F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Consumer Society and its Foundations

The consumer society and the vast political economy it engenders and sustains has long been a subject of philosophical interest, of concern, attention, critique and satire. These acquire an added edge as the toll it exacts on the environment–via global warming–becomes increasingly clear. Novelists have not been immune to its fascinations either. For a long time. In Tender is the Night (Scribner, New York, 1995) F. Scott Fitzgerald provides a well-crafted take on those who inhabit it, and those that sustain it:

With Nicole’s help Rosemary bought two dresses and two hats and four pairs of shoes with her money. Nicole bought from a great list that ran two pages, and bought the things in the windows besides. Everything she liked that she couldn’t possibly use herself, she bought as a present for a friend. She bought colored beads, folding beach cushions, artificial flowers, honey, a guest bed, bags, scarfs, love birds, miniatures for a doll’s house and three yards of some new cloth the color of prawns. She bought a dozen bathing suits, a rubber alligator, a travelling chess set of gold and ivory, big linen handkerchiefs for Abe, two chamois leather jackets of kingfisher blue and burning bush from Hermes — bought all these things not a bit like a high-class courtesan buying underwear and jewels, which were after all professional equipment and insurance — but with an entirely different point of view. Nicole was the product of much ingenuity and toil. For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California; chicle factories fumed and link belts grew link by link in factories; men mixed toothpaste in vats and drew mouthwash out of copper hogsheads; girls canned tomatoes quickly in August or worked rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve; half-breed Indians toiled on Brazilian coffee plantations and dreamers were muscled out of patent rights in new tractors — these were some of the people who gave a tithe to Nicole, and as the whole system swayed and thundered onward it lent a feverish bloom to such processes of hers as wholesale buying, like the flush of a fireman’s face holding his post before a spreading blaze. (Chapter XII, pp. 55)

What makes Fitzgerald’s passage particularly interesting is how it indicts so many of our current preoccupations vis-a-vis the consumer society: carbon footprints (‘trains began their runs…’); environmental pollution (‘chicle factories fumed…’); industrialization (‘men mixed toothpaste in vats…’); sweat shop labor conditions (‘half-breed Indians toiled on…’); intellectual property (‘dreamers were muscled out of patent rights..’).

But the punchline, arguably, is Fitzgerald’s noting that ‘Nicole was the product of much ingenuity and toil.’ For the consumer represents not only the endpoint, the culmination, the realization of the vast machinery of men and materials that Fitzgerald so vividly describes but also its starting point, its engine, its motivating force. The consumer animates these processes, sets them in motion and rewards them with its time, attention and finally, and most importantly, its wealth. 

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