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This critical review will be analyzing the article ‘The Self in a Consumer Society’ by Zygmunt Bauman (1999). The article is concerned with consumer culture, the economic differences it produces in a postmodern era, and the confines it creates primarily for the working class. To review the article, I aim to summarize and review these points through evaluations and judgements. I chose this article as I believe it is relevant in our current environment as we are constantly consuming not only, products but also the media as society develops.

Primarily, Bauman argues that society has changed and moved away from a “producer society” to a “consumer society” (Bauman, 1999, p.36). The former was prevalent during the modern, industrial society and is one in which deferred gratification was more sought after than the instant gratification found in a consumer society, established in the current postmodern era. This move occurred as society developed, we no longer require a mass industrial labor force but rather a need for consumers. As well as this, Bauman also suggests that consumerism in society is an ongoing process as the consumer needs to be repeatedly exposed to new experiences as the consumer is in itself a collection of experiences; “first and foremost gathers of sensations” (Bauman, 1999, p.38). He indicates that it is these experiences that mean “everybody may wish to be a consumer and indulge in the opportunities which that mode of life holds, but not everybody can be a consumer” (Bauman, 1999, p.40). This raises the idea of social mobility. He suggests the upper class and lower classes are immobile whereas consumers can move along mobility lines as they have the power to identify where they wish to be. Concerning this, he states that those ‘high up’ can choose where their destination is and those ‘low down’ are unable to move as their fates are predetermined by others.

Bauman’s article can be praised for establishing the experiences of a consumer and the type of society we live in today (a consumer society). He acknowledges that there is the possibility of the desire found in experiencing consumerism as “dissipating” and leaving “a world with nothing left in it to be desired” (Bauman, 1999, p.38). This can be supported by Clarke as it reinforces Bauman’s argument that objects and experiences can no longer be desired: “There are recognized downsides to all these areas of expanded freedom of choice. In respect of material abundance, there is the waste that comes from overconsumption and the increasingly transitory sense of meaning that is sustained by goods and services which are discretionary rather than essential” (Clarke, 2010, p.18). Here, it can be identified that where Bauman neglects to explore how desire in consumerism can dissipate, Clarke does not, making their perspective more comprehensible through the use of examples.

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Bauman’s article can be critiqued to an extent due to its vagueness and generalizations. For instance, he implied that everyone aims to be a consumer. However, I believe that this is not the case if they are aware that they are being somewhat exploited into following the ruling class ideology. This coincides with Marxists like Althusser, who believe that consumerism is a piece of ideological state apparatus used by the upper class to enhance the benefits they gain from capitalism and keep control of society in an economical fashion (Althusser, 1971). This is accomplished through a variety of methods and the consumers simply have little choice but to comply with the false consciousness enacted upon them. Another weakness of Bauman’s article is when he makes a sweeping generalization as he suggests that social mobility is capable of the consumers. This can be critiqued when applying the Marxist sociologist Bourdieu as he states social order is continuously instilled in people’s minds through education, values, language and activities of everyday life (Bourdieu, 1986). Hence, this is contradicting Bauman as Bourdieu is arguing that consumers have no freedom to choose their social class due to the ongoing ruling class ideology being enforced upon them. Here it can be argued that Bourdieu’s perspective is stronger as he gives relevant examples to back up his argument, the same cannot be stated for Bauman.

Furthermore, Bauman’s perspective can arguably be further criticized by Marxists as it fails to reference the use of consumerism in a negative light thoroughly. For instance, traditional Marxists see capitalism as criminogenic meaning they believe capitalism is a crime itself because of its unequal nature in which the rich exploit the poor and also that capitalism is the cause of crime because the working class are forced to commit a crime to redistribute the wealth. For example, crime may be the only way they can obtain consumer goods which are encouraged by capitalism. This may portray how the consumer society we live in can enhance social class differences and how some of the lower classes are unable to participate in consumerism due to their lack of economic wealth. Bauman can be interpreted as being aware of this in his article as he references that the lower classes have little control over their destinations but can still be criticized for not fully expanding this. Personally, I would agree with the traditional Marxist view that capitalism plays a key part in consumerism and amplifies social class inequalities as I also believe with Althusser’s idea that it acts as an ideological state apparatus.

Moreover, the idea that consumerism benefits capitalism is supported by the Marxist-feminist Zaretsky who believed the family benefits capitalism and one of the ways it does this is through consumerism as the family provides a cushion for false consciousness created because of it (Zaretsky, 1976). This theory criticized Bauman’s as it identifies the negativity that can be portrayed in consumer society to keep the working class in a cycle of oppression. However, even though Bauman’s work can be criticized by Marxists, they too can be criticized as Weber would argue that Marxists are economic determinists meaning they focus too much on economics and fail to consider other options for class inequality.

In summary, whilst Bauman’s points are logical, they can be argued as being somewhat narrow-minded simply as they fail to show a strong view countering his own. An instance of this is when he fails to fully mention the negative side of consumerism and simply explains the qualities of a consumer and the opportunities that can be gained or lost. This in my opinion creates a weak article as it is unable to withstand contradicting theories, mainly the work from Marxism.

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