The Narcotic Dart of Academia

A Consumer's Republic

The Narcotic Dart of Academia

A Consumer's Republic

The Narcotic Dart of Academia
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 17 2003 12:28 PM

A Consumer's Republic


Lizabeth Cohen is an acclaimed labor historian, a Harvard professor who won the Bancroft Prize in 1990 for her study of Chicago industrial workers. Labor history often disappoints me. One expects rollicking and inspiring accounts of working-class predicaments and winds up with bone-dry institutional chronologies about how such-and-such a steering group begat such-and-such a federation. As an adjective, "labor" modifies "history" the way "nouveau" modifies "Roman"—it means "the kind without any people in it." In A Consumers' Republic, Cohen turns from toilers to shoppers—but her book (alas) retains that labor-history feel.


This is a history not of American consumer culture, but of American consumer politics (what used to be called the consumer movement), broadly understood. Since the Great Depression, Cohen thinks, there have been two ways of looking at American consumers. There is the "purchaser consumer" model and the "citizen consumer" model. The former term merely describes the consumer as he is seen by Keynesian economists—as the demand engine of first resort in a developed economy. Cohen has some interesting things to say about shopping as a patriotic duty from the 1930s (when, as one planner put it, "the man who spent freely was extolled as a national hero and the one who saved his money as a public enemy") through the postwar retooling of the American economy (when Disney "not coincidentally" introduced the villain Scrooge McDuck) to President Bush's post–Sept. 11 attempts to "crank up the machine of mass consumption" through tax cuts. She notes the explosion in consumer credit since the 1950s, the perverse effects of the GI Bill (a bracing reading that I'd like to revisit), and the fetishistic consensus that "housing starts" and "consumer confidence" serve as surrogates for the real health of the economy—even for economists who think of themselves as post-Keynesian.

But it is the second model—that of the "citizen consumer"—that is the book's meat 'n' potatoes. Here, "citizen" is straightforwardly a synonym for "left-wing." Focusing heavily on New Jersey, Cohen uses the "citizen consumer" model to look at free speech in shopping malls, women's "power of the purse" as a weapon of feminism, and class and race segregation in the suburbs. Cohen  pays close attention to blacks' experience of consumerism, describing Jim Crow in terms of exclusion from "sites"—or "settings"—"of consumption." Her passages on racism are particularly rewarding, because they're among the rare ones where we get personal, as opposed to institutional, detail. That the American military countenanced the imposition of Jim Crow in non-Southern states while fighting Nazism abroad is not a scoop, but it's arrestingly evoked here: German POWs served in a Kansas luncheonette from which black soldiers were excluded, gunfights between white and black soldiers over whether blacks could use a pay phone near Fort Dix in New Jersey, black soldiers in Washington, D.C., protesting a segregated cafeteria with placards reading, "We Die Together; Let's Eat Together."

Good. But Cohen loads her theory about marketplace exclusion with more than it can bear. A bit embarrassed by looting, she seeks to show that race rioters are generally just shoppers in a hurry. When Harlem residents looted stores in August 1943, "African-American wrath targeted those who brought undue suffering to consumers." Looting in Newark in 1967 "was no rear-guard action of a transient underclass," and Amiri Baraka's writing "underscored the frustrated consumer desire that fueled the rebellion."

Cohen insists that—since a heyday in the 1960s and 1970s marked by Vance Packard, Consumer Reports, President Kennedy's 1962 call for a Consumer Bill of Rights and Ralph Nader's raiders—the citizen consumer model has been in abeyance. She ignores the rise and consolidation of the anti-globalization movement over the past decade, which would seem, under Cohen's own criteria, the "citizen consumer" movement par excellence.

This big book is rich in compelling arguments. (I'd particularly like to go into the case she makes for the anti-suburban Mount Laurel lawsuits, which I've seldom heard a New Jerseyite defend.) But it makes just as many lame ones, is politically one-eyed, and disappoints me in much the way I'd feared. Cohen's writing is a terrible obstacle. For one thing, she overloads her narrative with nitpicking detail:

They also responded with consumer committees ... for example, the American Standards Association established a Committee on Ultimate Consumers' Goods in 1934, the National Consumer-Retailer Council was formed in 1937, the National Association of Better Business Bureaus launched its Business Consumer Relations Conference in 1939, and about the same time the American Association of Advertising Agencies sponsored the Committee on Consumer Relations in Advertising. At times, even the Consumers' National Federation ...

For another thing, academia has struck her prose style with its narcotic dart:

While cooperative leaders were ideologically committed to building an alternative social order around the elimination of the profit motive, a vision that most cooperative buyers did not fully embrace, by participating in cooperative ventures members nonetheless became more aware of their interests as consumers and of possible alternatives to the traditional capitalist marketplace.

A scholar can be permitted a couple of these lapses, but 557 pages of such prose will surely defeat even a reader who loves the author's topic and shares her radicalism. Were I in a crotchety mood, I'd say that what we have here is a metastasis of arguments that John Kenneth Galbraith, in his elegant The Affluent Society, made twice as forcefully in a quarter of the space.