The revolutionary potential of the ‘class-conscious radical’ driven to protest by the conditions of his/her work has been subverted by the material rewards of consumerism. For the working classes, the installment plan and credit schemes ensure that the worker commits future time and money to present consumption.
John Kenneth Galbraith has observed that the “paramount position of production” as the key to consumerism has provided corporate leaders with huge financial rewards and influence over policy decisions.
Society will accord him prestige appropriate to the role he plays; what may well be less important, he will be able, without difficulty or criticism, to command an income that is related to his prestige. As production has increasingly monopolized our economic attitudes, the business executive has grown in esteem.
Stuart Ewen in his book Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture showed that advertising for mass consumerism was not only aimed at increasing markets for goods but also at shifting the locus of discontent from people’s work to arenas that advertisers could promise would be satisfied by consumption. Their frustrations and unhappiness could then be directed towards buying rather than political protest against working conditions or other elements of industrial society.
Ewen claims that consumerism, “the mass participation in the values of the mass-induced market,” was not a natural historical development but an aggressive device of corporate survival.” Discontent in the workplace could lead to a challenge to corporate authority but discontent in the consumer sphere provided an incentive to work harder and reflected an acceptance of the values of the capitalist enterprise.
Similarly Robert Lane claims in his book on Political Ideology that:
The more emphasis a society places upon consumption—through advertising, development of new products, and easy installment buying—the more will social dissatisfaction be channeled into intraclass consumption rivalry instead of interclass resentment and conflict...
the more will labor unions focus upon the ‘bread and butter’ aspects of unionism, as contrasted to its ideological elements.
If people were dependent on the products of the factories they were less likely to be critical of the appalling working conditions within them. The good life attained through this consumption was also compensated for the unpleasantness of work and distracted attention from it. Advertisements were careful not to depict people working in factories. A leading copywriter in the 1920s, Helen Woodward, advised that consumption could help to sublimate and redirect urges that might otherwise be expressed politically or aggressively. “To those who cannot change their whole lives or occupations,” she argued, “even a new line in a dress is often a relief.”