John Kenneth Galbraith: cultural theorist of consumption and power.

Author:Waller, William

This article has two purposes. The first is to articulate John Kenneth Galbraith's theoretical contributions to our understanding of power and consumption--two frequent topics in his writings. The second is to argue that Galbraith must be thought of as a cultural economic theorist if the full import of his work is to be understood. Cultural theory can fulfill all these purposes, just as other kinds of theorizing can. Like other theories, cultural theories can take various forms and serve many purposes, but cultural theory always includes theorizing where a key component is creating, explicating, and building upon social meaning. Hence, unlike the asocial, ahistorical assumptions of neoclassical economics, cultural economic theory explicitly engages in theorizing society's pre-existing, historically contingent, symbolic system and how agents acting within that symbolic system structure, create, integrate, maintain, stabilize, and evolve new meanings within that society.

Cultural theory is not merely the study of the formations of cultural, social, and economic behavior. It is about the social construction of meaning emerging from human behavior occurring within a cultural symbolic system.

Galbraith's theorizing about consumption and power includes how people choose, but also what this behavior means to people in our culture and the consequences of this behavior on the cultural system of meaning. Similarly, his theorizing about power addresses how power is used, as well as the meaning of its uses, and its affects on the system of meaning itself.

Galbraith Theorizes Consumption

The Affluent Society and the Dependence Effect

Galbraith's first foray into consumption theory is in The Affluent Society (1958). This book contains a rich analysis of the U.S. economy of the 1950s; however, I will limit my discussion mostly to Galbraith's theorizing of consumption behavior. Stylistically Galbraith's analysis in this book appears to consist of casual empiricism and selected observations. Closer reading of the argument reveals three separate parts. The first part is Galbraith's critique of the underlying logic of neoclassical economics. The second part is his presentation of the dependency hypothesis. The third part assembles the cultural building blocks that created "affluence" and the processes of want creation.

Galbraith begins with a thorough critique of the conventional neoclassical approach to consumption beginning with the assumptions of that approach:

"The urgency of wants does not diminish appreciably as more of them are satisfied ... " (1958, 143)


" ... wants originate in the personality of the consumer or, in any case, that they are given data for the economist" (1958, 144).

While Alfred Marshall indicated these simplifications were only a starting point, Galbraith notes that " ... economists ever since have been content to stay with his starting point and to make it a mark of scholarly restraint and scientific virtue to do so ... " (Galbraith 1958, 147)

Galbraith argues that neoclassical accounts of consumption ignore the reality of relative satiation and the social construction of wants. He notes the plethora of empirical evidence contradicting these assumptions has had no particular impact on the economics profession. But this is all a prelude to Galbraith's contribution to the theory of the consumer--namely "the dependence effect."

By the dependence effect, Galbraith means that producers create the wants of consumers for the products they decide to produce. He notes that everyone except professional economists understand that some basic wants may represent fundamental needs and the desire for these goods might be very strong. But in our affluent society, after those basic needs are met the intensity of desire for additional products is not necessarily as urgent. He notes, "that if production creates the wants it seeks to satisfy, or if the wants emerge pari passu with the production, the urgency of wants can no longer be used to defend the urgency of production. Production only fills a void that it has itself created" (Galbraith 1958, 153).

Consumer sovereignty is undermined by the dependence effect. The increased production can no longer be justified as meeting given needs of the sovereign consumers, instead it serves only to fulfill desires the producer has gone to great lengths and expense to create. There is not a compelling argument to organize society's resources to meet these ersatz needs. "Among the many models of the good society no one has urged the squirrel wheel" (Galbraith 1958, 159).

Galbraith systematically builds his cultural argument, explaining contemporary consumption in terms of evolving cultural processes. The first step of his argument is the social role played by the conventional wisdom of which neoclassical economics is a key component. The conventional wisdom is the prevailing set of widespread beliefs with both substantive content and symbolic importance that justify the status quo. As Galbraith notes the enemy of the conventional wisdom is the march of events circumstances change. These cherished beliefs that support the origin myths of society identify all that is good and true will eventually be undercut by change (Galbraith 1958, 13).

This belief structure, that increased production retains its paramount importance, has implications for human behavior. Our social beliefs leave the questioning of individual priorities outside of public scrutiny--individual priorities are assumed to be authentic, personal, subjective wants of unknowable and unending intensity of desire. The morality of fulfilling those needs never comes into question. Nor does the priority of fulfilling any of these demonstrated needs--demonstrated by their fulfillment, meaning resulting in the purchase of some privately produced commodity. This creates a society that accepts the fulfillment of individual desire as morally legitimate regardless of its content. In contrast, public or collective needs have no such claim to the legitimacy (unless established in some other way, such as military preparedness, on which more later). Consequently, publicly provided goods are subjected to extreme scrutiny and supercilious assertions of their moral inferiority compared to privately provided goods.

This inevitably leads our society to over-emphasize personal consumption and to de-emphasize and consequently under invest in meeting most public needs. The least legitimate need of all is any that results in income redistribution schemes by the government because the loss experienced by one individual because of income redistribution is incalculable compared to any benefit received by others individually or the community as a whole.

This result of the conventional wisdom is historically and culturally contingent...

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