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Manufacturing the Love of Possession

Richard York teaches sociology at the University of Oregon. His articles have appeared in The American Sociological Review, Ecological Economics, Organization & Environment, The Human Ecology Review, and elsewhere.

Michael Dawson, The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 203 pages, cloth $26.95.

In 1877, speaking at the Powder River Conference, Chief Sitting Bull of the Lakota nation said of the European invaders who were destroying his people and their way of life, “[T]he love of possession is a disease with them.” Disease is an apt term, because it does not necessarily imply that the love of possession was inherent in the nature of the invaders, but rather that the affliction may have been acquired. Thus, any scholar wishing to locate the origin of the affliction should, like an epidemiologist, search out its sources and possible transmission vectors.

Michael Dawson is an “epidemiologist” of the finest type, seeking the origin of the most insidious ailment currently afflicting Americans (along with a growing share of humanity): hyper-consumerism, the love of possession in its latest form. Despite what neoclassical economists may tell us, people do not have an inherent, insatiable desire to consume without end. Rather, the desire to possess and consume must be created. The purpose of The Consumer Trap is to analyze how this desire is manufactured, by whom, and for what purpose.

Dawson goes to the source of the disease, big business and its marketing apparatus, and analyzes how the consumer trap is carefully set both to ensnare and infect its victims, to ensure that the rich get richer and that power remains in the hands of the powerful. Dawson bases his analysis in large part on the writings of corporate marketing specialists themselves and shows that they are quite frank about their purpose: to generate profit by manipulating people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Marketing, in effect, attempts to turn people’s private lives into just another part of a grand production/consumption line. In short, Dawson argues that the purpose of marketing is to perpetuate the capitalist system and its concomitant inequalities. Thus, Dawson shows us that the source of the love of possession in the modern world is more like weaponized anthrax than it is like the smallpox virus. It does not readily spread from one individual to another, living freely in a population, as consumer culture theorists would have it. Rather, infection requires contact with a concentrated source that has been carefully engineered (in this case by the marketing minions of the capitalist class) for its malign purpose.

The theoretical foundation for Dawson’s work comes from Thorstein Veblen and later scholars, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in particular, who have drawn on Veblen’s political economy to address the age of monopoly capital. Dawson argues that Veblen’s work has been hijacked and mischaracterized by consumer culture theorists. Far from focusing on the behavior of individual consumers, Veblen’s political economy is firmly rooted in a recognition of the coercive power of the economic elite. Dawson manages both to pull the theoretical rug out from under consumer culture theorists and develop a truly radical approach to consumerism by appropriately utilizing Veblen’s framework, which argues that corporate capitalism requires class coercion to expand sales and to achieve social domination.

This is not a work of abstract theoretical showmanship, however. Dawson sticks close to his purpose, never drifting from his focus on the practice of marketing. A large part of the text is concerned with tracing the development of marketing in order to put our current situation into historical context. Dawson traces modern marketing tactics to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” in the early part of the twentieth century. He writes:

Harlow S. Person, then the Taylor Society’s managing director, argued that corporate capitalism itself was eventually “going to force” its leading firms into a new “inclusive system of management.” Person labeled the impending system “sales engineering” and predicted that once it took root corporate leaders would find themselves approaching the task of manipulating people’s off-the-job perceptions and actions as rigorously and intentionally as they had already learned—thanks to Fred Taylor’s teaching in workplace scientific management—to treat the task of engineering employees’ on-the-job doings. (pp. 17–18)

Person was entirely correct, as Dawson shows us. Modern marketers rely on a large research apparatus to determine ways of manipulating people into buying and using products. The knowledge gained from such research is not only used in advertising, but also in the entire marketing process from product design to sales. Thus, throughout the twentieth century, marketing was thoroughly Taylorized so as to make people’s behavior outside of the workplace as conducive to capital accumulation as their on-the-job activities.

Dawson shows how the culture industry has developed substantially from that which concerned scholars in the Frankfurt School, who analyzed the more subtle (although surely still powerful) ideological manipulation perpetrated by the economic elite. Marketing makes the capitalist production of culture far more directed and focused, often bludgeoning people into submission by its sheer inescapable ubiquity. The first two sentences of his book tell the story:

Big businesses in the United States now spend well over a trillion dollars a year on marketing. This is double Americans’ combined annual spending on all public and private education, from kindergartens through graduate schools. (p. 1)

The extraordinary sum of money spent on marketing belies widespread claims that people make their own decisions largely free of corporate influence. Either marketers are stupid (and they are not) or the money spent on marketing more than pays for itself in consumer compliance. Given the fact that a great deal of public and private education also serves to further the interests of capitalists—classes on marketing, business, and neoclassical economics are the most obvious examples, but the capitalist perspective has also infiltrated most, if not all, other aspects of education in the United States, from history and literature to biology and physics—one is left to wonder whether the typical American receives much in the way of a critical education at all.

Although concerns about government surveillance of our “private” lives are not unwarranted—especially during the present reign of the paranoid, jingoistic, and militaristic far-right in national politics—surely we should be at least as concerned with the penetration of marketers into our homes and families. Dawson notes that in addition to the routine monitoring of our behavior in the workplace, we are not free from corporate intrusion when we leave work. Not only are we assaulted overtly by direct marketing—all that junk mail and those phone calls—but our demographic and lifestyle conditions, our Internet use, and our purchasing habits are monitored and recorded whenever possible for use by marketing researchers to help target us for further marketing. Big Brother is watching, but not only, or even primarily, in the guise of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Instead, Frederick Taylor’s ghost serves as the eyes of monopoly capital, monitoring all our behaviors.

Dawson’s discussion of macromarketing (pp. 117–23) is especially interesting, although unfortunately short. Macromarketing refers to the management by the corporate elite of the larger sociopolitical context, particularly public policy, to make it more conducive to the interests of capital. Dawson presents several examples of this, one of which is corporate influence on the development of the U.S. Interstate Highway system. The passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was a boon for capital, in that it undermined public transportation and greatly expanded marketing opportunities, particularly, and most obviously, for automobile manufacturers. The passage of this act and subsequent federal support for highway development, were no accident; they were the product of the strategic intervention of capitalists into public policy. Such intervention continues to this day with political lobbying and campaign financing by automobile and oil companies.

Macromarketing is fascinating because it is far more overtly political than other aspects of marketing. Rather than simply trying to get people to buy a specific product, macromarketing is concerned with structuring our entire way of life around consumerism. Macromarketing is unique to monopoly capital because in small-business capitalism no individual business has the resources to engage in macromarketing and, furthermore, even if it did, the benefits would be too diffuse to make it worth its while. Nevertheless, as monopoly capital expands and competition diminishes, big businesses clearly have more to gain by working not only to market specific products, but to ensure that we fulfill all of our needs and wants and define our lives through consumerism, because a large share of consumer dollars will end up in a few wealthy corporate hands. Surely this topic is worthy of more than a seven-page treatment. Nonetheless, Dawson covers a lot of ground in this relatively short book, so he can be forgiven for not covering every topic in detail.

Dawson does an admirable job of closing the book on a hopeful note by discussing how we can escape the consumer trap by “reclaiming our macro choices.” Capitalist propaganda has been so successful in the United States that a great many people accept that we have no option other than our present system of corporate capitalism: It’s either capitalism or the totalitarianism of fascism or Stalinism. Democracy and capitalism are too often seen as interchangeable terms, when nothing could be further from the truth. Dawson is entirely correct when he writes, “[M]odern corporate marketing is, in the final analysis, an instrument for preventing the democratic governance of large-scale economic institutions and the big decisions that they make” (p. 166). Although there are surely many other ways in which capitalism suppresses democracy, marketing has become one of the most powerful tools of capitalism in the contemporary era.

In the end, however, we can choose something other than totalitarian oppression or capitalist exploitation; we have other macro choices. Dawson argues that democratic socialism remains an option and one that is well worth pursuing. The disease of consumerism must be stamped out at its source; corporate capitalism. The solution to bringing about a more just and sustainable world lies not in micro choices, but in structural change that wrestles power—economic, social, and political—from the corporate elite. The final sentences of The Consumer Trap make its purpose, and importance, clear:

[I]f democracy were to conquer the economic sphere of life, it would place severe limitations on the private priorities that presently drive it. The people might then enjoy not just a wide array of micro choices—which deodorant, toothpaste, car, or magazine to buy—but also an unprecedented degree of control over macro choices, including the option of putting people before profits. (p. 174)

2004, Volume 55, Issue 09 (February)
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