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The Anxieties of AffluenceReview - The Anxieties of Affluence
Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979
by Daniel Horowitz
University of Massachusetts Press, 2004
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D.
Oct 6th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 41)

In The Anxieties of Affluence, Daniel Horowitz traces and examines the evolving attitudes of Americans toward the material affluence characterizing their nation in the four decades following the Second World War, as charted in the writings of American authors. From the close of the Depression of the 1930s through the late 1970s, Americans struggled to come to terms with the new prosperity, at times taking wanton consumerism as a god-given right of the richest nation on earth, at other times, guilt-ridden and self-deprecating for the shallow materialistic "culture" that their brave new world had spawned.

The war years had forced the United States to consider the connection between democracy and capitalism. The wartime spending that boosted the American economy and the ideological battle against fascism had forged a strong positive link in the popular mind between the political system of democracy and the economic system of capitalism. Horowitz charts, through the work of Twentieth Century American thinkers, the broad range of competing views that measured, celebrated, mistrusted, and condemned the post-war affluence and the society of rampant materialists that the war's increased productivity had created.

Horowitz shows that there persisted throughout the four decades a highly charged moralistic attitude toward the new consumerism. Intellectuals urged Americans to curtail their spending habits and seek higher cultural goals. They were concerned about the moral implications of the reckless self-indulgence of their country folk and warned of the long-term consequences of consumer culture on the moral fiber of their populace.† In the earliest period, thinkers offered a Marxist social analysis that articulated a traditional and conservative moralism, proposing varied agendas of sincere work, self-limitation, democratic values that promoted the dignity of individuals and the well-being of all citizens. As workers and immigrants began flocking to American shores to claim their share in the wealth, the intellectuals began to moralize about new concerns. Expressive ethnic traditions and high alcohol consumption in the new Americans, they cautioned, would threaten "proper" codes of conduct in American culture at large. The thinkers also warned of the conformity, self-indulgence and apathetic passivity that commercialized mass consumption would create in the middle class.

† On the other hand, many writers celebrated the new affluence. Those diehard capitalists offering an impassioned rejection of all things Marxist befitting the Cold War era embraced psychological explanations to justify the "naturalness" of materialistic urges. The urge to accumulate possessions is a healthy motivator toward hard work and the love of ownership teaches respect for the property of others. Thinkers also began to articulate the social benefits that the broad material affluence of their society would eventually promise to all. Wealth could offer a possible permanent solution to America's social problems. That the economic hopelessness of the thirties was replaced by the great wealth of the post-war period proved that capitalism was good for all and indeed the preference for global economics. There emerged the mass expectation among American citizens that prosperity would be delivered to one and all, that all families in the land could expect to share in the new material comfort and prosperity.

Finally, in the 1970s, a post-moralist attitude emerged, promoted by feminists, anthropologists and cultural critics. Consumers need not worry about the sterilizing conformity of mass consumer culture, because wealth brings with it liberating and creative freedom, and democratic possibilities for self-fulfillment and cultural development. Consumer culture could provide the means for the authentic self-realization of every individual! Meaningful and noble life pursuits and genuine self-fulfillment would follow affluence by existential necessity!

Horowitz closes his study by demonstrating how the period since the close of the four decades in question in his book has shown the hollowness of the varied promises of capitalism. From 1980 to 2000, the Gross National Product of the U.S.A. increased by a whopping fifty-five per cent. Yet the distribution of income in the United States grew increasingly unequal among its citizens. Since the early years of post-war affluence, the rich have steadily and markedly improved their economic situation, while the poor grow worse off each year. Millions of Americans live lives of abject misery and grinding poverty. Society is increasingly fragmented as African Americans, Latinos and Native peoples are thrown into vicious competition for the dwindling jobs and resources.

Horowitz's analysis of evolving attitudes of American scholars toward their country's burgeoning affluence maps a fascinating intellectual journey. And its haunting Epilogue starkly reminds us of the tragedy that attend radical disproportions of wealth in any society, a tragedy especially borne by the women and children of the society. The post-war world was certain that capitalism promised prosperity for all citizens and that economic prosperity would guarantee freedom and democracy.† What Horowitz's analysis demonstrates is that that certainty was misplaced. It also suggests that it may be time for American thinkers to inquire into the new socio-politico-cultural realities of their capitalist society, to understand how radical economic disparity fragments society, erodes security, and fosters crime. Perhaps, after all the post-war optimism, democracy and capitalism stand at moral, political and socio-cultural odds with each other. Democracy promises freedom from oppression and equal opportunity for all its citizens, while the very modus operandi of capitalism rests in the gaping inequities that divide the populace into rival social classes, at every level isolated from each other and torn by the violent competition that both drives the market system and erodes human lives for the vast majority.


© 2004 Wendy Hamblet


Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., Philosophy Department, Adelphi University, New York, author of The Sacred Monstrous: A Reflection on Violence in Human Communities (Lexington Books, 2003).


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