Google has been digitizing books by the million.
One result is a new tool allowing us to see how often words or phrases have appeared in books across the decades.
Naturally, your humble TCT editor ran the corporate capitalist slave-word “consumer” through the machine.
The results (click the image for a large, readable view):
Observations? A few that strike my eye:
1. Not surprisingly, the high water mark for use of “consumer” rather precisely overlapped the self-confident, more functional-looking phase of post-democratic market totalitarianism in the USA, i.e. the years from 1980 through 2000.
2. “Consumer” is now used roughly 3 times more often than it was in the 1920s.
3. “Consumer” made major upward leaps in both the 1930s and the late 1960s. This speaks volumes about the confusion and failure of the American left, which contributed to the tragedy via Pyrrhic gestures like Consumers Union and dead-ends like Herbert Marcuse and his progeny of tail-chasing “consumer culture” and “consumer society” theorists.
4. Most recently, “consumer” has experienced its first drop since it entered the public lexicon. A hopeful sign? Are some people starting to sense the slander and smell the rat?
5. Note the spike that happened shortly after “consumer” received its first use outside capitalism’s doctrinal priesthood, a.k.a. professional economics. This happened, as I’ve said before, in 1898, in none other than that year’s Sears and Roebuck Catalog. Is this more evidence for the TCT claim that “consumer” is nothing more than a biased capitalist neologism for people using products, an unrecognized (until now?) linguistic symptom of the greedy, heedless, wildly unrealistic delusions of our overclass and its market totalitarian epoch?
For anybody who’s been trying to follow my long-running attempt to get people, and especially those on the left, to stop using the biased and biasing “consumer” vocabulary, James Keye has just explained the point with greater clarity and generality than I’ve been able to muster:
One cannot discuss slavery with clarity using only the word slave for those in bondage; the word assumes a subservient position or worse…(click through to read Keye’s post)
Likewise, one cannot rationally discuss the corporate capitalist marketing juggernaut using only the word “consumer” for those on its receiving end; the word assumes a subservient position, and thereby goes far toward desensitizing its users to the very processes and conflicts and human relationships they seek to explain and redress.
Just received some news from a colleague at Washington State University about his research on the history of corporate capitalism’s reductionist “consumer” vocabulary.
As part of the exchange, I put this down about the NERA’s almost-forgotten “production-for-use” program:
During the mid-New Deal years, there was a very short launch of “production for use” programs, in which the government hired unemployed workers to manufacture basic goods, such as women’s dresses. This was by far the most heavily business-attacked of all New Deal programs, and was quickly shut down by the FDR authorities. There’s a short book on it by Nancy E. Rose, called Put to Work. There might be some interesting history of the “consumption” terminology in that lost facet of reality. Even if not, the fact that they called it “production for use” tells you about the connections between economic power and basic economic categories. When industry is public, you get “users.” When it’s private, the users get shrunken down to “consumers.”
[Photo: Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood, Oregon, built not-for-profit in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration]