Matthew Hilton. Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 382pp. EUR 21.31 (leinen), ISBN 978-0-521-53853-4; $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-83129-1.
Reviewed by Stefan Schwarzkopf
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (February, 2004)
M. Hilton: Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain
Consumerism is normally a derogatory term describing the acquisitive, greedy, and narrow-minded materialism in Western, affluent societies. The study by the University of Birmingham based historian Matthew Hilton, however, suggests and analyses a second meaning of the term: the self-organisation and political campaigning of ordinary consumers. His book therefore sets out to present the first comprehensive history of consumerism as an organised social and political movement in the United Kingdom in the twentieth century.
Hilton offers an impressive tour-de-force through the British public debate about consumption and the consumer, beginning with the discourse about luxury in the eighteenth-century consumption revolution, continuing with the debates on prices and food quality in the era of Free Trade, and ending with the age of supermarket boycotts, No Logo and Fair Trade. His focus is on the rise of consumer organisations and the changing political role of the consumer in British democracy in the twentieth century. Hilton advocates a thesis which is as short as it is surprising. He argues that the concern of consumer organisations such as the Co-operative Movement, the Consumer’s Association and the several women’s organisations with how the consumer is to spend their money led to forms of political engagement which pointed out alternatives to the all-powerful political maelstroms of capitalism and socialism. Decades before the “Third Way” and the “Neue Mitte” were reinvented as marketing tools by the European social-democratic parties, the consumer came to be regarded as a third force in society which could free the body politic from the stranglehold of the self-interests of employers and trade unions.
Between capital and labour, Hilton suggests, consumer issues have not only offered another political option, but consuming itself has helped making enlightened citizens: “Consumption has been one of the most recurring means by which citizens have moulded their political consciousness and shaped their political organisations, as well as being one of the main acts around which governments have focussed their policies and interventions.” (p. 1). Thus, as a mobilising force, Hilton argues that consumption has been more than the homogeneous and monolithic culture infiltrating all aspects of civic and artistic life in the West as it is usually perceived.
Against this narrow reading of consumption as a mere cultural phenomenon Hilton’s account proposes the re-connection of consumer affairs to the realm of politics. He shows that throughout the twentieth century consumption offered a socio-political path for underrepresented groups to enter the political debate beyond the formal institutions of the state. Especially women and the labouring classes actively used disputes over the structures of consumption as a rallying point to assert and widen their own power in a political life dominated by immobile gender and class boundaries.
By drawing on hitherto unpublished sources on consumer protests, anti-profiteering boycotts, and campaigns to representatives of state and parliament, Hilton also steers the reader professionally between the dangerous cliffs of what I would term the manipulationist and the celebrationist schools of consumer studies. Whereas the first interprets the modern consumer almost exclusively as a victim of corporate interests to govern our consciousnesses, the second sees the post-modern consumer relentlessly playing with and “negotiating” the meanings of goods in the world of signs and symbols. In the perspective of the later, the recent 80s retro-fashion amongst British teenagers to wear baseball caps of about three times the size of their heads could well become an act of “political empowerment” as well as the object of a publicly funded research project. Thankfully, Hilton avoids these pitfalls by constantly aiming at the institutional aspects of consumption in twentieth-century British politics.
It is exactly from this standpoint that Hilton derives much of his analytical power. From here he divides, with all due caution, twentieth-century UK consumer history into a pre-WWII age of necessity and a post-war age of affluence. And it is from this standpoint of continuously tracking the transformations of UK consumer groups from their first emergence in the Victorian and Edwardian era to their eventual achievements of powerfully influencing government agendas that Hilton is able to challenge assumptions about the post-war British consumer movement as simply being copied from a US model. Instead, Hilton stresses the continuity of policies, agendas and ideas of British consumer organisations throughout the twentieth century.
The strong focus of Hilton’s study on bringing consumerism back into the narrative of twentieth-century British political history, however, has led him to slightly under-represent the issue of advertising and the consumer. This neglect, quite typical for the existing literature on consumption, shuns questions as to how the advertising industry dealt with consumer organisations or in what ways these organisations talked back to advertising and encouraged the consuming public to challenge advertisers. Necessarily, the typical impression remains of the advertising industry as a bunch of “want makers” with views and attitudes diametrically opposed to those of the social and political movement in concern. But this underestimation does Hilton’s book no harm since, for good reasons, his eye is set upon the intrinsic perspective of the consumer movement and the political fate of the consumer in twentieth-century British society only. Just like any good advertiser, Hilton did not promise anything about his product he was not able not deliver. Moreover, due to the meticulously prepared index and the immensely well researched bibliography, the outcome is a book that not only makes a compelling argument but can be used as a handbook for everyone researching nineteenth- and twentieth-century consumer culture.
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Stefan Schwarzkopf. Review of Hilton, Matthew, Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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