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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 16 / 19

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The defence of  consumerism as the source of growth, and growth as the means to consumerism were not, of course without their critics.  In fact the term consumer society was used more often, before it passed into general usage in journalism, by its opponents than by those who advocated consumer led growth.  Though there have always been certain conservatives who have agonized about the destruction of traditional forms of allegiance and community, the strongest criticisms of consumer society have consistently come from the Left.  From the critics of mass society – chiefly those German intellectuals in exile in the US from the Frankfurt school, notably Herbert Marcuse – from the group of French critics, almost all of whom had been associated with socialisme ou barbarie – notably Henri Lefebvre, Jean-Francois Liotard, Guy Debord and Jean Baudrilliard – and in the Angophone world from such New Left intellectuals as Richard Hoggart and such American critics as Fredrick Jameson.   

In the first phase of the consumer society, the  debate mirrored pre-war preoccupations with mass society, and emphasised the deadening, culturally empty, conformist nature of mass consumption, its creation of false needs by what Perry Anderson has called  “a streamlined machinery of desire”.     It focussed on the mechanisms and consequences of manipulation by Vance Packard’s famous “hidden persuaders”, paying special attention to marketing and advertising in the manufacture of false wants.  On the one hand it recognized the power of consumer desire; on the other it interpreted this as a form of passivity, because it was the consequence of false consciousness.  Its archetypical consumer was manipulated and deluded, which is why George Katona’s bullish The Mass Consumption Society (1964) was concerned to rebut this view by demonstrating that ‘the American consumer’, though not ruthlessly driven by economic rationality was not given to delusion, but “sensible and discriminating”.   

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