From The Decline of American Capitalism by Lewis Corey (1934):

Capitalist production saves on labor and multiplies the productive forces. But two contradictions arise which constantly torment capitalist enterprise. Saving on labor decreases relative wages and limits the conditions of consumption. This sets in motion the forces of excess capacity, sharpened competition, and mounting distribution costs. These costs absorb much, if not most, of the saving on labor, and eventually strengthen the downward pressure on the rate of profit. The efforts of capitalist enterprise to escape these manifold contradictions created bedlam.

Bedlam reached its climax in the theory of “progressive obsolescence,” seriously considered by the tormented magnates of industry, finance, and advertising:

“If we are to have increasingly large-scale production there must likewise be increasingly large-scale consumption … To get more money into the consumers hands with which to buy … is a mere minor stopgap. There is, however, a far greater and more powerful lever available. I refer to a principle which, for want of a simpler term, I name progressive obsolescence. This means simply the more intensive spreading – among those people who now have buying surplus – of the belief in and practice of buying more goods on the basis of obsolescence in efficiency, economy, style or taste. We must induce people who can afford it to buy a greater variety of goods on the same principle that they now buy automobiles, radios and clothes, namely, buying goods not to wear out, but to trade in or discard after a short time when new or more attractive goods or models come out. The one salvation of American industry, which has a capacity for producing 80% or 100% more goods than are now consumed, is to foster the progressive obsolescence principle, which means buying for up-to-dateness, efficiency and style, buying for change, whim, fancy … We must either use the fruits of our marvelous factories in this highly efficient ‘power’ age, or slow them down or shut them down.” –  J. George Frederick, “Is Progressive Obsolescence the Path Toward Increased Consumption,” Advertising and Selling, September 5, 1928, pp.19-20.

This is economic and cultural lunacy, but a lunacy wholly in accord with the social relations of capitalist production. Capitalism must produce and sell goods, but from the standpoint of profit it makes no difference what goods or who buys them.

The lunacy of “progressive obsolescence” was matched by the desperation of proposals to restrict production (now one of the aims of state capitalism). Said the president of the Durham Duplex Razor Company:

“Manufacturing merchandise faster than it can be sold is one of the principal causes of the increase in competition … We are turning out more merchandise than can be sold profitably … Business health can only be preserved by maintaining an equilibrium between production and consumer sales.” [12]

Thus was rejected the “principle” that production and prosperity depend upon mass consumption:

  • “Limit production,” with 2,500,000 workers already unemployed!
  • “Maintain an equilibrium between production and consumer sales,” “induce those people who now have buying surplus … to buy a greater variety of goods … not to wear out, but for style, change, whim, fancy,” while 85,000,000 workers and farmers were living on or below subsistence levels!