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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 14 / 19





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than say as use) becomes a key measure of politics; a set of economic and social practices (signed through goods) is conflated with a political vision or ideology of the good.   The appurtenances of a modern everyday life – cars, fridges and phones – become part of what was then a global struggle.  

Thanks to the efforts of Cold War liberals the connection between the projection of a certain (American) way of life and consumer goods has become naturalised.  But we should recognised this conjunction as a historically specific consequence of the ideological struggles of the Cold War which were sustained in the American case not only by academic scholarship but by such bodies such as the U.S. Information Agency and the State Department which deliberately sort to export a particular version of the American way of life.   Here was capitalism’s politics of  (the American way) of everyday life, one that placed commodity culture at its centre, and which has framed the debate about modernity, commodity culture and consumer society ever since.

Now the debate about the superiority of an American privatized regime of mass consumption connects in many interesting ways with the discussion of

late eighteenth-century Britain as the first consumer society.   The literature on economic development in the 1950s and 1960s looked back to the experience of the first industrial nation and its theorists to elaborate its models of growth.  Thus  The Stages of Economic Growth: a Non-Communist Manifesto, written by the American economist and cold war warrior Walt Rostow, which between 1960 and 1972 sold a staggering 260,00 copies in English alone, was an explicit attempt to use British history “to the formulation of a wiser public policy”, to show that the western model rather than Russian communism was the right way forward for the 3rd World.   

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