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Friday, June 29, 2007

Consumerism, cultural politics, & the Supremes

...no...not Diana Ross and the Supremes. This post is about the Supreme Court of the United States, and what its recent decision in the case Leegin v. PSKS can tell us about the state of cultural politics today.

Now, I haven't had sufficient time to review the case or the decision closely, but according to The New York Times: "The Supreme Court on Thursday [June 28th] abandoned a 96-year-old ban on manufacturers and retailers setting price floors for products. In a 5-4 decision, the court said that agreements on minimum prices are legal if they promote competition. The ruling means that accusations of minimum pricing pacts will be evaluated case by case."

A few reactions:

  • First, I'd be curious to see on what economic grounds the Court was able to reason that price fixing can promote competition. That seems rather counter-intuitive to me.

  • Second, I'm intrigued that the law Leegin overturned, which passed in 1911, corresponded roughly with the "birth" of consumer capitalism in the United States. What might Thursday's decision say about the extent to which consumerism (or a particular version of it, specific to the early 20th century) continues to drive capitalism today?

  • Finally, and relatedly, I'm inclined to locate the Leegin decision within a broader context of changes that have been occurring over the last twenty to thirty years, in which the interests of consumers have gradually given way to those of business. Here I'm thinking of: recent revisions to bankruptcy law that have created conditions less favorable to ordinary folk who want to declare bankruptcy (and hence conditions more favorable for creditors); the growth of digital rights management technologies, which regulate what users can and cannot do with the digital items they've purchased; efforts to implement tort reform, which would make it more difficult for ordinary people to sue businesses; and more.

  • Back in September, I posted my thoughts on the film, V for Vendetta. I speculated there on how the movie and its reception might suggest not the end of cultural politics per se. They may, however, register something like a shift away from the prominence cultural politics enjoyed in the decades both immediately preceding and following the Second World War. Leegin v. PSKS, like V for Vendetta, only underscores that point. Our relationship to consumerism and culture are becoming more and more tenuous--juridically, economically, and technologically. Thus, it's becoming increasingly difficult for people like you and me to marshal the kinds of resources that have long made cultural politics possible. It also suggests that, in order to effect meaningful change these days, we might well need to direct more of our political energy beyond the realm of culture.

    4 comments:

    Ron said...

    I think I understand why you are linking consumer capitalism to cultural politics. but, do you have any interest in exploring your reasonging and the "tightness" of the articulation? IS this a far way to restate your argument: To the extant that capitialism bends away from the interest of consumers, cultural politics becomes less important (less likely?) to be site for a democratic antagonism.

    could it go the other way: for example, one argument goes that consumer capitalism sucks up and incorporates cultural politics turning them into stylized niche markets. Might the argument go: as the interests of consumers are lessened, cultural politics are likely to matter more because of the cultural discriminations of the market (I am thinking about the link between markets and culture that permeate housing policy)

    Ted Striphas said...

    Hi Ron,

    Thanks as always for writing. You're right in pointing out the "tightness" of my articulation of consumerism and cultural politics. I'd even go as far as to say I collapsed the two in my post--somewhat knowingly, though certainly not reflexively. Indeed, there are many cultural sectors that are more or less removed from the realm of consumerism. Museums come to mind, though certainly that's changing in important ways.

    In any case, your restating of my question is right on, and certainly more eloquent than I was able to put it. With that said, I lose you a bit on your twist/turn. Could you perhaps elaborate a bit more on your housing example?

    Ron said...

    well, it occurs to me what we mean by cultural politics might matter. And then it occurred to me I had never really sat down and thought about what defines that term except to figure we are talking about debates/discussion/images/polices that take "cutlure" as a point of departure for debate/disscussion etc. this, might not be a very useful definition:

    so here was what I was thinking: the housing bubble/boom in parts of US was likely made possible by democratizing who could get a mortgage, but, alas this democratization brought with it a lot of subprime mortgages, and while I worry about being jerked around by a panic over these things, it looks like we might be in for a serious shock when these subprimes collapse.

    yet, i was thinking that credit might be thought of us cultural poltics given its link to character. inother words, credit is becoming an index of one's "whole way of life." bad credit means your "way of life" is not acceptable to getting a mortgage or guarantees that you have to get a subprime if they give you anything,

    so I guess I was thinking that if things turn against the consumer in something like the housing market you might get more cultural politics around the idea of what we are doing with this idea of credit/subprime mortgates etc.

    then again, I might be just making stuff up.

    maybe a clearner example is redlinning neighborhhods as not worthy of credit to buy a house. maybe this isnt cultural politics, but, simply discrimination/racism etc.

    Ted Striphas said...

    Hi Ron,

    This is all very good stuff, and your point about defining "cultural" politics is very well taken. In some respects, I may well be arguing (without knowing it) that the nature of cultural politics may be changing. That is, pehaps "the cultural" is becoming less autonomous from, or distinct in comparison to, "the political," "the economic," and what have you.

    By the way, have you read Lendol Calder's wonderful book, Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit? As with your housing example, it pointedly gets at the ways in which finance--ostensibly an economic issue--is both lived and understood culturally in the U.S.