Monday, March 7, 2011

Standards of evaluation in a "consumer republic"

Throughout reading consumer republic I found myself agreeing with many of Cohen's observation. What it left me with was a profound desire for the rational world paradigm. Market segmentation allows specific appeals to such niche markets that, as Cohen points out, people begin feeling entitled and, in many ways, constrained by their own specific desires. While this may be liberating in a consumerist mindset, it is severely limiting in a sense of the civic. Engagement, when it becomes personalized, loses the very rationality that I desire. The fact of the matter is most issues of public policy made at the governmental level are created around the idea of effecting large masses of people. That level of impact rarely finds itself easily marketed to the individual consumerist level expected within the framework and cultural norm of market segmentation. It is how an issue like global warming, which has the potential to effect the world (global) becomes a niche issue that is argued only by those people who fit a particular segment of the population (environmentalists). At a more abstract level, it also helps explain how large political issues (the Iraq War, Health Care, Food Aid) can be ignored by many who are not "interested" in politics. The apathy that becomes the norm in a consumer driven model leaves me wondering, is it such a stretch to ask that people be able to hold two separate rubrics of evaluation in their heads at once? Doesn't Toulmin's (1958) model of argument in some way allow people to evaluate their television programming by a different standard than their civic engagement? And if not--why? The fun thing about the blog is having no answers--only questions.

1 comment:

  1. I see a few major themes in this book that I think are related here. First, the impact of market segmentation, introduced to further mass consumption. Second, the changes in the consumption attitude.

    Market Segmentation is a major theme is business. It is interesting that Cohen and Darrel link it to apathy, because apathy is an interesting state of mind in politics. I would argue that niche markets are not necessarily a bad thing, because we have a limited ability to comprehend the complete political system as it has ballooned along-side the socio-economic changes that Cohen discusses in this book. While it allows people to be apathetic about facets of government, it creates a interesting parallel to a much older concept, the division of labor.

    Plato spoke of the Division of labor in his republic. In a mass consumption society the division of labor become all the more important, because the number of specializations has increased exponentially since the beginning of the industrial revolution. No one has the ability to process the entire understanding of government, the large political issues are much more complex than just saying Global Warming, The Iraq War or Health Care. The underlying systems behind these issues is possibly also a driving force behind apathy. I don't think it is all that common for people to think, "I can't possibly understand the entirety of global weather, it is much better for everyone if I check out and let someone else tell me what needs to be done to solve this issue." If the experts on the subject matter of Health Care and Food Aid can't agree, why is anyone more capable of understanding the greater issues. In the simplest explanation of the Health Care bill, they created the bureaucracy able to make informed decisions, now we need to let the powers that be go to work. Democracy is poorly suited to make decisions on these highly detailed because they require such a high degree of specialization.

    Along a different line, What I see as the dramatic shift in the culture of consumerism is when consumers stopped buying to "increase the size of the pie" and started buying to "keep up with the Jones'." This has evolved into a desire to "get the best deal". Throughout the course of this book we see a recurring theme that increasing consumer demand is the a normative force that if perpetuated, will have a vast impact on the economic differentials in this country. What is sad is that it didn't really have the normative results that were expected, and very well may have contributed to the burst of the housing bubble that caused the latest depression. It is interesting that the government is still using the same techniques to stimulate demand, such as tax credit incentives to buy new homes and update existing ones. The investment is still in convincing people to buy, and getting banks to lend.

    In an ideal world, consumers were encouraged to consume for the greater good of the whole. Was it the shift in the group mentality to the I mentality solely responsible for consumerism failure to normalize the socio-economic positions of Americans, or was the system doomed to failure because the basic ideology was flawed?