Monday, October 11, 2010

Cohen - A Consumers' Republic

Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Argument/Key Terms
Consumer's Republic - During the two decades of post-WWII prosperity, Cohen perceives the broadly-held belief that America's mass consumption would lead not only to widespread prosperity but also help achieve social and political ambitions for a more equal, free, and democratic nation. (13) There was an underlying assumption that the government would support the consumers in the marketplace, even more than they supported the producers. This lasted until Nixon, Ford, and Carter began to pursue supply-side policy even before Reagan.

Cohen is essentially writing a traditional history book that supports the criticism raised in intellectual history/cultural critics of the Lasch variety. Writing in the 70s at the tail end of the Consumer's Republic, these critics were musing about how individualism went to far. Cohen traces its slide.

She is also preoccupied with the ramifications of the Consumer's Republic on Blacks and Women. Blacks notably exercised their position as citizen consumer, through boycotts and sit-ins, to negotiate and improve their position in society. The rise of segmented marketing coincided with the rise of Black Nationalism, strengthening Black identity. However, segregated neighborhoods and (thus) schools remain as evidence of the suburbanization that left the poor- mostly black - population behind. The ideal of equality within the Consumer's Republic thus failed largely to benefit black citizens.

Cohen analyzes advertising strategies to show how after WWII women lost the gains they had made during the war, both as laborers and as consumer citizens. Ads emphasized the father as the primary consumer of the house, and thus advertised accordingly, the ads themselves (as well as ad-driven TV shows like Father Knows Best) emphasizing women's proper role as submissive wife. Women eventually gained social status at the end of this period, and organized as consumer citizens - boycotting and protesting for key consumer issues.

Other Big Concepts
citizen consumer - The Roosevelt administration thought of consumers as a self-conscious body of Americans on par with labor and business, and courted their political support. For the first time on a broad level, Americans began to consider how their purchasing actions could shape society. Also, they became concerned with fairness in the marketplace.
purchaser consumer - The idea that consumers held the key to economic recovery. Strongly influenced by Keynes.
First-wave consumer's movement
- Progressive Era
Second-wave consumer's movement - 1930s and 40s, Notably, consumers were given a voice and official position in New Deal agencies, most importantly in the NRA.
Third-wave consumer's movement - 1960-78. (p.360) Typified by Ralph Nader. Pursued greater protection of the consumer in the marketplace (Cohen calls this level 1) and the reinvigoration of Government regulation in consumer interest (level 2). Despite a long struggle, consumer interest groups failed to place a consumer advocate in a permanent government position.
Consumerization of the Republic - Cohen's term for what followed the Consumer's Republic, typified by a desire not for a marketplace that could be molded, both by consumer action and government policy, to shape a stronger society but rather for a marketplace that favored individual interests. This was brought about in no small part by the rise of segmented marketing strategy.

Chapter Ideas
Ch. 1 "Depression: Rise of the Citizen Consumer" - Second Wave consumer's movement and the New Deal
Ch. 2 "War: Citizen Consumers Do Battle on the Home Front" - Consumers supported price fixing measures, and received them. Meanwhile, Blacks had to fight harder for price protection just as they had to go so far as to threaten protests to be an equal part of the wartime labor force.
Ch. 3 "Reconversion: The Emergence of the Consumers' Republic" - Out of post-war recession, the G.I. Bill helped returning soldiers and their families reach higher standards of livings. However, Cohen shows that Blacks and uneducated G.I.'s were left behind by the bill's benefits.
Ch. 4 "Rebellion: Forcing Open the Doors of Public Accommodations" - Civil Rights Movement gained access to public accommodation...
Ch. 5 "Residence: Inequality in Mass Suburbia" - ...just in time for prosperity, including public accommodation, to depart the cities for white suburbia.
Ch.6 "Commerce: Reconfiguring Community Marketplaces" - The rise of shopping centers moved shopping from the public space of the city to the private space of the mall. Cohen discusses court cases fighting to make the mall a public place for political action: initially these cases had success, such as the 1968 Logan Valley Plaza decision to allow union members to picket the plaza, which was the equivalent of a sidewalk. After that, the malls gradually gained back rights, as the Court granted the states the right to decide whether their own constitutions protected access.
Ch.7 "Culture: Segmenting the Mass"- Segmented advertising
Ch.8 "Politics: Purchasers Politicized"- Third-wave consumer's movement

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Christopher Lasch et al -In the final pages, Cohen mentions Lasch and Michael Sandel as critics who have argued liberal faith in a growing economy to solve America's problems failed to consider traditional criticism of individualism. Cohen is more realistic in her criticism, admitting it is difficult to overturn a century of transformation that has turned voters from civic-minded to consumption-minded.

Cohen breaks new ground with her concept of a Consumer's Republic. I just wish she had done so with a shorter book that relied a bit less on endless statistical examples. She warns in her prologue that she is going to use northern New Jersey, where she grew up, as a frequent case study and I thought it worked well as the changes in that area seemed representative for national trends.

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