America is a place of unprecedented affluence, and its focus on
worldly goods has manifested itself in many ways - from its culture
of acquisitiveness to the undernourishment of its public sphere. In
fact, the act of consumption is an integral part of American
personal and collective identity. Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen
has taken the nation's postwar history and rewritten it from this
perspective - the rise and ongoing evolution of what she terms "A
Cohen has a central and worthwhile observation - that the
ideology of consumption has evolved dramatically in the space of an
American lifespan, and can be broken down into three phases.
In the first, originating in the Great Depression, consumption
was an integral aspect of life's political experience. The class and
political consciousness that permeated a nation one-quarter ill-
housed and ill-fed extended to purchasing collectives, mass-based
consumer organizations, and the idea that the consuming class and
the producing class had little in common.
The burgeoning affluence of the postwar period changed that. As
Cohen demonstrates, consumption became a tacit patriotic act.
Government subsidies for highways and residential housing gave
Americans suburbs and enabled the consumption patterns that
accompanied them. Industrial planners built their plans around this
ever-expanding and ever-willing consumer base. Cohen pays less
attention to the manipulation of consumer wants, however, than to
the unifying role consumption played in American identity - by
shopping together, we're all in this together, so to speak. But as
she points out, this was more an ideology than a reality - the
fruits of American prosperity were far from equally shared.
By the mid-1970s, the idea of an egalitarian society enjoying a
shared trip to the store became a hollow one. The nation was mired
in "stagflation," and experienced a dramatic downshift in the growth
of productivity and real wages that was to last for more than two
decades. The resulting disaffection led to a revival of a mass
consumer movement. By the mid-70s, America was perilously close to
having a cabinet-level department of consumer affairs.
But, as Cohen describes, the science of marketing responded by
moving away from mass consumption and toward "segmentation" - using
demographic data and survey research to break the population down
into subgroups with common lifestyle and buying habits, from
affluent soccer moms to pickup-driving good ol' boys. …