Shifting grounds and evolving battlegrounds: Evaluative frameworks and debates about market capitalism from the 1930s through the 1990s

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Palgrave Macmillan


This article probes the evaluative frameworks applied to the consumption and consumers in a large corpus of texts written between 1920 and 2000. Scrutinizing English-language texts dealing with the virtues and shortcomings of market capitalism, the analysis first dissects the representation of consumption and consumers and the consequential post-WWII transition from a conceptualization based on purchasing power to one based on the idea of consumer choice and consumer well-being. The article then explores the increasing centrality of consumption and consumer choice in the debates between market-critical progressives and the advocates of laissez-faire capitalism. It is only after the decline of neoconservatism and the rise of the consumerist libertarian stance that consumption comes into its own as the central point of contestation between progressives and those who pushed for a more laissez-faire brand of capitalism. Once the theme of consumption took center stage, it allowed the market-critical progressives and their laissez-faire adversaries to meet each other in a common thematic arena. When consumerist libertarianism began to dominate on the right-wing side of the debate, the contest between critics and proponents of expansionary market capitalism metamorphosed into a genuinely ideological struggle over the significance and meaning of consumer choice and consumer well-being.