Today, rather than being concerned about social mobility through work, an avenue that is still basically not available for many workers, the average worker seeks material satisfactions and works for them. They cope with the disparity between the myth of social mobility and the reality that no amount of hard work is going to help them advance in their careers, by displacing their ambition to the world of consumer goods. In a modern consumer society the search for status is often expressed through consumer goods and people are judged by the goods they possess.
Consumption allows people at the bottom of the social hierarchy to feel that they have some measure of access to the good life for all their troubles. The escape from real life provided by leisure activities allow people to continue what might otherwise be a dreary and downtrodden existence. Lisa Macdonald and Allen Myers from Green Left Weekly, claim workers attempt to gain ownership of what they produce and overcome their alienation through consumption: “it is only as purchasers, ‘shoppers’, that we are treated with the courtesy worthy of a human being.”
Consumption provided automobile workers in the 1950s a way of rationalising their failure to advance in their work: “Advancement has come to mean the progressive accumulation of things as well as the increasing capacity to consume... If one manages to buy a new car, if each year sees a major addition to the household—a washing machine, a refrigerator, a new living-room suite, now probably a television set—then one is also getting ahead.” Rather than question the American Dream workers would either blame themselves for their failure to live up to it, or find other ways to interpret it.
Employers encouraged workers to think of consumerism as the rationale for their work but measures of success were moved from the realm of production and work to the realm of consumption. Advertising messages affected people’s aspirations. They portrayed a bounty of consumer goods as the fruits of the American Dream. Rather than aspiring for their children to become leading businessmen or top executives or political leaders, advertisements offered messages such as “Some Day your Boy will own a Buick”.
Also advertising and consumerism played a major role in the acceptance of the capitalist vision and its associated inequalities. Roland Marchand in his book Advertising the American Dream argued that advertisers repeatedly used “the parable of the democracy of goods” to sell their products to the middle classes. In this parable, although there was a social hierarchy with wealth concentrated at the top, ordinary people could enjoy the same products and goods that the people at the top did. Joe Blo could drink the same brand of coffee as the wealthiest capitalist. Mary Jane could buy the same soap as the lady with the maid in waiting. The most humble of citizens (although not the poor who were not the targets of these advertisements) could afford to purchase the same quality products as a millionaire.
The social message of the parable of the Democracy of Goods was clear. Antagonistic envy of the rich was unseemly; programs to redistribute wealth were unnecessary. The best things in life were already available to all at reasonable prices... Incessantly and enticingly repeated, advertising visions of fellowship in a Democracy of Goods encouraged Americans to look to similarities in consumption styles rather than to political power or control of wealth for evidence of significant equality.
According to department store merchant Edward Filene, the process of buying goods was a means by which people were supporting industry and thereby electing the manufacturers, who made the goods, to a government which would satisfy their needs. They were voting industry leaders into positions of leadership in society. In this way “the masses have elected Henry Ford. They have elected General Motors. They have elected the General Electric Company, and Woolworth’s and all the other great industrial and business leaders of the day.”
Not only was the desire for social change displaced by a desire for changes in commodities, but political freedom was equated with consumer choice and political citizenship with participation in the market through consumption. Consumption was promoted as democratising at the very time it was being used to pacify the political unrest of workers. According to well-known sociologist Daniel Bell:
If the American worker has been ‘tamed’ it has not been through the discipline of the machine, but by the ‘consumption society’, by the possibility of a better living which his wage, the second income from his working wife, and easy credit all allow.