A Consumers’ Republic
© 2002 Lizbeth Cohen
What is the meaning of citizenship? To the Romans, and to the early Americans, citizenship was an exclusive state of being that depended on owning land, and so a stake in society. In the early twentieth century, however, as suffrage waxed more universal and markets were flooded with goods made for the masses, citizenship took on a different meaning. To be a citizen of a modern, capitalist democracy was to be a Consumer; voices rang out most strongly at the marketplace, not the ballot box. In A Consumer’s Republic, author Lizbeth Cohen examines the way the burgeoning consumer market effected political activism. Beginning with consumer activist groups who protested high prices amid the Depression, her history examines the Civil Rights and feminist movements through the lens of consumption. Consumer equality, not income distribution, would create a classless society. Women fought for the right to have their own bank accounts and lines of credit in addition to equal wages; blacks labored for just prices in stores as well as unhindered access to the vote. This is an account of social, political, marketing history, intertwined together. Consumption didn’t just serve individual desires; as Keynsianism became the dominant economic philosophy, intellectuals and citizen-consumers alike saw their compulsive buying as not only fun, but patriotic: their every new gadget grew the economy. The consumers’ republic began to die in the 1970s and 1980s amid economic turbulence; even though people continued to buy more and more, the political aspect of their purchasing, the meaning they had given it, fell away, both because the economy no longer responded as Keynes promised and their motives became more purely self-focused and only tangently connected to the thought of improving the nation’s fortunes.
Although occasionally touching on the negative aspects of the rapidly expanding consumer culture — the growth of suburbia, for instance — A Consumers’ Republic is not a polemic raging against consumerism, and effects open to interpretation, like the consequences of consumerism on citizens’ peace of mind, are not touched on. It has a scholarly feel, though a ‘popular’ look; the art is well-done, including plenty of large black and white photographs that demonstrate the point at hand, and stylized headings that bring to mind advertisements from the 1950s. One particularly effective illustration shows the evolution of advertising in Ebony magazine from the 1950s to the 1970s, as white-owned haircare manufactures realized that (1) blacks were a market and (2) that black people were a different market. They gradually transition from a white model demonstrating hair treatment lotion to a black model advertising products related to ‘natural’ hair. Republic is a fascinating look at another side of the rise of consumption, impressively thorough in that respect, and free of scathing criticism if not critical substance.