Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 came as a profound shock, but what the public never knew was that she was under intense psychoanalysis from Anna Freud and her friends. Her former husband and well-known writer Arthur Miller went public, proclaiming that psychoanalysis was imprisoning people rather than freeing them. It all seemed to backfire when a new generation of analysts stepped forward in agreement with Miller’s outlook. Martin Luther King Jr., too, preached a famous sermon on how he was content to be maladjusted because he could never accept inequality or intolerance.
Now psychoanalysts were saying that people were inwardly good and that they should begin expressing their inner selves. Almost overnight citizens went from being depraved beings to delighted consumers. Those inner cravings (the very thing Sigmund Freud feared) became the basis for the emerging “me” generation. The great opportunities for what could have been created by an integrated and aware citizenry suddenly fell to pieces as most went searching for their own individualism. Ironically, a significant student movement began appearing on American campuses to fight against this manifestation of corporate control of outright materialism and government control of militarism in Vietnam.
In some senses tragically, a revolution emphasizing individual pursuits was underway that would shift the western world from social transformation to personal transformation. Corporate think tanks instinctively knew that this was the time to solidify the link between the individual wanting personal choices with a brand new array of choices for things to purchase. The massive industrial economy was quickly giving way to what one might call “retail therapy” – the ability to choose from numerous kinds of cars or stereos instead of the few that had been previously on offer. Corporate leaders pressed politicians to cut the social restraints that had characterized early forms of citizenship and let the consumer free. Economically, it revolutionized western economies; socially, it represented the end of the great citizen compacts that emerged following World War Two.
More and more products filled the marketplace, offering people as many choices as required to express their individual identities. Corporate barons knew that the old society that had just passed was conformist in nature and therefore required little variety in consumer goods. The great dreams of the post-war era – healthcare, universal education, full employment, seniors’ security – gave way to the credit card. For businesses this only made sense and for governments they discovered new life in their economies. But for citizenship and its importance to the democratic process and national life, it was disheartening. The possibilities of the “good society” became lost on business, government and citizens alike.
For capitalism the key issue became the VALS – values and lifestyles – and how to provide the most goods and services to the masses. Massive amounts of funds were put into scientific research concerning the key choices consumers would make. When people said what they wanted, the products would appear shortly thereafter (the steam iron or instant waffles, for instance). It truly was the beginning of the consumer age.
But one troubling development emerged. If research could show what kind of products consumers wanted, it could also reveal what kind of politicians they preferred. Focus groups suddenly popped up all over the political landscape, especially at the federal level. That research showed, for instance, that people weren’t so much interested in policy as they were in politicians that would just let them be themselves. It also revealed, surprisingly to some, that they preferred Ronald Reagan.
Moderate Republicans reacted negatively, but it polled well and the former actor and political activist began to find favour. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher was stating that, “there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families.” Sure enough it worked and both were elected with significant mandates. The old industrial era was passing and both leaders said they wouldn’t bail out the millions of unemployed through social programs. It was a bombshell, but few seemed to take notice.
What emerged from all this was a world not all that much different from what we have at present. While economies were retooling from an industrial age to a goods and services era, unemployment levels stayed high, even though more products were being sold than ever before. Reagan and Thatcher greatly expanded the military industrial complexes of their respective societies and both accrued (along with Brian Mulroney) massive deficits and debts. Though Reagan and Mulroney put forward some clear policies on the environment, the consumer forces they unleashed and the debts incurred in the process easily outstripped any progress that was made. There were even greater costs incurred with the social deficits created by all three leaders.
It was over; the citizen had lost, while the consumer soared. When we converse today about citizenship and recapturing the greatness of Canada, we are actually talking about a citizenship that hasn’t existed for two or more decades. It is consumers today that seem to have no limit – leaving committed and active citizens to clean up much of the damage and develop innovative solutions. Soon we’ll have to consider how citizens themselves were culpable in this move to obsolescence and what, if anything, can be done to change it. But first one more final transformation that has led us to the present.