Monday, February 13, 2012

Company Planet

"Consumer or consumed?"  That's the question I raised over at Russ's place in response to an excerpt from a post by a "progressive" blogger that liberally used the term "consumer."

I spent a little time this morning trying to quickly track down the history of the terms "consumer" and "consumerism."

From the brief survey of full view hits in Google books, "consumer" in an economic sense has been with us at least since Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, but from what I can tell at a glance, the term was used strictly to distinguish between the producer of the commodity (the seller) and the consumer of the commodity (the buyer) for the purposes of allocating tax liability.

Fast forward to the early 20th century, and you start to see a shift from the classical use of the term "consumer," as the marketing types start introducing the concept of consumer sovereignty, although that term itself was not used.  Instead, the idea that it is the consumer who ultimately determines what will be produced gets subtlety layered into the discussion.

The problem, of course, is that once you start telling somebody that they have power and discover they don't have it, they try to get back what they think they lost and, hence, the rise of "consumerism" as a political sub-movement in the mid-20th century to vest market power in the consumer.  It should go without saying that "progressives" led the charge in consumerism.

As we are now seeing today, the cost of accepting the market-based "consumer" frame is that citizens have neither choice nor sovereignty in either the political realm or in the marketplace.  Consumerism is but one more example of how the progressive approach of accepting the frame of the current power structure in order to impose modest reforms (tweaks, actually) is not only doomed to fail but destined to advance the aims of the current power structure.  Wikipedia argues that FDR's New Deal instituted reforms that ended the company town in America, but I'd argue that the rise of globalization since the New Deal has given us a company planet.