This question came to me during breakfast while watching a morning “news” show. I’d like to think they were doing a segment on consumer advocacy or reports, but it’s just as likely this thought came to me out of the blue:
In a consumer culture such as ours, is a Marxian analysis of the means and mode(s) of production still relevant? When the emphasis is so heavily on the consumer side, is it even useful to think of power in terms of who controls production? Or is the real power more in the hands of the hegemony, which convinces most of us that it is consumption that counts? And in any case, what does it say about our socio-economic system, about the state of things, that our main source of “power”–or at least the source most consciously realized and discussed–is consumptive?
In a sense, that’s not even power at all…although this is where I tend to slip back into Marx (is there a way to avoid it?)…but it’s not “real” power because it’s not just consumer demand that dictates production and makes companies rise and fall–it’s capitalist interest. That elusive yet pervasive “good” that we discursively (and mentally–subconsciously?) glorify yet only understand through well-worn metaphors and (misguided) faith. And it’s marketers who influence consumption patterns, by studying and exploiting them. It’s all related in a convoluted chain of powerful influences in the (ultimate?) service of increasing capital. And we consumers–the identity that all of us are encouraged to wear like a badge of honor–don’t have nearly the power we think we do.
But this does little to answer my original question about the relevance of a Marxian analysis in the face of our overwhelmingly consumerist society, because I just slipped so easily back into Marx up there. Almost too easily…Marx may be useful if only because he helps us dispel the hegemonic myths about the culture in which we live: a Marxian analysis helps us to see the production side of things that tends to be obscured, even as it is vaguely glorified in the “jobs” trope that is so in vogue right now. And of course there is always commodity fetishism, a big part of our consumer culture. But the working class has yet to come to mass consciousness, and I still want something that’s a better fit to describe what’s going on at the consumer level that’s so in the forefront of our national consciousness, while at the same time taking into account what is obscured by this focus on these gargantuan myths of the power of this hegemonically imposed and nearly-universally embraced identity. I want it all revealed and deconstructed and fit back together in a contemporarily sensical way.
Perhaps I need more Gramsci to understand what’s going on, but what I really want is an analytic that is for us–that is grounded in this culture and this time, not imposed from another, however appropriate or partially relevant it may seem. However well we try to make it fit. It just doesn’t do enough to completely understand what the hell is going on, here. And there probably is at least one, I’m just having some difficultly remember what it is. A little help, folks?
3 responses to “A Question on Appropriate Analytical Tactics”
I hear Richard Rorty is good for understanding American politics from a leftist perspective. He apparently rejects the language of Marxism with regards to making political claims (if you’re looking for an analytic of this culture and this time, it seems Marx would be just as invalid as Gramsci).
However, I think we can still learn from Marx. Just as you say, a Marxist analysis is powerful since it typically takes as a central concern the demystification of cultural items. To do so, I think it’s important to follow the burrow of the Old Mole and avoid the labyrinthine Rabbit’s Hole; that is, we have to stay on-point with a topic of analysis and resist the urge to jump around with regards to topics of analysis. Certainly all the things you mention above are interrelated, but we’re not going to be able to make light of any of them if we try to begin an analysis with taking them on as a whole.
Which is all to say, I have just as few answers as you, maybe fewer.
Thank you; and a good point about clarifying one topic at a time…although I’d argue it would be important to keep in mind that they are all interrelated. And then as you understands them one at a time, making sure to go into *how* they are interrelated. That in itself can probably go a long way toward seeing if the analytic you’re using is going to be applicable to what you are conceptualizing as the whole.
Marxism is most certainly an appropriate lens critically look at consumerism, capitalism, and ethical and appropriate business conduct. I would say its usefulness is limited to normative value; but, nonetheless, the view is still relevant … especially when considering the increasing gap between rich and poor in the American context.