My talk this evening focuses on the debate about the origins and development of so-called ‘consumer society’ among historians and commentators on the nature of modernity and post-modernity. I want to tease out the sometimes complex relationship between the emergence of an historical debate about the birth and development of consumer society in the 1980s, and social and political commentary on consumerism from the 1950s onwards. Let me make clear from the outset what I am not doing. First and foremost it is not my concern to pass judgment on ‘consumer society’ or ‘consumerism’. Far too much discussion on these topics takes the form of a panegyric or a jeremiad. One of the most difficult tasks for those who want to analyse consumption in its varied forms – including consumerism – is to get beyond this debate, and to avoid becoming an interested party in it. This is not to preclude, of course, serious investigation of the causes, effects and politics of certain consumption practices; its just to say that talking about them in the abstract terms of ‘consumer society’ doesn’t seem to me to be illuminating or helpful. Finally I do not offer any panacea or nostrum, or policy recommendation. In talking of the error of our ways, I am talking about historians and commentators on consumer society, not about consumers or policymakers.
In the 1980s, and as part of a larger interest in consumption that involved most of the social science disciplines (though not economics), historians turned their attention to the history of consumer society and consumer cultures. This new scholarship had two chief points of focus: the late eighteenth century, the era of the industrial revolution, and the period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The former literature was concerned with the birth of a consumer society and its relationship to economic growth, the latter with mass consumption and modern retailing in Europe and North America. The trend was embodied in two works, one, The Birth of a Consumer