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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 15 / 19





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This emphasis on the British case was, of course, in part because the object was to refute Marx whose theory rested on an analysis of the British industrial revolution, and to emphasise the benefits of the first ‘take-off’ into sustained growth rather than the misfortunes it brought to many (which was why the scholarly debate about the so-called standard of living controversy during the Industrial Revolution  was so bitter during the Cold War).   

Rostow did not, of course, attribute Britain’s take-off to growing demand/consumption, though he did see the end of such growth as the arrival of  a ‘society of high mass consumption’.  But he placed great emphasis in his analysis of the British case on what he saw as the most important pre-condition to successful growth in contemporary transitional societies, namely a flexible and open political and social regime with leaders (a sort of liberal vanguard) ready to embrace and encourage a culture of innovation and novelty.  These he supposed to be present in eighteenth-century England.  

The birth of a consumer society thesis connects to and elaborates this analysis.  McKendrick cites Rostow’s account, reinforces his view of Britain as an ‘open society’, and takes a highly optimistic view of the material circumstances of the industrial revolution.  And drawing on Rostow’s conclusion that ‘the age of mass consumption’ marks the full maturity of economic development, he refigures Rostow’s period of take-off (1783-1802) as the birth of consumer society.   Drawing on analyses that saw the strength of contemporary capitalism to lie in the realm of consumption, McKendrick back-projected this into the eighteenth century.  His analysis is sometimes seen as part of Thatcherite neo-liberalism but its chief reference point is to the Cold War debate about the best means to economic growth.

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