[OPE-L] consumer behavior

From: Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM
Date: Mon Feb 21 2005 - 14:38:12 EST

Re Jurriaan's latest message:

> I suggest Marx's political economy is incomplete, insofar as it lacks an
> analysis of the mode of regulation of consumption and consumer behaviour.
> The idea here is that consumer behaviour is not simply a matter of
> subjective utility preferences, an idea already implicit in Marx's concept
>  of use-value as the tangible characteristic of a good which can satisfy a
> need, and his view of human needs as possessing a definite structure, due
> to  their anthropological nature.

I agree that there is something incomplete in Marx regarding his explanation
of consumer behavior.  How could his explanation in _Capital_, after all,
be complete at a level of abstraction where  "the principal agents of this
mode of production itself, the capitalist and the wage-labourer, are as such
simply embodiments and personifications of capital and wage-labour" (Volume
3,  Penguin ed., pp. 1019-1020)?   At this abstract level of presentation --
i.e. the level of abstraction associated with _Capital_ -- wage-workers and
capitalists are wearing "character masks."   These character masks,
though, must be stripped off these classes to further explain consumer

Within the context of  late capitalism,  there are a couple of major
dynamics that shape consumer behavior which have to be grasped:

1) competition and the creation of consumer wants

As the process of the concentration and centralization of capital
continues, markets come to be increasingly dominated by
oligopolies.  Within oligopolistic markets, capitalist rivalry
typically takes the form of product differentiation.  The competitive
strategy of product differentiation typically requires large
expenditures on promotion and advertising.

Through advertising, firms shape and re-shape consumer wants,
preferences, and needs.  The point of advertising is not, contrary to
the claims of the doctrine of consumer sovereignty,  to provide
information to consumers that can assist them in their consumer
choices.  Indeed, the 'information content' of advertising is
typically very poor.  Rather, the whole point of advertising is
-- through the manipulation of language, graphics, and sounds  --
to help sell the commodity.  While the marginal utility theory
of consumer choice assumes that consumers will behave rationally,
much of the _practice_ of  corporate advertising is counting on the
fact that  consumers will behave irrationally.  In this sense, consumers
are manipulated in many ways that they don't generally
comprehend into having a want for a particular brand.

How does this process affect working-class consumers? Well,
it depends on a number of factors -- for instance, how you
view advertising labor.  I seem to recall that you viewed
advertising labor as productive of surplus value (please correct
me if I have mis-stated your position).  If that is the case,
then the cost of advertising could be included in the price of the
commodity and one could maintain that commodities sold
by these oligopolies which spend enormous quantities of money
on advertising are exchanged _at or near their value_.  If
one takes the position that advertising labor is unproductive
labor then one would have to recognize an enormous increase in
unproductive expenditures by these business firms.  If that is
the case,  then one might expect a wider gap between value
and market price.  Then the question becomes: what will the
effect be on the two major classes?  Will the net effect of advertising
simply be a redistribution of surplus value among capitalists with
some gaining and others losing to an equal extent?  Or, to the extent
that the commodities are sold to consumers who are part of the
working class,  will the increase in unproductive expenditures
caused by advertising result in working-class consumers paying
prices that are _systematically higher than values_?  If the latter
is the case, then one might view this as a redistribution of value
that takes place in the market where the real wage of workers
is effectively lowered?  In considering these two possibilities, one
has to ask the question whether workers _or_ non-competitive
capitalists are hurt to the greater extent by the process of
oligopolistic pricing practices.

2)  auto-valorization

A term attributed to Antonio Negri.  In this context, I am
using it to refer to the ways in which workers themselves expand and
change their wants and needs.  To give an example:  the growth of
organic farming was not primarily a result of the "logic of
capital".  Rather, consumers -- influenced by the environmental
movement -- began to increasingly indicate their preferences for
food grown without the use of pesticides, etc.  As the demand
for new products emerged, a segment of capital rushed into
production to meet the changed demand (and the flip side of
this is that there was disinvestment in some other types of food for
which tastes had changed such that there was a lesser demand for
these commodities).  This is the kernel of truth behind the doctrine
of consumer sovereignty: i.e. that *in some cases*  firms are
forced into changing what they produce and what the asking price
will be for their commodities.  But,  while consumers can change
what happens in the marketplace, the belief by the doctrine of
consumer sovereignty that consumers _control_ the marketplace
is fundamentally mistaken.

While it is true that firms can use advertising to get consumers to
unwittingly act against their self-interest, it is also true that
what is rational from the standpoint of capital is not necessarily
rational from the standpoint of working-class consumers.
A boycott of non-Union iceberg lettuce by consumers in the
1970's was hardly a rational practice from the standpoint of
capital or the doctrine of consumer sovereignty.  Yet,  it was a
rational practice from the perspective of working-class consumers.

If and when workers' struggles as consumers become successful,
it encourages further struggles and the self-confidence that
arises from successfully attaining a goal.  This then leads to
more and expanded struggles.  Auto-valorization.

What would happen if  working-class tenants -- as some radical
housing advocates suggest -- went on a general rent strike?
Clearly, that would shake things up a bit!    In any event, what
has to be recognized is that class struggle takes place in the
marketplace as well as the "site of production" and in the
general market rather than just the market for labour-power.
And, these struggles in the marketplace, just like struggles elsewhere
can be either "defensive" or "offensive" in character.

In solidarity, Jerry

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