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Because You're Worth It

Two New Books Take a Superficial Look at Our Deep Love of Luxe

An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America

Author:Gary Cross
Publisher:Columbia University Press

By Michael Anft | Posted 6/19/2002

As woefully lax undergrads, my friends and I would discuss the need for revolution, as all the fine young iconoclasts did during the Reagan years. While the Sex Pistols/Buzzcocks/Clash crashed the gates in the background, we fomented over beers, usually working-man brews such as Wiedeman's, Rolling Rock, and Natty Boh. Eventually, we lost our level leftist heads and started figuring that we only go around once, so why not reach for all the gusto life has to offer? What we ended up swigging offered more than the Schlitz Brewing Co. of Milwaukee could: bitter Scottish ales, hoppy Dutch lagers, malty German brews, then-oddities from Mexico--all of them pricey, especially for working-class college Marxists. By the time most of us finished school, our livers had become colonizers of the world through its Great Beers, a contradiction between thought and action we were all willing to overlook, even as we plotted the obliteration of all things bourgeois.

The lesson? As Americans, we almost couldn't help it: We wanted to soak in the suds of luxury.

Other denizens of the most affluent society in human history have seconded that notion and, as wealth has grown for a majority of the population in the past decade, have done it one better: We have become what we buy. No matter how many of us try to convince ourselves of our value as spiritual beings, an American's identity has everything to do with what he or she consumes and how he or she consumes it. The only thing transcendent about turn-of-the-century American living is achieving status and experiencing pleasure through buying. Heaven is now, and you can drive that super-loaded, gold-plated sucker right off the lot, if your credit is clean. You can almost feel Whitman and Thoreau thrashing in their graves.

Believe it or not, authors and scholars exist who say this isn't such a bad thing--that the consumerist Western world (particularly the United States) has been transformed by a love of things instead of the hatred of others that remade the planet during two world wars and numerous 20th-century purges and putsches. American "culture" has been spared the petty, internecine battling and class-centered uprisings--or so the argument goes--resulting in an economic and social order that is, um, orderly and relatively sociable. And if we're facing the first whimperings of a planet in the death throes wrought from both rapacious overconsumption and neglect, and tasting the bitter electoral fruits of an American populace so sated by things that it largely sees no need to participate in politics . . . well, you can't have everything. Unless you buy it.

Chief among the cheerleaders of mega-consumerism is James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising--that he unabashedly calls himself this says a lot--at the University of Florida. Twitchell shows his hand early in Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury when, near the start of the book, he gushes: "Consuming luxe [Twitchell's word for all things posh] is consuming a feeling, maybe even, as I will finally suggest, a religious one, an epiphany." See, God isn't just guiding the invisible hand of the marketplace; He is the marketplace. And, presumably, the more we buy, the closer we get to Him.

Such statements make Twitchell an easy target. It's unfortunate, in a way, because he offers some history lessons that illuminate luxury--where it has come from, how humans have been smitten by it, and why it has supplanted religion as the opiate of the masses. Although Twitchell can come across as an apologist for indulgence, his argument is sometimes elegant, particularly when he points out what our brave new world is leaving behind: "In our postmodern world we have, it seems, exchanged knowledge of history and science (a knowledge of production) for knowledge of products and how such products interlock to form coherent social patterns (a knowledge of consumption). Buy this and don't buy that has replaced make/learn this, don't make/learn that [italics are Twitchell's]."

That's hard to argue with. Marxists, moralists, and poststructuralists can go on all they want about false need, empty emulation, and social signifiers, but a lust for luxury has followed affluence throughout history, Twitchell says--so why knock it? As it got richer, the Catholic Church built much of its mystique on opulence, turning on the congregants to nice things that transcended the spiritual realm. The 17th-century Dutch went ape-shit for expensive tulip bulbs, when they had the money to afford them. Luxury is destiny.

Ultimately, though, Twitchell's reductive, deterministic reading of history damns him. At one point, he seems to say that all hell will break loose if people channel their energy in places that have nothing to do with consumer items: "I only want to say that, given a choice between being mugged for your sneakers or having your ethnic or religious heritage cleansed, the lust for sneakers may prove a more lasting way to improve the general lot of humanity." And those are our only options?

Twitchell puts his foot in his mouth elsewhere. His slumming "trips" to Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive and to Las Vegas prove him to be as superficial as the most ovine shopper. As for the potential damage to ecology and less-affluent peoples caused by hyperconsumerism and its growing, global spread, the author buries the issue: "These are important questions but ones I will leave to others." How noble of him.

While holed up in academia's ivory tower--in which centrism that blames both liberals and conservatives for all social problems is considered high-road argument--Gary Cross' An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America nonetheless hits the mark on this country's extended spending spree a bit more often than Twitchell's book. Cross, a history professor at Penn State, chronicles Americans' buying habits and the effects national politics and advertising have had on them. What he finds is hardly shocking: A putative democracy of consumers has forestalled class tensions, consumer society has replaced civil society, etc. But Cross does a much better job of placing them in a historical/political context than does Twitchell.

By grouping the 20th century in 20- or 30-year chunks, Cross makes the particulars--cigarette advertising, the advent of luxury automobiles--resonate as he plays up the importance of each new development and the effects of every political movement on the burgeoning hypermarket that closed out the century. And unlike Twitchell, Cross points out the downside of luxury consumption. The insulation of affluent gated communities wreaks havoc on the political process by isolating residents from the problems around them, for example, while consumerism has further weakened the communal bonds between those who live in neighborhoods that don't reek of opulence.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 led to deregulation that lowered walls between producers and consumers in communication and education, among other areas, Cross notes--not always for the best. "The result was a consumerism that moved even farther away from social cohesion and reality and toward an enveloping personal fantasy," he writes. He concludes that "boundaries" on markets must be re-established and that consumerism's calming effect on underlying social tensions is unlikely to work for another 100 years.

That may be true, but you'd never know what else can be done to keep society's simmering cauldron from boiling over from reading these two books. Neither genuinely examines the growing zeitgeist against meaningless spending on wants, not needs. People are tired from working too many hours, of paying for too much crap that ends up on the scrap heap, of piling up massive debts. Twitchell's and Cross' tomes are riddled with a cynical determinism that turns the cores of their arguments to rifle-range target paper. It doesn't take all that much imagination to envision a time when people find it hard to make do with merely so many things, given polls that show a steady decline in the rate of happiness over the past 50 years. We may hold the dollar that will get us into the kingdom of Heaven, but that doesn't mean we have to spend it.

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