There is another key concept from Marx that helps explain consumer cultures—alienation. Marx argued that Capitalist societies can produce goods but they also inevitably produce alienation, a sense of estrangement from oneself and from society. Marx discussed alienation as follows (Marx 1964:169-170):
In what does this alienation oflabour consist? First, that the work is external to the worker, that it is not a part of his nature, that consequently he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery, not of wellbeing, does not develop freely a physical and mental energy, but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. The worker therefore feels himself at home only during his leisure, whereas at work he feels homeless. His work is not voluntary but imposed, forced labour. It is not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying other needs. Its alien character is clearly shown by the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion it is avoided like the plague. Finally, the alienated character of work for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his work but work for someone else, that in work he does not belong to himself but to another person...
The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, takes on its own existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, and alien to him, and that it stands opposed to him as an autonomous power. The life which he has given to the object sets itself against him as an alien and hostile force
Marx believed that our jobs are central to our identities, and thus if we have jobs that are alienating, we become alienated from ourselves and from others.
From the Marxist perspective, it is the role of the media in Capitalist societies to provide distraction from the misery people feel because of their alienation and to provide momentary gratifications (bread and spectacles) for people with alienated spirits. And marketing and advertising are institutions that focus people’s attention on the material goods they can purchase to temporary assuage the alienation they feel. What we call consumer cultures are, from a Marxist perspective, products of the alienation people feel, but the things we buy, they argue do not solve the alienation we feel.
For the upper classes, alienation is functional because it leads the masses to focus their attention on things they can purchase and generates, in many people, compulsive consumption. In a sense, then, we can say that marketing becomes the dominant means by which Capitalist societies maintain themselves which helps us understand why marketing is so allpervasive a force in the United States and other advanced countries. Marx wrote (quoted in Fromm 1962:50):
Every man speculates upon creating a new need in another in order to force him to a new sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence, and to entice him into a new kind of pleasure and thereby economic ruin. Everyone tries to establish over others an alien power in order to find there the satisfaction of his own egotistic needs
For Marxists, this is a description of the role of marketing and advertising in Capitalist societies—we create products and services we didn’t know we needed (what he called “new needs”) and sell them to as many people as possible.
The solution, for Marx, was a revolution in which the masses seize control of society and destroy the class system. The example of Russia and other Eastern European communist countries suggests that Marx’s idealistic ideas are impossible to implement. They led to totalitarian societies in which people suffered greatly. Some European social democracies, such as Sweden and Denmark, have minimized the importance and power of the class system and ameliorated the lives of their citizens with safety nets of one kind or another. But pure Marxism has been repudiated. However, as a critique of Capitalism societies and of the inequities in Capitalist societies, and of the role of popular culture, the mass media, media consolidation, and so on, in Capitalist societies/consumer cultures, Marxism has a lot to offer.
Some Marxist critics argue that what advertising sells, aside from the particular products and services it promotes, is the bourgeois Capitalist system that is so good at producing products but also alienation. This means that marketing and advertising must be seen in a broader context as institutions selling the system. In contemporary American society, the interest in inequality and the economic and political power of the top one percent of the population suggests that marketing and advertising are losing their capacity to distract people into consumer culture and a focus on buying things. Now many Americans are concerned about the class system here and the fact that large numbers of people are now earning less than they did twenty years ago.