Frank Trentmann:


"Empire Of Things" (2016)

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This book offers a different perspective on our lives. We tend to see ourselves as citizens, thinkers and workers. But we are increasingly consumers. The economy recognizes this and increasingly relies on us spending much of what we earn, and even more than what we have. An entire system has been created to encourage us to spend, from advertising to loans, as described in John Galbraith's "The Affluent Society" (1958). Adam Smith noted in "The Wealth of Nations" (1776) that consumption is the ultimate purpose of production. Trentmann credits Jevons, Menger and Walras with proving that consuming, rather than work, creates value. Jevons wrote that the value of a product is created by the consumer (by how much the consumer desires it) not by the producer (not by the cost of material and labor). And Alfred Marshall argued that the consumer's behavior was driven by a natural urge towards self-improvement.

Scholars of subcultural phenomena see consuming as also a way to forge group identities, especially for groups that challenge the establishment: you can make a statement simply by wearing a T-shirt instead of a white shirt and a tie at a business meeting. Young people have their own code of dressing because they have their own ideals of lifestyle. Hobbies are more than simply an addition to buying useless items: they can be meanings of life. Consumerism has been a favorite target of intellectuals, notably Marxists like Herbert Marcuse and those opposed to a materialist lifestyle, from Buddhists to Christians.

His history of consumerism begins with Columbus and the other explorers. From about 1500 all the continents have become increasingly interconnected in a complex system of trade. Initially the trade was mainly between the East and the West, flowing from China, India and the East Indies towards western Europe. Trade tilted towards the Atlantic Ocean about two centuries after Columbus, when, for example, England started selling more sugar, tobacco and coffee (acquired from America) than wool (its traditional export). Within another century the American and Southasian colonies had also become big markets for the European powers, especially for manufactured goods.

It took a couple of centuries, but eventually the European taste changed dramatically during the 18th century: tea from China and later India, sugar from the West Indies and the Middle East, coffee from Yemen (already popular in the Arab world) and West Indies (transplanted by the Europeans), tobacco from North America and cocoa from Mexico and later Venezuela.

Britain had a very large middle class. High wages encouraged consumerism. High wages encouraged automation. And automation enabled mass production to satisfy mass consumption. Trentmann argues that demand for exotic things like Indian cotton and Chinese porcelain stimulated the growth of European factories, that mass production was born to satisfy mass consumption. In 1846 Britain repealed the Corn Laws that protected its agriculture from imports and became a free-trade country (unlike the USA that imposed high tariffs on imports from Britain). Trentmann generalizes and concludes that empire created consumerism and that the West embraced the consumer like no other region of the world.

The second part of the book is not a chronology but a series of essays on topics such as credit (which increased the consumer's purchasing power), leisure time (which induced the consumer to spend more), retirement (which introduced new forms of consumerism), the welfare state, ethics all the way to the end of goods, i.e. garbage.