A "Post-Materialistic" Critique of Late Industrial Capitalism: Some personal reflections on the "alienating" effects of contemporary commodity marketing.

By Charles Rudder

A "commodity" is taken here as anything that is produced exclusively for its market value. A pure commodity that loses its market value it is taken off the market. If, for example, soft drinks are pure commodities and some soft drink loses its market value it will disappear. Some things may have more than commodity value which is to say that they are valued for reasons other than their market value. Medical care and services may have more than commodity value. If the costs of medical research and development should drive the cost of medical care and services so far beyond the reach of the average consumer that the drug and medical technology industries threaten to stop production because retail sales will not cover their costs, it is conceivable that their research and development costs might be state subsidized--anathema to radical capitalists. Under such circumstances the law of supply and demand does not (if it ever did) apply in the late-modern industrial market. The late-industrial costs of scientific research and new technology that must be included in the market price of late-modern industrial products before a profit margin can be calculated and added in, create the possibility that high demand products may lose their marketability as a consequence of retail prices exceeding the means of consumers to buy them and thus eliminating opportunities for industry to produce and sell them for a profit.

One way that some corporations like pharmaceutical companies have been able to cover high end research and development costs without (relatively speaking) exorbitant price increases is through diversification which is often accomplished by mergers and acquisition. If a corporation that produces high-tech/high-overhead goods can retain and/or expand into low-tech/low-overhead production, it can offset its high end costs by increasing its profit margin on the prices of its low end products. By distributing price increases across the entire range of their products, diversified corporations can sell their high-tech/high-overhead products at less than or close to their research and development cost and recover these potential losses by selling their low-tech/low-overhead products at prices many times over cost that still remain within the reach of the average consumer. Many manufacturers of high-tech/high-overhead products like computers and other electronic products are not diversified. These companies attempt to recover their research and development costs in the short run by pricing high and targeting wealthy individual and corporate consumers (the health care industry, the communications/entertainment and transportation industries, research universities, the US military and other government agencies, etc.) who can afford to pay exorbitant prices for their products, and maximize their profits in the long run. After recovering or attempting to recover their research and development costs, these companies radically drop the prices of their products and target the mass market.

A diversified pharmaceutical company, to take a somewhat far fetched hypothetical example, would have to sell tons of Band-Aids, non-prescription drugs, and cosmetics at huge markups over their development and production costs to offset the potential losses incurred by selling a new drug at or less than its research and development cost. Similarly, hospitals are in fact increasing the market price of relatively low-tech/low-overhead products and services to offset the exorbitant costs of high-tech diagnosis and treatment. These marketing strategies and conditions demand high and constantly increasing consumption of high profit products. Acquisitions such as hostile takeovers and corporate mergers that create high volume "captive’" consumer bases and at least some diversification appear to be emerging as key elements in corporate marketing.*

In order to keep consumerism at high and increasing levels, it has become necessary for late-modern industry to create demand for affordable high profit products and services. This need to create demand has revolutionized advertising and the advertising industry. Go to someplace like a Cracker Barrel restaurant and look at the old fashioned advertising that they use to decorate their walls and you will see that it consists mostly of "announcements": "There is Arm and Hammer baking soda. It is the highest quality baking soda available at any price. Buy some the next time you run out." The leading premise of early-industrial marketing/advertising was that people need and want useful things which they will buy if they can afford them, and the aim was to bring products to people’s attention and entice them to buy the advertised brand when they needed or wanted something. Needs and wants were assumed to be consequences of what people do not have and of using the things that people do have. When newly invented products like the light bulb, the reaper, the electric refrigerator, the radio, and air conditioning were invented and marketed, people who could were expected to see their usefulness and purchase them to replace inferior forms of lighting, to increase the efficiency of their labor, to reduce food costs and health risks, to expand their range of available information and entertainment, to enhance their personal comfort, and so forth. And, as products wore out or ran out through use, people were expected to replace them. As everybody knows, the aim of late-industrial advertising is to get people to buy more by adding to and replacing what they already have or are accustomed to purchasing, not when they are worn out or with more useful or even higher quality products, but with more desirable or fashionable products. In short, "use value" has been displaced by "fashion value." Contemporary advertising is geared toward making us want and purchase more and more of what we merely want and don’t, in any conventional sense of the words, need or find useful. And, this is accomplished by a sort of psycho-sociological slight of hand, namely, by creating the illusion that we need (e.g. a Bowflex, or a BMW instead of a Ford) what in actuality we merely desire.

Marketing that panders to what people want rather than what they need and can use is, of course, not a new economic phenomenon. There have always been "vanity markets" fueled by greed and envy rooted in competition for power. Like jewelry, domestic servants, and race horses, some goods and services have always functioned as emblems of status. Vanity marketing driven by greed, envy, and competition for power depends on conspicuous external signs of a gap between "haves" and "have nots" which means, as Plato points out in his indictment of luxury, that they are rooted in "materialism." Although the lure of vanity marketing is no less illusory than the late-modern illusion, it is a materialistic illusion which can be directly exposed if and when we contemplate (which we rarely do) our immediate experience of the disparity between what we had hoped to gain by material acquisition and its actual consequences. In sum, however social conventions may militate against it, however difficult it may be to accomplish, however rarely it may occur, and however fraught with mystery, the "inward turn," a contemplation of "spirit," is sufficient in itself to expose materialistic alienation.

Just as vanity markets are driven by a materialistic alienation of spirit, late-modern consumerism is driven by its own unique form of alienation. What I want to say is that late-modern consumerism is "beyond" materialism, or "post-materialistic" (here words fail me--I have not worked out any satisfactory way of characterizing what I think I see). I do not want to say that consumerism has "transcended" materialism because I take transcendence as connoting a shift toward qualitatively higher levels, while I believe that the late-modern alienation driving consumerism has, if it is possible, sunk below the level of materialism. However insidious materialistic alienation may be, its consequences pale in comparison to the consequences of late-modern alienation. Contemporary vanity marketing depends, like the "fine art" market, on small elite groups of customers who want and can afford to buy things that are rare and/or of extraordinarily high quality at prices that are vastly beyond the means of the average consumer. Although it exploits elements of the vanity market, at root the contemporary "mass" market is not a vanity market; the late-industrial capacity for producing, and dependence on marketing, an enormous and growing surplus of quality controlled products militates against it. Keeping up with the Jones’s has been displaced by keeping up with the latest fashion.

Mass production requires mass marketing. Late-industrial marketing must move an increasing volume of mass produced goods the quality of which is standardized by means of quality control, at the highest possible prices. The target population of mass marketing must be the largest available population which in late-industrial societies is the early-industrial "working class." The late-industrial economic system has converted the early-industrial working class into a "consumer class" or a "working-consumer class." In effect we go to work so that when we leave work we can buy what we produce on the job. This circumstance has at least two consequences that are unique in late-industrial societies; namely, it has reversed the early industrial management policy on wages, and it has produced a class of affluent consumers who are largely indifferent either to the utility or the quality of what we buy.

The old management rule, "minimize worker’s wages and maximize worker’s productivity," is now counterproductive because workers’ purchasing power has become more critical for economic growth than their "hand work" and skilled craftsmanship. "Machine work" has replaced "hand work." As automated production advances, the worker’s role in the industrial process becomes increasingly that of machine "operator" and "monitor"--in some cases work consists mostly of "keeping an eye on things"--rather than skilled labor and craftsmanship.

While the demand for skilled labor ("hand work"--the word "manufacturing" has become purely idiomatic) and craftsmanship has decreased, wages have increased. The ratio of pay to time on the job has increased, and the ratio of pay to "hand work" has decreased (the principal source of economic marginalization among the very poor). In short, marketing has replaced production as the primary "driver" or "engine" of economic growth. Contemporary corporate and industrial management is trapped in an upward wage spiral because mass marketing is impossible without high and increasing mass purchasing power within the working-consumer class.* Although employers and economists still fret about wages, this is either rhetorical or a residue of early-industrial management policy that has not been explicitly identified and strategically modified. The primary contemporary moves to reduce worker costs are now focused on job retention, retirement, and medical benefits. Corporations are currently trying unsuccessfully to maintain employees "loyalty" to employers without any guarantees of a reciprocal employer loyalty to employees. (This may be most conspicuous in professional sports.)

The emerging employer mode seems to be "We pay employees generously enough to justify employee loyalty and holding them personally responsible for purchasing their own retirement, medical care, and job security." My take on this is that the late-industrial consumer economy makes high wages a non-negotiable economic necessity, with the result that corporations are trying to turn employee job, retirement, and medical security into consumer items for which worker-consumers are solely responsible rather than a joint employee--corporate responsibility that recognizes and acknowledges a corporate loyalty to employees who have invested the better part of their productive working lives in their employers’ businesses. High wages which are in actuality a late-industrial economic necessity continue to be represented by management as a gesture of employer generosity in exchange for which employees are expected to continue to subscribe to an early-industrial work ethic. In short, across the board, worker (human) security is reducing to a "commodity"--a matter of supply and demand. I take things like current shifts from permanent to temporary employment, corporate and Federal moves to get employees to invest for retirement and medical expenses rather than depending on company pension plans and medical insurance policies, the ongoing flap over Social Security, and the corporate and conservative opposition to state and Federal subsidizes for health care as evidence of this.

The second unique consequence of late-modern industrialism noted above, namely, consumer indifference to the utility and quality of what we buy, relates to the shift from "hand work" to quality controlled "machine work" that is required by mass production. Like vanity marketing, the industrial displacement of hand work and craftsmanship is not unique to late-industrial economies. From the outset, the move from cottage industries to factories displaced skilled craftsmen by machine operators. This shift was, however, gradual. For a long time many heavy machines and mechanically improved hand tools functioned primarily to make hand work and craftsmanship more labor efficient, and some effort was made to retain the aesthetic quality and appeal of hand work in the designs of factory produced goods. Consider, for example, the ornamentation of old factory produced sewing machines, guns, and hand tools. Moreover, operating complex machines required operator skills with the result that factory produced items could, like those in the old Sears and Roebuck Catalogue, be graded "good," "better," and "best" which, at least in part, corresponded to the skilled craftsmanship that was necessary to produce them and which kept workers and customers attuned to utilitarian and qualitative differences between and among products.

In The Human Use of Human Beings, Norbert Wiener convincingly documents his claim that prior to mid-twentieth century post-industrial technology had not drastically reduced the demand for a vast array of human skills that have been in continuous demand since ancient times--as far back as ancient Egypt, Babylon, and China. As Wiener saw it, the move during W.W. II to convert "pure" scientific research into U. S. military technology which was rapidly converted into civilian technology after the war, was the first of two crucial steps toward a late-industrial system that has radically altered the role of human labor, craftsmanship, and judgment in industrial production. According to Wiener, the major consequence of this move was that invention became a collective phenomenon as individuals like McCormick, Watt, and Edison were displaced by scientific research groups. Wiener attributes the second move to the invention of the transistor which made the miniaturization of electrical circuits and the invention and production of microprocessors and high powered miniature computers possible. Wiener describes the mechanical significance of the computer--the machine qua machine--as combining into one machine capabilities that had previously required multiple machines, multiple machine operators, and, more significantly, human coordination of the output of multiple machines. Although Wiener doesn’t, one could say that the computer is a "meta-machine," but, and Wiener does say this, nonetheless a machine. In God and Golom, Inc. Wiener characterizes all machines as "prosthetic." That is, machines replace and/or enhance human organs and functions. An ordinary shovel is an extension and amplification of the power of the normal human arm and hand, and a backhoe extends the power and function of an ordinary shovel. Microscopes, telescopes, and electronic amplifiers extend the function and power of the human eye and ear. Artificial limbs, hearing aids, and glasses simply move the prosthetic function back a step.

Because, Wiener argues, machines replace, supplement, and augment human functions, the primary value of the use of machines remains contingent on the human value of the human functions that they replace, supplement, and augment. The computer is a human invention which is to say that it is a product of human intelligence. Hence, computers (the "invented") do not and can not replace human intelligence (the "inventor"), they merely supplement and augment human intelligence by extending and amplifying the power of some aspects of human intelligence. Being a meta-machine, the computer has the capacity to extend and augment the human ability to organize or "manage" a multitude of mechanical processes. That is, the computer extends and amplifies the human "executive" role in mechanized systems; the subject of Wiener’s cybernetics. Wiener’s cybernetics does not speak to the management of human political and social systems, but to the management of mechanical systems. As Wiener puts it in God and Golom, Inc., "Render to humans things that are human, and to machines things that are mechanical."--cybernetics is neither a viable substitute nor model for psychology, political science, and sociology.

In The Human Use of Human Beings, Wiener was guardedly optimistic about the future of cybernetically managed mechanical systems. In the early fifties Wiener saw cybernetically controlled mechanical systems as providing for the first time in human history the means for achieving a humane or humanly authentic democratic society. Expressed in terms of the post-Kantian philosophical tradition, Wiener characterized cybernetically controlled mechanical systems as "prostheses" by means of which it would be possible to overcome what Rousseau described as the humanly debilitating consequences of agrarian and industrial "civilization." According to Rousseau, the pre-civilized human being (the "noble savage") enjoyed a primordial connectedness (amour de soi) to nature that precluded the possibility of a collective subjugation of a large underclass (a peasant or working class) to the authority and control of an elite aristocratic or oligarchic upper-class. Whatever future assessments of continental variations on the recovery of and affirmation of authentic self rooted in amour de soi may be, as Freud argued in Civilization and its Discontents, there appears to be no viable retreat from civilized societies. Whether agrarian or industrial, the maintenance of civilization demands large expenditures of human or mechanical energy for producing a surplus of the material goods that are necessary for maintaining human life, health, and happiness. And, the larger the population, the greater the surplus that is necessary for its sustenance.

With Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, the American pragmatists, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other post-critical philosophers, Wiener assumes that a non-materialistic aesthetic and intellectual life--the life of "spirit"--is essential for the fullest realization of human potential and happiness. No one has improved on Aristotle’s elaboration of Plato’s assessment of the pre-twentieth century conditions necessary for establishing and maintaining the life of spirit in civilized societies. Prior to the emergence of late-industrial economic systems, producing and maintaining the material surplus necessary for sustaining human life, health, and happiness in civilized societies demanded huge and sustained expenditures of physically exhausting and "spiritually" debilitating human labor. As Aristotle put it, the rigors of the life of "spirit" (Aristotle says the intellectual or "philosophical" life which in post-Hegelian philosophy is called the life of spirit) are such that it must be a vocation--a "full time" occupation--that demands expenditures of physical energy comparable to what is required for providing the material necessities of physical existence. The philosophical life--the life of spirit--must be a life of leisure (schole) unencumbered by the physical labor which would be necessary for the scholar (one who lives the life of leisure) to provide for his or her own physical needs. Hence, for Plato and Aristotle the active and energy consuming aesthetic-intellectual life--the life of "spirit"--must be sustained by, and makes no direct contribution to the production of, the material necessities of physical existence. Unfettered by labor and confident of the ultimate value of the life of leisure, the scholar is liberated to go in quest of the fullest possible apprehension of beauty and truth without concern for its immediate practical consequences--a circumstance reflected in the historical fact that in pre-industrialized civilizations the survival of scholarship as well as "fine" art depended on aristocratic patronage .

Assuming that lives dedicated to truth and beauty (Aristotle’s philosophical life of "leisure") were essential for the overall welfare of civilized communities, neither Aristotle nor Plato could see any alternative to scholarly communities (a "leisure class") supported by the leisure negating labor of a "working class." That to which they could see no alternative, Plato and Aristotle took as "necessary," and they took necessity as ontological, that is, as cosmologically or "naturally" dictated. Hence, Plato and Aristotle turned the only social arrangement that they could see as a feasible means of maintaining the life of spirit into a theory of human nature. Unable to see an alternative to a leisure class supported by a working class, and committed to the principle that all good things contribute to maximizing human happiness, Plato and Aristotle concluded that the "leisure class--working class" arrangement would result in the greatest happiness for both classes. Hence, Plato and Aristotle argued that some human beings are best suited by nature to do the kind of work that is necessary for the material and physical support of members of the leisure class who are best suited by nature to do the work of mind or spirit. The highest good being human happiness, and the greatest happiness being the consequence of doing what one is by nature best suited to do, Plato and Aristotle concluded that for the working class labor was its own reward.

For Plato and Aristotle, there is virtue in both labor and leisure, and the virtues of labor and leisure reciprocally contribute to the creation and preservation of a virtuous state or society as a whole. Plato’s dictum, "Unless philosophers become kings or kings philosophers, there will be no end of troubles . . .," is predicated on the assumption that ideally both classes are indebted to each other. The leisure class is obligated to the working class for providing its material and physical sustenance and meets its obligation by maintaining and administering justice--the cosmically dictated harmony and orderliness of the state as a whole. Without a modicum of material wealth the quality of the aesthetic and intellectual life is marginalized, and without justice the life of labor is brutalized. Consequently, from the Platonic/Aristotelian perspective on the just state, labor liberates the state from material privation and leisure insures that the qualitative circumstances of life in the state are humane and fair. From ancient times until mid-twentieth century, social critics who subscribed to the ancient belief that the cultural contribution of a community of scholars uncorrupted by a lust for power and material wealth and dedicated to the pursuit of beauty and truth (Wiener’s Augustinian disposition) is essential for the common good, saw a leisure class supported by a peasant or working class as the only alternative to a society, whether aristocratic, oligarchic, or democratic, dominated by a crass and life or spirit negating--in Rousseau’s terms, bourgeois--materialism.

Since the mid-fifties, the radically increased precision of the output of scientifically enhanced industrial machines coupled with equal or greater increases in the precision of the management of industrial production provided by micro-computer based cybernetic management of mechanical systems, has radically reduced the industrial demand for both human management (an executive intellectual function) and human craftsmanship and design (aesthetic functions) in late-industrial mass production. In sum, the computer controlled and monitored mass production of uniformly high quality industrial products by scientifically enhanced precision machines has radically reduced and constrained human aesthetic and intellectual input in the industrial process and virtually eliminated measurable qualitative differences among industrial products. Within the mass consumer market there are few if any measurable utilitarian or qualitative differences between the least and the most expensive consumer items, which is to say that there are few if any materialistically significant differences between the possessions of "haves" and "have nots." Hence, if any late-industrial distinction between "haves" and "have nots" persists among non-marginal members of the working-consumer class, it is not the consequence of any conspicuous external or materially measurable qualitative and utilitarian differences. To take another hypothetical example, there would be few if any measurable utilitarian or qualitative differences between what a typical "middle income" family that shops exclusively for the least expensive products (K-Mart, generic and store brands, economy cars, etc.) owns and uses and what a typical "upper income" family that shops exclusively for "upscale" items (Macy’s, name brands, designer labels, luxury cars, etc.) owns and uses.

In the early fifties, Wiener projected this state of affairs and two of its possible consequences. One obvious possibility was a continuation of the early-industrial capitalistic agenda. The second possibility about which Wiener was guardedly optimistic seeing realized and which is reflected in the title of his book The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) was that, relieved of the physically exhausting, mind numbing, aesthetically debilitating labor of agrarian and early-industrial production, the working class could become, in Aristotle’s sense of the term, a "leisure class." Liberated from the economic-social necessity of a life dominated by physical labor, the masses could begin to pursue and enjoy the aesthetic-intellectual life of "spirit." Within less than two decades, Wiener as much as confesses in God and Golom, Inc. (1964) that his earlier optimistic vision was naive. Wiener’s optimism turned on the new role of pure scientific research in the industrial process. As I see it, Wiener accurately characterizes two essentially antithetical modern "mind sets," namely, that of the pure and research scientist and mathematician which he calls Augustinian, and that of the capitalistic corporate executive which he calls Manichean. Bypassing Wiener’s detailed description of the difference, it will suffice here to say that the Manichean disposition derives from a militaristic orientation to the world and life in the world in which every individual and corporate activity is or is part of a ruthless and arrogant strategy calculated to amass power and defeat enemies, while the Augustinian disposition emanates from a sense of awe and reverence for the immensity, complexity, and beauty of the Cosmos that inspires personal humility within individuals and a collective spirit of mutual respect and cooperation within communities of individuals.

Like Plato’s account of the disparity between liberated souls and souls imprisoned in the cave, Wiener sees the Augustinian disposition as essential to the past and continuing success of mathematics and physics, and the Manichean disposition as hostile and destructive to mathematics and physics. Whereas mathematicians and scientists are, or ought to be, committed to a dialectical process of scientific growth and development, the corporate investment in mathematics and physics is in exploiting them as anti-dialectical weapons in its quest for economic power and conquest. Wiener’s dashed hope was based on the fact that pure science had become an industrial necessity which he believed might precipitate a consciousness within the corporate world of a corresponding necessity for moving the dynamics of social and political organization away from the ancient and early-industrial Manichean mode toward a late-industrial Augustinian mode. Wiener later realized to his horror and dismay that the Manicheans would not relent.

Wiener points out that the success of the Manichean strategy demands secrecy. A fundamental component of tactical military strategy is the element of surprise--catching the enemy unaware of what the tactician is doing and able to do and, hence, off guard and defenseless. * With the infusion of pure science into late-industrial technology, the element of surprise depends in large measure on keeping the results of scientific research and development secret or "classified." Since state and private corporate secrets must be kept "in house," the primary means of maintaining scientific secrecy within the corporate world is to purchase it--to commodify it and make it private or state property. Put bluntly, the most effective way to keep scientific discovery secret is to hire scientists to work in state and private corporations and keep their mouths shut. Moreover, because of the extraordinary intellectual demands of modern science, the number of pure and research scientists is relatively small--demand radically exceeds supply--which inflates the personnel cost of corporate classified research. Add to this the cost of providing and maintaining the educational institutions that are necessary for training mathematicians and scientists and the sophisticated technology that has become essential for advanced scientific research which must also be kept secret and, hence, will not be shared with the enemy (competitors), and it is easy to see how contemporary mathematics and physics have become pawns in the corporate Manichean "game."

The corporate mind set attaches only commodity value to the results of mathematical and scientific investigations and to the work of the mathematicians and scientists who conduct the investigations. Without some indication that the results of a research program have market potential, the corporate world has little or no incentive to invest. Because their livelihood and opportunity to work are contingent on the patronage and "generosity" of their employers, mathematicians and physicists are expected to make research directed toward the end of inventing and developing new and improved marketable technology their first priority and, time and resources permitting, "pure" research a poor second. Prior to mid-century, universities in the United States sponsored pure research. The academic alternative to corporate research has, however, largely disappeared as the increasing dependence of research in higher education on corporate and federal funding and the concomitant consolidation of nineteenth century shifts in university administration toward the corporate model collapsed the traditional Western distinction between scholarly and commercial vocations.

Progress in "pure" mathematics and physics moves mathematical and scientific investigations into previously unexplored regions of physical reality and domains of mathematical possibility, and these moves are difficult, time consuming, historically rare, and as often as not have no anticipatable practical and technological applications. Roger Penrose points out, for instance, that since their introduction in the early 1900’s no major practical or technological applications of the special and general theories of relativity have been developed. In short, the most technically and commercially promising mathematics and physics are often the least theoretically fruitful and interesting. Although references to watershed discoveries in mathematics and physics are often associated with the names of individuals like Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, in addition to the absence of any necessary technological utility, individual accomplishments are not and cannot be made in isolation from mathematical and scientific communities. Major breakthroughs in mathematics and physics always occur as a result of the introduction of new speculative constructions by some individual or research group which are then dialectically reviewed, corrected, refined, tested and, in the end, consolidated into the corpus of mathematical and scientific knowledge by members of the respective communities at large. Because the unimpeded development of mathematical and scientific discovery demands both the widest possible range of conceptual freedom and the widest possible disclosure of new work, the corporate demands for technological utility and secrecy are hostile to and seriously impede the growth of mathematical and scientific knowledge. The talents of exceptionally gifted individuals are blunted and truncated if they are denied speculative freedom, and their potential contributions to mathematical and scientific discovery are, if not lost altogether, delayed when their work can not be shared with and augmented by the work of less or differently gifted mathematicians and scientists. Hence, the scientific community, which under the optimum conditions for the growth of scientific knowledge would function in a manner similar to an Aristotelian "leisure class," under corporate patronage and control functions to a limited degree (mostly consequences of serendipity and individual idiosyncrasy) as a degenerate leisure class, and most characteristically as an elite sub-class of the working-consumer class.

A similar analysis of the consequences of the commoditization of art and "fine art," the survival of which, like pure mathematics and theoretical science, is also contingent on patronage, in late-industrial society could be constructed.