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Discussion: “Improvising Capitalism: Shopping and Consumer Choice"

The topic of this discussion was “Improvising Capitalism: Shopping and Consumer Choice.” Shopping can be seen as one of the most pervasive improvisatory acts, especially in North America. Faced with a panoply of stores and products, shoppers browse, consider, and maybe do some research. They try on this, have a taste of that, and ultimately make a choice. Moreover, their choices have real impact: they can help transform Starbucks and Cabbage Patch Kids into international commercial forces, while driving Sony Betamax and Eaton’s department stores into ignominy or bankruptcy. In this way, shopping might be read as empowering – a way for everyday people to demonstrate their independence, exercise their freedom of choice, and “vote with their dollars.” In a sense, shopping is akin to improvising on capitalism.

But what are the limits to this kind of improvisation? To what extent are shoppers’ choices made for them, a priori? Can consumers negotiate all of the external forces that push their dollars in one way or another and still retain a kernel of improvisatory agency? What about the gendered character of shopping? And what are the political dimensions and implications of the ideas of “freedom of choice,” and “voting with one’s dollars”?

The discussion will grow out of the 1959 “Kitchen Debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Kruschev, a transcript of which can be found at:

Parts of the debate are also posted on youtube

There is a curious yet enormously fruitful duality in the way that improvisation plays on our expectations and perspectives.

– Tracey Nicholls