The History and Future of Consumerism

Consumerism did not begin in post-War America. Nor did it begin in the Renaissance, when most people dressed like their grandparents.

In “More Is More,” a review of  Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First, Deborah Cohen reports, “The age-old prohibition against gluttony, together with the fear that goods in the wrong hands eroded the social order, had helped to inhibit consumption. The challenge was to transform a drive for accumulation into something virtuous.”

In northwestern Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ordinary people began earning higher wages and taking pleasure in novelty, which

set off an avalanche of products both new and newly cheap: clay pipes, white soap, knitted stockings, a dazzling array of fabrics, and eventually imported drug-foods such as tobacco, chocolate, and coffee.

According to some historians, the taste for goods prompted many families into factory work.

Writers stepped in to justify the drive to acquire material goods. In his Fable of the Bees, Bernard Mandeville argued that greed is good, and in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote that consumption was the “sole end of all production.”

Through this rise in consumerism, Trentmann “thinks people are far more prone to keep up with their friends than with their social betters.”

As of 2010, on average, residents of the thirty-four richest nations consumed over 220 pounds of stuff every day.

In 1966 only 5 percent of German men changed their underpants every day. By 1986, 45 percent did.

Trentmann’s book does not end on a happy note. According to  Cohen:

It isn’t until the end of his expansive book that the hopelessness of our current, consumer-driven predicament overshadows the story he has told…. If Empire of Things were a play, the stage would become in each scene ever more crowded with amiable consumers who have good intentions and better lives. In an explosive final act, though, they would blaze into spontaneous combustion fueled by their own excess—the unhappy place where we now find ourselves.

Do you disagree?






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