Identity   /   Fall 1999   /    Articles

The Self in Consumer Society

Zygmunt Bauman

Window Shopping on 6th Avenue of 47th Street in Manhattan (Chester Higgins, 1970).

Our postmodern society is a consumer society. When we call it a consumer society, we have in mind something more than the trivial and sedate circumstance that all members of that society are consumers—all human beings, and not just human beings, have been consumers since time immemorial. What we do have in mind is that ours is a “consumer society” in the similarly profound and fundamental sense in which the society of our predecessors, modern society in its industrial phase, used to be a “producer society.” That older type of modern society once engaged its members primarily as producers and soldiers; society shaped its members by dictating the need to play those two roles, and the norm that society held up to its members was the ability and the willingness to play them. In its present late-modern (Giddens), second-modern (Beck), or postmodern stage, modern society has little need for mass industrial labor and conscript armies, but it needs—and engages—its members in their capacity as consumers.

The role that our present-day society holds up to its members is the role of the consumer, and the members of our society are likewise judged by their ability and willingness to play that role. The difference between our present-day society and its immediate predecessor is not as radical as abandoning one role and picking up another instead. In neither of its two stages could modern societies do without its members producing things to be consumed, and members of both societies do, of course, consume. The consumer of a consumer society, however, is a sharply different creature from the consumer of any other society thus far. The difference is one of emphasis and priorities—a shift of emphasis that makes an enormous difference to virtually every aspect of society, culture, and individual life. The differences are so deep and multiform that they fully justify speaking of our society as a society of a separate and distinct kind—a consumer society.

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