Yet it a question whether this shift bodes well or ill for our democratic political traditions, our natural environment, or our global future, whether we should be proud of the manifold wealth we have created or instead ashamed of our prodigal capitalist system. Of course, consumerism cannot be judged in terms of pure utility alone; the very concept, like that of the good life itself, entails a complex psychology as well as an ideological framework that must be analyzed. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard.
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List: 20th Century. According to Cohen, the story of America after is the story of a transformation in mores of consumption. I am convinced that Americans after World War II saw their nation as the model for the world of a society committed to mass consumption and what were assumed to be its far-reaching benefits.
Mass consumption did not only deliver wonderful things for purchase It also dictated the most central dimensions of postwar society, including the political economy the way public policy and the mass consumption economy mutually reinforced each other , as well as the political culture how political practice and American values, attitudes, and behaviors tied to mass consumption became intertwined.
The competing ideal of the purchaser consumer during the late s and World War II championed pursuit of self-interest in the marketplace out of confidence in the ameliorative effects of aggregate purchasing power; in wartime, however, such behavior would undermine homefront needs. Now the consumer satisfying personal material wants actually served the national interest, since economic recovery after a decade and a half of depression and war depended on a dynamic mass consumption economy.
In addition, the stronger emphasis on citizen consumers within government offered women and African-Americans new paths to political power. Indeed, with the exception of the consumer cooperative and product-testing wings of the movement, women made up much of the leadership and rank and file of the consumer movement during the s. On the citizen consumer side, war-time programs such as the Office of Price Administration OPA encouraged Americans to consume wisely for the general good.
On the other hand, the purchaser consumer ideal - consumerism as self-interest - went underground as consumers hoarded rationed goods or bought them on the black market. Moreover, the "central importance of consumption to the smooth operation of the home front [via the OPA] meant that women -- perceived as the power behind purchasing -- gained new political authority," writes Cohen. If the realm of mass consumption offered a ready setting for political action by African-American citizen consumers, the goal was as much to claim equal citizenship as to consume material goods or services.
With the end of World War II and the beginnings of postwar conversion, citizen consumerism -- the idea that with buying "came the patriotic obligation to consume with the general good at heart, to observe price controls and other market regulations aimed at protecting consumers and preserving equity" -- suffered some notable defeats at the hands of purchaser consumers, those "who consumed in pursuit of private gain.
For another, a "wide range of economic interests, ranging from strident anti-New Deal big businessmen to moderate and liberal capitalists to labor and its allies on the left, endorsed the importance of mass consumption to making a successful reconversion from wartime to peacetime, although each came to value mass consumption for its own reasons. The female citizen consumer evolved into the male purchaser as citizen who, with the help of state policies, also dominated as head of household, breadwinner, home-owner, and chief taxpayer.
But, despite the growing hegemony of self-interested purchaser consumers operating under the guise of purchasers as citizens, citizen consumers enjoyed a renewed heyday thanks to the civil rights strategies of African-Americans.
The "firm connection between citizenship and consumption presented African Americans with new opportunities for fighting the discrimination in public places that had so angered them during wartime," and hence the Montgomery bus boycotts and Woolworth sit-ins across the South. Board but also the consumer organizing of black Americans -- "Historians are just beginning to discover how much skirmishing took place in segregated cities like Birmingham, Alabama, over delineating seating on buses and in theaters, access to stores and parks, and boundaries between black and white neighborhoods in the decades before the more publicized events of the s.
Cohen concludes her book by examining various battlegrounds between the respective consumer movements. Examining the New Jersey suburbs, she concludes that suburbia helped to reinforce the self-interestednes of the purchaser consumer, for "residential suburbanization contributed to the emergence of a social landscape in the postwar period where the mass of Americans shared less and less common physical space and public culture.
The marketplace became more like other fractured places in post-World War II America, most notably residential communities and commercial centers, where an investment in mass consumption ironically also propelled Americans away from the common ground of the mass toward the divided Cohen concludes by discussing the effect the hegemony of purchaser consumers has had on the politics of today.
Still, there are elements of it that leave me cold. For one, I do wish the book explicitly engaged more of the previous literature on consumerism, such as Bushman, Leach, and Lears. Moreover, it often seems that Cohen is recapitulating an argument already made by writers like Michael Sandel and Alan Brinkley in consumerist terms. Finally, as my colleague Jason Petrulis has noted in an unpublished paper, market segmentation may not be as new or as undesirable as Cohen makes it out to be.
Cohen also offers a provocative argument about the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the s. She contends that a working-class "culture of unity" broke down ethnic divisions and animosities and made possible widescale industrial unionization. Building on her interests on architecture, planning, and the built environment, the book is particularly noteworthy for its engagement with earlier work on the politics of suburbanization by scholars like Kenneth T. Logue, whose shifting approach to the post-World War II urban crisis tracked the changing balance between government-funded public programs and private-sector initiatives. Cohen probes the destructiveness of federally funded urban renewal, but also its successes and progressive goals.
Review of Lizabeth Cohen's A Consumers' Republic.
List: 20th Century. According to Cohen, the story of America after is the story of a transformation in mores of consumption. I am convinced that Americans after World War II saw their nation as the model for the world of a society committed to mass consumption and what were assumed to be its far-reaching benefits. Mass consumption did not only deliver wonderful things for purchase It also dictated the most central dimensions of postwar society, including the political economy the way public policy and the mass consumption economy mutually reinforced each other , as well as the political culture how political practice and American values, attitudes, and behaviors tied to mass consumption became intertwined.
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