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The Response to Affluence at the End of the Century

By Daniel Horowitz

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter delivered a talk, commonly known as the "malaise" speech, to a television audience of 65 million Americans. He evoked a nation plunged into crisis by excesses of affluence and suggested a comprehensive energy policy as a solution. Like other public figures who had spoken to the nation at a time of crisis, he offered a jeremiad that highlighted the sins of excess and called on citizens to repent by consuming less.

Not long after his speech, the United States began to experience two decades of sustained economic growth. By the end of the 20th century, a torrent of books, Web sites and television shows suggested how people wrestled with the consequences of prosperity. Among the most compelling reactions to affluence toward the end of the 20th century were impassioned, morally charged critiques of consumer culture. The voluntary simplicity movement attracted millions of dedicated followers who "downsized" in order to live more uncluttered and purposeful lives, free of the excesses of commercialism. Millions more turned to Eastern religions for an alternative to an interminable chase after vacuous material satisfactions. In late 1997 and 1998 PBS aired two programs, "Affluenza" and "Escape from Affluenza," that described a society sick with the excesses of affluence. With Simple Abundance, Sarah Breathnach offered a daily diary designed to inspire women to exchange spiritual plenty for its material counterpart by infusing daily activities such as shopping with sacred meanings.

Activism against commercialism found expression in many venues. Culture jammers took dramatic stances against hype and commercialism. Animal rights and environmental activists campaigned against the ways human beings exploited nature. The Buy Local movement put one version of moral spending into practice. Evangelical Christians campaigned against media conglomerates for their depictions of violence and their undermining of family values. In the late 1990s students and protestors campaigned against the excesses of globalization, in the process emphasizing the link between consumption of sneakers in the First World and exploitative labor conditions in the Third.

The most powerful critiques of consumer culture came in a series of serious and accessible books published between 1999 and 2001. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam offered an immensely influential analysis of the decline of social capital since the late 1960s that resulted in people bowling (or praying, volunteering, politicking) alone rather than in groups. The causes were many, but prominent among them was the way media had privatized people's lives, resulting in the erosion of the reciprocity that social networks had provided. With Luxury Fever the economist Robert Frank explored how the "virus" of extravagant spending had infected the society. In Do Americans Shop Too Much?, Juliet Schor answered the question in the affirmative. In his best-selling Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser analyzed the adverse impact that the consumption of fast foods had on working conditions, health, farming, demography and the environment. These books put forth progressive versions of a politics of consumption that, sensitive to issues of equity and the environment, might restore a sense of balance to the nation's engagement with affluence.

In contrast to these moralists, post-moralists rejected the puritanical strain in American cultural criticism. They sought to move beyond the jeremiad, emphasizing not cleansing but accepting and even celebrating consumer culture. They understood people's longings for affluence as inevitable and genuine. They explored the utopian and liberatory possibilities of consumer culture. A conservative and populist version of post-moralism emerged in the writing in James Twitchell's Lead Us into Temptation, where he mixed hints of cultural elitism with an extraordinary grasp of the processes that drive consumer culture. He saw the pursuit of materialism as something that drew on our love of goods and that filled genuine needs in a thoroughly democratic process. If Twitchell offered a populist but culturally conservative version of post-moralism, Jesse Lemisch put forward a populist but politically radical one. In a 2001 issue of the journal New Politics he criticized Ralph Nader (whom he supported in 2000) and the Green Party for "abstemiously" turning "their backs on people's reasonable and deeply human longings for abundance, joy, cornucopia, variety and mobility, substituting instead a puritanical asceticism that romanticized hardship, scarcity, localism and underdevelopment." Instead, Lemisch hoped for a utopian cornucopia of abundance he believed possible under socialism.

I end with affluence and nationhood in response to 9/11. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter called on citizen/consumers to repent of their self-indulgent, materialistic ways. After the tragic events of 9/11, the response was very different. Now the moralists about consumer culture were Islamic fundamentalists whose response to American affluence was as troubled as their actions were reprehensible. In the United States the president, though on occasion half-heartedly issuing a call to national service, had no interest in urging Americans to sacrifice. There was no sustained call, involving either more careful use of energy or alternative technologies, for a focused and dramatic effort to free the nation from the power of Middle Eastern oil. An external threat of unimaginable dimensions, a recession, corporate scandals and bankruptcies, and a declining stock market prompted Americans to understand that the consumer was a critical factor in the nation's health and survival. We would have to spend our way out of this danger, millions of Americans believed, so that the enemies who had attacked us would not win. The consumer was in the saddle, and unlike the situation the nation faced during World War II or the energy crisis, there seemed no turning back from a full embrace of affluence and a commercialized consumer culture. A January 2002 cartoon echoes that response: in it a woman pushing a shopping cart wears a sweatshirt that reads "Ask not what you can do for your country: SHOP."

Daniel Horowitz, Mary Huggins Gamble Professor of American Studies, directs the American studies program at Smith. This essay is adapted from the epilogue of The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979, published in February by the University of Massachusetts Press.

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