Posts Tagged ‘production and consumption’

Frank Trentmann: Empire of Things

July 28, 2018

41dDMxF43uL._AC_US218_I have to say that, whilst this book made very interesting reading, it was also quite hard going, partly because of the vast wealth of detail and examples Trentmann uses, and also because the subject is so all-encompassing it meant that it was often hard to follow a particular thread clearly and coherently: the whole felt a little shapeless at times. But our obsession with stuff, and acquiring more and more of it, is a rather more complex issue than I had imagined. In early modern times there had been various sumptuary laws restricting conspicuous consumption on religious and moral grounds.

Trentmann notes a post-Second World War shift to a focus on creating wants, as he looks at what we prize and value, and why that should be. Over centuries we have moved from producing what we need – self-sufficiency and survival – to selling our labour for cash in order to buy things, and this clearly led to the development and manipulation of demand. The shift from rural to urban living was responsible for creating the ambience for higher consumption by reducing opportunities for self-provisioning. Ownership and consumption of stuff gradually became part of how people defined and saw themselves.

Quite early on I felt any reference to Marx’ analysis of labour and production was lacking, and when Trentmann did turn to Marx he was rather simplistic, dismissive even, in his treatment, though it is true that the latter was – as far as he got – more interested in production than consumption; nevertheless Marx’ analysis of changing labour relations over time fits in well with the development of greater consumption, and capitalism in general, I think.

Far more data is available from the nineteenth century onwards, with the growth of the ‘science’ of economics, so the book largely concentrated on the time from then, rather than comprehending the last five centuries as the book’s blurb suggests. However, Trentmann’s debunking of various myths about consumption, and his tracing of a process which can be seen to have developed slowly over centuries, is interesting. For instance, labour-saving devices actually led to the invention of new chores, and the adopting of higher standards and expectations as people became more competitive. And then there are the tricks and deceits of multinationals involved in the marketing of ‘heritage’ through so-called ‘farmers’ markets’ and ‘local’ food – yet another pricey brand, in the end. In the end, it is all about re-cycling money: higher wages and more leisure time = more goods can be sold, whatever they are; now, the opportunity for profit is even greater as the emphasis on selling services rather than goods, develops.

Home ownership led to the idea of individual rooms, either for specific activities or individuals, and thence the need for things to fill them. Increasingly, statistics demonstrate that the affluent society is about ordinary rather than conspicuous consumption. Concomitant is the necessary growth of consumer debt to sustain it all, and also the growth of public squalor as private affluence increases, and we are told that we prefer to have more of our ‘own’ money to spend on things…

More insidious is the position of the intellectual elite’s self-proclaimed position as guardians of ‘civilisation’, attacking mass consumption and seeing the masses themselves as spoilt children, permanent adolescents caught up in the cult of self.

Why do people imagine they need all this stuff? Perhaps to make up for the increasing dullness and pressure of the routine of work? In the end, self-fulfilment through stuff… Consumption itself takes time as well as money, contributing to the feelings of stress, so we are time-poor but have lots of things instead. Pope John Paul II spoke eloquently about the loss of balance between spiritual and material values.

Most interesting to me: Trautmann’s analysis of how and why Eastern Europe failed in terms of satisfying its consumers. Overall, not a book I’d recommend as a casual read; I’m glad I bought it and read it but felt it lacked political bite: issues are presented, but no solutions offered. And clearly we cannot go on like this.

Note to editors: mid-Atlantic production values for books can lead to nonsense: what on earth is ‘Scottish whiskey’ (sic) for heaven’s sake?

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: