“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society”



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Cultures of Consumption

Working Paper Series

“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society”


John Brewer

Professor of History and Literature

California Institute of Technology


Professor John Brewer gave this paper as a public lecture in the series organised by the Cultures of Consumption programme (ESRC-AHRB) on 23 September 2003, at The Royal Society, London.

Nothing in this paper may be cited, quoted or summarised or reproduced without permission of the author(s)

My talk this evening focuses on the debate about the origins and development of so-called ‘consumer society’ among historians and commentators on the nature of modernity and post-modernity. I want to tease out the sometimes complex relationship between the emergence of an historical debate about the birth and development of consumer society in the 1980s, and social and political commentary on consumerism from the 1950s onwards. Let me make clear from the outset what I am not doing. First and foremost it is not my concern to pass judgment on ‘consumer society’ or ‘consumerism’. Far too much discussion on these topics takes the form of a panegyric or a jeremiad. One of the most difficult tasks for those who want to analyse consumption in its varied forms – including consumerism – is to get beyond this debate, and to avoid becoming an interested party in it. This is not to preclude, of course, serious investigation of the causes, effects and politics of certain consumption practices; its just to say that talking about them in the abstract terms of ‘consumer society’ doesn’t seem to me to be illuminating or helpful. Finally I do not offer any panacea or nostrum, or policy recommendation. In talking of the error of our ways, I am talking about historians and commentators on consumer society, not about consumers or policymakers.

In the 1980s, and as part of a larger interest in consumption that involved most of the social science disciplines (though not economics), historians turned their attention to the history of consumer society and consumer cultures. This new scholarship had two chief points of focus: the late eighteenth century, the era of the industrial revolution, and the period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The former literature was concerned with the birth of a consumer society and its relationship to economic growth, the latter with mass consumption and modern retailing in Europe and North America. The trend was embodied in two works, one, The Birth of a Consumer Society (1982), to which I contributed, the other The Culture of Consumption edited by Richard Fox and Jackson Lears (1983), but soon spread far beyond them. From the outset this literature was concerned with the origins and development of something that was considered modern. The search for consumer society was a search for modernity and the emphasis, whether on eighteenth-century acquisitiveness or the late nineteenth-century department store, was on the first signs of what in its maturity was to be a full-blown, modern consumer society.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Neil McKendrick’s provocative thesis that there was a consumer revolution in the late eighteenth-century that gave birth to the first consumer society in Britain. This revolution, he argued, took the form of the greater enjoyment than ever before of material possessions, especially of pottery, textiles and metal goods produced for and sold in the marketplace. It was made possible, he claimed, by greater wealth which was more equitably distributed than in other nations, and by the existence of a society which was more open and less formally stratified than elsewhere in Europe. These circumstances affecting demand were complemented by shrewd entrepreneurship, marketing and advertising strategies exemplified in the practices of industrialists like Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery magnate. Central to this account was the role of emulation, particularly middle class emulation of the aristocracy, and the consequent efforts at social distinction pursued by the aristocratic elite. The social system, in this account, was not only graded and ordered through emulation, but was driven by it. This impulse or desire was the steam in the economic machine.

Though immediately subject to severe criticism from those outside the discipline of history, the immediate effect of the claims in The Birth of a Consumer Society among historians was to launch a plethora of studies which claimed to locate the date and site – the time and place - of the birth of consumer society. Though the explanation for this historical preoccupation is complex, having to do both with developments internal to history and those outside it in society at large, one of the main motives for this growing literature was a mixture of national pride and field chauvinism. The birth of consumer society was spotted in late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Britain and America, in sixteenth and even thirteenth-century England, in Renaissance Italy, the seventeenth-century Netherlands, eighteenth-century France, and even eighteenth-century Russia.

Of course, for those whose focus was on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and who saw consumer society in terms of mass consumption and the end to a regime of needs for a majority of citizens, such views were a distraction from the radical shift which heralded ‘modern’ consumer society. But for the most vehement proponent of the birth of consumer society thesis, there was a definite continuum. “To speak of a birth”, writes McKendrick, “indicates the organic nature of the whole development, and the need for a long preceding period of growth, and the necessity for many further stages before the maturity of ‘a society of high mass consumption’, would be reached”. The impression was of a continuous progression from the eighteenth century to the present. (This, despite the fact, for instance, that the percentage of GNP devoted to consumer expenditure declined by 20% between 1880 and 1959!)

I want to put McKendrick’s formulation under more severe scrutiny, but before I do so, I also want to point to the significant gains and findings prompted by the search for the origins of consumer society, for though as will be clear I see the quest as misguided, like many misplaced actions it has had unintended good consequences.

First, the research that followed in the wake of The Birth of a Consumer Society radically increased our knowledge of the material environment of societies in the past. Though the pattern and precise chronology might vary, according to class, wealth, gender and region, studies of the Netherlands, colonial America, seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain and eighteenth-century France based on tax records, business records and above all inventories of possessions at death have all revealed a common pattern in which household goods – furniture, new fabrics, looking glasses, clocks, glassware and pottery – as well as clothing became more abundant. There was clearly a much denser environment of manufactured goods than had earlier been supposed. This growth in durables was matched by important changes in the consumption of such colonial perishables as tea, sugar and tobacco as items of mass consumption, defined in this literature as being used by 25% or more of the adult population regularly. Much was learned about the world of goods, though much more is known about their presence than about the processes by which they were made, distributed and consumed.

Secondly, the one area in which this issue of process was most extensively examined was in the field of marketing and retailing. A 1759 government survey of shops in England and Wales revealed that Napoleon was right: there were nearly 138,000 retailing establishments, a density of 42 people per shop, nearly double that in mid-twentieth-century England or the United States. Studies of eighteenth-century retail outlets show that not all were, as these figures might imply, small shops, but that a variety of shops, including arcades and large emporia, existed long before the nineteenth-century department store.

Third, during the eighteenth century, as part of a larger debate about trade and the economy, a body of analysis emerged that rejected the long-standing moral condemnation of ‘excessive’ commodity consumption – so-called luxury rather than necessity. Occasionally, as in the case of Bernard Mandeville, this entailed the robust defence of luxury itself as the engine of the economy; in other instances it pointed to the importance of the provision of what Adam Smith called ‘decencies’ – items discussed by McKendrick and revealed in the inventory analyses that seemed to be neither luxuries nor necessities.

Fourth, the greater density of goods, enabled society’s middle ranks, as well as aristocracy, to shape a labile and changing social identity through the consumption of certain cultural artifacts and services. Notions of gentility, politeness, respectability, femininity and masculinity were at least in part fashioned by particular patterns and practices of consumption.

Of course, because much of this research has been fuelled by its search for the origins of modernity, it offers a very partial view, one that privileges practices that look modern and overlooks those that seem traditional. Thus there is remarkably little in this literature – with the exception of the work on foodstuffs - about what we might call ordinary consumption. There is almost nothing about non-modern forms of consumption and exchange, such as barter and street markets or peddlers and chapmen, though work on this has begun. And there is very little about forms of consumption outside the marketplace, though more and more research – mostly by feminist historians and the historians of women – examines the complex affective relations – of memory, nostalgia, kinship, propriety and thrift – between people and material objects, not all acquired through the marketplace.

Historical research into the early history of consumption – the same is true of the literature investigating the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – had tended to split apart into two main areas of investigation, which are not that easily connected. The first is economic, quantitative and primarily concerned with the density of goods – the sheer numbers of commodities – and the connection between consumption and growth. The second is far more cultural, anthropological, qualitative and concerned with issues of identity, subjectivity, and social distinction. Each approach, as we will see shortly, draws upon and corresponds to one of the first two phases in the twentieth-century debate about consumer society. The first comes out of the Cold War debate about mass consumption and growth of the 1950s and 1960s; the second draws on the neo-liberal and post-modern debates about consumption, choice and identity that became so prominent in the 1980s.

The historical literature of the 1980s therefore appeared at the very moment at which the debate about consumer society was changing. Yet both sorts of historical inquiry have shared, as I shall try to show, a common concern to identify an archetypal or typical consumer, the embodiment, both individual and collective, of the consumer society.

I don’t want to rehearse here the debates among historians about the eighteenth-century ‘consumer revolution’. But I do want to emphasise that the discussion has been characterized by a persistent tension between a desire to study consumption – an investigation of how people in the past used, used up, consumed the world – not just its material objects, but its time, space and social relations – and a search for the origins of consumerism – the acquisitive purchase of goods in the marketplace by an individual choosing consumer. The two, it goes without saying, are not the same. One is to be found in all societies, the other only in certain sorts of society. One covers a whole range of social activities and their relation to the material world; the other focuses on the moment purchase or acquisition in the marketplace. Perhaps we might say that one of the central questions – not well dealt with in this historical literature – is what has been the changing relationship between consumerism and consumption?

I want to ask at least two questions of this historical literature. The first has to do with what we might call the signs of modernity that I have identified – a world of goods, sophisticated retailing, public controversy over the virtues and vices of commodity consumption, and the use of goods in identity formation. Why not treat the presence of all of these to question or interrogate the ways in which we have equated certain aspects of consumption with ‘modernity’? But because the concern of this historiography has been to say – “look, we were there first” – no such critical commentary has been forthcoming. The object is simply to extend modernity back in time, flattening our sense of the distinctiveness of different historical periods. Its as if we want to invert Bruno Latour’s controversial thesis of ‘we have never been modern’ with something like the formulation, we have always been modern.

One reason why consumer society gets pushed back further and further in time is because of our expectations about ‘traditional’ or ‘pre-modern’ societies. We fantasize about a pre-lapsarian, edenic world, where men and women had simple needs, not complex wants, related to objects functionally rather than through irrational desire, and enjoyed a coherent and stable rather than fragmented and labile sense of identity. When we look back into the past and find instead what I’ve called signs of modernity, we see first consumerism and then consumer society.



But – and this is my second question - how do we get from acts of consumption or consumerism to ‘consumer society’? As Ben Fine, one of the most persistent (and telling) critics of this literature has pointed out, the tactic (in which often one swallow really does seem to make a summer) involves what he calls a horizontal understanding of consumption: “whatever factors are taken to be of importance [in an individual case] are presumed to apply generally across the economy or society as a whole”. If it works like this for pottery or automobiles, then it works like this in consumption as a whole. In fact much of the literature on early modern consumption (and this is also often true for twentieth-century equivalent) involves synecdoche in which the part stands for the whole. The case for a consumer society moves from acts of consumption to the existence of historical actors called consumers to the presence, therefore, of a consumer society.

The inevitability of this progression is highly questionable. As Frank Trentmann has pointed out in a couple of recent essays, one of the most interesting features of the early modern period is the way in which growing consumption practices do not lead to any sort of consumer consciousness. Consumption was recognized as socially and economically beneficial and Adam Smith famously wrote in The Wealth of nations that “consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident, that it would be absurd to prove it”. But consumers or the consumer were largely absent from eighteenth-century Scottish political economy which, as Trentmann rightly says is concerned not with consumer society but commercial society and not with consumers but with merchants and traders. Even when acts of consumption (or more usually acts of abstinence from consumption) were used, as in the American revolution and the anti-Slavery movement, to political ends, they were not undertaken on behalf of or by consumers, but by those who gave themselves a political or moral designation. The consumer as a political actor, or as a category of person who needed protection or had interests, had to await the nineteenth century. Consumption practices may have been economically, socially and culturally important but – and this is the general point that the historical case illustrates – even so they do not necessarily produce consumer consciousness, the emergence of the consumer as a class of historical agent.

If leaping from acts of consumption to consumer consciousness is a non-starter, what about the move from acts of consumption to consumer society? There has been a tendency in the historical literature to assume that the definition of consumer society is self-evident, or that it is a thing with a series of characteristics – disposable and discretionary income for a significant number of people, availability of goods that permit consumer choice, the practice of self-fashioning through goods often understood as a desire for the new, novelty and fashion – that can be checked off like items on a shopping list. In fact, most definitions of consumer society do consist of or at least include a shopping list; it is more often than not defined by the density of things – furnishings and fabrics in the eighteenth-century – cars, televisions and household appliances in the mid-twentieth. In much of this literature the presence of goods and commodities overshadows the presence of consumers themselves, for it is the plenitude of goods rather than the plethora of consumers that conveys the sense of abundance with which consumer society is so often associated. It is the consumed good rather than the consumer who speaks in this story.

In all such accounts there is a gap between consumer practices and the notion of consumer society, one that is more often than not filled by some general characterization of ‘the consumer’, which is needed to explain why they consume. In McKendrick’s case he welds Veblen to the eighteenth-century luxury debate to produce the emulative consumer. In other accounts of consumer society we are offered the manipulated consumer, whose tastes and preferences are given to him or her (this a favourite of the Left from the Frankfurt school critics onwards), the dreaming, fantasist consumer (often invoked in analyses of the department store), the marginal utility rationalising consumer of most economists, and the identity-creating consumer and the resisting consumer, found in so much cultural-studies literature. The problem is not one of whether or not such consumers were so motivated – although ethnographic studies in which consumers speak for themselves rather than being ventriloquized by pundits and academics almost always reveal a more complex picture – but of making a particular type of consumer speak for all consumers. Thus most accounts of consumer society come with a stereotypical, ideal-type consumer and debates about consumer society are also debates about consumer identity. But as Fine and Leopold have stressed, given the extraordinary complexity of consumption practices – not only in the present but in the past – “it is inconceivable that any one general theory of consumption will suffice”. Moreover any interpretation that moves from the motives of an aggregate of individual consumers to “consumer society” entails an astonishing myopia. Any remotely plausible account of consumer society cannot overlook the role of institutions – from the firm to the state – the topographies of consumption, questions of access and exclusion, and the complex chains that link production and consumption.

Such analysis certainly exists, but its absence from so much of the work debating the existence of a consumer society can best to understood if we turn to a closer analysis, an historical account of the consumer society debate.

The term ‘consumer society’ as opposed to consumption/the consumer is a relatively recent coinage. The term was not used at all before the late 1950s and only achieved anything like general usage in the 1960s. Even the American economist George Katona, one of the major early apologists for post-War mass consumption preferred to speak of a mass consumption society rather than a consumer society. There have been three phases of the consumer society debate – the first, between c.1950-74 occurred during the so-called golden age of post-World War II growth in Europe and the US that combined new levels of material abundance and unprecedented leisure time and that was associated with higher disposable incomes, particular consumer goods – especially cars, white-goods, domestic appliances and televisions – and home ownership. This was a debate about the mechanisms and virtues and vices of capitalist growth in the Cold War. The second began in the late 60s but reached its apogee in the early 1980s and pitted neo-liberals with their preoccupation with the sanctity of individual choice against critics who saw consumer society as one devoted primarily to its own reproduction – the French situationalist, Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle – in which to quote Perry Anderson, “economic life itself” becomes “so pervaded with symbolic systems of information and persuasion that the notion of a independent sphere or more or less a-cultural production increasingly loses meaning”. The third phase of the debate, and which dates from the 90s – and which I don’t have time to discuss – is that about the globalisation of capitalism and its effects.

From its inception the term ‘consumer society’ was not used as a sharp analytic tool but as a large-scale, prescriptive characterization of a social order. Whether we read the panegyrics of cold-war liberals or the jeremiads of (often religious) social conservatives or hostile commentators on the Left, discussion of consumer society was – and to a large extent remains - almost always highly generalized and politically tendentious.

Which is perhaps to say that the debate about consumer society inaugurated – indeed it was essentially - a debate about the politics of consumption. Obviously by this I am not saying that there were no consumer politics before the end of World War II. On the contrary, at least since the late nineteenth century, if not earlier, both in Europe and the United States, groups of consumers had banded together qua consumers to act as what the Harvard historian Lisabeth Cohen has usefully termed citizen consumers, who “take on the political responsibility we usually associate with citizens to consider the general good of the nation through their consumption”, bodies like the National Consumers League in the US, co-operative movements and guilds throughout Europe or the British Consumers Association. And governments, especially those which came to embrace Keynsian economics, had also recognised, with varying degrees of acceptance, that consumers constituted an interest in society, along with labour and capital.

But, as Cohen has also shown, in post-war America a new consensus emerged around a formulation that linked the customer and the citizen – the customer as citizen – the notion that the pursuit of private consumption was in the national or public interest. As Cohen has written, “For at least a quarter of a century, the ideal of the Consumers’ Republic provided the blue-print for American economic, social and political maturation, as well as for export around the globe. The Consumers’ Republic had many appeals. It promised great prosperity through yoking employment and economic growth to high consumer demand, and it provided a ready weapon in the political struggles of the Cold war, helping the United States to justify its superiority over the Soviet Union both at home and abroad. But perhaps most attractive was the way it promoted the socially progressive end of greater economic equality without requiring politically progressive means of redistributing existing wealth.” How this actually played out on the ground is the subject of her excellent recent book.

But this was never just a domestic issue. The Cold War formulation of economic development was exported in theories that connected growing affluence and the ownership of goods to conceptions of democracy. This sort of argument is well represented in a classic, best-selling text of late 50s and early 1960s, the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man. Lipset saw consumer societies as resistant to demagoguery and dictatorship. He measured democracy not only by education and wealth, but persons per motor vehicle, nos. of telephones, radios and newspapers per capita. “In the more democratic European countries, there are 17 persons per motor vehicle compared with 143 for the less democratic. In the less dictatorial Latin-American countries there are 99 persons per motor vehicle verses 274 for the more dictatorial”.

In short here we see the explicit association of certain sorts of commodity (or more precisely the density of certain sorts of commodity) with a particular political regime. In other words it is during the Cold War that American commodities – the classic case, brilliantly used by Kubrick in Doctor Strangelove and skilfully deconstructed by Daniel Miller in his study of the Caribbean is, of course, Coca Cola – come to represent the American (liberal democratic) way of life. Consumption, conceived of somewhat unproblematically, as ownership (rather than say as use) becomes a key measure of politics; a set of economic and social practices (signed through goods) is conflated with a political vision or ideology of the good. The appurtenances of a modern everyday life – cars, fridges and phones – become part of what was then a global struggle.

Thanks to the efforts of Cold War liberals the connection between the projection of a certain (American) way of life and consumer goods has become naturalised. But we should recognised this conjunction as a historically specific consequence of the ideological struggles of the Cold War which were sustained in the American case not only by academic scholarship but by such bodies such as the U.S. Information Agency and the State Department which deliberately sort to export a particular version of the American way of life. Here was capitalism’s politics of (the American way) of everyday life, one that placed commodity culture at its centre, and which has framed the debate about modernity, commodity culture and consumer society ever since.

Now the debate about the superiority of an American privatized regime of mass consumption connects in many interesting ways with the discussion of

late eighteenth-century Britain as the first consumer society. The literature on economic development in the 1950s and 1960s looked back to the experience of the first industrial nation and its theorists to elaborate its models of growth. Thus



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