Buy This Book! Buy the Store! Shopping Will Set You Free

An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America , by Gary Cross. Columbia University Press, 320 pages, $27.50.

So here we are in the middle of a campaign race, and what is likely to be this week’s most rousing topic at the water cooler? 1) Gee, I miss Bill Bradley. 2) Will Ralph Nader be allowed to debate? 3) Purple–and leather!–are back.

If you’re Gary Cross, you chose 3). Why? Because he believes that consumerism is where Americans find common ground. Over the course of the 20th century, consumerism (which Mr. Cross defines as “the understanding of self in society through goods”) has filled needs, salved wounds and, he argues, redefined the terms liberty and democracy . Why get involved in potentially humiliating personal discussions over the merits of the death penalty when it is so much easier to either stretch or affirm the boundaries of your socio-economic world by sprucing up your wardrobe with a little purple, a little leather? “In the context of consumerism,” Mr. Cross writes, “liberty is not an abstract right to participate in public discourse or free speech. It means expressing oneself and realizing personal pleasure in and through goods. Democracy does not mean equal rights under the law or common access to the political process but, more concretely, sharing with others in personal ownership and use of particular commodities.”

Mr. Cross sets himself apart from most historians, who understand history as a force driven by political ideas and power. Where they might say that liberalism won the century, he argues that consumerism did. They place consumption in the private sphere; he locates it in the public sphere: It provides, he writes, “a more dynamic and popular, while less destructive, ideology of public life than most political belief systems in the twentieth century.”

Bad times, or merely loud times, like the Depression or the 60’s, only make people want more stuff and galvanize the marketing industry. Modern consumption also “helped individuals contend with social conflict and ambiguity, evade clear-cut choices, and even hold contradictory desires.” In other words, according to Mr. Cross, consumerism offers liberation without the attendant struggle.

Over five chapters covering 10 decades, Mr. Cross (the author of several other works, including Kid’s Stuff: Toys and the Changing Worlds of American Childhood and Technology and American Society ) explains how this came to pass. This is drive-by history: He has in his sights a whole gang of social critics and policy wonks, including Jackson Lears ( Fables of Abundance ); “Frank Thomas”–Tom Frank to the rest of us ( The Conquest of Cool ); Lizabeth Cohen (her forthcoming A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Consumption in Postwar America ); as well as James Twitchell, Barbara Ehrenreich and Robert Kuttner. If you have read these folks, you can skip An All-Consuming Century ; the thesis is worth pondering, but it gets worn down by some very dry and repetitive writing. The book’s structure doesn’t help, either. The arguments aren’t framed as much as unloosed; the narrative unspools, slowly.

Mr. Cross begins his story at the turn of the century. First there was the shift from frontier values, from people defining themselves by their job skills and businesses to people defining themselves by their leisure activities and possessions. In a nutshell, 19th-century values pointed to responsibility, 20th-century values pointed to possibility. Immigrants, especially, embraced the possibility of lifting new identities from department store windows and movie screens.

Mr. Cross traces the development of leisure time: popular magazines, radio, television and the fantasy lives they kindled. Then he’s on to McDonald’s, drive-ins. Cars become both private enclaves and fashion statements, and life–”Things go better with Coke”– begins to go better with goods and services. From the “anarchic pleasures” of the plebeian crowds, we progress to the “aspirations and self-constraint of the genteel individual,” and arrive finally at “experiencing common goods, entertainment, and fantasies in private,” isolated together. Once upon a time, families went to church; then families stayed home to watch TV. Now you ride the subway and the person next to you is plugged into a Walkman. If you think this looks like creeping alienation, think again, says Mr. Cross. It’s excitement. People are being expressive .

Who needs jeremiads from Thorstein Veblen (who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption”) or Vance Packard (author of The Status Seekers )? Those killjoys didn’t understand “how modern affluence transformed the meaning of desire and ultimately the role of individuality in advanced consumer society.” The cultivated individual isn’t threatened by mass consumption; the consuming crowds are never passive.

Well, I’m not convinced. And if Veblen and Packard had read Mr. Cross’ book, I don’t know that they would have understood the “meaning of desire” and the need for desire management any better. To do that, you need to discuss emotions, the senses, irrational behaviors. There’s not much psychology here, though Mr. Cross does mention the word when he touches on the problem of class: “[A] community of shared values … might have been a better choice than consumerism, but how many Americans had the psychological or social resources to pursue them? How could they, in a society still built on class and its humiliations?” For wage earners, consumerism picked up where insecurity left off and just kept on going.

Some in-depth analysis is in order here–and some context. For instance, in a section on consumer rights, we learn that in 1976, business interests began to perfect the art of lobbying Congress, and the advertising industry won a case in the Supreme Court, which recognized that ads could be protected speech. Two years later, a coalition of farm, grocery and independent businesses defeated a proposal for a federal consumer protection agency whose cornerstone would be regulating “commercial speech” directed at children. Too bad Mr. Cross didn’t use this as a springboard to address how lobbying has become as influential as advertising, or how the role of the F.T.C.–not to mention the F.C.C.–has changed in the second part of the century.

And too bad Mr. Cross doesn’t address the language of visual culture. As early as the 1930’s, he writes, “advertisers assumed the language of high politics” with their claims to “serve” and liberate. Ultimately, “consumer goods became a language.” Now consider the way politics has played out on television for the last 30 years, with the public relations industry waiting in the green room. There is a language at work, but it’s not necessarily written or even oral. A democracy that allows membership without social interaction is governed by the eye. Instead of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we get cameos on Oprah .

In the end, after critiquing the critics for offering no real alternatives to consumerism and concluding that, yes, consumerism was the winning ideology of 20th-century America, Mr. Cross offers no ideas for how matters might be improved in the 21st century. He writes, “[A] society that reduces everything to a market inevitably divides those who can buy from those who cannot, undermining any sense of collective responsibility and with it, democracy.” He says we need to find a way around this problem, and one way is to use the backward glance. In other words: Here’s my book, hope it helps.

Meanwhile, 250 pages of text and no mention of campaign finance reform? In An All-Consuming Century , you win some, you lose some.

Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York .