Neo-Liberalism and “Consumerist Democracy”
After immersing myself in the current and historical marketing and advertising literature for the last few days, and having reviewed, in light of the new information, the great BBC documentary series by Adam Curtis called The Century of the Self, I’ve arrived at a few preliminary observations and conclusions about how we have arrived where we are today at our “end of history” and “the corporatocracy” (or, what amounts to the same thing, “consumerist democracy”). It’s really all of a piece.
And to appreciate the meaning of the terms “neo-liberalism”, “corporatocracy,” or “techno-corporate state”, and what this might have to do with what is now being called “Marketing 3.0” or “holistic branding” (and “the end of history”) we’ll have to briefly review some history of the Modern Era as it has developed over the last 500 years.
The four great institutions of the Modern Era as it has developed over the last five centuries are State, Church, University, and Corporation — the latter being the newest addition to the foursome. The separation of Church and State really marks the beginning of the Modern Era. It opened up a space between Church and State that allowed for the emancipation of the University from both, and the creation therewith of a “civil society”. The State concerned itself with affairs of space and national territory, while the Church concerned itself with matters of time and eternity. The three powers presided over three realms of the social order — the political, the cultural, and the religious. At certain times, to be sure, one was often more domineering or prominent than the others.
A little over a century ago emerged the modern corporation. It represents the addition of the economic and the organisation of the productive forces of society to the other three. It’s rise in the West corresponds also to the advent of the commercial form of speech called “advertising”, and it has become the dominant and, indeed, domineering, institution of Late Modernity, having basically usurped the historical authority of the others over the last century up to today. The corporate form is the new imperialising institution of Late Modernity, for it has co-opted and compromised the others. Ad-speak has become the dominant mode of social communication, or, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, the primary outlet for the intellectual and artistic activities of Late Modernity.
That co-optation is reflected in the various stages of the history of advertising itself. Philip Kotler’s reference to “Marketing 3.0“, or a third wave of marketing, corresponds to what is being called “holistic” or “integral marketing”. The subtitle of Kotler’s book, that includes references to Marketing 1.0 and Marketing 2.0, is “From Products to Customers to the Human Spirit“. These three waves (and “The Century of the Self” covers some of them in whole or in part) correspond to the appropriation or usurpation of the other institutions. Market 1.0 (the “product”) focussed on education — that is, educating the public in consumer products and their uses. This phase covers the time period from the first decade of the 20th century until about the outbreak of the Second World War. But it was during the World Wars, in lending itself to war propaganda, that advertising discovered its political potency and its potency, not only in politics, but as itself a form of political organisation. This is the period of the emphasis on the “consumer” or Marketing 2.0. This period following the Second World War marks the real beginning of the psychoanalytical phase of advertising, as portrayed very well in Curtis’s The Century of the Self.
While Marketing 1.0 had pretty much restricted itself to the “cultural” — educating the common man and the immigrant in the norms, standards, and mores of “polite society” and its proper patterns of consumption (and so, emphasising advertising as “art”), Marketing 2.0 became more self-consciously “scientific” and political, and increasingly as the only true regulatory and governing power and authority in the land, gradually making claims on the authority of government and politics itself, and seeing these as its competition. Most of the history of “marketing 2.0” is the history of a gradual co-optation of the authority of government, State and politics.
This is what most people, I think, understand by the meaning “corporatocracy” or “consumerist democracy”.
Marketing 1.0 represents the usurpation of public education from the educational institutions. Marketing 2.0 represents the usurpation of political authority from the elected officials of government (prefigured in Edward Bernays’ model of “Democracity” of the 1939 World’s Fair as covered so well in The Century of the Self).
Marketing 3.0 represents the usurpation of religion and the functions of the Church, as exemplified in the subtitle of Kotler’s book — the third wave of usurpation is “the human spirit”. Marketing 1.0 emphasised material need; marketing 2.0 emphasised psychological desire and yearning; marketing 3.0 emphasises spiritual longing which it claims it can satisfy and fulfill through “lifestyle branding” or what is called “holistic” or “integral” branding.
In other words, marketing 1.0, marketing 2.0 and marketing 3.0 represent three waves or stages in the total imperialisation of society by the corporation, and the corresponding diminishment of the autonomy of the others and what they represent — the political, the cultural and the spiritual. The corporatocracy is, essentially, claiming it can do a better job of creating culture than the University; a better job of governing than the government; and a better job of fulfilling the spiritual aspirations of the public and providing “transcendental meaning” (their terms) than the Churches or, for that matter, religion or spirituality in general.
In that sense, the “three waves” represent three expropriations of the modern legacy and the commonwealth by the private corporation — the essence of reductive “economism” as it were. Politics, culture (arts & sciences), and religion have been made subordinate to the corporation, while it appropriates characteristics of all three itself.
“Holistic branding”, which justifies itself explicitly in terms of “brand religion” (cf Martin Lindstrom in Brand Sense) and the corporation as the “new temple, synagogue, mosque, and church” is only briefly touched upon in The Century of the Self, and much later in the fourth film in the series, where it is referred to as “values and lifestyles” approach (or “VALS”). But it seems pretty clear that “values and lifestyles” branding was a preliminary way of saying “holistic”.
It seems pretty clear that this upstart institution of Late Modernity is succeeding very well in remaking society in its image, and its own imperative — “the commodification of everything”. There’s no doubt that it sees itself as the only dominant and relevant institution of Late or post-modernity. But the relative autonomy of State, Church, University and Corporation must be insisted upon, because they do correspond to the fourfold human constitution in traditional terms represented as mind, body, soul, and spirit. The all-devouring, all-consuming corporation will be nothing less than a thorough totalitarianism — the totalitarianism of Blakes’ “Single Vision”.