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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 13 / 19





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promised great prosperity through yoking employment and economic growth to high consumer demand, and it provided a ready weapon in the political struggles of the Cold war, helping the United States to justify its superiority over the Soviet Union both at home and abroad.  But perhaps most attractive was the way it promoted the socially progressive end of greater economic equality without requiring politically progressive means of redistributing existing wealth.”   How this actually played out on the ground is the subject of her excellent recent book.  

But this was never just a domestic issue.  The Cold War formulation of economic development was exported in theories that connected growing affluence and the ownership of goods to conceptions of democracy.  This sort of argument is well represented in a classic, best-selling text of late 50s and early 1960s, the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man.  Lipset saw consumer societies as resistant to demagoguery and dictatorship.  He measured democracy not only by education and wealth, but persons per motor vehicle, nos. of telephones, radios and newspapers per capita. “In the more democratic European countries, there are 17 persons per motor vehicle compared with 143 for the less democratic.  In the less dictatorial Latin-American countries there are 99 persons per motor vehicle verses 274 for the more dictatorial”.  

In short here we see the explicit association of certain sorts of commodity (or more precisely the density of certain sorts of commodity) with a particular political regime.  In other words it is during the Cold War that American commodities – the classic case, brilliantly used by Kubrick in Doctor Strangelove and skilfully deconstructed by Daniel Miller in his study of the Caribbean is, of course, Coca Cola – come to represent the American (liberal democratic) way of life.  Consumption, conceived of somewhat unproblematically, as ownership (rather

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