The sociological study of consumption has its roots in both Marxist critical theory, primarily in the works of the Frankfurt School, and in the sociology of culture. Any sociological understanding of consumption must take into account the capitalist economic system in which consumption takes place and has meaning.
As Marxist scholar David Harvey writes:
Capital is a process and not a thing. It is a process of reproduction of social life through commodity production, in which all of us in the advanced capitalist world are heavily implicated…The process masks and fetishizes, achieves growth through creative destruction, creates new needs and wants, exploits the capacity for human labour and desire, transforms spaces, and speeds up the pace of life (Harvey, 1990; 343)
Sociological theorists of the Frankfurt School, otherwise known as critical theory, were interested in the intersections between culture and ideological oppression and between capitalism and the creation of new, false needs and wants that result in the maintenance of false consciousness (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944; Marcuse, 1964; Harvey, 1990). Thus, one of the primary theoretical starting points for the sociological study of consumption has been the critical sociological understanding of ‘mass culture’ and the ‘cultural industry’ posited by members of the Frankfurt School.
Central questions asked about consumption by critical theorists include:
- What role do the products, experiences, and activities we consume play in the creation or prevention of class consciousness?
- How do the things that we consume serve to maintain the status quo and to ward off social change in the form of a communist revolution?
Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote of the ‘cultural industry’ as a tool of ‘mass deception’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944). The cultural industry, to Adorno and Horkheimer signifies the growing monopolization and uniformity of the producers of culture, namely film, radio, jazz music and magazines.
Rooted in Marxism, theorists of the Frankfurt School were interested in the role that culture played in the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. They concluded that culture, along with the cultural industry worked to seduce members of “the working class” preventing them from realizing their shared oppression and class-consciousness.
Herbert Marcuse’s wrote of the false needs and false consciousness produced by modern capitalist societies primarily through the production of mass culture and the mass pursuit of consumer goods (Marcuse, 1964). Members of the Frankfurt School held that the cultural industry is partly responsible for averting the “inevitable revolutionary overthrow of industrial capitalism”(Filmer, 1998: 352). How does the cultural industry do all of this? Adorno and Horkheimer assert that it is through the use of ideology:
The cultural industry tends to make itself the embodiment of authoritative pronouncements, and thus the irrefutable prophet of the prevailing order. It skillfully steers a winding course between the cliffs of demonstrable misinformation and manifest truth, …Anyone who doubts the power of monotony is a fool (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944. 2000: 17).
Who can question the ‘authoritative…irrefutable prophet of the prevailing order’ when it comes in the form of easy to understand and entertaining music and in escapist, thrilling MGM films? In Adorno and Horkheimer’s view, monotony was just as dangerous as blatant ideological propaganda.
The cultural industry’s use of mechanized systematic interchangeable and predictable plots, formulas, and syncopated sounds serve to keep the consumer of these cultural products ignorant and open to domination and control because “there is nothing left for the consumer to classify. Producers have done it for him” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944, 2000: 6).
Neoliberalism has prioritized us only in our ability to consume. It cares about us only in our identity as consumers. That’s it. Sure we produce sometimes. Of course. I am producing right now.
But it means literally nothing (in terms of value to this society, it means a lot to me spiritually, personally, and so on, of course) unless it hits the market, goes viral, stands out in a crowd of thousands upon thousands of voices on the internet, all attempting to produce in the hopes of being consumed. This is the gig economy. This is the crown jewel of neoliberal capitalism.
The gig economy requires we turn what we love into some sort of income, and that we settle for whatever we can get. Bless outlets that pay, bless the opportunities that exist, yes. But the gig economy is based upon the neoliberal desires to ensure people work more for less and that everyone is too busy hustling to get woke about the situation.
Government and economic schemes and regimes that get away with some of the worst atrocities have one thing in common: they weaponize the power of distraction via entertainment. This is the “bread and circuses” phenomenon in which those in power know that as long as the masses, you, me, us, have a bit of food and a lot of entertainment, well, we won’t come after them or stop them for what they are doing. We won’t hold them accountable. We won’t rebel or revolt.
We will just entertain, be entertained, and work for scraps.
Election year or no election year. Democrat or Republican. This system relies upon the power of mass and thoughtless consumption of culture to ensure real change stays far away, far off in the future, or might never show up at all.
Jenny Justice is a mom, Sociology instructor, and writer. You can follow her on Medium and at Jenny Justice, Writer. She has been recognized as a Top Writer on Medium in Poetry, Parenting, Reading, Education, Books, Racism, and Climate Change, so far.
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