Don Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1997, 230 pages.
In The Rise of Consumer Society in Britain, John Benson identifies consumer societies as those "in which choice and credit are readily available, in which social value is defined in terms of purchasing power and material possessions, and in which there is a desire, above all, for that which is new, modern, exciting and fashionable." For decades research on the history of consumerism had been winding the clock up to the nineteenth century as the starting point of a culture of consumption that fits Benson’s description. For societies like these to exist, there needed to be a fair portion of the population with enough money to purchase goods beyond daily necessities; there needed to be powerful productive forces to make enough goods available and allow for new strategies of marketing and selling; there also needed to be a tendency among people to start investing social meanings and emotions in the acquisition of goods. Industrialization, these histories tell us, prepared the ground for a consumer culture to develop thanks to malleable markets, large production lines, rise of shopping, advertising, marketing, etc.
In Consumer Culture and Modernity, Don Slater argues against a "productivist bias" which misleads into believing that production is the "engine and essence of modernization" (p. 16). Through a brilliant overview of the literature of revisionist historians, he traces the development of consumer culture from the present day to the early modern period. A consumer revolution, with the characteristics Benson suggested, was emerging as early as the sixteenth century. A new ‘world of goods’ deriving from colonial exploitation led to a wide penetration of consumer goods into the lives and homes of more social classes. Towards the eighteenth century a growing consuming public bred a desire for the new and created new demands and new styles.
Contemporary features of consumer culture existed in the early modern mind, but they were recognizable in different forms. Under the disguise of commerce and trade, not production or consumption, the early modern man came to contact with a new ideology of free exchange, not only of goods and services, but of ideas, opinions, and meanings as well. Consumer culture, according to Slater, is not a reference to a recent phenomenon: it is rather part of a new terminology that came to replace the notion of civil society, which itself is born to modernity. The ideal of autonomous individuals rationally pursuing their interests in a free market – a notion so much cherished within consumer culture – stands at the heart of the project of modernity in the eighteenth century.
A discussion of that project constitutes the core of Slater’s second chapter in which he explores the freedoms of the market through two opposing philosophies. Liberalists and utilitarians have always viewed the consumer as a hero "to the extent that he was autonomous and self-determined, and that his autonomy depended on his rational capacities, on his ability firstly to know and define his own needs … and secondly to pursue them rationally … " (p. 54). Contrastingly, and also ironically, liberalism has also produced, quite implicitly, a notion of the consumer as a dupe who is not sovereign and free enough from the shackles of powerful markets to determine his or her own needs and define his or her desires. Thus, in his critique of liberalism Foucault demonstrates how the modern man, the product of enlightenment, could well become a victim of his own rationality and freedom. Freedom is neither a synonym nor an opposite of power. Liberal governments and capitalist markets, according to him, exploit and promote individuals autonomy and sovereignty as a form of liberation while in reality it is a new "strategy for modern governors" (p. 61).
By extending his review of the relation between consumer culture and modernity to contemporary critiques, Slater is solidifying his main idea in this book: that the cost of consumerism to culture is the same cost of modernity to culture. In other words, consumer culture only augments the cultural deficits of modernity using different labels. The transition from traditional to modern society has almost irretrievably transformed a stable social order with "fixed values and identities" and utilitarian communities to a highly individualized order devoid of communal values and driven by self-interests and material pursuits. This new disfunctional culture both for the individual and the society is described here through Durkheim’s notion of anomie, Rousseau’s preoccupation with how consumption through emulation feeds artificial needs and creates inauthentic values, and Marx’s idea of false consciousness. These critics show how such a culture has intensified our sense of loss and alienation, and above all, how "consumer culture comes to epitomize a sense that the sources upon which modernity draws for selves, values and solidarity are somehow wrong from the start." (p. 99)
Slater’s historical review of the critique of consumer culture continues with a concise exposition of those theorists’ claims regarding the meanings and uses of consumption. Critical of semioticians’ limited notion that things and their meanings are socially and culturally defined and organized, Slater calls for a social rather than a textual analysis of consumption. Through a summary of Durkheim, Mauss, Douglas, Bourdieu, Veblen, he shows the role played by consumption in the making of social relations and social order. Our use, and not only our purchase, of goods makes us part of a social order which we constantly reproduce in our every day lives.
The concluding chapter is devoted to the critique of postmodernism and its belief that consumer culture as known today marks a clear discontinuity with modernity. Here, Slater’s views on postmodernism are clear. He blames it for taking the discourse of consumer culture out of the dialectics of modernity where it rightfully belongs. "Over the last decade or so, the interlinked themes of postfordism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism have so dominated the agenda of consumer culture … that many students and scholars take it as read that we do indeed live in new times, and that these new times represent a decisive discontinuity with modernity." (p. 209)
Slater’s argument throughout this book regarding the relation of consumer culture to the project of modernity is certainly a useful one, but its strength starts waning as he directs his criticism to postmodernism. His fixation with modernity and its discourse may leave the reader with the impression that since the enlightenment and the transition from traditional to modern society, all we have been doing is trying to grapple with the radical transformations incurred by that transition. In other words, and although Slater would not agree to it, his argument suggests that there has not been any significant change in social life since then.
The book goes beyond a simple synopsis to provide a critical review of consumption studies in such a way that it makes it easily accessible not only to students of consumer culture, but also to those who have never had any contact with the field yet. It is also useful because it posits very challenging questions regarding consumer culture as we viewed in modern times. Slater does not leave his readers with a grim notion of consumers as dupes and manipulated in the world of consumption as most of his theories reviewed have suggested. In his Afterword, he emphasizes consumers’ capacity to negotiate, reinterpret, and "recuperate the material and experiential commodities that are offered to us." (p. 211)