During the last thirty years or so, consumption has been established on the agenda of the social sciences. To many contemporary thinkers, consumption, and related questions of culture and identity appear to be the best point of entry in understanding present social relations, while production has been superseded. (Indeed, Daniel Miller  proposes that an adequate understanding of contemporary capitalism might do well with departing from consumption, rather than production.) The rise of consumption on the agenda of social theory has correlated with the discovery of the ‘active consumer’. It was only when the Cultural Studies tradition of the 1970s had established that consumers are not ‘passive dopes’ of mass culture, but that they act, resist and exercise creativity in their consumer practices, that consumption became an interesting area of study in its own right. Before the mid-1970s (and with the exception of American sociologists like Gans , Rainwater et al.  and Warner ), the assumption had been that consumption was a passive and private pursuit, largely unrelated to the social world that constituted the object domain of the social sciences. Like most Marxists, social scientists in general thought of consumption as the end station of production in which ‘the product steps out of the social movement and becomes a direct object and servant of individual need, and satisfies it in being consumed’ (Marx, 1973: 89).2 As a ‘terminal point’ and ‘end in itself’ consumption belongs outside of the realm of economics (and social science) and whatever drives it (‘needs arising from the stomach or from the imagination’, Marx, 1990: 125) has no bearing on the analysis of political economy. As an interest in consumption as a creative practice spread from cultural studies proper to sociology, anthropology, history and, ultimately, ‘Critical Consumer Studies’ – an offshoot of the academic discipline of marketing (that discipline had previously been dominated by cognitive psychology and information processing theory;
cf. Cochoy, 1999; Miller, 1995) – a corresponding emphasis on the ‘agency’ or even ‘resistance’ of consumers was maintained, sometimes to the point of producing a discourse that had uncanny similarities with contemporary Thatcherite enthusiasm about the sovereign consumer (cf. McGuigan, 1992; Morris, 1992). Often, the emphasis on consumer agency was used as an anti-Marxist point. This became particularly prominent in the 1980s, as the original neo-Gramscian perspective of the Birmingham school of Cultural Studies was supplanted by feminist and post-structuralist influences. Mica Nava, for example, argues that the ‘totalizing perspective’ of ‘Marxists of the Frankfurt School’ has worked as an obstacle to the search for adequate understandings of contemporary consumer practice, as it has given too little space for such necessary agency. In Marxist analyses of advertising, she argues, this has been constructed as a ‘monolithic force, which the helpless consumer/spectator/subject is incapable of resisting’ (Nava, 1997: 36). It is true that ‘Marxists of the Frankfurt School’ (I gather that Nava thinks of Adorno, who was not, strictly speaking, a Marxist) or of other denominations (like Baran and Sweezy  or Mandel , who arguably were the first Marxists to give consumption a place in the analysis of contemporary capitalism) have given little attention to the actual complexities of consumer behaviour. In general they tended to treat consumption as wasteful or irrational, devoted to the pursuit of the useless (‘kitsch in the living room’), the dangerous (‘cigarettes’) or the frivolous and artificial (fashion or new car models; cf. Mandel, 1975: 399). But, I suggest that Marx should not be discarded entirely. A different, more contemporary reading of Marx can give us a better, more sociological understanding of the concept that contemporary studies of consumption puts at the centre of its analysis, yet practically never defines: Consumer Agency.