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Work • Consumption & Need

On Consumer Capitalism

The most significant aspect of modernity that separates it from every era we have previously known is a relatively humdrum and apparently inconsequential activity: shopping.

For most of the history of humanity, shopping was a very straightforward matter: there was nothing to buy. Ninety-eight percent of the income of a northern European peasant in the twelfth century went on food: a diet of porridge, bread, cabbage, peas and in a good week, mutton (in China, it was rice, millet, turnip, yams and, at favourable points, a duck or a dog). But there was next to nothing left to spare thereafter; inventories of the dead in fifteenth century England show that a person might pass away owning nothing at all besides the clothes they had collapsed in and a stool or a knife. It would have been a sign of true prosperity to lay claim to a candlestick.

Then, in the middle of the seventeenth century, in the countries of the North Atlantic seaboard, an astonishing phenomenon started to unfold: thanks to incremental improvements in farming techniques, ordinary people began to have just a little more money at the end of the month than they needed in order not to starve. The sums were modest in the extreme and the items for purchase equally so: a belt, some brass buttons, a chest, a copper pan, a night hat… But demand led to increased manufacturing, which then – in a virtuous cycle – fed back into employment. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, northern European average wages were on a gentle upward curve. Products that only a few generations back would have been inconceivable were slowly becoming more affordable. Simple cottages acquired hard-wood floors, women might buy a second dress and men a waistcoat for Sunday, a child might have a doll, a family a padded chair.

By the middle of the century, northern Europe was witnessing the world’s first consumer revolution, in which goods that had once been luxuries were growing affordable to an ever expanding public. An emerging middle class began to buy embroidered linens, cutlery and crockery, sideboards, dining chairs, divans, coffee, cookbooks and pictures. Fashion magazines allowed people in provincial towns to see – with only a few week’s delay – what the most elegant women in Paris were wearing in the evening.

In the two centuries that followed, the consumer revolution spread to every region of the world, becoming ever more significant as it did so. In 1893, the newly launched Sears catalogue gave ordinary Americans access to a previously inconceivable array of goods in one thick volume. With a newly efficient postal service and a nationwide chain of warehouses,  one could order – and within days receive –  anything from hair curlers to lawnmowers, toilets to firearms – as well as more esoteric items like a pump to develop one’s breasts and a cream to enhance one’s chest. 

In the cities, gargantuan sums were invested in the construction of department stores, baroque palaces of consumption that presided over elegant new shopping boulevards. In 1882, Hermann Tietz opened Berlin’s first emporium, whose sumptuousness was designed to loosen shoppers’ hold on reality and induce them into a trance-like state – in which they might more readily walk away with a deposit on a giraffe-skin sofa from the third floor or an Amazonian parrot and cage from the menagerie in the basement. A globe above the door was decorated with carved ostrich feathers, pearls and brocades; there was a vaulted ceiling, skylights, gilded angels and a dramatic open atrium lined with gargantuan plate-glass windows through which Berliners might peer and dream as if at an aquarium. 

Tietz Department Store, Berlin, 1910

In Paris, the Galeries Lafayette opened its first palace in 1912; it had a tearoom, a smoking room, an oriental bath and a 43-metre high stained-glass dome. It seemed almost normal when the store announced an offer of a 25,000 franc prize to the first pilot who could successfully land on a specially constructed 20 meter long runway on its roof, a manoeuvre accomplished in January 1919 by a World War I veteran, Jules Védrines, to the wonder of a global newspaper audience and a 10,000 strong crowd in the streets below.

A paradoxical element of the consumer revolution was how serious apparently ‘small’ things became in its wake. The most minor items – shirt collars, shampoo, scrubbing brushes, margarine – contributed to fortunes unprecedented in size and scope. Sums of money that would once have been sequestred only through the conquest of nations or the edicts of kings could now be peacefully accumulated through the skilful merchandising of chocolate bars and hair creams. As a consequence, new types of people began entering the upper ranks of society. Someone who might have made his money offering the public chocolate ices or fairground rides could become richer than Amenhotep III of Egypt and live more grandly than the Inca Emperor Atahualpa. William Lever, among the most powerful men of late nineteenth century England, built his fortune selling soap – bars of Lux and tubs of Sunlight. The newly wealthy might not obey the standard etiquette expected of elites. They might use the wrong fork, blow their noses too loudly, and in speeches at white-tie dinners, refer in an unvarnished way to what they had learnt from their old ma back in the homestead. 

William Lever, founder of Lever Brothers, inventor of Sunlight and Lux Soap

But economists understood that ices and soaps were no laughing matter. If a country wished to be prosperous, it needed to engage in the buying and selling of modest consumer items on a mass scale. High minded ideals were very well, but it was in the end malls and home shopping catalogues that underpinned a nation’s wealth and strength. A moral case for mass consumption began to be made. The sale of coloured hair clips and lemon soda might not be elevated in itself, defenders proposed, but this was what provided the tax receipts to pay for the maintenance and welfare of the poorest in society, for the schools and orphanages, for the universities and the technical colleges. How heavily a nation was involved in the trade of so-called ‘silly’ things determined how much it would have to spend on hospitals and nursing homes. It might once have seemed impressive to intone Biblically against the absurdities of commerce, it was a great deal more short-sighted and cruel to leave a nation without the money to shelter its weakest members. Churches could wax lyrical about charity; only businesses could generate the money to pay for it.

The growth in consumer society was accompanied by an enormous expansion in education. By the mid-nineteenth century, most northern European countries were insisting on schooling their populations up until the age of fourteen. Alongside reading and writing, most offered maths and geography, science and literature. A powerful nation needed an educated citizenry. And yet there was one subject in which no instruction was ever offered or even remotely thought necessary: the  business of shopping. The assumption was that all the difficulties would lie in trying to accumulate money; spending it would be the easy part.

But the matter might not have been so simple. It has been a bedrock of philosophy ever since Socrates that human beings are exceptionally bad at distinguishing correctly between what they need and what they desire, between what they properly require in order to flourish and what merely seems enticing and yet might in fact injure or impair them. So long as, for most people, there was simply nothing available to be desired other than an extra serving of cabbage or a slice of cocker spaniel, the topic was slightly theoretical. Yet in the new conditions of modernity, when the entire purpose of the economy came to be that of raising disposable incomes in order to facilitate non-essential consumption (and where rooftop landings were adroitly engineered to remind one of the ecstatic pleasures of browsing), the matter of how to spend fruitfully and accurately assumed a newly fundamental place. In front of the pastry selection in the Tietz Department Store or at the shirt rack at the Galeries Lafayette, the question of how to shop well moved from being an issue of academic obscurity to an existential priority.

We too often frame the chief problem of consumption in terms of price (a failure to pick a bargain), but the errors can be more fundamental; they are errors of self-knowledge. Spending successfully depends on grasping the intimate links between what we acquire and how we feel. When we choose an unhelpful item (it might be an eclair or a house, a pair of shoes or an education), it is because we lack a sufficiently robust knowledge of our own natures. We make for imperfect consumers for the same reasons that we slip up in multiple areas of our lives: because we are untrained amateurs in the art of making ourselves happy. 

None of this would necessarily matter if the stakes weren’t so high. The tragedy of consumerism is that we have over a couple of centuries rearranged the world in the name of a privilege we may be unsuited to. We have diverted rivers, felled ancient woodlands, chained workforces to cubicles, darkened the skies and encouraged ourselves to spend most of our waking hours away from our loved ones in the frenzied pursuit of greater incomes, all in the hope that we might over time come to smile a lot more regularly. And yet so often, on the way back from the department store or the kitchen design shop, the ice cream parlour or the water park, we privately acknowledge that we have once again not been able to lay our hands on the nerve centres of our own pleasure and might, all things considered, perhaps be in a mood to start crying.

It is one thing to be miserable, it is more poignant still to be so when the sole underlying ambition was to be content. This is the haunting irony we pick up on in images of modern funfairs and holiday resorts – whose existence is premised on their ability to deliver satisfactions that may (we suspect) elude them. The failures of fun are a far greater indictment of modern consumer culture than are the miseries of work. The sweatshops, the rubbish dumps, the waste waters, the exhausted commuters – all these are obviously to be lamented, but the real targets of puzzlement and rage are to be found elsewhere: in the fractious atmosphere inside luxury sedans, in the heartbreaks inside gated compounds, in the dissatisfactions of the family of the coal mining tycoon, in the sicknesses of the soul at the fun palace.

Rob Ball, Funland, Weston-Super-Mare, 2015

As consumerism gained momentum in the 18th century, there was a degree of recognition, in some quarters at least, that money couldn’t just be spent, but had to be spent wisely. Yet the focus of concern tended to be very narrow, centering on two activities in particular: drinking and gambling. Reformers pointed out how quickly lives might be ruined in gin alleys – and how much one might lose sight of one’s true allegiances and family loyalties in gambling dens. To combat these allurements, moralistic posters and prints spelt out the consequences of addiction. One might beat up one’s loved ones after a few bottles, or in Robert Martineau’s The Last Day in the Old Home (1862) have to sell all one’s belongings after a bad run at poker.

The dangers of gin consumption

A sermon on the evils of gambling: Robert Martineau, The Last Day in the Old home, 1862

The problem with such moralism is not so much its high-handedness as its scope. It isn’t only the drunks and the punters that might need to carry warnings. Unfortunate consumption has a far greater sway upon us than these examples; there can be problems long before we need to sell the house. To the extent that we get drawn into any kind of expenditure that prevents us from flourishing and that cuts us off from sources of true nourishment, we are the victims of regrettable commercial seduction. It isn’t surprising that we should often be so; huge interests are continuously at work, seeking to persuade us about the wisdom of certain trends: that happy people drink champagne; that a partner isn’t serious unless they buy their beloved a diamond ring; that we can’t be good parents until we take our children skiing… It can take uncommon strength to stand up to a trend.

We get a hint of the bravery required when we see artists making a protest against prevailing notions of beauty and good taste – and lodging talented objections in the name of their own divergent visions. In mid-eighteenth century France, the prevailing artistic trend ran firmly in the direction of the Rococo style, which emphasised idealised romantic scenes, aristocratic grace, luxurious prettiness, ribbons, gauze and lots of pastel-coloured flowers. 


It would have taken a great deal of self-awareness and inner confidence to say that, on reflection, this was not one’s own idea of fun – and that beauty and interest might lie in a very different place. But for the French painter Chardin, it was an imperative to register a raft of alternative enthusiasms. At considerable cost to his reputation, he explained over a succession of canvases that happiness as he understood the term lay elsewhere: in quiet and rather serious domestic scenes, in kitchens and parlours, in preparing tea for the children or in reading a book before bedtime, in a simple vase on a sideboard or in a loaf of crusty bread broken open on a table.

We can seldom match such bravery. The fear of being thought strange prevents most of us from taking our less socially-endorsed tastes seriously. We go with Rococo in one era, flared shirts in another. We might, in our hearts, not want to follow the script of how to dress ourselves, go on holiday, evaluate a book, celebrate a child’s birthday, honour a loved one, run a marriage, prepare a dinner party or lead a life, but we meekly go along with expectations for fear of standing out. Far from being dogmatic self-centered creatures, we are for the most part touchingly tentative about our own intuitions; we lead most of our lives firmly within a cage of assumptions created for us by others.

It isn’t – as a certain political fantasies suppose – that our tastes are, in reality, entirely simple (and that all consumption is, for that reason, idle); more that our tastes are hugely varied and anomalous. It might be well after middle age that we finally abandon the dominant story of what we’re meant to wear, eat, admire or ignore – and arrange our affairs as we had long secretly hoped. Part of the problem is that we lack the ability to know, looking back over our experiences, what in fact brought us pleasure. Our brains aren’t keen on taking apart their own satisfactions – and therefore plotting how to recreate them more reliably. We may know that we like a given film or friend, it’s a lot harder to say why. We’re not natural critical dissectors of our experiences. And so it can feel strange and difficult to comb through the details of a holiday or a party, the purchase of a jacket or a bicycle in a rigorous search for the pleasing or painful elements that would ideally guide our expenditure henceforth. 

Modern governments are not uninterested in consumer demand. They carefully track how much of it exists, panic at any decline and may move to stimulate it when it fails, aware that fluctuations in the total sums that people spend have enormous consequences for employment patterns and tax revenues. But the high-level emphasis on demand falls entirely on its quantity, none of it on its quality. From a government point of view, it doesn’t matter in the least whether people are buying poetry classes or handguns, salads or iced doughnuts, psychotherapy sessions or sports cars. All that counts is that the total spend should be elevated.

And yet, it does matter immensely what we spend money on, because the combined consumer choices of billions will shape the kinds of societies we can live in and the sorts of lives most of us will be able to lead. Unlike what economists tell us, there are better and worse kinds of demand. Demand for guns may really be less ‘good’ than demand for education. Demand for health-giving food truly might be ‘better’ than that for diabetes-inducing desserts. 

Consumer society has not been short of vociferous critics who have suggested that we should try to unwind modern capitalism in order return to the simpler lives of our ancestors – and rediscover a lost primordial happiness. But the issue is not realistically whether to consume or not (early history was only too obviously imperfect), the key is how we might consume well, that is, in line with our best understanding of the preconditions for individual and collective flourishing.

We are at only at the dawn of the consumer age. In the context of the history of homo sapiens, only in the last few seconds have we even had the possibility of buying anything beyond subsistence. It shouldn’t surprise us if we occasionally stumble into purchasing an unwanted bread making machine or a dispiriting holiday, an ill-fitting melon hat or an unsuitable navigator timepiece – just as we might fail to give sufficient weight to a latent wish to invest in a trip to Samarkand, line our room with soundproof pannels, eat clementine and mint compotes or give away our money to an interesting stranger. We’re still learning how to discover and stay true to our own identities amidst skilfully engineered pressures to conform. We know all about the aspiration to make money – and we devote most of our lives to dutifully doing so. The task ahead is to grow correspondingly ambitious around the largely unmentioned business of shopping – the not-so-modest matter upon which the nature of socio-economic reality is founded.

Eugéne Atget, Bon Marché, 1908

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