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IN CONTEMPORARY American culture consuming is as authentic as it gets Advertisements getting a bargain garage sales and credit cards are firmly entrenched pillars of our way of life We shop on our lunch hours patronize outlet malls on vacation and satisfy our latest desires with a late-night click of the mouse1 Yet for all its popularity the shopping mania provokes considerable dis-ease many Americans worry about our preoccupation with getting and spending They fear we are losing touch with more worthwhile values and ways of living But the discomfort rarely goes much further than that it never coheres into a persuasive well-articulated critique of consumerism By contrast in the 1960s and early 70s a far-reaching critique of consumer culture was a part of our political discourse Elements of the New Left influenced by the Frankfurt School as well as by John Kenneth Galbraith and others put forward a scathing indictment They argued that Americans had been manipulated into participating in a dumbed-down artificial consumer culture which yielded few true human satisfactions For reasons that are not hard to imagine this particular approach was short-lived even among critics of American society and culture It seemed too patronizing to talk about manipulation or the true needs of average Americans In its stead critics adopted a more liberal point of view and deferred to individuals on consumer issues Social critics again emphasized the distribution of resources with the more economistic goal of maximizing the incomes of working people The good life they suggested could be achieved by attaining a comfortable middle-class standard of living This outlook was particularly prevalent in economics where even radical economists have long believed that income is the key to well-being While radical political economy as it came to be called retained a powerful critique of alienation in production and the distribution of property it abandoned the nascent intellectual project of analyzing the consumer sphere Few economists now think
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