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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 12 / 19





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levels of material abundance and unprecedented leisure time and that was associated with higher disposable incomes, particular consumer goods – especially cars, white-goods, domestic appliances and televisions – and home ownership.  This was a debate about the mechanisms and virtues and vices of capitalist growth in the Cold War.  The second began in the late 60s but reached its apogee in the early 1980s and pitted neo-liberals with their preoccupation with the sanctity of individual choice against critics who saw consumer society as one devoted primarily to its own reproduction – the French situationalist, Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle – in which to quote Perry Anderson, “economic life itself” becomes “so pervaded with symbolic systems of information and persuasion that the notion of a independent sphere or more or less a-cultural production increasingly loses meaning”. The third phase of the debate, and which dates from the 90s – and which I don’t have time to discuss – is that about the globalisation of capitalism and its effects.   

From its inception the term ‘consumer society’ was not used as a sharp analytic tool but as a large-scale, prescriptive characterization of a social order.  Whether we read the panegyrics of cold-war liberals or the jeremiads of (often religious) social conservatives or hostile commentators on the Left, discussion of consumer society was – and to a large extent remains - almost always highly generalized and politically tendentious.  

Which is perhaps to say that the debate about consumer society inaugurated –

But, as Cohen has also shown, in post-war America a new consensus emerged around a formulation that linked the customer and the citizen – the customer as citizen – the notion that the pursuit of private consumption was in the national or public interest.   As Cohen has written, “For at least a quarter of a century, the ideal of the Consumers’ Republic provided the blue-print for American economic, social and political maturation, as well as for export around the globe.  The Consumers’ Republic had many appeals.  It

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