II9. Growth and Fast Capitalism


The concept of growth is perhaps the most central tenet of any ‘ideal type’ of capitalism and has been discussed at great length with regard to rationality by sociologists and philosophers over the past two hundred years. The debate between the old and the young Hegelians was centered on whether the real was the rational or the rational was the real and Marx saw a "specter" haunting Europe that would eliminate untrammeled growth and the accompanying rational systems. Perhaps Weber was most keenly aware of the link between the idea of growth in modern industrial capitalism and the rationality behind increased production. "The uniqueness of modern industrial capitalism consists in the fact that a specific production establishment emerges and is enlarged at the expense of pre-capitalist production units" (Gerth and Mills, 1946: 67).


Linked to this idea of growth was the hope that society might emerge as a "progressive" force for humankind. This idea was popular in many nineteenth century "enlightenment" theories that proposed a "disenchantment of the world" (originally Schiller’s words) brought on by increased technological rationalization. Weber, of course, remained critically of rationalization, maintaining the analogy of the iron cage.


Other thinkers were, however, more hopeful. Georg Simmel discusses "progress" in his book focusing on the philosophy of money. According to Simmel, traditional (i.e., pre-capitalistic) economies used barter and exchange to serve subjective, human needs; however, with the development of capitalism economic transactions serve to turn a profit (i.e., grow) rather than serve a human need. Simmel’s orientation differed from that of Weber in that he thought that the creation of wealth in this manner could in fact serve human ends as well as economic ends (Ashley & Orenstein, 1990: 325). George Herbert Mead was profoundly influenced by the idealism of the Enlightenment: "Although Mead recognized that many popular conceptions of inevitable progress were intellectually unsound, he nonetheless shared the generally optimistic vision of the future. Indeed, the optimism of his era, which Mead openly expressed, often appears naive to contemporary scholars who otherwise find Mead’s ideas well reasoned and acceptable. Repeated wars, economic difficulties, and social discord have made us much more pessimistic (or at least skeptical) than would have seemed reasonable to the professor at Chicago" (Ashley and Orenstein, 1990: 451).


Growth is central also to Durkheim’s conception of the modern division of labor. He argues that a profound recognition of personal individuality, of the self, moved society from a mechanical to an organic mode of solidarity, and consequently, growth occurs. Discussing our newfound individuality and the economic role associated with it, he says:


Even in the exercise of our profession we conform to the usages and practises that are common to us all within our corporation. Yet even in this case, the burden that we bear is in a different way less heavy than when the whole of society bears down upon us, and this leaves much more room for the free play of our initiative. Here, then, the individuality of the whole grows at the same time as that of the parts. Society becomes more effective in moving in concert, at the same time as each of its elements has more movements that are peculiarly its own (Durkheim, 1984: 85; emphasis mine)..


The underlying premise behind expanding the number of "movements" it can accomplish is that this kind of growth is fundamentally beneficial to society. The movement of society into what Durkheim calls organic solidarity was seen by many in the late nineteenth century as the next inevitable step in social and economic change. Like many others, Durkheim saw this step as an orderly process that was dictated not intrinsically by the mind of man but by human nature.


However, like Weber, Durkheim was also concerned with the shifting ethical state that was concurrent with the onset of the new and complex variety of solidarity. He expressed concern about the anomic state of nineteenth century France, a country that had experienced industrialization (i.e. growth) at a very rapid rate. "Durkheim claimed that if one’s appetite for things is not limited by an internalized social constraint, one’s desires would become insatiable. No matter how much wealth or luxury was amassed, the individual composed of, or dominated by, intempered self-seeking egoism would never be satisfied. No matter how much one had, one would feel frustrated and unhappy at not having more. One’s desires, argued Durkheim, would be like a bottomless abyss that could never be filled. Durkheim called this the ‘malady of infiniteness’ " (Ashley and Orenstein, 1990: 113).


Such extreme individuality, whereby one is in complete disregard of any sense of society, and the variety of morality that attends and guides one’s conscience in community action, seems to be a regular part of our contemporary existence and is reflected in both the premise and the everyday instantiation of our economic lives (i.e., in our jobs). More dramatically, however, in order to achieve this first principle of untrammeled growth we must contrive new and different ways in which to create and sell products that will assuage our "need" for increased wealth and luxury. This is the purpose of modern advertising. How many "new and improved" products have hit the store shelf in the past year? Any critical examination will uncover the "newness" of such products as changes that are quite simply minute and insignificant. Or they may not be new at all, but rather a recycled idea from ten years ago that consumers have already forgotten. The speed with which "new" products hit the market shelves in our era is unprecedented, as a result of our more and more rationalized systems of production. New businesses have even been created to support this emphasis on speed: a United Parcel Service commercial states that they are "Moving at the speed of business", while Purolater says "We stay up all night so that you don’t have to" (as long as the ‘you’ they refer to isn’t an employee of UPS, or Purolater, or Federal Express, or another of the innumerable companies that support ‘fast business’). Speed is necessary in production so that our ever-increasing desire to obtain individual identities can be fulfilled through commodity identification. In fact, among those people that don’t work for Federal Express, most are not working any less than their cohorts a generation ago (cf. Martz, p.58); the availability of fast-paced document and parcel transit, whether it be by phone, fax, computer, or parcel delivery service, serves only to increase the pace at which products can be consumed. This is one of the discerning markers of the new consumer culture and it characterizes the nature of the term I adopt from Agger (1989) fast capitalism.


Another marker, about which I began talking but digressed, is the degree to which product advertisements must make claims that stretch the truth or alter the reality of the quality or essence of its product into a high-tech 30-second image. Combining this with the perpetual presence of advertising ‘needed’ due to the competition inherent in free trade, the decay of a moral state of existence for the consumer is inevitable, based upon the confusion that is created by the discrepancy between what they know is the actual mode of production (i.e., what goes on when they go to work every day) and what they are constantly being told by their television sets, radios and newpapers. The nature of the production facility of fast capitalism is hidden from view in advertisements, masked by the process of the sale. For example, hamburgers very often are no longer associated with cows, much less with the forests that are being cut down to provide grazing land for the beasts; rather, the hamburger of our times is associateed with a clown. Why? Because the advertisement for the product has conditioned us to ignore the reality of a product and build a virtual reality around the cultural traits associated with that product. Given the vast complexity of the scientific and technological processes of industry and production, we cannot necessarily know about how any object is composed or made. By virtue of the sheer quantity of time we spend not knowing, we are dependent upon our trust of the producers of those objects to be informed about their development. Now, nearly all of these ‘artificial’ products that we encounter, whether it be breakfast cereal, ‘fruit’ drinks, or ‘sausage’ links can be considered biologically "safe" for consumption; but what about the way in which they are being sold? People living in capitalist societies have been fooled by simulacrum in so many ways that honesty has given up the ghost. Sheer outrageousness is the only thing that will now capture people’s attention and sell products. Consequently, we are being deceived and manipulated at every program break, on every newspaper page, with every turn of a billboard corner. The deception has become a selling technique in the guise of an entertaining informational blip.


This aspect of contemporary commercial capitalism, "the deception", amounts to the antithesis of Arendt’s "act of making promises", which she speaks of in The Human Condition:


The unpredictability which the act of making promises at least partially dispels is of a twofold nature: it arises simultaneously out of the ‘darkness of the human heart’, that is, the basic unreliability of men who never can guarantee today who they will be tomorrow, and out of the impossibility of foretelling the consequences of an act within a community of equals where everybody has the same capacity to act [a democratic community]. The function of the faculty of promising is to master this two-fold darkness of human affairs and is, as such, the only alternative to a mastery which relies on domination of one’s self and rule over others; it corresponds exactly to the existence of a freedom which was given under the condition of non-sovereignty (1959: 244).


The promise is a means of discourse that develops into a moral statute that has the power of assuaging our fears regarding unreliability, regarding the future. Contemporary corporate culture, however, perverts this type of discourse into a ‘false promise’ so as to promote the ideology of capitalist growth and further the "progress" of the human race.


The advertisement has become the negation of Arendt’s promise, something that denies the existence of reality and, therefore, of freedom. By virtue of the technique of transmission, the advertisement may lead, ultimately, to an untrusting attitude of extreme individualism, or, in other words, to Durkheims "self-seeking egoist". The popularity and unquestioning acceptance of such false promises, such virtual realities, by our mass society is tremendously disturbing when considering Arendt’s idea that the act of making promises should, in fact, "erect certain guideposts of reliability". But when promises are "misused to cover the whole ground of the future and to map out a path secured in all directions [to construct a totalizing ideology], they lose their binding power and the whole enterprise becomes self-defeating" (Arendt, 1959: 244). Contemporary capitalism, with its "deception", is loosening the binding power of American society through its insistence on growth economics as the one and only "map" to the future. This loosening is perhaps one factor behind many of the social ills we face in our time.


It is important to understand that the deception is not (usually) coming from the manifest claims made by advertisers; rather, the deception is more subtle. It is the discrepancy between the dehumanizing production facility and the image of how a product is created and consumed that composes the deception. This image belies the reality of rationalization and merely entertains rather than informs the consumer. This is not to say that commercials cannot be both entertaining and informative; but, before that can happen, they must confess the reality of the product’s genesis, and can hardly prove entertaining in this day and age.


What is even more disturbing about "the deception" in contemporary commercial capitalism is that it has a knack for turning criticism upside-down. Certainly, Ritzer is not the only person to bring up the inherent inhumanities within a fully rationalized society. Such criticisms sit in a deep pool of ideas that lurk beneath the ideological mainstream of our consumption culture. As more and more of these criticisms surface, the commercials tend to absorb them and make their appeal less revolutionary. Take, for example, an advertisement by the Microsoft Corporation that asks, in response to criticisms of rationalization, "Why be rational?"; or one for waterbed company Big Sur that tells us to "be unreasonable"; or one from communications magnate AT&T that denies any deceit by posing itself as "your true choice" (is nothing else true?); or soft drink giant, Coke, that calls itself "the real thing" (is nothing else real?). The new image that many advertisers are pushing is precisely based upon the criticism laid out by those who oppose the "slick" style of selling (those who criticize "the deception"). In doing this, they actually integrate that critique into a commercial designed to appeal to those who want to be rebellious or revolutionary without actually leaving the "map" that growth economics composes. Furthermore, a general confusion has arisen regarding what is true and what is real; the penchant for more and more outrageous superlatives that commercial capitalists have adopted stunts our ability to critically perceive the reality that lies outside of the boundaries of their map. The hamburger becomes separated from the cow. The power of this control over reality feeds the hegemonic tendency of contemporary corporate culture to neutralize the potential of an economic transformation based upon an awareness of production realities, and thus perpetuates the deception.


Such ideas regarding the domination of legitimate claims to "the map" (i.e., to economic authority) are at the center of the ideas of many post-modernists who claim that contemporary capitalistic societies are entering a new realization of political economy. Lyotard writes that "knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power [the advertisement, in this case] is already, and will continue to be, a major - perhaps the major - stake in the worldwide competition for power" and "When power is that of capital and not that of a party. Knowledge is a matter for TV games." (1979: 5, 76). Agger notes that "postmodernism abounds on Madison Avenue as the latest signifier of cultural trendiness. It moves products, not minds. Fashionable men’s magazines sell sneakers once popular in the 1950’s under the sign of James Dean, the enfant terrible of 1950’s avant-gardism" (1992:284, 286). Indeed, I recently purchased a cheese spread at the grocery store that was labeled as "avant-garde"; I believe it is the first fashionable cheese I have bought. Regarding that most significant transmission device of contemporary advertising, television, David Lyon writes that


Television and consumer culture belong together. As Baudrillard suggests, the postmodern splits away from the modern when the production of demand - of consumers - becomes central. And TV is all about ‘the production of needs and wants, the mobilization of desire and fantasy, of the politics of distraction’. Consumer objects are actually a system of signs that differentiate the population. Signifiers, like TV ads, ‘float’ freely, with only the loosest connection with actual objects. Think of the Marlboro man, the ‘real thing’, ‘if it’s not Kellogg’s on the packet it’s not Kellogg’s in the packet’, beer that refreshes parts others do not reach, the ‘united colors’ of Benetton and the Levi denim label. Their purpose is only to incite desire. From this kind of analysis, done in the 1970’s, it was a short step to Baudrillard’s 1980’s world of simulacra, of hyperreality, where the only reality is TV ads and other signifiers (1994: 57-58).


It is in this world of virtual realities that we exist, interminably. "The deception" is omnipresent; it is like a revolving door that leads nowhere. The "lack of reality" that commercialism promotes is indeed a sign of our era and its ability to deceive the consumer so as to foster greater sales is having a profound moral impact upon contemporary societies.


Recognizing the ubiquity of commercial signs and the potential they have of defusing social critique, Allen Shelton cleverly juxtaposes the meanings of a still pertinent sociological reference with a modern advertisement:


‘Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: what ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live: their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood: in other milieux, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel’ (Mills 1959, p.3).

‘You deserve a break today at McDonald’s.’
(McDonald’s advertisement)

(Shelton, 1993: 106).


Shelton adds that "like a sewing machine on an operating table or a drainplug stuck onto a cartoon balloon, the combination of quotes creates a surreal space, a pairing that should not occur. Mill’s modernist prose and heroic posing is stuck with a one liner from McDonald’s. A hole is poked in Mills, sucking the heroism out. McDonald’s turns Mill’s despair into a Big Mac and a Coke" (1993: 106). The question to ask becomes obvious at this point: to continue as a capitalist organization in our contemporary era of fast capitalism will Ben & Jerry’s likewise turn their early project of social critique into a means of expanding their sales? Is such a transfiguration of Ben & Jerry’s occurring, mutating their social conscience into merely a pint of Rainforest Crunch and a Peace Pop?


Next Section - Will the "Real" Ben and Jerry's Please Step Forward?

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