Economy, economics, and consumption

With the rise of the bourgeois-capitalist society, interests in contrast to traditional norms and passions became central mechanisms of societalisation and orientation principles for action (Hirschman, 1977). The process of industrialisation and rationalisation could only use very specific emotions and passions, namely those that supported the capitalist development. Some emotions (envy, greed, or acquisitiveness) therefore became ‘good’ interests, while ‘bad’ emotions (e.g. sexual desires) were declared natural, un-social and pushed into the privacy of the family. Hirschman characterises this as the marvellous metamorphosis of‘destructive passions’ into ‘virtues’ (ibid.: 40—42) in the capitalist development. He attributes an important role to Adam Smith in this respect: ‘Smith dealt with a wide spectrum of human feelings and passions, but he also convinced himself that . . . the principal of human drives end up motivating man to improve his material well-being’ (ibid.: 109; on social affects see Smith, 1984: 38—40). With Smith the equation of passions — in particular the desire for social recognition - with economic interest in economics begins, promoting a one-sided view of man as rational homo oeconomicus and the ‘disenchantment’ of the world - ideas that will influence scientific discourses on social developments for a long time to come.

The bourgeois-capitalist dispositive of affect is ‘productive’ and not only ‘repressive’, as it allowed for the ‘passionless’ regulation and realisation of economic interests. Regulated economic competition in a non-violent environment was supposed to characterise the bourgeois society. In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes pointed out that this ostensibly passionless pursuit of economic interests was fuelled by irrational ‘animal spirits’. In his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Keynes showed, if only in a few passages, that investment decisions of firms are in part dependent on unreflective drives:

Individual initiative will only be adequate when reasonable calculation is supplemented and supported by animal spirits ... It is our innate urge to activity which makes the wheels go round, our rational selves choosing between the alternatives as best we are able, calculating where we can, but often falling back for our motive on whim or sentiment or chance.

(Keynes, 1936: 162f.)

With the triumph of neoclassical economic theory in the following decades (Harvey, 2007: 19—31) the topic of affective characteristics of the economic field falls into oblivion, and the (model) figure of the instrumentally rational man of reason, who seeks to optimise his (sic!) economic benefits through rational decision-making, replaces the passionate-intuitive entrepreneur.

The discursive re-emotionalisation of the (masculine) economic practice and of the economic field in the 1970s, and even more strongly in the following decade, begins with concepts of ‘bounded rationality’ that question the model of the homo oeconomicus, of the ostensibly hyper rational actor of the human capital theory in the tradition of Theodore W. Schultz, Jacob Mincer, and Gary Becker (on Becker’s early work Teixeiro, 2014). For Gary Becker, perhaps the most prominent representative of the human capital model, economic rationality is nothing less than a general explanatory principle of human behaviour. In A Treatise on the Family, he argues:

The economic approach . . . now assumes that individuals maximize their utility from basic preferences that do not change rapidly over time and that the behavior of different individuals is coordinated by explicit or implicit markets. . . The economic approach is not restricted to material goods and wants or to markets with monetary transactions . . . Indeed, the economic approach provides a framework applicable to all human behaviour — to all types of decisions and to persons from all walks of life.

(Becker, 1981: ix)

Neoliberalism, according to Becker’s approach, treats people as ‘investors in themselves’, Michel Feher (2009: 30f.) concludes: as human capital ‘that wishes to appreciate and to value itself and thus allocate its skills accordingly’. Pierre Bourdieu (2005: 213) remarks on the economic model of rationality that ‘the scientific subject, endowed with a perfect knowledge of causes and probable outcomes, is projected into the active agent, presumed to be rationally inclined to set as his goals the opportunities assigned to him by the causes’. And he points to the significance of historically and biographically shaped dispositions and habits as the basis of reasonable decision-making and the subjective understanding of chances.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s psychological ‘prospect theory’ of the 1970s, however, lays the ground for the re-conceptualisation of the micro-economic foundation of mainstream economics by enriching the concept of rationality with emotions. Their theoretical innovations, in turn, evolve into contemporary behavioural economics (Tanner, 2009: 352f; Frevert, 2014: 31 Of.) and its emphasis on nudging as a method of political decision-making that targets people’s gut feelings. At stake at Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s (2008) ‘libertarian paternalism’, as indicated in Chapter 1, is the modelling of ‘choice architectures’ (ibid.: ch. 5) to systematically improve people’s rational choices (for their own benefit), in other words, to protect them against their irrational, albeit predictable behaviour. ‘Nudges expand the governability of people’, Ulrich Brbckling (2018: 8) summarises, ‘as even abnormal behaviour [we would argue: affective behaviour] becomes governable’.

Recently, due to the crisis-ridden development in the Global North and the return of social insecurity, one particular feeling, namely trust, became a prominent category of economic theories and marks the revival of Keynesian economics (e.g. Akerlof and Shiller, 2009). But also sympathy starts to play a more central role, especially in the discussion of transactions which - although embedded in the capitalist economy — very evidently are not in line with the rationality and calculability of markets, such as the family economy (which is largely based on an affective logic) or the exchange of gifts amongst friends (e.g. Offer, 1997; Bourdieu, 1998: 102—109). Paul DiMaggio (2002) furthermore argues — as do George Akerlof and Robert Shiller (2009) with reference to Keynes’ ‘animal spirits’ — that sympathy plays a key role for economic actors when it comes to decisions under uncertainty, and more generally that economic trust, but also the will to make risky decisions, are the result of emotional processes. Gut feelings and intuition also gained a prominent position in the economic discussion (e.g. Elster, 1996; Bandelj, 2009), not least in the research on decision-making in financial markets: ‘Anyone who has directly observed financial market actors knows that emotions and their verbal and physical expressions are a daily part of these activities’, Jean-Pierre Hassoun (2005: 103) notes on the hustle at stock exchanges (also Pixley, 2004). Jon Elster (1998: 78) again points to connections between gut feelings and utility maximisation, thus calling attention to the ‘dual role of emotions’ that influence both subjective decisions as well as the rewards.

In a first overview on the topic ‘Emotions and the Economy’, Mabel Berezin (2005) concludes that awareness of the significance of feelings in economic processes appears to be on the rise: ‘The growing realization that emotions matter for economic life is fuelling a resurgence of interest in emotion in the social sciences’ (ibid.: 122). And she identified two areas of investigation - where research started to flourish lately — that could help explain how affects influence and determine economic practices: analysis of the commodification of emotional things, such as love (on the co-production of emotions and commodities Illouz, 2018), and research about consumption (e.g. Thrift, 2006, on consumer passions; or Matt, 2016, on envy')? The latter research recently started to focus on ‘affective economies’ — a new marketing discourse about the affective relations between consumers and branded products (Jenkins, 2006: 319). In the following we w'ill turn to these practices that have been long neglected in economics. Our aim is to reconstruct the history of consumption and of people’s ‘desire to buy’ (Schmidt, 2016: 172), because this is the point of emergence of consumer behaviour, which forms the basis of today’s service culture and demand for affectivity in service work.

Consumer markets - in contrast to the other, supposedly rational economic markets, such as the labour market - are obviously the part of the capitalist economy' where early on affects were considered (and transformed into) a positive force of economic prosperity (on the conversion of‘basic necessities’, Notdurft, into a concept of human ‘needs’ and their emotional connotations Schmidt, 2016: 169f.). The start of mass production of consumer goods in the 19th century, of hats, shoes, men’s suits, or ready-to-wear clothing for women, led to a radical transformation of purchasing habits and to a reassessment of goods in which the use value or the utility of products became less and less important, while symbolic and affective values (Ahmed, 2004a, 2010b) increasingly' determined the desire to buy.

On the one hand, we encounter twelve- to sixteen-hour working days, also for women and children, in the factories producing consumer products in the 19th century, where the manual labour forces earned barely enough to survive. On the other hand, a new world of consumption emerges at the expense of the working class — a dazzling and diverse supply of commodities that lures people into buying and enables the middle and upper classes to conspicuously' display their social status. Thorstein Veblen (1994) distinguishes at the turn of the century between the ‘instinct of workmanship’ of the lower classes that falls victim to the ‘predatory instinct’ of the leisure class, which exploits nature and people. Both conspicuous leisure and consumption of the ‘leisure class’ aims at accumulating prestige or sy'mbolic capital - that is, social recognition through envious comparison (on envy Matt, 2016: 136—144). The beginning of consumer culture renders possible social comparison qua consumption because products start to speak of and constitute social conditions and the desires and hopes of people: through their display and aesthetic value in the new department stores and the promises of advertising.

Since the middle of the 19th century, in the urban centres of the Western world, luxury' department stores, comparable to today’s shopping malls or urban entertainment centres, began to spring up, displaying a never-before-seen diversity of commodities. The Bon Marché in Paris and Harrods in London were pioneers of the development, which took root on both sides of the Atlantic in the following decades. Compared to previous purchasing habits, consisting of negotiations over quality and price between the storeowner or salesperson and the customer, the commodities in the department stores had to speak for themselves at fixed prices.6 Both aspects entail completely new methods of displaying consumer goods with the goal of making comparably inexpensive mass commodities appear as luxury items. The displacement of communication in the process of buying, namely, towards a dialogue between the commodity and the consumer, brings about a symbolic charging of products that allows consumers to gain symbolic profit from the purchase. Inexpensive consumer goods with luxurious appeal and thus high prestige open up possibilities in particular for the middle class to distinguish itself, accelerating the symbolic competition over good taste:

In its need to distinguish itself from the proletariat beneath by imitating the (wealthy) bourgeoisie . . . above, the petty' bourgeoisie requires appropriate status symbols. Accordingly, the department stores offer their commodities as symbols.

(Haubl, 1996: 221)

The rapidly growing range of commodities available for purchase also calls for new strategies to promote sales: for modern advertising with its emphasis on the symbolic utility' and affective value of commodities - on promises, which begin to determine consumption habits. Starting in the United States, press and poster advertising begins to resemble what is nowadays known as ‘lifestyle advertising’. In comparison to earlier forms of advertising, the new strategy consists of sy'mbolic enchantment that seduces potential consumers, ‘gearing them toward the pursuit of self-interested, rationally' calculated desires’, as Anne Schmidt (2016: 177) writes. Put differently, modern advertising increasingly determines the symbolic value of mass-produced commodities that consumers can acquire through the act of purchasing. Consumers are less addressed by' rational arguments about the utility of products (despite advertisers’ claim to inform and educate) than by' aesthetic and affective connotations, which indicate, for example, wealth, luxury, glamour, or sexiness. The images of advertising are supposed to affect consumers through the promise of happiness. Variations of the symbolic value or of the promises of happiness point to different interests, desires, affective dispositions, and life-worlds of consumers and guarantee that consumers feel personally' addressed (i.e. that advertising speaks to their desires and habits). Advertising appeals to an anonymous mass of consumers, albeit in such a way that it promises personal gains. Hence, advertising creates ‘individual industrial products’. Through advertising, mass-produced consumer goods are connected with individual habits and affective dispositions and thus become expressions of personal desires.

Amongst the symbolic values taken up by' modern advertising around 1900, feminine beauty and sexuality stand out. ‘Consumer culture put desire at the center of subjectivity, and sexuality became a sort of generalized metaphor of desire’, argues Eva Illouz (2012: 43), adding with respect to the spread of feminine sex appeal in the early 20th century:

The movie studios, womens magazines, advertisers, and billboards functioned as popularizers, codifiers, and amplifiers of ways to put forth the body, foreground the face, and eroticize the flesh. Women were incorporated in consumer culture as sexed and sexual agents through the ideal of sexualized beauty that was aggressively promoted by the conjunction of economic sectors that solicited and constructed a self based on eroticism.


The construction of a sexualised female self, however, reflects the uneven distribution of power between the genders, as we have pointed out before. Household management and care work are essential tasks of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois woman of this time, including the responsibility for family consumption. Women are assigned the leading role in the growing field of consumption (Nava, 1997; Schmidt, 2016: 171), and advertising tries to predominantly target their desires - by depicting female bodies and sexiness. The luxurious character and symbolic value of branded products like soaps or beverages (such as Coca-Cola) derive from the beauty and sex appeal of the models. ‘A social individual, man or woman, is characterised by the probability of being in public space, of having an occupation, a recognised position, and so forth. Herein lies the primary difference between men and women’, argues Pierre Bourdieu (1997: 222). Female consumption - in contrast to professional labour — thus indicates social subordination and dependency, so that Georg Simmel (2009) at the turn of the century considers only a limited form of individualisation possible for the female gender (e.g. by means of fashion).

Women of the upper and middle classes, however, also become integrated into the economic world via consumption, through practices that are highly determined by affect, as affect governs consumer decisions. Women appear to be better suited not only for childcare and household chores, but they are also attributed a better sense for fashionable looks and home decoration. Large department stores and modern advertising promoted the commercialisation of household management and familial tasks, and thus also the saturation of the private sphere by commodified feelings. The responsibility for the private sphere and for the well-being of the family, in turn, opened up new public spaces for women. Due to the domestic division of labour, department stores were places where women legitimately had time for themselves. The anonymity of the stores and the detachment from obligations (to buy) turned shopping into a comfortable and pleasurable experience. The spectacular display of goods, real bargains, window shopping, and attractions such as fashion shows invited women to stay for longer periods of time, and they helped to suspend the old order, where the well-mannered woman had a place in public life only at the side of her husband. The luxurious department store ‘provided a spectacular environment in which to stroll aimlessly, to be a flâneuse, to observe people, to admire and parade new fashions. This was a context which legitimized the desire of women to look as well as to be looked at’, writes the cultural scientist Mica Nava (1997: 72; emphasis in original). In addition to the department stores, Nava lists ‘great exhibitions, galleries, libraries, restaurants, tearooms and hotels’ (ibid.: 61) as appropriate places for unaccompanied women at the end of the 19th century.

Peter Miller and Nikolas Rose (2008: 117) point to the period from 1950 to 1970, where ‘a plethora of new objects for mass consumption within the home appeared’, and, even more important, ‘a new way of governing the acts of consumption was invented ... by means of a new form of “psy” expertise’. The consumer, they (ibid.: 119) argue, emerged as someone ‘to be known in detail, whose passions and desires were to be charted’ to relate them to brand images and product design. A considerably stronger differentiation of previously standardised mass products started to take place, from clothing to refrigerators and automobiles, leading to an increase of branded products and logos, which - with the help of psychological knowledge - catered more precisely than before to specific lifestyles and thus contributed to the symbolic constitution of various milieus. The immaterial, symbolic, and affective value of consumer products grew, and the possibilities for expressing uniqueness through the consumption of artefacts increased, even as the stylistic repertoire of distinction became more subtle (Bourdieu, 1984).

In his ground-breaking publication, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics, (Kri-tik der Warenasthetik) of 1971, the Marxist psychologist Wolfgang Fritz Haug concludes that the use-value of consumer goods lost its importance vis-à-vis the exchange-value (or the ‘use-value promise’) — thus, that the competition of brand-name products ‘has widely shifted on to the level of images: now image fights image’ (Haug, 1986: 31). The vanishing point of this development are commodities that have no use-value at all, bearing only a sales value, and consumption practices that are not geared towards the use of commodities, but towards ownership of brand names. In the 1990s Gernot Böhme (2003) took up Haug’s critique of consumer culture and turned it into a critique of the ‘aesthetic economy’. The term refers to the contemporary stage of the capitalist development, in which the staging of goods makes up a large part of labour in general. According to Böhme, this produces a specific use-value of commodities, an ‘aesthetic value’ or ‘staging value’, as consumer goods are used precisely in their display function: as an element of style or for the creation of an atmosphere (ibid.: 72). Böhme suggests that power is exerted through such a staging of the everyday-life world, an economic power that subjects the individual through the arousal of emotions and the creation of desires (Böhme, 2017: ch. 7; on the central role of design Thrift, 2006: 294f).

In the late 20th century a great transformation of the capitalist sphere of consumption takes place, in which immaterial aspects of consumer goods and the consumption of immaterial products are turned into central factors of value creation. Desires are targeted, aroused, and boosted by aesthetic values. Consumer items and their display affect the emotional state of people, or, as Sara Ahmed (2010a: 34) writes, ‘objects become “happiness means’”: ‘The promise of happiness takes this form: that if you have this or have that or do this or do that, then happiness is what follows’ (ibid.: 41). Nigel Thrift (2010: 293f.) also refers to the growing importance of ‘practices of aesthetics’ in his characterisation of contemporary capitalism when he, like Bohme, speaks of a ‘world of expression’, of an ‘expressive age’, ‘in which aesthetics is both a key social moment and a key means of generating economic value’ (ibid.). ‘In the era of aesthetic economy, our structures of feeling . . . are increasingly shaped by the look and feel of corporate capitalism’, Philip Hancock and Melissa Tyler (2008: 16) conclude from the subordination of desire to commodity aesthetics.

Personalisation of industrial products is one way of relating affective dispositions to the realm of aesthetics. Consumers are increasingly drawn into the production process of commodities — as prefigured in Japan’s Toyotism - where they actively participate in the continuous (re-)development of commodity projects and contribute to so-called ‘user-centred innovations’. In today’s consumer culture the boundaries between production and consumption are blurred, in particular between immaterial labour and immaterial consumption. as the term ‘prosumer’ (production by consumers; Toffler, 1980) suggests. ‘The market becomes a forum where dialogue between firms and consumer communities takes place’, Nigel Thrift (2006: 290) points out. In such ways consumer desires directly influence the production process of luxury goods and fashion articles, computer games, or business software. That is, what the consumers already desire — their habits and affective preferences — becomes the point of departure for future happiness, materialised in the design of goods in whose presence they feel happy: ‘The promise of happiness is what sends happiness forth’ (Ahmed, 2010a: 35). Informatisation of production through cyber-physical systems and information networks of the smart factory get short-circuited with the preferences and longings of consumers towards individualised innovations, commodities, and services. A rapid acceleration (due to new communication technologies) of immaterial consumption in embodied capitalism takes place, in the ways feelings are addressed by the advertising industry or by a growing number of ‘influencers’ (Gillin, 2009), and in the consumption of services, entertainment, or knowledge. ‘Consumption is itself a series of affective fields’ (Thrift, 2006: 286) and geared towards moods and passions, through the eroticisation and sexualisation of consumer items (on the sexualised labour of influencers Drenten, Gurrieri and Tyler, 2019), or by the promises of well-being of fitness workouts and yoga lessons.

George Ritzer (1999) points out, inspired by Marx, that the consumption of the ‘means of consumption’ grows strongly. He is referring to the spread of new ‘cathedrals of consumption’ such as mega malls, railway stations, football stadiums, and museums with a broad range of opportunities for consumption, which in entertaining ways, like in the form of ‘eatertainment’ or ‘retailtain-ment’, persuade people to consume. ‘Those who control the cathedrals of consumption have devoted themselves to making consumption fun’ (ibid.: 194). With Bourdieu (1977: 19 If.) we can call this ‘symbolic violence’, a gentle form of power in the interest of the owners of the means of consumption, which works through affects like fun, promotes consumer habits, exercises control over the consumers, and ‘governs’ them: ‘People are not, in the main, being coerced into [buying and spending]’, writes Ritzer (1999: 75), ‘but are quite eager to behave in these ways’. In short, consumption contributes to the affective subjectivation of people — as part of neoliberal affective technologies of the self, of a self-government seeking pleasure and amusement in intensified and optimised ways (Schulze, 2008).

Recent studies on affective economics take Henry Jenkins’ much discussed work, Convergence Culture, as a starting point, in which the author draws on the U.S. television show, American Idol, to discuss the ‘emotional capital’ that the audience invests in the program (Jenkins, 2006: 59-92). These studies once again shed light on today’s importance of affects for capitalist value creation: ‘Interactive marketers are turning to the measurement of sentiment, opinion and emotion on an unprecedented scale: that of the Internet’, states Marc Andrejevic (2011: 610). This occurs through so-called ‘sentiment analysis’, in other words, the siphoning off of large amounts of data from the Net in order to detect aggregate emotional states and probabilities of consumer wishes. ‘Commercial control over the infrastructure and thus the data that it generates lies at the heart of this version of affective economics’, warns Andrejevic (ibid.: 615), by pointing out that with people’s rising possibilities for influencing consumer markets, also the possibilities for their surveillance and for the control of their behaviour and affective states grows (with the help of programs such as Tweet View, for example, which ‘measures the combined influence of tweets on a company’; ibid.: 611). ‘Forms of ideological manipulation give way to the modulation of affect’, Andrejevic concludes (ibid.: 610) with regard to the rise of Internet-based marketing strategies that attempt to measure the flow and intensity of large currents of affect.

These marketing technologies, which focus on the economic value of affect and the management of affective states, on the aesthetic look and effective staging of products and services to create happiness and to please consumers, are an integral part of the neoliberal affective regime and decisive forces of affective subjectivation. They create a ‘passional economy’, as Miller and Rose (2008: 141) call it: ‘the connections of human being[s] and its corporeality into a regime of needs, desires, pleasures and terrors’. They shape people’s affective capital and regulate the affective habits of perception and judgment in a public area, which — alongside paid labour - is essential for people’s identity building and habitus formation. These consumption technologies are elements of a political economy of subjectivation that sets out ‘the habits of conduct which might enable one to live a life that is personally pleasurable and sociallyacceptable’ (ibid.). They guide the self-technologies of market actors as passionate consumers, and they substantially influence the labour processes in the service sector, the demanded ‘customer-orientation’, i.e. the capitalist relations of production in the manufacturing of services and immaterial goods.

The recent focus on affect in the debates in economics and economic sociology' (in particular through the growing academic interest in consumption) coincides with the employment of feeling in the immaterial production processes of embodied capitalism, which create knowledge, communication, services, and manufacture affects. If industrial production, the Taylorisation of labour, and the emphasis on economic rationality constitute the historical dispositive of Fordism, then the economic utilisation of the whole person in the context of immaterial labour, the self-government of the labour force, and the return to affectivity denote a new era of biopolitics and new technologies of power — the intertwining, so to speak, of biopolitics of consumption and biopolitics of paid labour.

We attempted to show in this chapter the various dimensions, areas, and technologies of the new affective regime in neoliberalism to pave the ground for our investigation of (affective) labour in the market economy and, regarding our empirical examples, in state bureaucracies. Neoliberal affective govern-mentality, in other words, new affective governing technologies of the state, in the political and economic field, and in consumption contribute to the hegemony of the market, but they are not limited to the market. In the following, therefore, we want to shed light on neoliberal affective governmentality and affective subjectivation in and through paid labour - as a form of domination as well as a momentum of change - in the transformation of private employment and also in the transformation of public service work.


  • 1 The term ‘feminised’ has a double or rather ambivalent meaning: on the one hand, féminisation means that the percentage of women in institutions increases; but on the other hand, the term also points to the frequently observable loss of significance and power of institutions that exhibit a high percentage of women.
  • 2 Angela Merkel on July 13, 2015:; accessed October 8, 2015.
  • 3 An earlier essayist would have probably written of a ‘privilege of women’.
  • 4 LGBTIQ refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender, intersexual and queer people.
  • 5 Tanner (2009) provides a brief history on consumption theories in economics, concluding that currently behavioural economics has a strong effect on consumption theories.
  • 6 On the conduct of salespeople in department stores, who ‘were forbidden to speak with customers who were walking around in the stores’, on dress codes that ‘helped them fade into the background, making them appear as part of the interior architecture’, as well as on their affective skills, in particular empathy, see Schmidt (2016: 181-185).
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