January 27, 2017

Victor Lebow On Consumer Capitalism

Victor Lebow was an American economist that is oft-quoted by those of us that have the gall to question the value of consumer capitalism to humankind. I bring him up as NBA reader Saffron commented recently, "Victor Lebow wrote an article Price Competition in 1955. I highly recommend it, and maybe you will publish it in the future."

I was already familiar with Lebow, and with the most published quote from his work, which I now see comes from the section of the paper called, "The Real Meaning of Consumer Demand".

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption.”

But I had never read "Price Competition" in its entirety. The paper is full of quotable passages beyond the one that comes up most often in discussions of Lebow. Information like this lets us confirm that we have been trained to want, trained to desire, and trained to buy everything, or at least as much as we possibly can.

"To use a military analogy, marketing involves the over-all strategy of distribution, while merchandising, advertising, promotion, and selling comprise the tactics. The costs of distribution actually represent the pressure needed to maintain the high level of consumption. Our economy demands a constantly expanding capacity to produce."

Why do we want so much stuff? Because of the enormous amount of pressure brought to bear upon us. Under the constant assault of marketers, backed by hundreds of billions of dollars per year globally, you can hardly blame people for wanting to buy things.

What is more surprising is that anyone is able to resist the military style campaign, dare to value non-conformity, and refuse to participate in the materialist feeding frenzy. When the average human is subjected to something like thousands of pleas to buy stuff every day, it can be hard to say no to the drug of buying things that we don't need. The advent of television made it even harder.

"Television achieves three results to an extent no other advertising medium has ever approached. First, it creates a captive audience. Second, it submits that audience to the most intensive indoctrination. Third, it operates on the entire family."

Wow. If that doesn't make you want to throw out your TV, install an ad blocker on your computer, and monkey wrench a few billboards, nothing will. There are more such eye opening passages in Lebow's paper, and I recommend anyone interested in knowing how we got here read it in its entirety.

Apparently there is some confusion as to whether the author was advocating consumerism in order to stimulate the post WW2 economy, or was warning us of the perils of moving in that direction.  Regardless, it does explain why our consumer capitalist-based society is the way it is.

Thank you to NBA reader Saffron for the idea/inspiration for this post. And to another NBA'er, Terri, for doing some of the research I used to whip this up.

Read Victor Lebow's Price Competition in 1955 here.

"What becomes clear is that from the larger viewpoint of our economy, the total effect of all the advertising and promotion and selling is to create and maintain the multiplicity and intensity of wants that are the spur to the standard of living in the United States."
- Victor Lebow 


  1. Anonymous1/28/2017

    Jerry Mander's book on the elimination of television is also a good read. Television appears to be bad for whole populations, with increased crime rates when it is introduced. The BBC is a particularly awful and corrupt organisation, crafting limited world view that is bad for consciousness. The statelite channels are like a cheap drug and will pay the GDP of a small country to watch men running around after a ball.
    It's ironic that alternative health practitioners are called quacks while the pharmaceutical industry is built on lies. The industry acts like a mafia and is absolutely corrupt. The problem is the doctor's and big pharma have a special language of science that keeps lay people out of the loop. Early detection causes harm, mammography causes more harm than good, a large amount of drugs simply do not work and a large amount of drugs are dangerous for mental health.
    The reason why there so many hospitals is mainly due to diet and processed food.

    1. Alex,

      Linda and I try to avoid the "sickness management system" as much as possible, just like we try to avoid contact with the police. Even though Canada's system is the envy of those without universal coverage, in my community I couldn't get a doctor even if I wanted, or needed, one.

      Today's Canadian doctors don't want to be in small communities like ours (population 2,000), and they don't want to work as much as the old time doctors did. Seems to be less commitment to patients, and more commitment to making money and having lots of leisure time to spend and enjoy it.

      Luckily we have little need for a doctor right now. Maybe we should give nurses more responsibilities as they are the true caregivers in the modern medical model.

      Eat well and stay healthy is the thing to do, I agree.

    2. I believe the Swiss decided not to use widespread screening mammograms anymore. Researches also can't seem to agree on whether mammograms might be the cause of increased breast cancer rates over the decades. A mammogram is like getting 1000 chest x-rays and it puts 50 pounds of pressure on fragile breasts and may crush a pre-cancerous cyst (most of which go away by themselves)then send the contents into your bloodstream. There is good reason to question their usefulness. They only pick up 20% of cancers whereas self examination picks up 80%. A healthy diet (preferably 100% plant based), lots of exercise and a healthy mind go a long way toward prevention.
      As for advertising I find it makes me buy less just because I hate it so much. I don't watch TV anymore and I keep a long envelope by my computer to block out the ads at the side. I find great satisfaction going against the grain and not purchasing things. It also irritates people because they realize you're not a weak, crowd follower and no one likes an individualist haha.

  2. Anonymous1/28/2017

    In my mind I am positive that we in the Western society have been indoctrinated with consumerism. Even those frugal and no spending blogs are full of how they spend money or bargains they got and enormous joy if sale is there. I don't think in the recent history we ever had more ghastly food to eat, prefabricated or clothing made by slaves at 50 cents per hour. Thanks Linda and Greg for NBA Saffron

    1. Saffron,

      The indoctrination has been so all pervasive that people don't even know it is happening. By now it just seems natural to want to shave, or dye grey hair, or have a fancy car or big house. But would we want these things without all the pressure brought down upon our formerly frugal minds?

      Many say that all the advertising and pressure "doesn't affect" them, but very few actually escape to a life free from corporate crap. We think we actually want all this stuff. But do we really?

      What did we need to buy when we lived more naturally? What do tribes in the Amazon jungle need to buy? Nothing - nature provides everything they need or want. First Nations in North America are still reminding us that you can't sell the air, or the water, or indeed, the Earth. It is not ours to sell, because it belongs to everyone, or rather, we belong to it.

    2. Watch the Documentary called "The Century of the Self" (warning, it was created by the BBC), which documents the conversion of the U.S. economy into a consumerist economy using psychological tactics in advertising, first on consumers, then by governments, then by political candidates and how they sway human opinion. Quite alarming.

  3. We are being assaulted by military, terroristic tactics to convince us to consume a wall between the US and Mexico. I quit cable TV last year. I can listen to NPR and ABC World New Tonight on Podcasts. The contrast is almost laughable. NPR states the news in a calm manner, ABC has dramatic music and proclaims the headlines with urgency. I don't want to spend my life in fear.

    1. Annie,

      Every time we think that things couldn't get any weirder, they get weirder. You have to turn it off or the silly outrageousness of it all will make your head explode.

      They want us dumb and afraid as we are easily manipulated that way. I am sure this was perfected hundreds of years ago, if not thousands. All so a small group of us can get more than our fair share. But why? It never turns our well, and it won't this time, either.

  4. I read Lebow's paper. It's nice you link it on your website. It's important to remain aware the of the pressure that is on us to consume and how driven marketsers, advertisers, etc must be to insure that we consume. I sensed an urgency in Lebow's pepper. It's like capitalists become capitalism as if their very lives depend on perpetuating distribution and consumerism. I was struck with the comparison to a "military analogy." I also picked up on the urgency to keep expanding consumption. It alarms me. How far can this expand? Till we kill our planet and species? I guess that will be the ultimate limit. I agree the paper is full of quotes. I commend you for unpacking some good ones and writing this well thought out article. I find the history of capitalism and consumption fascinating.

    The original "Story of Stuff" video explains what Lebow talks about in this paper. The video is easy to find on the Story of Stuff website. It's only 20 minutes long. I highly recommend it.

    If you want to look into how psychology and specifically how Freud's theories were used and are still being used to manipulate us into consuming, a place to start is viewing "The Century of the Self." The long 4 part film is available on You tube and other places on the web. I'm going to watch it again starting today.

    TV has been gone from my home for a long time. I look the other way when I see a billboard or any advertising that I can block from coming in. It's everywhere but I block as much as I can. I *know* I am influenced by advertising. Of course they have done studies that show that the people who *believe* they are not influenced by advertising are the ones who are influenced the most! So they work that into their marketing schemes to override that. It's mind control plain and simple. Resist, don't conform, and refuse to participate. Thanks Gregg. And Saffron.

  5. What does the image means ?

    1. I think it illustrates how our minds have been imprisoned by the culture of corporation and consumerism. Rather than make life better, they have now become like a ball and chain. Popular media is how they have spread their message and infected us all.


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