Forum Final Response
June 1, 1999
With Responses From
Jun 1, 1999
8 Min read time
Analytical and political questions.
The contributors to this forum are an extraordinary group of people, whose work I have long admired and learned from. I am honored by their willingness to comment on mine. These are exactly the kinds of discussions about consuming that we need. Has the postmodern marketplace of Holt, Thompson, and perhaps Lamont and Molnár, vitiated the positional competitions of Schor, Brown, and Frank? Is the most urgent and profound failure of consumption its environmental impact (Gibbons and Taylor)? Or is inequality the larger problem (Mishel, Bernstein, and Schmitt)? Is there no middle ground between Twitchell's laissez-faire, celebratory attitude toward spending and his fear of the Consumer Police? These are vital analytical and political questions.
Let me begin with some questions about my analysis. Holt, Thompson, and Lamont and Molnar all argue that I have misinterpreted the current consumer culture. While they differ in their specifics, all three responses challenge the centrality which I accord to classic status competitions in my analysis of the growth of consumption. Holt and Thompson argue that a postmodern marketplace has replaced status-seeking with (in Holt's words) an "open-ended project of self-creation," in which consumers do not aim to copy the wealthy but to reinvent themselves by consuming new things in new ways. Lamont and Molnár take the view that upper-middle-class white tastes are not widely shared across society, as in the classical status model.
Generally speaking, I think the postmodern perspective focuses excessively on youth, sub-cultures, new commodities, and "cutting edge" trends. And it takes too narrow and literal a view of how status operates. To focus the disagreement, however, I need to begin by correcting what strikes me as a mischaracterization of my view by Holt. I have never argued that there are particular or fixed status symbols. Status-competition is a dynamic process, and particular status markers tend to lose prestige and value as they proliferate. (This, by the way, is what Jim Twitchell fails to mention in his comments about Uncle Louie's headstone. Twenty years from now, upscale home buyers will regard the slabs in the kitchen as tacky remnants of a previous generation's bad taste, and will spend large amounts of money ripping them out and replacing them.) What does remain fixed, and perhaps this is what Holt objects to, is that goods which are more socially visible in their use and possession tend to figure more prominently in competitions. So, for example, shoes, clothing, modes of transport, homes, and home decoration have historically been (and continue to be) central in status competitions. Even the most ardent advocate of the postmodern marketplace can hardly have missed the upscaling to luxury vehicles, designer clothing, and larger and more luxurious houses. If people are merely reinventing themselves, why do they typically turn to these visible symbols of their identities? At the same time, what Holt calls postmodern commodities (a weekend at Kirpalu) are also implicated in this process. But this is nothing new: when consumption is rising, new commodities always enter the game. Perhaps I should mention that I have never argued for restricting particular commodities (except on grounds of environmental impacts), as some of these contributions suggest. My favorite type of anti-status tax is one which taxes higher-end versions of commodities more heavily. (And, for a final point on Holt, I certainly do not advocate taking away the opportunity for consumers to shop at cheaper outlets; my concern is with maintaining diversity in retailing. The question is whether or not Wal-Mart will be allowed to wipe out the individual proprietorships and smaller chains.)
Lamont and Molnár claim that I focus on Newton to the exclusion of Roxbury. It's a fair claim, about which I was quite explicit in my book (although not in this piece, given the brevity of the section on new consumerism). I do believe, however, that the differences Lamont and Molnár discuss (class and race, for example) have declined over the twentieth century. Roxbury and Newton youth are not simply the same, but with respect to what consumers desire, the trend has been toward more uniformity across groups. The fact that fashion innovations now go from Roxbury to Newton in no way invalidates this claim. Furthermore, status models do not require that all participants experience the game in the same way, only that different groups assign similar rankings to products. Inner-city youth and suburban stockbrokers both want BMWs, but it does not follow that they mean the same thing in both places.
Finally, if I am guilty of overemphasizing the classical status model, it is because I am responding to what strikes me as widespread hostility to this interpretation. I have always found this ironic, because it was just the moment when status competition intensified that the scholars began claiming that status-seeking was dead. Ultimately, as Clair Brown reminds us, a large part of the answer to this question must be empirical. Her work on this question is a classic, and her findings on the 1973-1988 period are a challenge to my interpretation. I wonder, though, if a shift from spending money on new products to spending money on upscale versions of existing products could account for her failure to see an increase in expenditures on status in the consumer expenditure data.
Some of the other responses raised issues of interpretation. I was a bit surprised that Robert Frank characterized me as favoring a "marketing explanation," in contrast to his account, which emphasizes changes in the income and wealth distribution. My Overspent American argued that the worsening distributions of income and wealth set off the current round of conspicuous consumption. Indeed, I believe this is one of the major points of similarity between Frank's account and mine. (The other is our common emphasis on the externalities associated with positional competitions, and our belief in the value of tax policy to dampen those competitions.) Where Frank and I differ is that he does not argue that the nature of reference group comparisons has changed, as I do. This is why television is important in my story: not because of advertising, but because of the bias in its programming toward affluent lifestyles and the impact that has had on viewers' perceptions of reality-an impact that has grown with skyrocketing television viewing time over this period.
Finally, Mishel, Bernstein, and Schmitt offer an illuminating series of queries and cautionary notes. On a small point, I would say that the contribution of "new consumerism" has precisely been to increase families' commitment to dual-earner households and full-time female labor force participation, rather than longer weekly hours. Many of the jobs that married women have been entering are salaried, and therefore longer weekly hours do not raise incomes. On the larger point of their skepticism about the value of raising consumerism as an issue in progressive politics, I understand it fully. It can be treacherous territory. But I would love to see their Economic Policy Institute do research on some of the basic questions that a consumer critique raises, such as the relations between income, free time, and quality of life, and the question of "limits to growth" raised by Taylor and Gibbons.
What about the politics of my position? To Craig Thompson's question about pleasure, I'm ambivalent. Of course, I'm all for pleasure. But I'd say pleasure is one of the things consumerism is pretty good at generating. If the response comes back that the market only gives us "false" short term pleasures, I'd worry about falling into the trap of thinking that consuming is a world of artificial desire or low-brow amoralism. Jim Twitchell might want to tar me with that brush, but I've tried pretty hard to steer clear of a view with the improbable implication that consuming isn't satisfying. Mainly because I don't believe it.
I appreciate Taylor's pointing out that I gave short shrift to the environmental effects of consumption, and that those must play a central role in any political discourse of consumption. Coming to terms with our current destruction of the planetary ecology will be an important part of coming to a new set of values. In this regard, the suggestions of Jack Gibbons are extremely important-for better pricing, more truth in advertising, product labeling, and so forth.
Lamont and Molnár suggest that I'm too individualistic, economistic, and voluntaristic. On the first, one accusation is that I have an individualistic theory of shopping. Actually, I have no theory of shopping. I have a theory of spending, which people may do alone, or in company. My examples were merely that, for the purpose of showing what's wrong with the neoclassical view. I reject the charge of an individualist theory of spending because the action in my story is all around people's attempts to connect to others, and the importance of social context. By the same token, in calling for a new politics of consumption, I am in no way arguing against non-material meanings, values, and self-definition. Quite the opposite. My work emphasizes the importance of time in reproducing human relationships, and the tradeoffs between free time and earning money (not consumption as an alternative to leisure). In this sense, I put myself very squarely in the camp that is questioning the relationship between income and happiness. On the question of excessive voluntarism, I would reply that my principles are a combination of structural change through policy, cultural change through individual and local collective action, and a larger national mobilization. I find it inconceivable that progress on these issues could be made without individual, collective, national, local, cultural, social, and economic change. Consumerism is just too powerful.
Finally, to Jim Twitchell: I have no beef with bad taste; it's the high-end stuff I'm worried about. You don't have to worry about me hassling the poor. Or even, for that matter, the rich. It's not particular commodities that worry me. It really is the "Big Points" that Twitchell doesn't want to talk about. Like Destroying the Planet. Or Not Having Time to Know Each Other. Or Not Having Decent News Because Advertisers Control Content.
Twitchell says at the end of his comments, "The more we have of this stuff, the more important it has become. It is a little unsettling, to be sure. To me, too." After all his celebration of consumerism, it seems to worry Twitchell. And that means he is not only like me, but like most Americans.
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