Consumption Essay

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Consumption has been defined by economists in utilitarian terms as individuals taking care of their needs and maximizing their utilities in market exchanges with the act of consumption taking place for the most part in private life. Even Marx saw it this way; while the shares of consumption for individuals were determined by property and production relations, the moment of consumption was a matter for individuals in their private lives. Thor-stein Veblen and Marcel Mauss were the first social theorists to conceptualize a social logic of emulation and competition for prestige and power in consumer practices. Competition for prestige was not invented in modern societies; it could be found in the gift giving rituals that Mauss analyzed in tribal cultures. It could also be found in the idle pursuits of nobles in agrarian societies when useful work was considered ignoble according to Veblen.

In the nineteenth century, capitalist development and the industrial revolution were primarily focused on the capital goods sector and industrial infrastructure. Members of the working class worked for low wages for long hours, as much as 16 hours per day 6 days per week which did not leave much time or money for consumer activities. Henry Ford understood that mass production presupposed mass consumption. Frederick Taylor s theory of scientific management unleashed incredible productivity and reduced the costs of every commodity produced on assembly lines. Ford instituted the first 8-hour work day and paid a premium wage of $5 a day during World War I. Consumer goods had a shorter ”life expectancy than producer goods; further, planned obsolescence made commodities that would disintegrate within a predictable span of time and/or use, e.g. so many miles for a car tire. The fashion cycle also accelerated the depreciation of commodities even before they were physically used up. Buying on installment plans or on store credit made it possible to stretch out payments for the more expensive items. Initially the advertising form informed potential buyers of the qualities and availability of new commodities without manipulating their needs or desires. The consumer society collapsed after the stock market crash of 1929; corporations returned to lower wages and longer hours. Yet the American labor movement in collaboration with corporations in the core of the economy reestablished the conditions for this Fordist strategy after 1938, and the consumer society emerged from the ashes of World War II in the USA.

Consumption has two levels: individual consumption with its logic of emulation and competition for prestige and power and collective consumption that corresponds to social needs. Lefebvre notes that while modern capitalism is efficient at taking care of individual needs for material products and goods, there are social needs that are poorly recognized and met: health care, education, child care, care for the elderly, public spaces for recreation and leisure, love, and community. Social goods are different from individual goods, they are not necessarily used up in the same way as a beer is used up in individual acts of consumption. Millions of citizens have made use of Central Park in New York City, but they have yet to use it up.

Baudrillard s analysis of consumption begins with a critical analysis of the commodity form as the cellular form of modern society. Marx distinguished the use value of the commodity from its exchange value. Commodity logic reduced everything and everyone to exchange value. Commodity exchange integrated the members of different classes, but in a process that produced and reproduced the domination of capital. On the other hand, Marx saw the use value of commodities as corresponding to needs that were not equivalent and ”natural. Baudrillard argues that needs are in no way natural, and that in our consumer society needs are produced just like commodities and are just as abstract and equivalent as exchange values. The code of consumption through the mediation of the advertising form attaches sign exchange value to all commodities. Consumption in its deepest meaning involves the consumption of these differential values which reproduces the code and the mode of production. While workers in modernity are often conscious of being exploited at work, Baudrillard sees this as a more profound form of alienation since consumers take pleasure or at least satisfaction from their consumer activities.

Michel de Certeau has looked at how consumers use commodities and the meanings attached to them through the media and the advertising form. Do consumers submit to the ”terrorism of the code as Baudrillard seems to assume? De Certeau’s research and the work of the Birmingham school of cultural studies suggest otherwise. Gottdiener finds a struggle over meaning between producers and users of consumer goods. Youth in the 1960s appropriated working class clothing like blue jeans and modified them in various ways as a sign of protest and a sign of their proletarianization in the consumer society. Producers responded and reestablished the sign exchange value of their goods with various modifications: stitching, rips, pre-faded forms, etc.


  1. Baudrillard, J. (1998) The Consumer Society. Sage, London.
  2. Debord, G. (1970) Societyofthe Spectacle. Black and Red, Detroit.
  3. de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice ofEveryday Life. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA.
  4. Gottdiener, M. (2001) The Theming of America. Westview, Boulder, CO.
  5. Lefebvre, H. (2002) Critique of Everyday Life, vol. 2, 1st edn. Verso, London.
  6. Mauss, M. (1967) The Gift. W. W. Norton & Co., New York.
  7. Veblen, T. (1953) Theory of the Leisure Class. Mentor, New York.

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