Max Horkheimer: Feudal Lord, Customer, and Specialist The End of the Fairy Tale of the Customer as King

Now that the bourgeois world is entering a new situation which may be interpreted either as more rational or as regressive, the forms of human relationship which originated in the feudal order and were transposed to a new level in the bourgeois order are about to be liquidated. Bourgeois culture was deeply influenced by the dignity, honor, and freedom of the feudal lord and, in the last analysis, of the absolute ruler; it transferred these attributes to every individual man and especially to anyone who was well-off. Works of art, language, personal culture, forms of intercourse in business and private life, all took over the symbols of that bygone social distinction which they were rejecting. It has always been characteristic of liberal civilization that hierarchy and subordination are its freely adopted form. Yet, the more unquestioningly and profoundly the demonstrations of honor proper to feudal times continued to be adapted, even if in fragmentary form, and practiced by the bourgeois strata of society, the more widespread did interior independence become, and the more remote any lording it over others as well as any barbarism.

Classical bourgeois England, Voltaire the deadly foe of repressive systems, Goethe son of a Frankfurt bourgeois family, all wanted to give unqualified respect to the nobility. Businessmen accepted the same situation, but transposed to a different sphere. The ideal place for observing bourgeois manners is the market place. In the labor market indeed, especially at the beginning, it was a matter of weakness encountering power rather than citizen encountering citizen. Moreover, since the market (that is, the selling and buying of material goods) depended in other areas too on the labor market, it manifested only very poorly the relations between free men. In addition, elegant shops were less open than they are today to the buyer of modest means. But where such a person did buy, he was served, and the reference to a bygone servant-relationship which the very word “Service” implies was not without influence on the manner in which the simple act of buying and selling was performed.

Once the Ancien Régime had collapsed, the manners and ways of thought of its former representatives took on new life. The desire for nobility, which Molière caricatures in The Bourgeois Gentleman, became productive in the new atmosphere. As late as the end of the last century the “highly esteemed” recipient of a commercial offer could be sure of the “humble and obedient respect” of the offerer, not simply in the latter’s epistolary style but in his whole bearing. The principle of exchange which has always regulated the peaceable relations of equals and which became a principle of civilization once formal equality became widely accepted was not in any way affected by this development, for traditional concepts and feelings were adapted to fit the new life-style. As the idea of being a “purveyor to the king” motivated the choice of profession among bourgeois youth and pointed the way for them to go, so their dealings with prospective customers (and who did not fall into that category?) and especially with anyone who had already presented himself as a buyer, were marked by courteous attention. The principle which every employer tried to drum into salesmen and salesgirls – “The customer is always right” – derives in substance from the time of the absolute ruler. For economic reasons the old motifs continued to control the way men were formed. To the extent that mercantile activity contributed to the model of a proper life, respect for the customer became, consciously or unconsciously, an element of education. The child did not have to wait until he was in school or until he grew up and was working; even in his early contacts with his parents he was being shaped in accordance with the requirements he would have to meet as an adult. Along with sensitivity to others and their wishes he was developing the impulse to satisfy these wishes.

The readiness to see in the other a potential buyer, the inclination to serve and please, were habitual throughout wide strata of society. Along with ruthlessness in one’s own business and in commercial competition, there went an adaptability (whether the divergent traits were found in the same individuals or distributed among distinct agents in the economy). There was no pity for the weak; the competitor was to be fought and the employee exploited. But the customer was to be wooed and flattered. All this was typical of society as a whole. The act of buying and selling in a shop that dealt in only one article was a modest symbol of business dealings in the larger world. Neither friendliness nor expert knowledge, not even a favorable ratio between price and value, were enough to produce the all-important result. The business man who traveled to meet a business friend abroad or welcomed him at his own place of business or in his own home, had to have good manners and a familiarity with other languages, countries, and ways. Anything that could pave the way to contacts with potential buyers and win their good will fell within the businessman’s purview. Bourgeois culture, like any other, had its foundation in specific interests, even if it were not reducible to the latter. In the art of selling the sensibilities of the customer were of course taken into account. However soberly and critically the customer might examine the goods offered him, the behavior of the seller was not without influence in the transaction. According to circumstances that behavior was more than window-dressing. Even the man in the street experienced in the act of buying a little of his own freedom and of respect for himself as subject.

The change which is now going on in the buyer’s position – a change which is determinative for the social life of the individual and for his self-awareness – cannot but affect the human makeup as it is inevitably caught up into the economic and technological development with its dizzying rate of acceleration. The rising living standard and the improved condition of large sectors of the population which at an earlier time were not part of the bourgeoisie are effecting a revolution in the mechanisms of buying and selling, even among the upper bourgeoisie. Even in the area of daily shopping a transformation is taking place which is more far-reaching than the drastic change from the specialized store to the department store which Emile Zola depicted in his novel Le paradis des dames. In the process of selling household necessities and especially food, those who help in the selling have a few necessary tasks but otherwise are only stopgaps, temporary substitutes for self-service and automated equipment. This is true of the economy generally for that part of the work force which does not simply supervise automation. As formerly, so now the customer is a subject, but he is now to some extent a self-supporting subject: he must quickly orient himself, know his way around among the current standardized brands, and react promptly as though he were working in a factory. In modern stores which are organized with psychological expertise, stores that are for the most part chain-stores in which price and quality are determined somewhere far from the place of the transaction and are minimally subject to bargaining, the resigned gestures of the old-style housewife as she tests the proffered goods may still be justified in exceptional cases but they are nonetheless as antiquated as she herself is.

Within the same price-range qualitative differences in the products of various companies are small; in most cases a person who runs from store to store is only wasting time and energy, whether he is interested in preserves or automobiles. The closing time, determined by the civil authorities and marked by an almost military uniformity in most countries, forces the less well-off, who have only the regular hours available for making purchases, to make them hastily; so too, for the sake of a regulated free-time, the closing hour limits even further the already modest freedom of the small property-owner. Standardization and the decision by those in power on the goods to be offered are to the advantage of the general public by reducing the need for personal judgment of differences. Attention is focused on statistics, on the overall number of people who use a product. These users are counted and manipulated. To the extent that the individual does not disappear entirely, he is a marginal figure, a customer in a derogatory sense of the term.

On the whole, the customer, or rather the female customer (for women still take care of most things needed for daily use), may put herself into the hands of the company; in cases of doubt the company has already anticipated her decision by means of questionnaires and statistics. Legal regulations, consumer organizations, even the mass media when they turn their attention to industry, all provide a certain amount of protection for the customer. Not too long ago President Johnson sent the American Congress a message requesting further laws to protect the buyer. According to his message, the idea that the customer must watch out for himself is outdated; among other things, exact labeling and clear, full descriptions of products are needed. Each buyer must be able to see at a glance what is being offered; the label must be a mute salesman. On similar grounds the German government decided to establish an Institute for Product Testing. The personal relationship is being eliminated from the act of buying and selling. There is no longer room for acts of courtesy to individuals, for the old bow to the customer is being replaced by advertising, the latter, which constitutes a special large sector in the division of labor, being professionally standardized and rationalized, no less than the advertised goods or services. The development of advertising is hastening the process of monopolization which it expresses, and is at the same time freeing an important social activity from its dependence on the amiability of any individual seller.

To the extent that deference to the individual, whether in the business sphere or the erotic, is still required, it is inculcated in the home, at school, and in vocational training, but in a calculating, superficial, and utilitarian way: not as a genuinely personal trait of character but simply as the more prudent way to act. Hymns of praise belong in advertisements and on billboards, in the illustrated magazines or on the screen. In dealing with customers and between lovers, on the contrary, the idea is to eliminate all the nonsense and get down to the real business at hand. The complex world here becomes one-dimensional and transparent. Even fanaticism today is but a despairing admission that one can no longer believe in anything. The fact that advertising has kept up with the times and become a special branch of business is both an advance and a setback. It is expertly planned in scientifically outfitted offices and laid out by professional artists and caption-writers; yet the intellectual effort expended on it is aimed at intensifying the effect on potential buyers, not at heightening the level of the product’s true worth. Such work is a posthumous justification of the old-time puffer. His methods are still useful in dealing with the present-day general public, both in the market place and in politics. Businesses which still cater to individual customers, for example the custom tailor, nowadays either serve only the rich or else offer goods that not infrequently are inferior to mass-produced ready-made goods.

The sphere in which the buyer is, at least initially, directly dependent on the person of the supplier is that of the specialist. As science and technology have become more differentiated, the specialist’s functions have multiplied and are acquiring an ever more decisive role in economics and politics. The relation of the customer to the seller of a specialized service is, abstractly considered, still that of payer and payee, but, from a psychological and social point of view, the relationship is only distantly like that which was once familiar in the market place. The dealings of specialist and client remind us at least as much of feudal lord and citizen as they do of buyer and seller. The conditions of mass society and, most immediately, the decreased intensity of competition in comparison with the liberalist period are causing the roles to be reversed. The buyer must increasingly adapt himself to the supplier, in all matters from the date of the appointment to the way the appointment proceeds.

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