Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First
by Frank Trentmann
Harper, 862 pp., $40.00
The dictum “Less is more” is usually attributed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who in 1947 summed up the principles of minimalism in an interview with Philip Johnson.1 Nobody knows who coined its unrepentantly exuberant, even vulgar, offspring, “More is more.” It’s been credited variously to the postmodern architect Robert Venturi, to the fashion designer Gianfranco Ferre, to the novelist Stanley Elkin, to the graphic designer Deborah Sussman, and sometimes to the spangled queen of glitz herself: Dolly Parton.
Both “Less is more” and “More is more” are the catchphrases of a consumer society faced with unimagined plenty. Following World War II, “Less is more” suggested unease with mass abundance: restraint became an emblem of refinement. Two decades of uninterrupted prosperity later, “More is more” poked fun at its abstemious parent. It is also a fitting description of the way we live now. Even if you think yourself a reluctant shopper, consider all of the resources used to create our material world: the steel to build our homes (especially the Miesian ones), the natural gas to fire our furnaces, the aluminum in our smartphones and tablets. In the world’s richest countries, consumption has ballooned by over a third in the past few decades to the point that in 2010, each person in the thirty-four richest nations consumed over 220 pounds of stuff every day.
How did we come to be such voracious, irrepressible consumers? And how has all of this consuming changed the world? Those are the questions at the heart of Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things, a more-is-more sort of book, each of its nearly seven hundred pages of text jam-packed with telling facts and counterintuitive provocations. Trentmann deals with five hundred–plus years of history, from the Renaissance city-states, with their tastes for gilded goblets and Oriental silks, to present-day China, where state capitalism has proven that liberalism is no requirement for booming consumerism. It’s a book about material objects (such as a department store window featuring a model of St. Paul’s Cathedral composed entirely of hankies), but even more, about all of the consumption that cannot be so readily seen—unspectacular, everyday acts such as changing your underpants daily (only 5 percent of German men did so in 1966).
Empire of Things is that rare tour d’horizon that expands your sense of what should count as the subject. To equate consumption with shopping, Trentmann argues, is to miss the main story. Consumption is as much about state intervention (infrastructural investments in gas and water or welfare programs) as it is about the decisions of individuals or the fluctuations of markets. What people consumed during the eighteenth century (say, coffee or chocolate) was shaped profoundly by the movement of trade, as the Europeans built the ultimate engine of material expansion through imperialism.
Unparsimonious in his own explanations—he marshals ideas, economics, politics, culture, society—Trentmann makes short work of the most famous theorists of consumption. Most of them were decidedly negative after the eighteenth century, including Thorstein Veblen, who invented the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe the behavior of those who spent extravagantly to bolster social prestige, and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who blamed consumerism for the paradox of “private opulence and public squalor.” It’s a tribute to the depth of Trentmann’s learning, to his range of examples, and to the vivacity of his prose that 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.
The relentless pursuit of more is often associated with mid-twentieth-century Americans, whose disposable cups heralded the throwaway society and whose finned cars were said to express the ethos that bigger is better. So seductive was the American model that the British writer J.B. Priestley feared that gloomy, blitzed-out 1950s Britain hovered on the brink of becoming Southern California with its “automobile way of life (you can eat and drink, watch films, make love, without ever getting out of your car).” But consumer society was at least three centuries old before Mad Men entered the picture. The significance of this earlier history has come into sharper focus since the 1980s, when scholars such as John Brewer, Neil McKendrick, Jackson Lears, and Simon Schama began investigating the dynamics of getting and spending. Mass consumption, historians discovered, was well entrenched in certain regions of the world, notably in Europe, before the coming of factory-style production. Indeed, the taste for goods in the lower echelons (as the historian Jan de Vries has argued) prodded whole families into wage-earning, creating a labor force for industrialization.2
Just where and when the impetus toward material acquisition originated, though, has been a matter of debate. Was it the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), with its silver-inlaid lacquer cups and “peony” hairstyles held up by carved bamboo hairpins? Doubtful, says Trentmann, because the Ming valued objects for their antiquity, not their newness, and were quick to lay down rules of taste that inhibited the flow of goods. More than two sorts of flower in a vase and it “gives the appearance of a wine shop,” pronounced one Ming aesthete. Or can the origins of consumer society be found in Renaissance Florence and Venice, where merchants splashed out on ever more elaborate, chased, and gilded tableware? The fact that most Renaissance people still dressed like their grandparents, and that luxury escaped suspicion only when it could be justified by the public good, weaken that case.
What, then, about the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth-century Golden Age, when even the maid had paintings in her room? Although Trentmann criticizes the energy that’s been devoted to proving the origin of consumerism, he nonetheless agrees with those scholars who have pinpointed a qualitative and quantitative change in consumption in northwestern Europe, particularly the Netherlands and England, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In these countries, the pleasure people took in novelty—and the fact that the Dutch and English earned high wages—combined to 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. In eighteenth-century Essex, half the paupers entering the workhouse owned feather bedding, candlesticks, and items for preparing tea; a fifth had clocks.
For a consumer society to flourish, attitudes had to change. As Trentmann puts it, “Goods did not just arrive. They had to be invited in. In the past, societies were stand-offish.” 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. For this reason, the Dutch-born physician and man of letters Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) has been prominent in much of the scholarship about the rise of consumption.3 It was Mandeville who reconciled individual avarice and national prosperity in his Fable of the Bees, pointing out that greed could be good, at least for the economy. “Thus every Part was full of Vice/Yet the whole Mass a Paradice,” he wrote, offering as proof that “Luxury Employ’d a Million of the Poor/And odious Pride a Million more.”4 From Mandeville it was but a short step to Adam Smith, who in The Wealth of Nations (1776) argued that consumption was the “sole end of all production.”
The products of empire fed Europe’s nascent consumer societies. The continent’s drive outward catapulted its most aggressive states—preeminent among them Britain—into a commanding position atop the world of goods, widening the “great divergence” Kenneth Pomeranz has identified between East and West. During the eighteenth century, colonies made commodities such as cotton, sugar, and tea cheaper, not least because of the exploitation of slaves. The free-trade empires that followed in the nineteenth century slashed prices still further, as states lowered or abolished tariffs in order to arrive at fairer deals for their populations at home. In the colonies themselves, Trentmann suggests, extracting resources was far more important than cultivating markets. Missionaries and colonial officials fretted that the Ashanti or the Mombasans would consume too many bowler hats or wall clocks, collapsing the all-important distinction between the races. Europeans would be the master consumers, the rest would have to work as coolies or peasants.
While empire opened a flow of new goods, cities served as the hothouses of consumer society. According to Trentmann, increased demand owed more to urban living than to either falling prices or rising incomes. In the burgeoning, increasingly anonymous cities of the industrializing world, appearances could make or break a person. As a consequence, young workers often spent their first wages on a new set of clothes. It was in cities, too, that the specialization of trades accelerated: for the city-dweller it became more efficient and cheaper to buy a table or a set of curtains than to make them.
By the late nineteenth century, cities had not just lavish department stores, with spectacular window displays, tea rooms, and escalators (the first in the world was installed in Harrods in 1898), but the infrastructure for the inconspicuous consumption that came to define a civilized life—running water on demand, gas lighting, indoor plumbing, and electricity. It has been estimated that average Parisians in 1802 used a little more than a gallon of water a day; by the end of the nineteenth century they used over thirteen, and this even though only a fifth of the city’s residents had a constant supply of water.
In 1900, it seemed that there was no restraining the consumer. Authorities were reluctant to restrict demand, for water as for all else. The basic terms of the debate were set. On one side were classical liberals who defended the prerogatives of the consumer to choose what he or she liked. They viewed free choice in the marketplace as a good in itself, a boon to democracy and, as Enlightenment sages such as Adam Smith had contended, crucial for a prospering economy. On the other side were the critics of the consumer society, a mixed group of moralists, conservatives, socialists, and progressives who, though they agreed on little else, viewed consumerism as a corrosive force.
To the old jeremiads against consumption—that it weakened the individual’s moral fiber and upended the social order—they added new criticisms. For Marxists, the charge was “commodity fetishism”: slapping a price on objects hid the worker’s labor and estranged the thing from the person who had made it. Frankfurt School theorists (Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno among them) indicted consumer culture as a degradation of freedom, a threat to creativity. For the liberal intellectual Galbraith, writing in The Affluent Society (1958), the problem was that consumerism had sapped people of their commitment to the public good.
Trentmann is skeptical of these criticisms, not because he views consumption as an unmitigated good but because he thinks the polemics far outpace the evidence. Contrary to Veblen, he thinks people are far more prone to keep up with their friends than with their social betters; he condemns the elitism of Adorno’s screeds against the radio, and questions Galbraith’s accounting. Above all else, Trentmann underscores the diversity of consumer cultures. Empire of Things is the product of his stewardship of a £5 million, five-year, government-financed, multidisciplinary research program on global “Cultures of Consumption.” After more than three decades of intensive scholarship on the subject—the “Cultures of Consumption” program alone sponsored twenty-six projects on topics ranging from nineteenth-century American horticulture to the transnational consumption of khat—a wide-ranging historical synthesis was very much needed. This is what Trentmann has now delivered.
Empire of Things is also a bracing argument for putting the state, politics, and geopolitics at the heart of the history of consuming. Trade policies, imperialism, investments in utilities, welfare programs, regulations on mortgages, mandated Sunday closing of shops, subsidies for recycling: these are some of the ways states have shaped how and what we consume. Such subjects have not, of course, been absent from the scholarship (Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America  is a fine example), but they’ve been secondary to work focused on markets and individual choices.
Shifting attention to the centrality of state action yields three important insights. First, Trentmann makes the case that state spending is a critical, if thus far neglected, part of the story of consumption. Crucial to the post–World War II age of affluence in Western Europe and the United States, he argues illuminatingly, was the sharply increasing rate of public spending. Although consumption is often conceived of as a private matter, state expenditure on welfare loosened wallets by relieving the need to save for old age or a medical emergency.
Indeed, the more equal the society, the more robust was consumer spending. Contrary to Galbraith’s fears, affluence and public welfare proved symbiotic, not mutually exclusive. Social democracy spurred on consumerism. By the same token, inequality has proven a brake on consumerism, not a stimulus. “Modern history does not reveal a second road, where diminishing welfare spending leads to greater affluence—at least, not yet.”
Second, many of the international divergences in consumption patterns attributed to national character (the thrifty Germans, the spendthrift Americans) reflect instead state policies. Do Singaporeans live in multigenerational housing because they love and respect their elders—or because the Singaporean state offers the carrot of tax breaks alongside the stick of laws on filial obligations? Have Americans gorged on credit because they lack self-control—or because successive US governments have resisted European-style efforts to rein in credit?
In both cases, the stronger argument is for the significance of government policy, itself a product of historical contingency; in West Germany, for instance, the class prejudices of civil servants and the disgrace of defeat after World War II combined to limit the amount of credit made available to working people. Similarly, the decline in savings rates in both Europe and the United States from the 1970s tells us less about the deteriorating moral fiber of the population than it does about the fact that these states no longer needed private savings to finance modernization and war. Rather than providing incentives for savers, they turned the consumer loose.
Third, Trentmann demonstrates that by the twentieth century, states of many kinds—not just the liberal democracies—regarded consumption as indispensable. Countries such as Britain and the United States set the model: there, the link between the citizen and the consumer was forged tightly. At the heart of the New Deal were ideals of freedom and plenty, understood as mutually reinforcing propositions. But Trentmann seeks to extend the point more broadly, to demonstrate that freedom was hardly necessary to a thriving consumer society. Nazi Germany, for instance, sought to deliver the goods or, failing that, to promise their appearance; German factories continued producing toys and cosmetics until the defeat at Stalingrad. With its canny embrace of consumption, the contemporary Chinese state furnishes another good example. Starting in the late 1990s, China created “a nation of property owners” in less than a decade, a feat that outstrips the record of Herbert Hoover and Margaret Thatcher, the Anglo-American “champions of home-owning democracy.”
Trentmann’s argument about the diversity of consumer societies becomes more strained when he extends it to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Yes, Stakhanovites were rewarded with a suit for their exertions; for the female comrade, there was a crêpe de Chine dress and an electric iron to press it. But such displays were a sideshow to the central reality: the suppression of consumer demand along with the consumer. At its most extreme, that meant a brutal program of starvation that the Soviet state oversaw in Ukraine in 1932–1933, killing millions in the name of modernization.5 More common was the systematic effort to squeeze every last ounce of surplus out of the population, symbolized by the postwar communal apartment.6 Even when the Soviet bloc countries concocted their own distinctive consumer goods—such as East Germany’s 1956 Purimix, which could vacuum and, with other attachments, grind coffee and chop onions—saving materials was the primary aim. The regime’s focus was producers and production for export, not consumers.7
Trentmann is right to call attention to the state, but he doesn’t go far enough. What’s needed is an account not just of how states furthered consumption but how they managed to shut it down, in some cases for decades. In 1949, as Mao came to power, there were 10,000 restaurants in Beijing, of which only 656 remained in 1979. While Trentmann mentions in passing such efforts to restrict consumption (Nehru’s campaign for autarky—a more frugal self-sufficient economy—and the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal experiment, to take two very different examples), they are dealt with as exceptions that prove the rule of modern regimes promising their subjects more goods. Such omissions matter because in the early twenty-first century it seems likely that environmental pressures will compel states to regulate consumption in a draconian fashion.
While the first part of Empire of Things presents a global history of consumption chronologically, the second part works backward from contemporary debates about our burgeoning material culture to explore their historical antecedents. Trentmann answers the familiar charges against consumer society evenhandedly, with good sense and mounds of evidence. Contrary to the alarmism about extravagance triggered by the Great Recession, he points out how well most people have coped with the large amounts of credit made available during the last century. Moreover, it is not youth who are spending more freely in prosperous countries, as tends to be assumed, but their grandparents. Whereas old age once meant deprivation (in 1940s Britain, the only shoes many seniors had were bedroom slippers), those aged sixty to eighty now enjoy materially better as well as longer lives.
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. As Trentmann acknowledges, consumption has been a juggernaut, very difficult to restrain except by coercion. Efforts to expand recycling programs have run alongside, not replaced, ways of life filled with more and more stuff. In advocating for “greater historical realism” about the relentless growth of consumption through the ages, Trentmann is making the point that we cannot rely simply on markets and individual choices to reset the metabolism of consumer society. States will need to take a strong hand.
There’s a mismatch between the looming environmental crisis described at the end of the book and its sanguine, even jovial, preceding pages. Trentmann is too good a historian to tell his story with a deterministic conclusion always in sight. He avoids a teleological account of the rise of the carbon economy, one invention after another, leading ineluctably to more intensive resource extraction and rapid global warming. But it is precisely because he insists on taking each episode in the history of consumption on its own terms—exploring why particular developments made sense in the moment, giving play to each era’s contingencies, and emphasizing variety, all strong virtues of his historical account—that the finale to his grand story appears so disconnected from the earlier chapters.
Given how disastrous this empire of things has been, it might be tempting to resurrect some of the Cassandras of consumer society that Trentmann sets aside: to lament the volume of stuff that’s purchased to keep up with the neighbors, to deplore the disinvestment in infrastructure and all the fancy new kitchens. Yet as Trentmann observes in the book’s opening pages, much of the world’s waste is a product of habitual practices we think normal: driving a car, yes, but taking a daily shower, too, or heating our homes or changing our underpants daily (by 1986, 45 percent of German men did compared to the 5 percent who did in 1966). It has almost nothing to do with individual motives or morality. Mandeville understood the paradoxical relationship between intentions and effects, but his famous couplet needs some updating. It’s not “Thus every Part was full of Vice/Yet the whole Mass a Paradice,” but rather the other way around: “Though every Part gave real Pleasure/The Sum of all used up our Treasure.” What counts as normal has proven far too much.
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