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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 9 / 19





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twentieth-century equivalent) involves synecdoche in which the part stands for the whole.   The case for a consumer society moves from acts of consumption to the existence of historical actors called consumers to the presence, therefore, of a consumer society.  

The inevitability of this progression is highly questionable.  As Frank Trentmann has pointed out in a couple of recent essays, one of the most interesting features of the early modern period is the way in which growing consumption practices do not lead to any sort of consumer consciousness.    Consumption was recognized as socially and economically beneficial and Adam Smith famously wrote in The Wealth of nations that “consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.  The maxim is so perfectly self-evident, that it would be absurd to prove it”.  But consumers or the consumer were largely absent from eighteenth-century Scottish political economy which, as Trentmann rightly says is concerned not with consumer society but commercial society and not with consumers but with merchants and traders.   Even when acts of consumption (or more usually acts of abstinence from consumption) were used, as in the American revolution and the anti-Slavery movement, to political ends, they were not undertaken on behalf of or by consumers, but by those who gave themselves a political or moral designation.   The consumer as a political actor, or as a category of person who needed protection or had interests, had to await the nineteenth century.   Consumption practices may have been economically, socially and culturally important but – and this is the general point that the historical case illustrates – even so they do not necessarily produce consumer consciousness, the emergence of the consumer as a class of historical agent.

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