John Brewer: Was the first consumer society born in 18th-century Britain?

From a lecture by the California Institute of Technology's Professor of History and Literature, given at the Royal Society in London
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The Independent Online

In 1980s historians turned their attention to the history of consumer society and consumer cultures. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Neil McKendrick's provocative thesis that there was a consumer revolution in the late 18th 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 that affected demand were complemented by shrewd entrepreneurship, marketing and advertising strategies exemplified in the practices of industrialists such as 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 élite. 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.

[But] from its inception the term "consumer society" has not been used as a sharp analytic tool but as a large-scale, prescriptive characterisation of a social order. Whether we read the panegyrics of cold-war liberals or the jeremiads of social conservatives or hostile commentators on the left, discussion of consumer society has almost always been highly generalised and politically tendentious. The debate about consumer society inaugurated a debate about the politics of consumption.

If I am pressed to answer the question, did the late 18th century see the birth of consumer society, I will answer, "no". But my preferred answer is to say that this isn't a very good question, because it is not a very good way of thinking about either consumption or consumerism in the 18th, 20th or 21st century.

This isn't just because of the political freight the consumer society debate has had to carry - though it has largely been a non-too-covert debate about the market and its role in our lives - but because its language, assumption and framework, as used by both its apologists and critics, has obscured the middle ground - between the individual consumer and society.

What we need is a much better understanding of the processes which connect forms of production and consumption. We need studies that attend to consumer politics, both in the sense of the role of regulatory bodies and systems of law and of consumers acting collectively. It's always fashionable to be post something. I just hope that we are post-consumer society.