Propaganda and Consumer Culture

Consumer culture is on a modern road to fascism that can be resisted only by embracing bigger government and the welfare state.

This article is one of a series of articles adapted from content that first appeared in my book Rationing Earth published by FriesenPress:

We can characterize US consumer culture by apparent and indulgent personal freedoms, but this freedom is manipulated by an ever-present media that influences actions far more effectively than traditional authoritarian structures ever could. What’s more, this total control is in accordance with the needs of industrialization and the corporation and is often directly opposed to the needs of society and the environment.

The state no longer uses propaganda exclusively to brainwash the public into its nationalist framework. Propaganda is now decentralized, pushing people in many different directions at once, encouraging an increasingly fragmented culture, but with a surprisingly consistent directive. Propaganda exploits the limit to our understanding, our inability to grasp all of the knowledge in the world at the same time, our resort to heuristic determinations based on believing who we trust, and even worse, copying what others around us do, say, and believe.

If you were to ask people if they are influenced by the torrential amount of propaganda they are subjected to from the media and advertisements, most would deny that there is any influence whatsoever.

Because propaganda is ubiquitous in our culture it has become invisible, like the air that we breathe. Since the effect on all of us is uniform and we have no way to compare with people within our culture who are unaffected, it is difficult to measure.

Advertising explicitly promotes the product. Secondly, it implicitly promotes a type of product: cigarette advertising makes smoking look cool. Thirdly, advertising promotes a set of values, including instant gratification and that doing what makes you happy is the best option. These values are often not the same as the values of society. For the media, delayed gratification is counter-productive. Considering the consequences of present actions is similarly irrelevant. Advertising presents leisure as better than work and the democratically elected government, rather than the undemocratic corporation as the source of oppression.

Capitalism, unlimited production, and unrestrained economic freedom in the market place have led to a distortion of traditional values. Much of what constituted good character in ages past — such as persistence, hard work, and the value of delayed gratification — the ever-present media has subverted. Laziness is now a virtue and immediate gratification is just good mental health. Individual freedom of the greediest and most powerful now supersedes the freedom that all people used to have.

Nowhere is this manipulation of behaviour more apparent than in marketing to children. For kids, marketers convey the view that wealth and aspiration to wealth are cool. Material excess, having lots of money, career achievement, and a lifestyle to go with it are all highly valued in the marketing world’s definition of what’s hot and what’s not. Juliet Schor in Born to Buy concludes, “Children have become conduits from the consumer marketplace into the household, the link between advertisers and the family purse…. Living modestly means living like a loser.” Marketers have also created a sophisticated and powerful “’antiadultism’ within the commercial world.”[1] Nickelodeon, for example, promotes “… an antiauthoritarian us-versus-them sensibility that pervades the brand.… In the kid-centric hip world, adults are the bothersome, the nerdy, the embarrassing, and the repressive.” Behaviour is promoted that is “annoying, antisocial, or mischievous.”[2] As children grow and mature, they have a natural tendency to separate from their parents, to be contrary and oppositional for a while, ultimately finding their own character. Advertisers have exploited and capitalized on this tendency and exaggerated it to great detriment to our society. Whereas our parents wanted to save and not waste, we have learned to consume more and not waste the opportunities presented in the media for greater happiness. Our children, with the media’s ever-present encouragement, have turned consumption into a form of cultural expression. The media perverts even the urge to be ecologically friendly, taking a moral imperative to consume less and diverting it into a guilt-free mandate to consume more “green” products in even more elaborate, but “greener” packaging. While you can find people in the United States who have rejected this work-and-spend lifestyle, few of these “downshifters” have children. The modern media as the instrument of the modern corporation, isolated from democratic influences, has hijacked our culture, stolen the hearts of our youth, and now threatens our future.

Fascism is associated with far-right politics, but in reality, it is a populist union of various right and left ideals. In contrast with other totalitarian governments, fascism is born from a movement within an otherwise democratic society. It depends on popular support and ongoing recruitment for its power. Policies are crafted, not out of a consistent ideology, as in communism, but of a mixture of traditions and prejudices of the populace. It includes the corporations that have grown larger, more powerful, and more independent of the democratic influence of government but able to influence huge sections of the populace with powerful propaganda now called marketing. Corporations also grow in size and naturally resist the democratic control of governments. There is now more danger of surveillance, control, and oppression from the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Google, or Facebook than from any democratically elected government. Governments may be imperfectly controlled by representative democracy, but corporations are hardly controlled at all.

Fascism is primarily a philosophy of exclusion, responding to natural tribal propensities to join groups and to exclude those that refuse to join or are different. As such, it can become fiercely nationalistic or racist. Policies can range from the extreme left to the extreme right. Born out of democratic conditions, it may ultimately condemn representative democracy as lacking in decisiveness and requiring too much compromise. What is ultimately asked for and willingly given by those who join fascist movements is unquestioning acceptance to evolving ideals and charismatic authority. There is much in current popular culture and especially the child-centred, brand-motivated culture of creating the idea of cool, which suggests a fascist sensibility in the works.

Neil Postman suggested in 1985 that media such as television (or now the internet) is ideology because it imposes “a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition.”[3] Such technology has succeeded far more effectively than Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf did in creating a new culture that excludes traditional values. “Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions.”[4]

The welfare state, in contrast, represents a philosophy of inclusion, accepting all races, all religions, and even all points of view as valid. It is internationalist rather than nationalist and seeks a global solution to problems such as poverty, global warming, and pollution. It is a democratic union of the right and the left — a series of compromises that allow socialist and statist institutions to coexist with free markets and competitive corporations. The ideals of the left and the right sit in an uneasy compromise, shifting one way and then the other according to the practical needs of the economy. It is the official, accepted form of government for most of the developed world, but it rests on a sea of conflicting and contrary popular sentiments, and entrenched political views that seek to dismantle what has been built over the past century.

There is no reason for all industries to be privatized. Nationalized education, transportation, healthcare, postal service, and police protection are sustainable and in many ways create conditions more beneficial for society. Private healthcare in the United States is a disaster. Transportation networks devoted to the automobile have resulted in hopelessly clogged streets and ruined cities. Limited public radio and television has resulted in a consumer culture nearly devoid of social or environmental responsibility and devoted almost exclusively to diversion and play.

The proposal here presented is that we maintain and extend the institutions of the welfare state, including universal distribution of essential goods and services. To control markets effectively and to solve the many and complex problems that emerge, governments will likely have to be larger, not smaller. The only alternatives of smaller governments and more power to individuals will increase the power of corporations and special interest groups, and make a return to fascism that much more likely. The welfare state is not a brief experiment that failed, but the extension of the city-state that is the very basis of civilization. Rather, the neoliberal experiment of completely free markets was brief, and failed miserably.

In reality, the welfare state, including the enlargement of government and institutions such as universal pensions, employment insurance, and welfare programs offering a safety net for the growing threat of job loss and unemployment, is what was responsible for the growing prosperity from 1950 to about 1973. The recent restrictions on the growth of the welfare state have limited prosperity to a few and threaten to dismantle the whole edifice.

There is great suspicion and prejudice of big government, but a large welfare state is not just a necessary evil, it is more efficient for the operation of a large part of the economy that involves the universal distribution of essential goods and services.

In the last century, industrialization, automation, and outsourcing drove down wages and increased unemployment. Economic growth and the growth of the service industries have replaced some of this job loss, but not all. Unemployment has grown, and wages for 80 percent of the population have not kept pace with what one would expect from the economic growth that has occurred. The welfare state has grown in reaction to these trends. First, the growth of government provides more jobs, replacing many lost in manufacturing. Secondly, government programs provide funding for research projects and universities, which have been responsible for the spontaneous development of new industries including computers, the internet, biotechnology, and many more that will come on line in the next century. Government subsidization has also made it possible for immature industries to develop, and for individuals to take more risks in the search for a career and additional education.

[1] Juliet B. Schor, Born to Buy, (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Scribner, 2004), 11, 48, 51.

[2] Ibid 52–54.

[3] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of
Show Business, (New York, London: The Penguin Group, 1985), 157.

[4] Ibid, 111.



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