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New Left Review 76, July-August 2012


wolfgang streeck

CITIZENS AS CUSTOMERS

Considerations on the New Politics of Consumption

Four decades ago, in a landmark Public Interest article titled ‘Public Goods and Private Status’, Joseph Monsen and Anthony Downs took up the question of why American society was, in the phrase coined by John Kenneth Galbraith, ‘privately rich but publicly poor’. [1] R. Joseph Monsen and Anthony Downs, ‘Public Goods and Private Status’, The Public Interest, vol. 23, Spring 1971, pp. 64–77. The authors were not convinced by what they took to be the received explanation at the time: the ‘clever and nefarious advertising techniques’ used by large corporations to manipulate consumers, so that they would ‘buy private goods and services they do not relatively need or want’. Instead, Monsen and Downs suggested ‘a more fundamental factor’ was at work, accounting for the differential allocation of goods between the public and private sectors: a ‘desire’ on the part of consumers ‘for emulation and differentiation’, driving them ‘to create visible distinctions between large groups and classes, and, within such groups, more subtle distinctions of individuality’. Drawing on Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption in The Theory of the Leisure Class, as well as 1960s explanations of status-seeking consumer behaviour in American society, Monsen and Downs described this desire as ‘an intrinsic part of man’s character, evident to at least some degrees in all societies, past and present’—‘so fundamental that it can be considered a “law” of human nature.’

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