Monday, March 8, 2010

Precis: The Affluent Society dependent upon “The Dependence Effect”

Chapter 11 of Galbraith’s The Affluent Society provides the mobilizing assumption upon which the rest of the book is built. His argument in this chapter is that the urgency of desire for goods goes down as affluence increases, so the process of production makes us think that we urgently desire things in order to keep itself alive. What causes this effect is both the process by which goods are produced and modern advertising. This claim is absolutely essential to the rest of the book because it turns into the warrant that allows him to conclude that “public wants are not contrived” (207) and that it is, in fact, necessary to support public services.

In Ch. 11, Galbraith finally addresses the question of whether urgency of desire for goods goes down as affluence increases. He proposed it earlier in connection to the evil of conventional wisdom, but in the start of this chapter he puts is cards on the table with a weirdly phrased statement of the conventional wisdom: “with increasing affluence there is no reduction in the urgency of desires and goods…”(124). I find it strange that there can be urgency of goods. But, this is indicative of the idea that the goods themselves, or rather the process of production that produces them, create their own urgency: “Production only fills a void that it has itself created” (125).

More than in any other chapter, the descriptive imagery and similes that Galbraith uses to call attention to the gravity of this structural bind are quite provocative. He argues that the individual who promotes production is like an “onlooker who applauds the efforts of the squirrel to keep abreast of the wheel that is propelled by his own efforts” (125). This instance is funny, but when he writes that products must be advertised to be successful, and that this “would be regarded as elementary by the most retarded student in the nation’s most primitive school of business administration” (127), he enters the realm of offensive. Let us not forget his clever phrase: “Like a woman’s, his (the economists) work is never done” (130). This line, I found particularly interesting after is disclaimer in the introduction that he supported the greatly woman’s movement. I don’t think he meant it to be offensive, although I find the notion questionable, but as with all of these instances, it demonstrates his project of colloquialization.

Compared to many of the texts that we’ve read, I would say that this one takes on the most disparaging tone. He does not openly insult those who would disagree with him, but his descriptive explanations allow for the text to take on a more persuasive tone. Whereas Polanyi used the perspective of historical justification, Galbraith colloquializes his arguments to make them more digestible. The often-mocking rhetorical strategy that solidifies in Ch. 11 carries all the way through to the climax of the book. I say climax because of the passage in Ch. 17 when he describes the horrors of production-dominated life and asks “Is this, indeed, the American genius?” (188), is when the stakes of his argument really become clear. The colloquial picture he paints is appalling, which provides a clear incentive to listen to his argument. He is able to mobilize his argument in favor of social services because he uses the idea of want creation to then distinguish between those wants that are and are not created. What supports his derision of the excesses of modern life is the essential warrant introduced in Ch. 11: that production is engaged in the project of creating wants to keep itself alive.

I suppose it is improper to call the move that he makes in this passage “Debordian” because after all, Debord did write after him, but this chapter is essentially calling attention to the idea that our society is based on pseudo needs. By undermining the essential mechanism upon which society is based, Galbraith lays out the essential premise to the mechanism of his own argument. In Ch.19 he says: “…the main task of this essay has been accomplished. Its concern has been with the thralldom of a myth – the myth that the production of goods, by its overpowering importance and its ineluctable difficulty, is the central problem of our lives” (209). Ch. 11 is absolutely central to his argument because is the introduction of that myth in a colloquial style that allows the dire conclusions to be heard.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.