This is a concept foreign to Latin America – but I will have to explain what I mean by that.
First, a short review: Latin America’s basic culture was derived from 16th Century Spain and Portugal – along with its language. This was profoundly authoritarian and immoral. When these countries obtained their independence, they adopted a few of the trappings of modern culture, such as democracy, but nothing really changed. In the 20th Century, they also acquired a thin veneer of American popular culture, but this was only skin-deep. They wore American clothes, and watched American movies, but nothing really changed underneath this. They also adopted consumerism enthusiastically – it seemed simple to them: just get more stuff.
But in the States, something more profound was going on: the consumer was in control. I have derided this change myself, not realizing what was going on: why Americans have such a passion for their shopping centers. They loved them because they were set up just for them - where they called all the shots by choosing which things to buy, out of the thousands available.
This was a pathetic kind of power – but one they could understand easily – and they went with it, since it was the only thing they had. I had missed the whole thing that has attracted them: Consumer Power. It wasn’t until I had lived in Costa Rica for almost ten years, that this dawned on me.
I went shopping in a Wal-Mart market at the nearest large town, where American marketing skills are evident. The basic rule Wal-Mart understands is this: the customer is all-important. Wal-Mart is spending a fortune to corner this market, and they have succeeded in teaching this approach to its employees.
This may not seem so earth-shaking to Americans, since this is what they are used to, but a Consumer Revolution has happened in America – without Americans being the least be aware of it. As usual, they were sound asleep.
You can only see the contrast in Latin America – where a hierarchical power structure is still assumed. Those in power expect the world to serve them. The customer is just a person who needs things – obviously an inferior position. And this applies to any situation where people want anything from anybody: those in power abuse those beneath them – and no one considers this objectionable.
I am not saying consumer power is a good thing – quite the opposite: it is only an illusion of power. But in a world of illusions it is all Americans have. For the time being, they seem to be on top. In the longer run, it is a disaster looking us right in the face.