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Youth and consumer culture

Today’s globalised consumer culture directed at young people serves the interests of the market and the international powers that control it

Awatef Abdel-Rahman , Monday 14 Jan 2019

The revolution in information and communications technology has been a major push for the world capitalist economy.

Multinational companies and the international financial institutions have been the main entities that have benefitted from the information and communication technologies (ICT), spreading a daily culture of a consumerist nature the aim of which is to serve the world market through transforming cultural products into commodities subject to market laws.

Today, as a result of globalisation, culture faces risks threatening its independence and distinctiveness. With the profit factor controlling cultural production, the market and its tools have achieved increasing power in the world’s cultural industries, and Americanised consumerist culture has gained unprecedented sovereignty.

There is a strong link between such consumer culture and young people. The US since the 1950s and 1960s has managed to develop cultural industries targeting youth inside and outside America.

Cinema, music and TV have been the pillars of these, with the result that the US has become the sole power capable of exporting its cultural products on such a scale to meet the needs of youth worldwide. It has monopolised the cultural consumption of young people the world over.

The spread of American culture and lifestyles among young people worldwide, whether in music, TV, films, food or clothing, has several reasons behind it, including the supremacy of US advertising firms in marketing that has shaped tastes among large sectors of young people and US excellence in pop music, films and TV drama.

These first spread in private markets with the appearance of television in much of the world in the 1960s. They then flooded the whole world since through satellite transmissions.

Certain factors related to American culture also make it more marketable than other cultures, such as the Japanese or the German.

The US possesses a wide variety of cultural forms since it was founded on immigration, and this has hindered the emergence of a single, deeply-rooted cultural identity for the American people.

Globalisation has suited this characteristic well, and it has capitalised on features distinguishing American culture, such as its ethnic and racial variety, its flexibility and its conformity with the rapid nature of the age.

There is another factor that distinguishes the American cultural industry, which is the attention it gives to young people living in the US. This has led to its spread among youth in other countries.

This article poses a number of questions about the mechanisms used by globalised consumer culture in shaping the ideologies and tendencies of contemporary young people.

One of these is the compensation culture that many young people are drawn to as an escape from family, societal and school pressures. This culture is formed among groups of friends and shaped into a kind of collective lifestyle.

Young people have an ambiguous social status. They are no longer children, but they have not become grown-ups. As a result, they are susceptible to cultural products shaping their behaviour, turning them into the consumers of certain kinds of information and commodified entertainment.

This culture then becomes a model for their ambitions and rules out the search for alternatives.

Young people create a special world for themselves in this consumer culture and a subsidiary culture matching their own criteria. American and French studies have revealed that this subsidiary culture can isolate young people from the wider society, instead of acting as a bridge.

It has turned into a consumer market, invested by large commercial companies that control the world’s mass media. In addition to the culture promoted for young people through the mass media, there are also special youth types of culture.

Beside clashing with the culture of the previous generations and religion, the main challenge facing this youth culture is its lack of content and the absence of any criticism, the desire for change and independence in the building of the self.

This is a culture that is in danger merely of serving the interests of the market and the international powers controlling it. 

Cultural Power

With the increasing control of large companies over the media and information and communication networks and the removal of barriers to the access to information, humanity has moved into a new space. 

In the new media society where the market with its values and tools controls all human activities, geography no longer defines the rules of commerce or human communication.

Advertisements, behind which the industry of desire is hidden, have become main tools used by commercial satellite channels to attract the largest number of viewers or consumers. Through entertainment programmes, they try to reach the largest possible number of young people worldwide.

Satellite channels focus on money, business and stock market news. Is monetary education their purpose? Or is it to make money the basic ideology of the viewer? Due to the current commercial alliance between satellite channels, advertising agencies and sport commodity companies, sports too have become a rich field implanting the values of making a rapid profit in viewers’ minds.

Good performance and a sporting spirit are no longer the main criteria for assessing sports. The prices of the players and the bargains struck by clubs to buy them are now of more interest. For a large number of young people, the sports field is now a short path to profit and fame.

The media is controlled by this ideology of the market and rapid profit. As the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued, this supremacy of profit culture has turned satellite TV channels into the purveyors of spectacle devoid of thinking.

They transmit symbolic violence. Scenes of violence, sex and crime all aim to distract viewers’ attention from crucial issues.

Television, in fact, has become a new educational institution replacing the family, school and university. Foreign commercial media are now able to reach young people in every part of the world.

This has a deep impact on them at a young age, due to the dazzle and entertainment it offers in addition to the credibility it enjoys compared with the local state media. Through such factors, the material presented by the foreign media has become both effective and largely uncriticisable.

This globalised media usually promotes a culture of neutrality and an absence of ideology. It works towards a superficial awareness, and it tries to empty culture of patriotic content. It aims to dull the mind and the ability to criticise.

It is based on five illusions – neutrality, optimism, personal choice, the stability of human nature and the absence of social struggle – and it seeks to create a submissive individualist ideology.

Arab viewers receive programmes through satellite channels that advocate a kind of dual culture. These channels present programmes that focus on violence, crime and deviant behaviour and at the same time present religious programmes by moderate preachers such as Amr Khaled and Khaled Al-Guindi who depend on direct and easy dialogue and attract thousands of Arab young people.

Such contradiction, listed as “variety,” leads to the schizophrenia from which Arab culture suffers.

There is also a shortage of Arab cinema and television production and an inability to fill long transmission hours. As a result, the Arab satellite channels have no choice but to transmit old Egyptian productions, to produce programmes lacking in content, or to relay sports matches.

This local failure obliges the Arab satellite channels to import most of their programmes from the US, Europe, Turkey and India. Such programmes may not conform with Arab priorities, and as a result Arab satellite channels turn into tools serving an imported culture.

Undoubtedly, using human activities to serve the interests of those controlling the market raises the value of profit over all other values and gives consumption culture its lead over patriotic cultures. There is an urgent need to reform this situation in order to give politics priority over economics.

Linking politics to culture is a necessity in order to face the danger of turning activities, values and human relationships into commodities. And it is here that three major players, intellectuals, the state and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), can play a role.

Arab young people are in desperate need of role-models and wise leadership, and this is the responsibility of intellectuals.

For its part, the state should back serious culture and innovation in the face of globalised consumer culture, help produce drama and music derived from Arab heritage and reform the education system to filter it of foreign influences.

However, the state cannot succeed alone. NGOs, including political parties, clubs and civil society, together with families and schools, should also play a role.

While globalisation and the market consider culture to be simply a commodity governed by market laws, peoples view it as a source of their identity and a reason for the continuation of their existence.

* The writer is a veteran professor of journalism.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Youth and consumer culture

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