The poverty of abundance

The dynamic US-Mexico borderlands provide a valuable opportunity to explore the role ‘necessity’ plays in contemporary consumer culture


Land of Necessity: Consumer Culture in the United States-Mexico Borderlands
Edited by Alexis McCrossen
2009, Duke University Press
414 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IT WAS the historian Eric Hobsbawm who pointed out that a difficulty facing 19th-century liberal economists was that they could only recognise the economic significance of nations in practice, not in theory.

Theoretical ambivalence towards nationhood has persisted: in their arguments for neoliberal globalisation, economic liberals have also routinely implied that commerce, as conceptualised by classical political economy, is a universal activity not limited by national boundaries.

The border between the US and Mexico provides a valuable case study for exploring these ideas and ironically, helps to illustrates both the history of the nationalism that developed alongside capitalism in both countries, but also the continuation of national differences despite that. The relationship between the two countries was one that Marx himself – Hobsbawm’s inspiration – took an interest in.

The concrete and steel fence that separates Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Sonora, for example, provides a very physical example of the reality of the border between the US and Mexico – but also of that notional frontier’s absurdity in a world that, we are constantly told, is increasingly defined by transnationalism and globalisation.

Alexis McCrossen’s collection of essays about consumer culture in the US-Mexico borderlands provides rich insights into these complex and often contradictory tendencies that have been the crucible of a unique cultural mix.

Necessity alongside abundance

Since the 1950s, the US-Mexico borderlands have been one of the fastest-growing regions of the world, providing a dynamic environment in which, the contributors to Land of Necessity point out, necessity comingles with abundance.

They explore this important dimension of consumer culture – “the consumer culture of poverty” – while providing a fascinating insight into the evolution of the borderlands as sources of demarcation since the birth of the nationalist era in the Americas.

As a history, this volume provides an engaging introduction to that role played by the evolution of consumer capitalism in shaping the region, and as an introduction to theoretical debates, it offers an original set of positions to incorporate the study of necessity, long neglected, in scholarship about consumer culture. The citizens of low-wage economies whose poverty is generated by declining purchasing power, and can be understood relatively, have become an integral part of consumer capitalism despite the motifs of abundance by which mass consumption has hitherto been understood and explained.

What emerges from this book as of particular interest in the case of the US-Mexican border – 1,969 miles of fence, wasteland, desert, river, and occasional city that comprise the most frequently traversed international border in the world, with 250 million people crossings every year – has been its relationship with the development of capitalism.

McCrossen’s own arguments make a convincing case for understanding it in terms of economic history as it began to assume significance within the aspirations of US frontier capitalism.

Thus the US-Mexican borderlands began to take on real meaning on maps and among policymakers as nationalism and market-oriented capitalism intensified after the middle decades of the 19th century. It is this interplay of the nation-building ideas of the era with the distribution problems that expanding capitalism confronted that helps, in part, to explain the geopolitical expansion that consolidated today’s frontier. McCrossen writes:

“Capitalist solutions to the distribution problem initially set store in the search for new markets, which in the nineteenth-century United States took many shapes, including deepening trade networks with Europe, pursuing the imperialist ideology of Manifest Destiny, and expanding the nation’s territorial size … As the United States looked to Asia and Latin America for raw materials and consumer markets, it came to see Mexico, particularly its northernmost territory, as a geographic impediment.” [pp. 9-10]

Taken further, this argument can also inform an understanding of the relationship between market capitalism and culture more broadly, giving the latter the materialist substrate that would support both liberal, but also Marxist, interpretations. The growth of trade, particularly on the US side of the border, helped to shape the sense of difference upon which identity formation is based.

McCrossen even explores the fascinating phenomenon of “marketplace discrimination” by Anglo traders against blacks and Hispanics. He points out that well into the 1960s, race ethnicity and nationality were restricting access to the marketplace in some areas.

Contributors to Land of Necessity explore through essays that are both eloquent and informative a number of aspects of consumer culture along the border, from the history of marketing and cinema to smuggling and the impact of new consumption patterns on campesinos. The book is also punctuated with interesting photographs to which are added those of Maurico Tenorio-Trillo’s absorbing “essay of images”.

If you can get over the requirement of deferring to consumer culture as part of the act of buying it, it is well worth having.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

Bookmark and Share