Consumerism and the cold war

by Rob Horning

20 May 2010

 

I have an essay up at Generation Bubble about how the cold war shaped what has become the de facto moral mission of consumerism—protecting “freedom” defined as individualistic self-fashioning through consumer choices. To put that more plainly, consumerist ideology holds that shopping is a sacred right, and purchasing power is political power. Consumerism was the reward for being born in the West, the best justification for a political and economic system that generated vast and worsening inequality.

Naturally, consumerism subordinates (or rejects) the tenets of the counterdiscourse to it developed in the Eastern bloc, the official ideology of leveling, equal opportunity to all, and personhood through civic responsibility. That ideology, by all accounts, was routinely violated in everyday life under communism in myriad ways; poverty, it turns out, doesn’t encourage much solidarity or sympathy, and it takes a massive and invasive state apparatus to suppress the tendency to want to individuate ourselves at the seeming expense of others. What I was trying to get at in the essay is how the ideals of egalitarianism and personal autonomy seem to serve as the horizons of each other, and whether this is a failure of our political imagination or if its an illusion generated to sustain the apathy that protects consumerism or if it’s something else.

 

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