The Consumer in the Kitchen

During the Eisenhower era, Vice-President Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow to open the American National Exhibition in 1959, part of a cultural exchange program initiated to try to quell Cold War tensions. As America was eager to depict its high standard of living, part of this exhibit was a model kitchen meant to exemplify all the conveniences American industry has brought to its workers, and by extension, as Nixon was to argue in the famous spontaneous “kitchen debate” with Nikita Khrushchev, the very essence of American freedom.

In America, capitalists and workers alike seemed in harmony about this: the ability to buy and freedom to choose from among an ever more diverse supply of consumer goods that made life ever more convenient was the basis of the good life, the American dream in concrete terms. Thus, freedom resulted not from everyone having an equal share, but from the equal opportunity to express themselves through personal choice. As Nixon put it, responding to Khrushchev’s explaining the Soviet guarantee of universal housing, “Diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have 1,000 builders building 1,000 different houses is the most important thing. We don’t have one decision made at the top by one government official. This is the difference.” The opportunity for a person to express himself through his choice of house was therefore just as important as the ability to afford one. In America, the equal opportunity to buy things compensates for the lack of equal opportunity to do things, until now we have to think very carefully to even distinguish the two.

Behind Nixon’s remark lay what economist John Kenneth Galbraith calls “the accepted sequence”, the commonsense understanding of how the market functions. The sovereign consumer decides he wants something, and he seeks it out in the market. Producers notice him looking and rush to provide him what he wants. All the initiative lies with the all-powerful individual, who responds to authentic needs he spontaneously generates for himself. America’s greatness, then, rests in how responsive its free market is to those spontaneous needs that define each individual in his uniqueness — a thousand different houses for a thousand different people.

What makes the consumer’s freedom of choice so important is that it seems to grant Americans an opportunity to build their own identity and express it through goods, a chance Russians presumably never had. It became part of America’s exceptional nature, and explains why the patriotic response to 9/11 was to go out and shop, as the President was so anxious to remind us.

Consumption, as an expression of our most fundamental freedom, becomes self-production, and it becomes our personal duty to produce ourselves through our purchases. In fact, while we may hold down some random day job — research analyst or risk manager or copyeditor or systems tech — one which probably gives us little sense of fulfillment and generally seems like a hassle, that’s okay because our actual job, the one that gives us pleasure and the one we devote much of our leisure to, the one that society prepares and prizes us for, is that of career consumer, professional shopper.

As Galbraith explains in The New Industrial State (Houghton Mifflin, 1967), “the individual serves the industrial system not by supplying it with savings and the resulting capital; he serves it by consuming its products. On no other matter religious, political or moral, is he so elaborately and skillfully and expensively instructed.” Indeed, our society’s billion-dollar advertising apparatus and the billion-dollar entertainment industry with which it’s inextricably bound serves the primary purpose of teaching us the joys of possession and assuring us that more is always better, of gearing us toward using products and measuring ourselves in accordance to their promises.

It seems absolutely self-evident that having more stuff is good and that ceaseless economic growth is a fine and noble purpose, providing more people with more things. But as Galbraith points out, “From a detached point of view, expansion in the output of many goods is not easily accorded a social purpose. More cigarettes cause more cancer. More alcohol causes more cirrhosis. More automobiles cause more accidents, maiming and death.” That we accept growth as inherently good is a testament to advertising’s hegemony. Even if you reject the specific product advertised, the meta-message of the advantages of consumption built into all ads still get through; it’s a postulate you have to implicitly accept before a commercial even becomes comprehensible. Once you pay a moment’s attention to an ad, you’ve assented to its worldview that happiness is always contingent on consumption.

That ads need to be so omnipresent, so invasive, and so insistent suggests that the accepted sequence is an ideological myth. Rather than our dictating to industry what we want, it dictates to us what we’ll get and then persuades us it’s what we wanted all along. This is what Galbraith calls the “revised sequence”. He commits much of The New Industrial State to explaining why this must be so: how technological advances and mass-production capabilities mandate elaborate advanced industrial planning. Because huge amounts of specialized labor and raw materials must be amassed and precisely organized in order for modern production to be efficient enough to allow corporations to survive and grow, these corporations must control the markets they purport to serve. It must able to manage prices and assure adequate demand for whatever it decides to manufacture. So if Galbraith can be believed, it turns out that capitalist economies are no less planned than the socialist command economy Nixon denounced.

During the kitchen debate, Nixon apparently felt that the convenience consumer goods provided ordinary people was the trump card in favor of the American way. Nixon called attention to a built-in panel-controlled washing machine and described it as a wonderful way to make “life easier for women.” A good thing, right, something women would have obviously been clamoring for? Khrushchev’s wouldn’t concede the point: “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism.” By this he may have meant that in the Soviet Union, women were expected to do more than housework. But the “capitalistic attitude” is a little cryptic until we consider the implications of Galbraith’s revised sequence.

If Galbraith is right, the demand for conveniences like washing machines and dishwashers did not well up from below, but were imposed upon women, who were then persuaded that these machines were necessary improvements to their standard of living. They were considered welcome replacements to traditional methods and afforded them a kind of craft knowledge, a set of socially valued skills and techniques specific to their role. The machines that made housework more efficient also made the household role most women, for better or worse, were most invested in utterly redundant — as Nixon told Khrushchev, pointing to an automatic floor sweeper, “You don’t need a wife.”

The capitalistic attitude toward women, then, is the infantilizing assumption that women are naturally lazy and want nothing more than the ability to do nothing all day, all the better to make them the walking leisure-class trophies that Thorsten Veblen claimed they were in The Theory of the Leisure Class (Penguin reprint, 1994). Just listen to the paternalism in Nixon’s retort to Khrushchev’s “capitalistic attitude” crack: “I think that this attitude toward women is universal. What we want to do is make easier the life of our housewives.” Nixon is happy to assert that it’s every woman’s nature to seek out not challenges and opportunities but easiness, and instinctively they look to men to make their dreams of leisure come true.

So rather than women having demanded machines that testify to their own irrelevance, industry identified a niche where a machine could be sold and persuaded families to accept them and the terms by which they’re valuable — that is, they taught women to value convenience over meaningful work. Of course it’s better to buy a product that does something for you than to know how to do something yourself. Shown all the modern conveniences in the model American kitchen, Khrushchev asked, “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down?” His point, of course, is that capitalism throws up “gadgets” that sensible people don’t need. A consumer’s yearning for gadgets, her natural love of convenience and her supposed natural laziness, does not start the process of “modernizing” the home; instead she is taught to treasure laziness as a sign of her luxurious place in society’s hierarchy, well after the machines have already been insistently urged upon her.

Women’s social roles have changed, but this “capitalistic attitude” remains, applied equally now to all consumers. As new commodities purport to open up new realms of convenience for consumers, we tend to assume that industry simply responds to consumer demand in flooding the market with microwavable food and disposable diapers and the host of communications technologies that make it “easier” (i.e., compulsory) to be in contact with whoever demands your attention. We assume that people are inherently lazy and would love to do nothing but sit around undisturbed (but preferably entertained) by the world around them. The assumption is so pervasive, so taken for granted in so much of our media, that it seems like commonsense; it even seems like something we have always believed about ourselves.

Consider, for example, a story from the 14 July The Wall Street Journal, about new lightweight vacuum-cleaners. Proctor & Gamble has made a new cordless sweeper to “extend the run of the Swiffer brand, which has benefited from consumers who are ever-lazier in their cleaning habits.” Never mind that this “news” story seems a lot like an ad. If this niche product proves anything, it’s that consumers are ever more obsessive about cleaning, not lazier, and they’ll accommodate more and more gadgets to make the process of housekeeping ever more intricate and complex even as they think they are simplifying it. There have been seven new evolutions of the Swiffer in the past six years, for God’s sake. This is part of the corporate strategy of attempting to insert a product between a person and any activity they might want to pursue. The story details how aggressive advertisers can be, offering a glimpse into Proctor & Gamble’s intricate technostructure of researchers and surveyors and scientists involved in figuring out various niches in the floor-cleaning market. You wouldn’t have thought the clean/not clean dichotomy admitted more than one niche, but in fact cleaning needs compose a “spectrum”, and Proctor & Gamble is committed to differentiating as many points on that spectrum as possible.

Once these points are identified, advertising is crafted to posit a person who would actually occupy them. However, this advertising’s goal is not merely to sell a specific niche product, but to sell the idea that every impulse to do something — anything, whether it’s cleaning a floor, playing tennis or expressing love to one’s spouse — should be immediately followed by the thought, What do I need to buy to do it? If advertising is successful, every impulse to act should result not in an action but a purchase.

We are not becoming lazier; we merely think we are because laziness has been so celebrated as an accomplishment, a reward. Actually, we are working harder than ever. That is, we are ‘working’ as career consumers; shopping like absolute maniacs while misinterpreting such shopping as leisure rather than labor. No consumer craves for a better floor cleaner or a “new and improved” Clorox bleach. But the more convinced we are that shopping is our primary purpose on the earth and our most meaningful and important contribution to society, the more this kind of marketing information assumes critical importance to us. As smart, informed shopping earns us social recognition, we begin to care about these product refinements as much as the names and birthdays of our nieces and nephews. Hence the confusion and clutter that a plethora of niche products in the marketplace creates is good, for as professional shoppers we look forward to the challenges of sorting all that junk out that give our lives meaning. Also, in order to feel that our efforts have succeeded, we expect our shopping labors to yield something so extremely specific and precise, it seems capable of expressing our uniqueness. A thousand different houses for a thousand different people.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz’s recent book The Paradox of Choice (Ecco, 2004) argues that the superfluity of choices in contemporary American society make us into “maximizers”, shopping perfectionists, when we should be content to be “satisficers”, people content with something that adequately fulfills our perceived needs. In other words, we worry not about maximizing utility but simply maintaining a baseline amount of usefulness from the things we accumulate. Schwartz argues that having more options in the market, a product of mass production having freed us from necessity, leads us to believe that we should never be content with something that doesn’t suit us perfectly, since it is so much more likely that the perfect thing is out there. We now have the time and means to be more discriminating, which leads not to greater satisfaction but regret and perpetual disappointment.

This, of course, runs counter to the celebrated freedom of consumer choice, and the power it invests in the sovereign consumer. Though we are all essentially career shoppers, the more time we spend shopping, the more likely we’ll be left with insatiable desires and a chronic sense of dissatisfaction. Shopping entices us with what we can’t have and forces us to make sacrifices we otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of. And because shopping is our primary identity-giving activity, we don’t want it end; successful shopping doesn’t satisfy our needs, it breeds the need for more shopping. Thus we willingly mount the so-called hedonic treadmill — decision theory’s term for the way we quickly adapt and grow dissatisfied with new levels of comfort — as it gives us something to do. But as Schwartz documents, the shallowness and passivity of such a life purpose inevitably leads to depression.

It’s not merely the overwhelming number of choices and the sense of crushing responsibility — each choice must represent you perfectly — that makes us depressed; it’s that we remain dimly aware that our energy might have been invested in more significant ways than picking between colas or brands of vacuum cleaner. As Robert Lane concluded in The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (Yale University Press, September 2001) we crave meaningful work and tight-knit communities and friends but we get sidetracked into collecting more goods that promise to attenuate our individuality, extend our autonomy in the guise of convenience or allow us to wield the mighty sword of modern technology in the form of an iPod. If we accept that we can purchase meaningfulness, real meaning is sucked into the vacuum of the marketplace and becomes subject to its arbitrary whims, its manufactured cycles. Consuming always implies the dignity of individual ownership trumps cooperation. So we prioritize all wrong. Since much of the pleasure of consumerism is relative and comparative, it sets you in competition not with the consumers out of your league, but with the ones most like you and invites you to view them as your enemy. It goes back to the kitchen debate yet again; a thousand different houses for a thousand different people, all of them isolated from their fellow citizens, powerless in their alienation.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.