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Karl Marx is one of the greatest names associated with communism, but arguably his greatest works stem from economics rather than politics. Marx saw the destruction caused by industrialism and capitalism, which lead to many of his theories collectively known as Marxism. This school of thought examines the economic and political themes within society, primarily those expressed in literature. One concept within Marxist theory is consumerism. Consumerism did not arise until after the Industrial Revolution, when goods were no longer crafted by hand, but were mass produced and sold rather than bartered.
Although consumerism is not directly defined by Marx, it is well within the realm of his work. According to Lois Tyson in a chapter on Marxist Criticism, “Consumerism, or shop ’till you dropism…is an ideology that says ‘I’m only as good as what I buy’” (Tyson 60). This way of thinking leads to uncontrollable spending and often a large amount of debt, all in pursuit of the “American Dream”. When discussing the role of money in his theories on alienation, Marx said, “The quantity of money becomes increasingly its only important quality…Excess and immoderation become its true standard” (Fromm 46). In this quote, Marx mentions the “excess and immoderation” displayed in consumerism, in which the consumers must have “more” simply because of the esteem associated with innumerous purchases. Tyson elaborates by saying, “For Marxism, a commodity’s value lies not in what it can do (use value) but in the money or other commodities for which it can be traded (exchange value) or in the social status it confers on its owner (sign-exchange value)” (Tyson 62).Thus, consumerism can be considered one of the repressive, capitalist ideologies that Marx often criticized.
Rampant consumerism is easily identifiable in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman works desperately to provide for his family and achieve the American Dream. Because of his deep need to appear successful, Willy buys the newest amenities for his wife and family. However, the Loman’s cannot afford these expensive purchases and must buy on credit. In one scene, Willy asks his wife Linda what they owe and she replies, “Well, on the first there’s sixteen dollars on the refrigerator… [and] nine-sixty for the washing machine. And for the vacuum cleaner there’s three and a half due on the fifteenth. Then the roof, you got twenty-one dollars remaining. Then you owe Frank for the carburetor.” The debt from all these purchases comes to “around a hundred and twenty dollars” (Miller 23). By the time these purchases are paid off, the items are well-worn and in need of replacements, at least in Willy’s eyes. When they first fix the refrigerator shortly after purchasing it, Willy says “I know, it’s a fine machine” (Miller 13). However, when it is nearly paid off, he says, “I told you we should’ve bought a well-advertised machine. Charley bought a General Electric and it’s twenty years old and it’s still good…” (Miller 31). This is a perfect illustration of consumerism. Willy is content with his new machine until he realizes that his brother has something better. To Willy, his self-worth is directly attached to his material possessions. When these things begin to fail, he, too, feels like a failure.
Miller’s play is well-suited for a Marxist approach. The economic themes actually helped turn the lens on myself. Willy Loman is not a very likeable guy, especially with his constant need to be the provider. His drive to live the American Dream takes away from the truly important things in life, primarily his family. It is easy to hate Willy for his obsession with money and material possessions, and yet those same qualities can be found on any modern day street. The loathing that readers feel towards Willy speaks volumes about the current economic situation. Money rules the world around us, and yet we fail to see it. However, a Marxist Criticism of Death of a Salesman helps bring to light the realities of these issues and their potential consequences. Willy strived to show the world his perfect life through material belongings, and in doing so he missed out on living a real life and was left with nothing.
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