Empire of Things: How we became a world of consumers, from the fifteenth century to the twenty-first, by Frank Trentmann, Allen Lane, 862 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0713999624
In the wake of Theresa May’s pragmatic backdown on a sugar tax to tackle the UK’s health crisis and as the Irish government prepares to appeal the European Court’s decision that the Apple corporation owes it in the region of €13 billion euros, one could be forgiven for thinking that contemporary political elites are the mere servants of big business.
Certainly, the language and imagery of the marketplace is increasingly interchangeable with that of the private sphere, where one invests in friendships while banks nurture their relationships with clients. Citizens, university students and medical patients are frequently treated and described as customers. The ubiquitous vocabulary of late capitalism and the increasing distance from either the site of production or of resource extraction can blind citizens in the privileged West to the massive changes which have overtaken humanity as we enter a phase increasingly described as the Anthropocene, that moment when human activities become the defining force impacting on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. In his impressive treatise on the history of consumption, Empire of Things: How we became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First, Frank Trentmann seeks to contextualise the forces that have brought us to this moment.
In hardback, Empire of Things is beautifully presented, itself a delightful material object which is divided into two distinct sections: the first, broadly chronological, seeks to explain how consumption evolved the way it did over the last five centuries while the second section presents a series of thematic studies, of contemporary concern, and places them in a historical context. In this latter section, Trentmann muses on topics such as credit culture, waste, fair trade, how consumption has transformed generational identities, the impact of religious ideologies and so on. Several factors differentiate his account from others in the field. First, the scope of his thesis, stretching back over several centuries, gives a sense of the persistence of human fascination for material objects as signifiers of social standing and as props supporting the development and performance of identity. Secondly, he examines consumer culture in its pluralities, moving beyond the postwar Western model that has become a synonym for consumer excess to bring, for example, parts of China, Japan and Africa into the story. In addition, his study considers not just contemporary capitalism and its earlier manifestations, but also incorporates fascist and communist societies into the analysis, and public as well as private consumption practices. Thirdly, the colonised periphery is included in this narrative as not just the faceless exploited but as accomplished agents of consumption also immersed in an alternative but equally materialist world. Furthermore, Trentmann’s decentring of the consumer story provides fascinating glimpses into the role of empires in generating, shaping and controlling consumption patterns in both colonial outposts and metropolitan centres.
Drawing on extensive primary and secondary research, some of the most enjoyable anecdotes in the text relate to travelogues, trade inventories and wills, as we move within its pages from an order from the Dutch East India Company for Chinese porcelain in 1608 to a chronicler of street fashion in Shanghai in 1808 to studies of the leisure cultures of French citizens in the late 1990s. Consider the ordinary Venetian oar-maker who left his widow forty-three shirts, twenty-five sheets, sixty-three tablecloths and napkins and 105 pewter plates in 1633; or imagine the home of the Dutch tailor in 1717 whose household “contained five paintings, Delft earthenware, pewter tankards, seven lace curtains, two dozen chairs, several books, six sets of bed-linen, forty-one napkins and a birdcage”; and what does Harrods offering of a hundred models of briar pipes tell us about the consumption patterns of London gentlemen in the 1890s? Featured throughout the book, these detailed descriptions are wonderfully illuminating. Extremely valuable is Trentmann’s emphasis on social and political forces as determinants of consumption patterns, thereby demonstrating that what people consume is shaped by states, empires, war, taxes and migration. While critics such as Pierre Bourdieu or, more recently, Anne McClintock and Don Slater have examined consumption using a sociological or geopolitical lens, such approaches remain in the minority. Indeed, too often, consumer culture theory overemphasises the importance of subjective choice, highlighting individual psychology and consumer sovereignty rather than the structural elements that limit and define consumer awareness, taste and agency. Trentmann’s reach across five centuries and several civilisations unequivocally reveals the limits of personal taste as a concept or consumer power as a form of political advocacy within the context of capitalism.
The breadth and ambition of Trentmann’s account are very welcome. However, the study’s very strengths are also the aspects which gave this reader occasion to pause. The neutral tone can seem jarring when discussing dark aspects of consumer history such as the extractive economy, famine or gross inequality. For example, without a complicating editorial comment, Trentmann quotes Malacy Postlethwayt’s “acutely perceived” assessment of the British empire in 1750 as “a magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power on an African foundation” . Significantly too there is a tendency to flatten our understanding of consumer culture – so that, by extending its definition in such interesting ways, the term is neutralised. For if consumer culture is defined as merely the human desire to acquire material possessions for status, convenience and pleasure, some of its more recent manifestations can be obfuscated or seen as just more extreme examples of age-old human nature. How then can we grasp the seriousness of humanity’s predicament in the twenty-first century? How should we think about the contradictory impulses of an environmental crisis and the pressing need for economic growth? How can we usefully reconfigure our consumer-driven approach to politicians, elections and public services? If, under current market orthodoxies, insatiable consumer desires are considered necessary for progress and well-being, then Trentmann’s refusal to “adjudicate a moral debate” can seem a slippery defence of the status quo.
At times, the impressive scope of the research across six centuries limits the study in other ways. For example, the book follows the “life cycle of consumption as fully as possible from demand and acquisition through to use, collection and, ultimately, disposal”; this is a Herculean task but one that can, at times, quietly marginalise the means of production as a central concern. This emphasis is important. When Trentmann understandably sidelines production within his narrative, such framing skews our perspective on material culture. Fast fashion is only fun or liberating if one turns away from the exploitative labour practices necessary for its production.
The world of suffering which underpins many consumer stories generally seems remote or is underplayed in Trentmann’s account. For example, although it must have occurred during the writing of this book, there is no mention of the Rana Plaza catastrophe of 2013 in the index. Some 1,134 workers, mainly women, died in Rana Plaza and thousands more were injured, in what was a preventable accident caused by criminal negligence. The horrific suffering endured by the victims and their bereft families is a shocking manifestation of the underbelly of contemporary consumer culture. Well-known brands such as Monsoon Accessorize, Mango, Benetton, El Corte Inglés, La Bonmarché, Primark and Walmart had supply chains that could be traced back to these collapsed factories in Bangladesh. This summer, three years after rescue services picked their way through the rubble and the stench at the site of the disaster, reports presented at the International Labour Conference in Geneva recorded that little progress had been made in improving labour conditions for workers in the garment industry. Rana Plaza and its aftermath are the brutal context that necessitates the type of moral debate that Trentmann eschews. Ultimately, this is a celebratory account; one that, at times, allows for the elision of the nefarious side of global capitalism.
It is clear from Trentmann’s introduction that he cannot abide moralistic critics of consumption, those left-wing crusaders who self-righteously oppose the neo-liberal order. He proclaims that he does not set out to “decide whether consumption is good or bad”. Thus, while he also distances himself from the “classic liberals” who value “freedom of choice as the bedrock of democracy”, for much of his analysis he seems to favour their worldview. There is the implied suggestion that Empire of Things will give us a version of value-free history. Such objectivity is never straightforward and it is curious to observe the occasions when Trentmann’s neutral tone slips into cynical commentary. He reserves particular scorn, for example, for farmers’ markets, comparing them to Marie Antoinette’s model farm; stall-holders “learn to act their part, selling an image of tradition, local stewardship and rustic farming. Locality, in other words, is not a geographical fact but a stage: origin has to be performed … The demands on heritage require appropriate display and packaging: tweeds and sheepdogs; cheese wrapped in paper, not plastic; a little soil on vegetables to indicate their natural freshness”.
The author’s silences are also revealing. Why mention the Muslim “consumer jihads” against firms such as Nestlé “for their anti-Islamic conduct” without discussing that company’s infamous baby milk scandals which resulted in thousands of infant deaths in the developing world? Their mothers were consumers too. The infant formula business is just one glaring example of an industry that emerged from a life-saving medical development and that was quickly developed as a mass commodity by a small group of multinational corporations. Ostensibly, it meets consumer demand, provides jobs in many sectors and stimulates economic growth; but it is estimated by one of the world’s leading medical journals that these breastmilk substitutes currently cause hundreds of thousands of unnecessary illnesses and deaths each year (The Lancet, 2016). This industry’s incongruities crystallise many of the broader contradictions and tensions within consumer society globally.
Despite the reservations outlined above, this is a valuable book: erudite, informative and challenging. While of interest to a broad spectrum of readers, it would be a particularly stimulating text for a book club or a postgraduate student seminar. The emphasis and analysis prompt discussion about the interplay between geopolitics, consumption practices and even epistemological approaches within history and business studies. Despite his restrained tone throughout and the measured framing of his study, Trentmann finally sets out his position in the epilogue. Like many of the moralistic voices he decries in his introduction, he too calls for consumers to remember that they are citizens, for states to intervene in the market rather than abdicate their “collective historical responsibility”, and for a bold debate that will “envisage different lifestyles and the concomitant changes to housing, transport and culture”. This belatedly articulated stance is very welcome but Trentmann will have to renounce his desire for objectivity, join ranks with the moralistic crusaders he dislikes and deploy some hard-hitting emotional persuasion if his concluding argument is to succeed in the existing marketplace of ideas.
Caoilfhionn Ní Bheacháin lectures in Communications for the Department of Management and Marketing at the Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick. This essay was first published in November 2016.