The enterprise of the self-determined individual within the political economy we know as capitalism makes for a relatable Hollywood plot since many people aspire to be more than they are; to live more comfortable lives; to make more money; to own expensive things. Upward mobility is generally thought of as a good thing and is widely desired since rightly or wrongly, what we own is often a measure of our social status, financial status, and often our own self-worth. In this lesson, we will take a closer look at the functions of culture within a capitalist society and explore a number of connected topics that relate to the affordances and limitations of economic and cultural capital and the ways these ideas manifest in relation to media and society.
Affluenza, a portmanteau of affluence and influenza, is a pejorative term, describing a lifestyle defined by excessive consumption, materialism and consumerism. According to de Graff, Wann and Naylor, affluenza describes “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more” (2001, p.2). Australian public intellectual Clive Hamilton defines it as “the bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses … An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the Australian dream … [and] an unsustainable addiction to economic growth” (2005, p. 3).
Affluenza is a neologism of pop culture. You may have head it used in the news media recently, in relation to the legal defence of American teenager Ethan Couch whose lawyers successfully managed to argue that he should be given rehabilitation and not prison after killing four people and seriously injuring two others while drink driving, on the grounds of his inability to understand the consequences of his actions because of financial privilege. This is now known as the ‘affluenza defense’.
So why am I telling you this? Because what we consume, how much we consume and what we believe we’re entitled to consume matters. In this lesson, we will take a closer look at the functions of culture within a capitalist society and explore a number of connected topics that relate to the affordances and limitations of economic and cultural capital and the ways these ideas manifest in relation to media and society. Specifically, we will explore the meaning and functions of:
● social class
● types of capital and the ways we accumulate it
● social status and social mobility
● consumerism, commodification and commodity fetishism
● conspicuous consumption, materialism and commodification
● socio-economic systems and theories, and
● virtual economies
So let’s begin by unpacking some of the core concepts.
Do you recognise the guy pictured on the cover image of this lecture (see above)? His name is Karl Marx and he was a 19th-century philosopher who had a lot to say about class.
Social class is the system of ordering society whereby people are divided into categories based on perceived social status and/or economic value. Class designates a social and economic position and it always involves an antagonistic relation between classes. It is not the only cause of social division and conflict and is indeed usually complexly interwoven with other factors, from geography to other social identities such as ethnicity or gender.
“In a capitalist society, the ruling class, or the bourgeoisie, owns the means of production, such as machines or tools that can be used to produce valuable objects. The working class, or the proletariat, only possess their own labor power, which they sell to the ruling class in the form of wage labor to survive. These relations of production—employer-employee relations, the technical division of labor, and property relations—form the base of society or, in Marxist terms, the substructure. From this material substructure, the superstructure emerges. The superstructure includes the ideas, philosophies and culture of a society. In a capitalist society, the ruling class promotes its own ideologies and values as the norm for the entire society, and these ideas and values are accepted by the working class.”
Source: “Marx’s View of Class Differentiation.” Boundless Sociology.
💰 So who was Marx and what was he on about?
Watch this video for an 8-bit explanation.
Capital, as it relates to our topic, refers to a valued resource of some kind, usually wealth in the form of money or other assets owned by a person or organisation.
“Like Marx, Bourdieu argued that capital formed the foundation of social life and dictated one’s position within the social order. For Bourdieu and Marx both, the more capital one has, the more powerful a position one occupies in social life. However, Bourdieu extended Marx’s idea of capital beyond the economic and into the more symbolic realm of culture.
Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital refers to the collection of symbolic elements such as skills, tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, etc. that one acquires through being part of a particular social class. Sharing similar forms of cultural capital with others—the same taste in movies, for example, or a degree from an Ivy League School—creates a sense of collective identity and group position (“people like us”). But Bourdieu also points out that cultural capital is a major source of social inequality. Certain forms of cultural capital are valued over others and can help or hinder one’s social mobility just as much as income or wealth.
According to Bourdieu, cultural capital comes in three forms—embodied, objectified, and institutionalized. One’s accent or dialect is an example of embodied cultural capital, while a luxury car or record collection are examples of cultural capital in its objectified state. In its institutionalized form, cultural capital refers to credentials and qualifications such as degrees or titles that symbolize cultural competence and authority.”
Source: “Cultural Capital.” Social Theory Re-Wired.
💰 Social Status
Social status is the position or rank of a person or group, within the society, which often equates to their ranking in social class but can also be correlated to a person’s prestige, social honor, or popularity in a society.
Social mobility refers to a person’s ability to increase or decrease their social status and class category. For example,
Perhaps you’re familiar with the phrase ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. This is indicative of upward movements in status.
How about the phrase ‘the self-made man’ or the ‘American Dream’? Social mobility is frequent in societies like our own where achievement rather than ascription is the primary basis for social status.
The American Dream is an ideology or a belief that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth (James Truslow Adams, 1931). The concept of the self-made man is deeply rooted in the American Dream. In Benjamin Franklin‘s autobiography, he describes his way from a poor, unknown son of a candle-maker to a very successful businessman and highly acknowledged member of the American society. Franklin creates the archetype of someone coming from low origins, who, against all odds, breaks out of his inherited social position, climbs up the social ladder and creates a new identity for himself. Key factors in this rise from rags to riches are hard work and a solid moral foundation. Franklin also stresses the significance of education for self-improvement.
Of course, many people aspire to be more than they are; to live more comfortable lives; to make more money; to own expensive things. Upward mobility is generally thought of as a good thing and is desired by many. The triumph of self-determination is a common Hollywood narrative, and as we are about to see, climbing up the social hierarchy is not always a noble pursuit and can lead to destructive ends.
🎥 VIEWING TASK
Let’s look at two examples: The Great Gatsby (2013) and The Pursuit of Happiness (2006). Both of these films feature a main character driven against all odds to better themselves. Gatsby began life as the son of shiftless and unsuccessful farmers and had been consistently determined to succeed in life and change his economic status. While Gardner is a struggling single father who faces homelessness and unemployment yet remains determined to create a better life for his young son.
📝 CRITICAL RESPONSE TASK
Both characters achieve this elevation to a different social class, but the means they take to get there are very different.
There is an obvious moral tale in both stories. What is it?
Both narratives offer a critique of capitalism and the American class structure. How do the critical perspectives differ?
In general terms, Gatsby is unscrupulous and self-aggrandizing and Gardner is righteous and humble. But even Gardner had to ‘fake it until he made it’, which required him to be deceitful on occasion. Still, there is an obvious discrepancy between the course of action undertaken by the lead characters in their individual pursuit of fulfillment, but are their motivations similar in any way? After all, doesn’t everyone want to be ‘great’ and ‘happy’? Respond to this statement by trying to identify some similarities between the motivations and circumstances of each character. For example, they are both victims of circumstance.
💰 Conspicuous Consumption
Consumption is the process by which goods and services are, at last, put to final use by people. Consumption is at the end of the line of economic activities that starts with an evaluation of available resources and proceeds through the production of goods and services and distribution of goods and services (or the means to acquire them) among people and groups. And last, the goods and services themselves come to be used. The effect of this consumption, including depletion of resources and generation of waste as well as enhancement of human survival and flourishing, determines the resource base for the next round of economic activity.
Conspicuous consumption refers to the spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power—either the buyer’s income or the buyer’s accumulated wealth. This is perfectly encapsulated in the following music video from 50 Cent entitled, “I Get Money.”
Take this iPhone for example. What can it do that a regular iPhone cannot? Think about its symbolic function to answer the question.
Consumption is central to our way of life but consumer culture can lead to gratuitous actions and negative consequences. Although this might sound like fun, it actually poses a problem because millions of people in affluent Western societies are in credit card debt due to the purchasing of goods that they do not have the money to pay for. And it’s not just debt that we need to be concerned about. There are a range of negative economic, social and psychological effects that this type of consumption gives rise to. If you would like to look further into the ethics and risks of consumption you can explore the resources below. Otherwise, you can skip to the next essential part of this lesson by clicking here.
“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”
― Noam Chomsky
The following two films offer thoughtful critiques on consumer society. Watch the clips from each film and then read the accompanying articles to gain a deeper critical perspective.
“Companies sell their products by using human beings as billboards. Our society is completely monopolized by a culture of consumerism and an obsession with commodities. Fight Club (1999), directed by David Fincher, embodies our society’s infatuation with material items and the seductive hold that they have over our lives. Fight Club successfully acts as a commentary on consumer culture through the creative and profound use of symbolism.”
Red more at …
“Twenty-one years ago, Ewan McGregor, albeit briefly, tapped into prevailing anxieties over the spiritual bankruptcy of western consumerist society. “Choose life,” began his monologue as smackhead Mark Renton in Danny Boyle’s film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting. “Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home …”
Have you ever stopped to consider that by wearing branded clothing you’re basically a walking billboard for fashion labels? They sell more clothes, but what do you get for your service?
Commodification is the transformation of goods and services, as well as ideas or other entities that normally may not be considered goods, into a commodity.
One of capitalism’s greatest successes is its ability to turn everything into a commodity. It can even transform its opponents into saleable products.
Here’s an example:
How many of the symbols below do you recognise? Can you remember the context in which you first came across them? Do you know what they mean and the original context within which they came to be meaningful?
While our understanding of political and economic theories of social organisation such as anarchism, communism or socialism may be limited, it’s quite likely that the symbols above are somewhat familiar to you.
Perhaps you had an anarchist sticker or your notebook in high school or owned a t-shirt with the face of Che Guevara (an iconic symbol of commercial rebellion in the 1990s) screenprinted on the front?
As the second group of images indicates, these emblems have become little more than a decoration—commodified signifiers of radical coolness drifting amidst a postmodern marketplace of logos and brands.
To conclude this lesson, choose either the extension viewing task or the extension reading task below and complete this prior to your tutorial for further discussion.
🎥 VIEWING TASK (Option 1)
📚 READING TASK (Option 2)
Matrix, S. E. (2013). Cyber commerce and computerized subjectivity.In Digital Lifestyles and Commodity Culture (pp. 25-60). New York: Routledge.
📌 VERY PINTERESTING
If you’ve delivering your dialectic inquiry on this topic and need a little inspiration, be sure to make use of the resources on the SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest board. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.