Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Crises of consumerism:

The democratization of capital was the inevitable outcome of that threat posed to capital by democracy, which was met in the crucible of 20th century politics.

The greatest threat posed to capital in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was that people no longer wanted to participate in it at the point of production. Working without air, without light; working without rest, and, in proportion to what they produced, without pay -- people decided to stop working: they struck. And very soon they discovered that when one leg of capital's circuit is disrupted, all power is lost to the system as a whole. Capital cannot happen in the absence of commodity production and exchange.

What happened in this case is very interesting. Strikes in this period could become widespread, encompassing entire communities, leaving it to state and sometimes federal authorities to restore order, always on capital's behalf. A problem emerged, however, in cases where law enforcement personnel might show more sympathy for the striking workers than their employers. That, after all, is a magic formula for revolution!

It became increasingly clear that capital was losing control of the society, because large numbers of people identified it as operating contrary to their interests. This prompted a newfound interest amongst the administrative classes in what people thought, with anti-socialism and "the manufacture of consent" becoming the order of the day, as well as an official commitment to education that could produce citizens worthy of their employers: obedient, punctual, and patriotic!

At the same time, "the public" came to be coveted as a market in itself, prompting such visionaries as Henry Ford to perceive self-interest in paying his workforce wages sufficient to purchase the very products they produced.

This is what I mean by "the democratization of capital": not that capital, which is inherently autocratic, somehow became less so; but that participation in the process of capital was extended to all, and at each point in its circuit. So whether or not someone counted themselves as a producer, a consumer, or an investor no longer hinged on a particular class position, but was actively solicited from all. And that is an important part of how capital began to engage the concerns of ordinary people -- by conspiring to become the concerns of ordinary people.


Enron said...

What do you think of Debord?

JRB said...

Oh, him. Yeah, he's OK.

By the way, you may now refer to me as JR Deborg, and my readership as Guys Debored.

Anonymous said...

A good series. I offer an addendum. The expansion of a consumer base is fundamental to the functioning of capital. Capital extracts surplus value from workers by paying them less than the value of what they produce. Paradoxically, this surplus value is only realized on the market. Because it is impossible to extract surplus value from workers who can consume everything they produce, new markets must be conquered, new imperatives to purchase must be discovered. I agree that consumerism has a pacificatory effect on class consciousness, but the impetus behind it is economic.

I'm reading something about this very contradiction at the moment, so perhaps more later. Also worth thinking about: labor aristocracy vs. your theory of the democratization of capital.

JRB said...

Yes, that is an excellent addendum, because I don't mean to suggest that what I mention here is the only thing going on, or even the main thing. There are always a convergence of things, and you are good to remind us of others.

I'm not sure that I understand the antagonism between a "labor aristocracy" and the capital expansion of which we speak (for my part, as into the realm of culture). I probably won't get into that specific issue, but like many others of interest (e.g., the provisional compact between men in the home and men in the suites), I take them to be parts of this broader trend.