reaction, this produced during the seventies and eighties a
very different body of work in which the consumer and consumption are
defended and even celebrated. I shall go on to argue that these very distinct
perspectives have in combination prevented us from recognizing the potential power of consumerism - and here I am talking about power in a quite orthodox pre-Foucauldian sense - a power which has been brought into focus latterly by the acceleration of Green activism, by South African boycotts and other instances of consumer sanction and support. Finally, I shall propose that consumer politics is able to mobilize and enfranchise a very broad spectrum of constituents, and moreover that it is productive of a kind of utopian collectivism lacking from other contemporary politics.