Capitalist culture depends not only on the capitalists at the top but also a degree of acceptance by the wider society that capitalist culture delivers a quality life to everyone who deserves it. Gramsci used the term ‘hegemony’ to describe the phenomenon by which the majority of people accept the values and political axioms that ensure their own subordination to the ruling elite. Earl Shorris, in his book The Oppressed Middle, discusses how:
The most insidious of the many kinds of power is the power to define happiness. It is the dream of merchants, despots, managers, and philosophers, because whoever defines happiness can control the organization and the actions of other men: he not only assigns aspirations and desires, he constructs the system of morals by which the means of achieving happiness is judged.
A merchant in an affluent society defines happiness in ways that encourage acquisitiveness, wastefulness "and social competition through displays of material wealth". In such a society, many people participate in this definition of happiness so that they can sell their own services and goods. Managers "prove the system" by enjoying "more of the signs of happiness" than those beneath them and by the status and power they have over their subordinates. Each step up the social hierarchy offers the aspirant a small reward in terms of status, power and income, a proof of the eventual happiness in store for those who keep climbing.
Consumer values have come to replace the work ethic for many people as a motivator for work and as a primary source of identity. This shift was most fully realised after the second world war in the US when Daniel Bell observed: “the culture was no longer concerned with how to work and achieve, but with how to spend and enjoy.” Towards the end of the twentieth century he noted that there had been a “shift from production to consumption as the fulcrum of capitalism... Marketing and hedonism became the motor forces of capitalism.”
People came to regard their jobs as means to getting the money necessary to pay for the consumer items that were being marketed to them. “Demand for goods and services became the flywheel that kept the economic engine running fast and smooth. The spiritual dimension, meanwhile, faded as a justification for the accumulation of wealth.”
Ironically the expansion of consumption, necessary to create the markets for the fruits of rising production, “required the nurture of qualities like wastefulness, self-indulgence, and artificial obsolescence, which directly negated or undermined the values of efficiency” and the Protestant Ethic that had originally nurtured capitalism.
Traditional habits of thrift and patterns of consumption to be overcome. Advertisers sought to redefine people’s needs, encourage their wants and offer solutions to them via goods produced by corporations rather than allowing people to identify and solve their own problems, or to look to each other for solutions.