Societal Transition from Production to Consumption

Shopping teaches us how to live in a market society.

Points of Purchase, Sharon Zukin

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and after the dinner is over, many households in the United States would get themselves in the cars, go to the malls, stand in line, wait for super sales on Black Friday across the country. I dread black Friday shopping. I dread shopping in general. Sometimes I could not understand why people enjoy going shopping, and buying items that they dont even use. It is a waste of time, and resources to me. If I have time, I would prefer to consume a good book in a quiet corner of my house with a cup of coffee, or matcha tea. As Thanksgiving draws closer, I ask myself the question of why Americans keep religiously going to Black Friday sales despite many reports about accidents that happen on that day.  The more important questions are what is the nature of consumer society that America finds itself in, and when America made a transition from a production-oriented society to a consumption-oriented society. As a sociologist, I go to the literature of my discipline for an answer. Specifically, I read texts that deal with the changing nature of political economy, and also the changing nature of consumption. This blog post aims to answer the two questions: what is the nature of American consumption society, and when did it start becoming the main organizing principle?

First, it seems that the post-industrial society helped to usher in the consumer society. Once society no longer revolves around production, and manufacturing factories were shipped overseas, it moves to the realm of consumption.  This organizing principle affects how individuals experience themselves, and express themselves. The switch happened somewhere in the 60s or the 70s. From a Marxist point of view, all workers are consumers, but not all consumers are workers. We, workers, need to consume in order to make the capitalist economy function. In the documentary Inequality for All, former secretary of labor, Robert Reich makes the point that when the middle-class are strong they they consume; their consumption creates jobs, thus strengthening the economy. In contrast, if the returns of investment are disproportionately reaped by the management and capitalist classes, they do not consume as much, and cannot create as many jobs. The extra cash that they don’t spend will be saved to speculate on other assets as they see fit. In other words, they will take out cash that could be invested in productive sectors of the economy, and put it into as speculative sectors such as real estate, or stock market. This is not good for the economy in general. Consumers have power to change the course of the economy, and strengthening the middle class are the central message. Reich seems to focus explicitly on the middle class, and the term consumption is synonymous to  the middle class. Yet, how the consumer society came into being is certainly a more complicated picture than just the expansion of American middle class.

The sociologist Sharon Zukin has written many books that focus on the question of  political economy changes, and their impacts on individuals and their relationship to society. One book of interest where she talks about the transition from a production-oriented society to consumption-oriented one is Landscapes of Power. In this book Zukin  examines different urban spaces that symbolize the material reality and power dynamics of the market economy.  One example is Detroit, a rustbell city, and another example is Disney Land, a dream land of a consumer society. Another book, Points of Purchase  goes deeper into the lived experience of individuals in a consumer society. She specifically zooms in on the act of shopping, how it shapes the self, and its relationship to society. Shopping places tell a story of urban consumption, and they are not innocuous spaces where every customer is treated with the same level of respect. They are also dark places that reflect social biases and prejudices.

Since the nineties, shopping has become our principal strategy for creating value….With the shift of the economy toward consumption, and our weaker attachment to traditional art forms, religions, and politics, shopping has come to define who we, as individuals, are and what we, as a society, want to become.

Sharon argues that the American way of life in terms of shopping changed in the 90s. We hang out at the mall. Shopping malls replace traditional public institutions such as churches and libraries. Consumers have an illusion of democracy where they feel as if they share the same space with people from different classes. New York epitomizes this idea. Every single block in Manhattan is covered with businesses on the first floors. Tourists and New Yorkers alike are spending more of their time in commercial venues than spending time with their friends and families at public squares, parks, or museums. One gain cultural capital via learning what to shop and how to shop. In the twenty-first century, when everyone has a cell phone in their pocket, shopping becomes an effortless act of finger typing, and swiping on the smartphone screens. Shops might not be physically available, but shopping is ubiquitous.

Another book that I read recently that deals with the working class in a consumer society is Working for Respect, which I wrote a book review here. Currently I am re-reading it with a reading group, and other members have pointed out many arguments that I missed in my first reading of the book. We have been talking about the power of consumers over workers in forcing the company to acknowledge its responsibility to the workers. At one point we talked about how nowadays consumers have more power over the company than workers. The case in point is Walmart. Given how anti-union Walmart is, and that Walmart has a way to organize workers in a way that each worker is replaceable. Even if 20% of Wal-Mart workers go on strike, the company could still function, and the workers might risk losing their jobs at the end. In this day and age, if consumers boycott the company, it might be a more effective bargaining tactic to change work conditions for workers. One can see various examples in real life. For example, fair trade coffee where consumers are supposed to pay more, such that the profits can go directly to coffee growers in the developing world. This type of consumption ethics is prevalent in a consumer society.

I have come to realize that I my relationship with shopping has been complicated. I used to hate shopping for clothing because I had trouble with my body image. Now I enjoyed shopping for clothes a little bit more as I figured out quite a bit about my taste, how to negotiate with shop keepers, and what to buy for which occasions. More importantly, being financially independent plays a large role in changing the relationship with shopping. I dont need to ask for anybody’s permission to buy a dress. It seems I am gradually incorporated into this consumer society of America.