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Our civic faith in getting and spending

A history of the ideology of consumption in 20th-century America

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America is a place of unprecedented affluence, and its focus on worldly goods has manifested itself in many ways - from its culture of acquisitiveness to the undernourishment of its public sphere. In fact, the act of consumption is an integral part of American personal and collective identity. Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen has taken the nation's postwar history and rewritten it from this perspective - the rise and ongoing evolution of what she terms "A Consumers' Republic."

Cohen has a central and worthwhile observation - that the ideology of consumption has evolved dramatically in the space of an American lifespan, and can be broken down into three phases.

In the first, originating in the Great Depression, consumption was an integral aspect of life's political experience. The class and political consciousness that permeated a nation one-quarter ill-housed and ill-fed extended to purchasing collectives, mass-based consumer organizations, and the idea that the consuming class and the producing class had little in common.

The burgeoning affluence of the postwar period changed that. As Cohen demonstrates, consumption became a tacit patriotic act. Government subsidies for highways and residential housing gave Americans suburbs and enabled the consumption patterns that accompanied them. Industrial planners built their plans around this ever-expanding and ever-willing consumer base. Cohen pays less attention to the manipulation of consumer wants, however, than to the unifying role consumption played in American identity - by shopping together, we're all in this together, so to speak. But as she points out, this was more an ideology than a reality - the fruits of American prosperity were far from equally shared.

By the mid-1970s, the idea of an egalitarian society enjoying a shared trip to the store became a hollow one. The nation was mired in "stagflation," and experienced a dramatic downshift in the growth of productivity and real wages that was to last for more than two decades. The resulting disaffection led to a revival of a mass consumer movement. By the mid-70s, America was perilously close to having a cabinet-level department of consumer affairs.


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