The Baffler, as evidenced by its very title, has generally promoted the Frankfurt School’s haughtily flippant approach to issues of so-called “consumption.” The core premise of this now-classic analytic style is the hypothesis that corporate capitalism’s ever-expanding commodity galaxy has, by establishing something called “consumerism” or “consumer culture,” made us all equal and all insane.
In his hugely influential and immensely over-rated 1964 book, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse set the basic terms of this particular escape from realism. Here is the core presumption of modern “consumption studies,” the foundational axiom I think of as “Marcuse’s Big If”:
If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is as attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population.
By treating this always-preposterous “if” as an established fact, the task for the would-be anti-consumerist expositor becomes not explaining how the sphere of product design and product use works, but rather pointing out how crazy people are for participating in prevailing “consumer” activities.
I mention all this because The Baffler has just published a very useful essay that goes some distance toward breaking away from Frankfurtian “consumer studies” tail-chasing. Though he still uses the word “consumer” too blithely, Alex Pereene, the essay’s author, points out that, when it comes down to it, there has been a general failure among supposed experts “to account for the social and psychological context of consumer spending.”
Pareene adds that, while everybody keeps promoting and swallowing Marcuse’s If, the reality is that ordinary people are made to “settle for LCD TVs as a new generation of robber barons shot cars into space because they couldn’t figure out what else to do with the staggering amount of money they have.”
Well said, Baffler, and may you continue to get less baffled and baffling.