For most of history, the overwhelming majority of the Earth’s inhabitants have owned, more or less, nothing. The clothes they stood up in, some bowls, a pot and a pan, perhaps a broom and, if things were going really well, a few farming implements. Nations and peoples remained consistently poor. Global GDP did not grow at all from year to year: the world was an aggregate as hard up in 1800 as it had been at the beginning of time. However, starting in the early 18th century, in the countries of north-western Europe, a remarkable phenomenon occurred. Economies began to expand and wages to rise. Families who’d never before had any money beyond what they needed just to survive found they could go shopping for small luxuries: a comb or a mirror, a spare set of underwear, a pillow, some thicker boots or a towel. Their expenditure created a virtuous economic cycle. The more they spent, the more business grew, the more wages rose. By the middle of the 18th century, observers recognised that they were living through a period of epochal change that historians have since described as the world’s first consumer revolution. It was in Britain where the changes were most marked: enormous new industries sprang up to cater for the widespread demand for goods that had once been the preserve of the very rich alone. In England’s cities you could buy furniture from Chip ‘n’ Dale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton pottery from Wedgewood and Derby,
cutlery from the smitheries of Sheffield and hats, shoes and dressed featured in the best selling magazines like
The Gallery of Fashion and The Ladies Magazine. Styles for clothes and hair which had formerly gone unchanged for decades now altered every year often in extremely theatrical and impractical directions. In the early 1770s, there was a craze for decorating wigs so tall that their tops could only be accessed by standing on a chair. It was fun for the cartoonists. So vivid and numerous were the consumer novelties that the austere Dr. Johnsons Riley wondered whether prisoners were also soon to be hanged in a new way. The Christian Church looked on and did not approve. Up and down England, clergymen delivered bitter sermons against the new materialism. They called it vanity, which was a sin.
Sons and daughters ought to be kept away from shops God would not look kindly on those who paid more attention to household decoration than the state of their souls. But there now emerged an intellectual revolution that sharply altered the understanding of the role of vanity in an economy. In 1723, a London physician called Bernand Mandeville published an economic tract titled “The Fable of the Bees” which proposed that contrary to centuries of religious and moral thinking, what made countries rich and therefore safe, honest, generous, spirited and strong was a very minor, unelevated and apparently undignified activity: shopping for pleasure. It was the consumption of what Mandeville called fripperies: hats, bonnets, gloves, butter dishes, soup tureens, shoehorns and hair clips that provided the engine for national prosperity and allowed the government to do in practice what the church only knew how to sermonise about in theory: make a genuine difference to the lives of the weak and the poor. The only way to generate wealth, argued Mandeville, was to ensure high demand for absurd and unnecessary things. Of course no one needed embroidered handbags, silk lined slippers or ice creams but it was a blessing that they could be prompted by fashion to want them, for on the back of demand for such trifles, workshops could be built, apprentices trained and hospitals funded. Mandeville shocked the audience with the starkness of the choice he placed before them: a nation could either be very high-minded, spiritually elevated, intelectually refined and dirt poor or a slave to luxury and idle consumption and very rich. Mandeville’s dark thesis went on to convince almost all great Anglophone economists and political thinkers of the 18th century. There were, nevertheless, some occasional departures from the new economic orthodoxy. One of the most spirited and impassioned voices was that of Switzerland’s greatest philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau. Shocked by the impact of the consumer revolution on the manners and atmosphere of his native Geneva, he called for a return to a simpler, older way of life. of the sort he had experienced in the alpine villages or read about in the travellers’ accounts of the native tribes of North America. In the remote corners of Appenzell or the vast forests of Missouri there was, blessedly, no concern for fashion and no one upmanship around hair extensions. Rousseau recommended closing Geneva’s borders and imposing crippling taxes on luxury goods so that people’s energy could be redirected towards non-material values. He looked back with fondness to the austere, martial spirit of Sparta. However, even if Rousseau disagreed with Mandeville, he did not seek to deny the basic premise behind his analysis. It truly appeared to be a choice between decadent consumption and wealth on one hand and virtuous restraint and poverty on the other. It was simply that Rousseau, unusually, preffered virtue to wealth. The parameters of this debate have continued to dominate the economic thinking ever since. We re-encounter them in ideological arguments between capitalists and communists and free marketeers and environmentalists. But for most of us, the debate is no longer pertinent: we simlply accept that we will live in consumer economies, with some very unfortunate side effects to them: crass advertising, foodstuffs that are unhealthy for us, products that are disconnected from any reasonable assessment of our needs. All this in exchange for economic growth and high employment.
We have chosen wealth over virtue. an irony laden acceptance of this dichotomy is what underpins the approach of many pop artists in mid 20th century America. For example, Claes Oldenburg developed a reputation for taking modern consumer items, many of them food related and reproducing them at enormous scale, usually in outdoor settings in vibrant polyester vinyl. In city squares, where one once might have expected to find statues in honour of political leaders or religious saints, one now came across outside hamburgers, giant cheesecakes, fries decked with ketchup or perhaps Oldenburg’s most famous work a 12 meter high stainless steel, inverted ice cream cone. Oldenburg’s vast versions of small things playfully directed our attention to the peculiar dependence of modern economies on the mass consumption of what are, in human terms, some deeply negligible products. Yet the scale of Oldenburg’s objects was only superficially absurd. because it rather precisely reflected their actual importance in our collective economic destinies. Nevertheless, as Oldenburg seemed to concede, it was peculiar to be living in a civilisation founded on the back of buns and sweetened tomato paste, a benthos hinted at by the deflated appearance of many of the giant burgers, hotdogs and pizzas. The one question that’s rarely been asked is whether there might be a way to attenuate the dispiriting choice, to draw on the best aspects of consumerism on one hand and high-mindedness on the other, without suffering their worst sides: moral decadence and profound poverty. Might it be possible for a society to develop that allows for consumers spending and therefore provides employment and welfare yet of a kind directed at something other than vanities and superfluities? Might we shop for something other than nonsense? In other words, might we have wealth and a degree of virtue?
It is this possibility of which we find some intriguing hints in the work of Adam Smith an 18th century economist, too often read as a blunt apologist for all aspects of consumerism. but in fact, one of its more subtle and visionary analysts. In his book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Adam Smith seems at points willing to concede to key aspects of Mandeville’s argument: consumer societies do help the poor by providing employment based around satisfying what are often rather sub-optimal purchases.
Smith was as ready as other economists to mock the triviality of some consumer choices while admiring their consequences. All those embroidered lace handkerchiefs, jewel snuff boxes and miniature temples made of cream for dessert they were flippant, he conceded, but they encouraged trade, created employment and generated immense wealth and could be therefore firmly defended on this score alone. However, Smith held out some fascinating hopes for the future.
He pointed out that consumption didn’t invariably have to involve the trading of frivolous things. He had seen the expansion of the Edinburgh book trade and knew how large a market higher education might become. He understood how much wealth was being accumulated through the construction of the Edinburgh’s extremely handsome and noble New Town He understood that humans have many higher needs that require a lot of labour, intelligence and work to fulfill but they lie outside of capitalist enterprise as conceived off by realists like Bernard Mandeville. Among these are need for education, for self understanding, for beautiful cities and for rewarding social lives. The ultimate goal of capitalism, in Adam Smith’s view, was to tackle happiness in all its complexities psychological and not just merely material. The capitalism of our times still hasn’t entirely come around to resolving the awkward choices that Bernard Mandeville and Jean Jacques Rousseau circled. But the crucial hope for the future is that we may not forever need to be making money off rather exploititive, silly or vain consumer appetites. That we may also learn to generate enormous profits from helping people as consumers and producers in the truly important and ambitious aspects of their lives.
The reform of capitalism hinges on an odd sounding but critical task: a new kind of consumerism. The conception of an economy focused around buying and selling services and goods focused on our higher needs.