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Frank Trentmann

Subtitle: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the 15th Century to the 21st, Harper Collins, NY., 2016, 799 pgs., notes, figures, illustrations, paperback


Reviewer Comment -
This is an excellent companion to the three volumes of Dr. McCloskey's books on the role of the bourgeois in creating modern times and the several books such as Felix Martin's on the history of money. The author focuses on the real assets (from spoons to Ipads ) created and acquired by people - where the money they used as a medium of exchange went as it created individual wealth.


"We are surrounded by things. A typical German owns 10,000 objects". "In the last few hundred years, the acquisition, flow and use of things - in short, consumption - has become a defining feature of our lives". "Work remains important today, but it defines us far less than in the heyday of the factory and the trade union".
"Like other key concepts in history, consumption has not had a fixed meaning over time". "Between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, the term underwent a miraculous metamorphosis". "Consumption progressively ceased to mean waste or destruction and instead became something positive and creative". "The changing meaning of the term reflects the advance of capitalism since the fifteenth century, which spread markets, purchase and choice more widely across society". "Consumption is about more than purchasing".

"This book, then, aims to follow the life cycle of consumption as fully as possible from demand and acquisition through to use, collection and ultimately disposal".

"Today consumption is at the centre of a heated public debate between two rival camps pointing their moral artillery a each other. On one side stand progressive and social democrats, critics who attack the juggernaut of shipping, advertising, branding and easy credit for turning active, virtuous citizens into passive, bored consumers". "On the opposite side are the champions of consumption, first and foremost classical liberals who cherish freedom of choice as the bedrock of democracy and prosperity".

I agree, except it is the progressives who push for "easy credit" and redistribution of wealth so that their voters can consume more.

"This book does not set out to adjucate a moral debate, let alone decide whether consumption is 'good' or 'bad'. Consuming is too diverse and its history too rich to fit under extreme model: complacent mass consumption or individual freedom". "Material desires are not a modern invention".

Dr. Trentmann mentions some of the leading influential recent authors whose opinions have shaped public views on either side of the debate.
"The aim, though, of this book is no only to appreciate consumption as the outcome of historical forces. Consumption, in turn, also changed states, societies and daily life. To see this clearly, we need to break with a tradition that has treated material culture as a separate sphere of everyday life".

Worse than that, professional economists a century ago separated the concept of economics from the rest of life, especially political activity and created their idea of an 'economic man' who guided by pure rational analysis on his 'utility' in achieving personal desires in which they substituted economic means for ends.
Mr. Trentmann cites the famous author Fernand Braudel in this process, and indeed, Braudel's books on daily living in the early days of the west European modern world are great and popular reads.

"Treating daily life, the market and politics as separate spheres made it all but impossible to follow the interplay between them. This made the approach particularly cumbersome for modern history, broadly the period from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, when these spheres became ever more entangled".

Again, worse than that, politics and economics are not to separate spheres entangled but one sphere from earliest ancient civilizations to the present. But so many economists still refuse to admit it. Dr. McCloskey's three volumes on bourgeoise are a very helpful, but limited, effort to show the effects of this separation.

"The growth of consumption - in terms of its sheer bulk, change and material throughput - means that we are dealing with a new dynamism that has left few aspects of public life untouched. A further aim of this book, then, is to follow this momentum and assess its consequences for social life and politics".

The author notes that the common theme of establishment commentators is to focus on the U.S. in post World War II and deplore consumption as hedonism.

"This book breaks with this approach in four fundamental ways. It, firstly, widens the time frame. Contrary to conventional wisdom mass consumption preceded factory-style mass production; indeed, Western demand for Indian cotton and Chinese porcelain was one factor that would stimulate innovation in European industry".
"The book's second shift in perspective is geographical".
"Widening the story in time and space in this way has a third implication for the approach taken in this book, and this concerns its cast of characters".
"Finally, the book takes a larger view of what is consumed and why".

A historian would take an even wider view in time and space and culture. There was much demand for consumption by those who could afford it in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. And much more mass production of basic items for daily living than many text books depict . But that was what the sumpturary laws were all about and the continual complaints by moralists going back to the Holy Bible as well as prominent philosophers in Greece and Rome. Consumption has always been limited only by the ability to produce.
The author continues with remarks about the misunderstanding about these issues by popular writers and social commentators.

"This book tells the story of the global advance of goods. It does so in two parts which complement each other. The first is historical and takes readers from the blossoming of the culture of goods in the fifteenth century to the end of the Cold War in the 1980's and the resurgence of Asian consumers since.... Part Two moves in the opposite direction. it takes central topics of concern today and places them in a historical context".


Part I


Chapter 1 - Three Cultures of Consumption
The author notes that there are different opinions about when 'the consumer culture' began. It seems clear that people have always desired to have things but they have been limited mostly by ability to produce and acquire them. In reverse moralist philosophers have always denounced 'extravagant' consumption.

The author comments: "There was no modern consumer culture, Renaissance Italy, China in the late Ming Dynasty (1520-1644) and the Netherlands and Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries all saw a notable increase in possessions. All had shops and lexicons of taste. Each was dynamic, but in different ways... Ultimately, however, as I hope to show, it was the values that these societies attached to things that set them apart from each other and made some hungrier consumers than others".

"The World of Goods"

"One of the achievements of the three centuries between 1500 and 1800 was to join together distant continents in a world of goods".

Dr. Trentmann describes in this section the process of increasing world-wide commerce and its results in creating the availability of new products for Europeans.

"Magnificence and Majolica"

He writes: "The expansion of interregional and then global trade intersected with the commercialization of everyday life"... "Possessions were becoming more numerous and refined".

And this has an impact on social relationships. He shifts to discuss China in the 19th century.

But, "It was in the north-west of Europe, in the Netherlands and Britain, that a more dynamic, innovative culture of consumption came to take hold in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries". And he provides bar graphs to demonstrate this.


Chapter 2 - The Enlightenment of Consumption
The author singled out a quartet of "exotic drug foods that conquered Europe: tea, tobacco, coffee and cocoa". plus, of course, sugar. "The introduction and popularization of new tastes is a critical feature of modern consumer culture".
An excellent map sows the multitude of international trade routes that delivered these products plus others such as silk, porcelain, cotton, slaves, and manufactured goods.

"Urban Living"

"Thanks to their size and social complexion, towns and cities provided a favorable space for product differentiation and specialized services".

"Things on the Mind" In this section the author contracts Bruno Latour's view of 'things' with the negative attack by Marx, Adorno, Horkheimer, Rousseau, Rawls and Habermas who characteristically as social critics equate western appreciation for 'things' with decadence.
"A Culture of Improvement"

The author has a more favorable opinion. "But, in the final analysis , consumption is a lived experience, and it was here that a decisive compact emerged between values and practices that justified the arrival of 'more'".


Chapter 3 - Imperium of Things
"Perhaps the greatest single omission from mainstream theories of consumption is geopolitics".

In this chapter the author contrasts the negative view of consumption promoted by Marxists and others eager to denounce modern society with those authors who equated it with human progress. He contrasts also the economists such as Ricardo and Marx who conceived of 'value' as determined by the cost of production, with the concepts of Jevons, Walras and Menger who believed that 'value' was determined by the consumer rather than the producer. The chapter includes an excellent summary of thought about the nature of consumption and links that to thinking about society.


Chapter 4 - Cities "cities consume.

"They feed off the surroundingc countryside and spit out new goods and tastes". Of course this has always been true, even in agricultural societies. Spufford shows that cities were the driving force on commerce in the later middle ages. Any history of Mesopotamia, India, China, classical Greece and Rome describes the central role of cities in civilization.


Chapter 5 - The Consumer Revolution Comes Home

In this chapter the author moves into the 20th century.


Chapter 6 - Age of Ideologies

The battle of the intelligentsia continues today. Now attack on consumerism is tied to attack on capitalism, Western decadence, hegemony, materialism. Although it is the leftists who are materialists - for instance Marx himself. But economists led by Lord Keynes instead found that the consumer was not only the champion but the savior of the modern economy. Keynes advocated government do everything to enable the consumer to increase his demand for goods. "Business and advertising endorsed the convergence of consumption and citizenship".


Chapter 7 - Inside Affluence

"The capitalist West prided itself on its superiority to the socialist East, but the historically unprecedented spread of affluence in the 1950's and '60's was not universally celebrated".

The conflict between intelligentsia critics and affluence continues.


Chapter 8 - Asia Consumes In this chapter the author turns again to Asia and describes the impressive expansion of good a and services first in Japan then China, then India, then South Korea.


Part II


Chapter 9 Buy Now, Pay Later

"Diagnoses of 'affluenza'; identify consumer credit as a decisive transmitter in the viral spread of excess". But, "Warnings against credit and a loss of self-restraint are as old as commercial life itself. Plato, in his Republic, dreamt of doing away with credit altogether". And , "Credit and debt were a natural part of life long before the credit card. In commercial societies where cash was short and financial institutions embryonic, borrowing was a vital part of day-to-day household management".

The author describes the wide use of credit over the centuries.

"The Democracy of Debt"

However, the author writes: "This old regime of credit never entirely disappeared, but, slowly but surely, it came to be overshadowed by a new regime in the course of the twentieth century. At the same time as recognizing that debt and credit have a very long history, we also need to appreciate that after 1900 they evolved into something qualitatively and quantitatively new. Consumer credit under went a revolution as dramatic as the revolution in the industrial side that made cheap, mass-produced articles available".

The author descries the social as well as economic results of this change.

"Saving and Spending"

The author writes an interesting section on this concept with graphs as illustrations.


Chapter 10 - Not So Fast

The author begins with: "The "Society for the Deceleration of Time' was founded in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1990, and, in addition to its inspired name, deserves recognition for one of the more imaginative attempts at behavior change". The chapter is about the idea that the pursuit of 'things' - consumerism - has put everyone, or any people, on a treadmill. What about leisure?
"A group of social scientists has tried to capture how much free time people could have if they just worked enough to stay above the poverty line and attended to the bare necessities at home".

This leads to a discussion of the relative 'value' of time and work in various societies. He notes that in ancient Greece leisure and work were mutually exclusive states of existence. Of course this ideal life was based on slavery, as it was even more in ancient Rome.


Chapter 11 - From the Cradle to the Grave

The chapter is about the expanded role and power of the child and of the elderly as consumers.


Chapter 12 - Outside the Marketplace

The chapter describes the paternalistic role of some business corporations in controlling the consumer activities of their workers.


Chapter 13 - Home and Away

"Consumption, we have seen, has transformed time. Equally important, it has transformed space".

The author shifts his discussion to the concept of 'fair trade'. This is linked, but not limited to, the idea that the terms of trade between the exploitative West and the poverty stricken 'third world' supplier as not 'fair'.


Chapter 14 - Matters of the Spirit

The chapter takes up the question of the relationship between 'consumerism' and religion. It is actually a subset of the intelligentsia, in his case the religious oriented moralists, who contend that a 'hyperdesire' for materialist excess detracts from spiritual life-style. Of course the same opinion was prominently stated in the Bible.


Chapter 15 - Throwaway Society?

In this chapter the author investigates the ultimate destination of this mass of 'things' accumulated by modern society - namely it is thrown away. But there is an increasing movement to recycle- and dispose of worn out things in environmentally good ways.


Additional references

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Edward Cheney - The Dawn of a new Era 1250-1453

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Myron P. Gilmore - The World of Humanism - 1453-1517

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Carl Friedrich - The Age of the Baroque - 1610 - 1660

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Fredrick Nussbaum - The Triumph of Reason 1660 - 1685

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Sir George Clark - The Seventeenth Century

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Penfield Roberts - The Quest for Security 1715 - 1740

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Walter Dorn - Competition for Empire 1740 - 1763

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Leo Gershoy - From Despotism to Revolution 1763 - 1789

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Paul Mantoux - The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century: An Outline of the Beginnings of the Modern Factory System in England

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Felix Martin - Money - The Unauthorized Biography

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Deirdre Nansen McCloskey - Bourgeois Dignity - Bourgeois Virtues - Bourgeois Equality

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John Steele Gordon - An Empire of Wealth

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Ian Morris - Why the West Rules - for Now

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Rodney Stark - How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity

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Robert J. Gordon - The Rise and Fall of American Growth

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Niall Fergson - The Ascent of Money

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Recommended further reading


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