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Empire of things

When we talk about consumerism, the emotive arguments for and against are always black and white. Consumerism is painted as unnecessary and low or no growth is seen as the optimum state for people and planet. But what if acquiring objects and possessions is intrinsic to human nature? What if, in reality, the consumerism argument is far more nuanced, which should make us rethink how we spend, what we buy and which things are most important to us.

We have hit peak stuff and when that admission comes from the head of sustainability at the Swedish retailer, Ikea you know that consumers are tapped out. So as self-storage units buckle under the pressure of housing things we don’t need and our environment pays the price, we question the consumerist boom that has gripped the world.

Joining us to work out where next for consumer spending and give historical context to the rampant consumerism we seem to love is the author of ‘The Empire of Things‘, Professor Frank Trentmann.

Professor Trentmann tells Renegade Inc. that in modern history things have become much more important in our lives.

“With the word ‘empire’ what I tried to capture was the growing centrality of possessions, objects and consuming in our lives, in world history. The book is also asking about the political consequences of our obsession with stuff. So this is not just a private matter but there are public consequences and our demand for things has repercussions on war, conflict, international relations. The global quest for resources.”

All consumerism is political

The professor says that consumerism is political.

“Certainly the word is,” he says. “I mean many people associate with consumerism excessive forms of consumption and from a historians perspective that is very interesting because what is excessive to us may not be excessive necessarily for the next generation and for all groups at the same time.”

In a post 9/11 moment George W Bush famously said don’t let these people disturb our lifestyle. Get out, go shopping. Get to Disneyland.

Professor Trentmann says those comment didn’t surprise him, and that it plays into the political nature of consumerism.

“It’s really already in the early 20th century that both social movements and governments discover consumption as a source of growth and development,” he says. “So John Maynard Keynes famously, in the world depression 1929 to 32 said saving isn’t a virtue in times of crises. You need to go out there and buy. That’s the way to kickstart the economy. So this positive idea of consumption as a boon has, has a history in itself. What’s interesting is that we see a radical reversal of attitudes towards consumption in the 18th and 19th century where previously consumption was considered something evil, something that needed to be checked, controlled, people’s taste for fashion had to be regulated and indeed often women were thrown in prison or heavily fined for sporting fashionable cotton scarves or blouses in the 17th and 18th century and no one blinked an eye. It’s then in the 18th, 19th century when people start to reassess what the role of things are. Do they control us or are they perhaps a source of enrichment?”

The Fight Club argument

But this is the Tyler Darwin quote from Fight Club, the film, the David Fincher film made in 1999, where he says, ‘the things you own eventually own you’. Surely there is something to that especially when we’ve had such a massive uplift in consumption since the 40s, 50s, 60s?

“There’re certainly pathological cases,” Professor Trentmann says. “So we have debate about people addicted to shopping, shoplifters in the great department stores of the 19th century. Interestingly from a historians point of view then, psychologists and police officers assume that it was mainly menstruating women who were led to these shops and returned having shoplifted items, of course nonsense from our point of view. But this fear that demand can be addictive and ultimately control us is a very very old one so going back all the way to the ancients like Plato. The idea that things are in the saddle, Amazon the American poet said, riding us.

“But you have also the opposite point of view which is growing really from the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment then in the 17th and 18th century, which is that it’s wrong to think of us as separate from things. That was of the old view. That things have to be kept at bay because if you allow them into your lives they will control you, they will distract you from being a good, God loving Christian, because you’re lusting for fashionable items or comfort. Life should be tough. That will harden you.

“But you can take a different view and the great American philosopher and psychologist William James, the brother of the novelist Henry James, put this very well. He said people don’t just have a psychological self. They don’t just have a social self where they care about family and friends, they also have a material self.

“The things in our lives are not something external, they’re actually part of what makes us human.

“And we can think of lots of…. We’re sitting in chairs for instance, we’re sleeping in beds. There are lots of objects that are integral to our lifestyles. I think the big question is: How many things do you need to be human and when is it no longer sustainable, psychologically but also environmentally?”

The big question

Let’s return to the philosophical point and come back to the Platonic idea because ultimately the foundation of all this is being and having. And that’s a philosophical idea or philosophical conundrum question that has challenged every philosopher, every thinker since dot. How does the being and having paradox fit into the consumption medium that you talk about?

“Well the big question is can you actually be?,” says Professor Trentmann. “Can you be human without having access to things? You need food, you need warmth and a roof over your head.”

So we quickly get to Maslow, the American psychologist, and then we start moving up the pyramid.

“Maslow is an interesting case,” says Professor Trentmann. “I mean Maslow, who worked with this idea of ‘a pyramid of needs’ and wants which he articulated I think in the late 1940s, just as America was really maturing as the first affluent society. Maslow worked with the assumption that there are certain basic physiological needs, and then our societies become richer, they move up the pyramid, and then they start having an interest in more comfortable possessions and ultimately in taste and fashion and then only when they’re really rich do they enjoy cultural goods.”

The professor says he thinks that is a very dubious and black-and-white way of thinking.

“Because we know I mean the Mayans and ancient Greeks and Romans had plenty of objects which you could argue were not absolutely necessary. We have artisans in 16th century Venice who have trunks with 25 different shirts, with multiple gilded knives and forks. You could argue well why don’t you just have one fork? But clearly already those societies mixed needs and wants in new ways.”

The professor says we have to be very careful and not automatically think that because we today have more things that somehow we are the first society that is living beyond our means, beyond planetary factors. There is in fact a much longer history to consumerism than we often assume.

“Why does this matter?,” he says.

“It matters because I think we need to recognise that we can’t just repair some of the things that happened after the Second World War.

“So some people for instance think that we’ve become obsessed the GDP and this is the result of post-war Keynesianism, obsessed with growth, and once we have zero growth then we’re fine. Well societies in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th century did not have modern growth, but nonetheless they accumulated more and more stuff. So there’s a much much deeper history. Constant running water, pipes, gas, electricity, roads etc. These are not just things we started yesterday. They are built into our everyday lives and they in a way determine our high consumption society.”

The affluent society

When it comes to the affluent society, Professor Trentmann mention’s Galbraith concept of private opulence and public squalor. If you carry on down this path, this privatisation path and neglecting the public. Is the acquisition of stuff driving that divide and does that that lets say schism, become greater?

“I think today, at a time of neoliberal, privatised political economy in many parts of the world, what Galbraith says has fresh resonance, and we can understand it.

“But there’s no inevitable consequence that private consumption automatically hollows out common wealth.

“And if you look at it, at the time Galbraith was writing, so in the 50s, actually what we see is both: a parallel development of more private stuff, much more affluent, comfortable households but modern states start spending on public services in unprecedented fashion so what we call the welfare state in the British context. But even in America, the state was tiny before the Second World War. And by the 1960s, 1970s something like 60-70% of GDP is spent on public consumption.

“Galbraith articulated fears, but the reality in fact was that the big boom in consumption after the Second World War went hand in hand with the expansion of welfare states.

“That connection is quite important because it signals that greater public spending was not the only but one driver for higher consumption. So if you imagine households, families before the Second World War, in Britain. Yes, some had a radio and some had a vacuum cleaner but that was about it. By 1960 most have a private vehicle with which they drive around and consume gas. They have refrigerators, electric cookers, increasingly central heating. All that is possible because of public spending and the welfare state.”

Previously many working class households would have been just below the threshold of consumption. The professor says it is important not to idealise the welfare state as a kind of alternative or solution to private consumption.

“Private consumption has also expanded with public services,” he says.

When we live in a consumer society and we talk about consumer spending so much it does, from what you’ve just said, leave a question mark over the austerity narrative that Britain is in the grip of.

“It’s a serious problem, in fact,” he says. “There are many things to worry about right now in Britain, but one thing politicians should worry more about is that austerity in fact is limiting the amount of growth and development we can have in this country. If you cut people off benefits, well obviously they’re going to consume less. Some people would add, oh that’s great because then we are finally dealing with the ecological problem. But the downside of course is if you’re poor and you lose benefits you’re also less likely to replace your highly inefficient, wasteful refrigerator with a new model that uses far fewer resources. That’s the problem.

“At the moment, we’re pushing a whole sector of society into what people used to call ‘underconsumption’.

“How the economy can keep going with growing inequality and ongoing austerity is I think a big unknown.”

According to the Resolution Foundation, throughout 2016 private consumption accounted for 100 percent of GDP per capita growth. It says this is not sustainable, especially with real pay now falling. This is the problem isn’t it when you base a society on consumer spending.

“Historically one way out has been credit,” says Professor Trentmann, “spending more than you have. There’s a lot of criticism of that but if you think about it, credit is actually a quite clever innovation.

“Because without credit you, for instance, wouldn’t be able to ever purchase a house. It’s only a problem if you don’t have growth. If you have growth, actually spending on the future is a good thing.”

Professor Trentmann says his impulse to write The Empire of Things came out of a large research program he was directing in 2007, working with researchers and experts from across disciplines.

“It dawned on me that we have a bit of a problem that in newspapers, television and other public media, the debate we have about consumption was radically different from what experts in their particular case study did,” he says. “In the public debate you continue to have very simplistic, moralistic views about consumerism often targeted at women, who seem to, according to the media, just rush out to the department stores to buy new branded luxury handbags and that was the problem and we need to do something about it because the planet was going down the drain.”

While there are certainly women who buy handbags, the professor says we forget that men are also part of the problem.

“If you step back and as we knew from individual case studies, actually a lot of consumption is not the handbag style” he says.

“There are dimensions of consumption that weren’t talked about in the public for example things sociologists call ‘ordinary consumption:’ heating, air conditioning, routine bits of everyday life like meals, mealtimes.

“These are all historically evolving and if you look at the resources and the environmental consequences of consumption, actually those ordinary forms of consumption are much more important.

“The problem is that we live a hyper intensive routine form of consumer lifestyle that appears to us as so normal, what appears to us as so normal, that we no longer question it.”

Professor Trentmann says one thing he really got out of his research and writing was to pay much more attention to the positive voices that emerge, that help to give consumption legitimacy and power.

“That needed to also be understood,” he says. “We can’t just assume people are doing silly things because they’re brainwashed. The other which I really became fascinated with is generations and the role of generations. Many people will automatically think of the teenager and the emergence of the teenager as a high consuming, generation specific type of consumer. The really fascinating thing actually is elderly consumers and there we’ve seen I think a revolution in the last few decades that has no equal in history: The emergence of groups of elderly people effectively coming out of the rocking chair into having an active consuming lifestyle where they don’t have to feel bad about being part of consumer society.”

A lot of what we’re talking about is theoretical. Professor Trentmann often uses teaching aids to show students what he means about consumption. There’s a photographer called Peter Menzel whose 1995 book Material World documented domestic consumerism around the globe.

“What Menzel did was he asked households to open their homes and empty their homes of all their possessions which are then piled up in front of their house or flat and you can see the people with their things and you see the huge variation across the world,” Professor Trentmann says. “So I partly use it to alert them that when we talk of consumer society we should really think in terms of a spectrum or a plural. What I do is I contrast poorer and richer households to just show them visibly you know how many things have been accumulated in the course of development and to think how we might want to approach this over centuries of time.”

The accidental minimalist

Joe Carnegie lives in Bristol anda about five years ago became an accidental minimalist.

“I was always a real homebody and I loved my house and I love having people over and everyone loved coming to my house because it looked beautiful and it was full of beautiful things,” she says. “I used to spend my weekends and evenings either online looking for stuff to buy for my house or I would go around antique markets at the weekends. And it was a lovely house. It was full with beautiful things and it was comfortable and I was very proud of it.

Carnegie has been in a long term relationship that broke down unexpectedly and so she had to move out of the house she was living and all her possessions went into storage.

“All that stuff was in there and it had been part of my identity for so long and I thought it had been me, but when I just saw it sitting in storage I just didn’t have this kind of attachment to it that I thought I would have, so I decided to sell them,” she says.

“In society we’ve just been brought up as a culture to work and then spend our money on buying things, and it’s this cycle that we’re in.

“It becomes exhausting because there is definite pleasure in having nice things around you, but I don’t think we need all the stuff that we buy and I think maybe we’re too afraid to be alone with ourselves.

“We don’t know who we are without the status symbols and the nice things around us.

“And I do like nice things still. I do like having nice things around me. What I say now is that I have started to buy a few more things. Obviously life is nicer with a bed to sleep on. You need a sofa to sit on. But they have to look nice to me, which is important, but it also needs to be functional.

“I want to have a place in the world, but I don’t need to take up more space than I need with things that I don’t need that have an impact on others and on the environment.”

Carnegie says that becoming a minimalist has definitely helped her shut out a lot of the daily noise.

“You become more aware of your own person and so you’re not so susceptible to being bombarded by messages all day every day,” she says. “There’s just something about, for me, a mental shift with, I need less around me and I let less in. And I look back now and I realise actually while my possessions in some way did bring me security and did bring me joy and comfort, I was really weighed down by them. And I was suffocated by them, actually, and they were consuming me. And now ten years down the line really I feel a lot freer.”

Consumption is always moral

Professor Trentmann says he hopes his book will enrich the moral debate around consumption.

“That’s how I see my role,” he says. “Consumption is always moral. Inevitably. And political. So we need to face up to that. And there’s a history too. It’s not that people wake up and suddenly have moral views. Their moral views come out of older intellectual and cultural traditions. Some are declining, others are rising. You could argue that the role of the churches, in many parts of the world, on this debate is declining, but the rise of environmental concerns for instance is rising and those are rarely just physical, objective debates. They are moral through and through.”

What the professor is saying is that when a whale is washes up on a beach and you cut its stomach open and it’s full of plastic, he is not saying, actually we should forget the morality here. There is actually a lesson here and we should be taking that on board but, what he is getting across is that there are many more nuanced arguments in the consumption debate ,and by including them we enrich the debate.

“And we also save ourselves, I think, from some bad, inefficient or unnecessary steps and remedies,” he says. “So people tend to approach consumption as if there’s a quick fix. And then they get obsessed with prohibiting plastic straws and they think this will actually solve things. What I try to do is say okay often these debates about remedies and what to do, really only think about the end of the process and consequently they’re not very effective.

“If we really want to get to grips with it we need to understand the dynamics that are driving this consumption.

“So it’s not just about why do people have a plastic straw? You would then have to think for instance about drinking culture. How has that evolved? How have leisure activities changed? That’s the point of intervention you need.”

For instance there’s the zero generation movement, and people who own less than 100 items. There are the minimalists. These movements are popping up because this huge amount of consumption from the ’40s, ’50s ,’60s, people have looked at it and thought, ‘you know, I don’t want that anymore. I want to, and again we come back to the philosophers, the writers and thinkers. I want the simple life because the simple life is richer’.

“I would personally applaud many of these initiatives, but if we step back and take a long term view, we need to recognise we’ve seen similar movements throughout modern times,” Professor Trentmann says. “Perhaps the biggest of them all was Gandhi’s movement in India which was directly targeting Western forms of consumption as sources of oppression and imperial domination. He urged people to just let go of these objects and instead just to wear ‘khadi’, a coarse homespun cotton shirt. And that briefly, quickly rather, became the official policy of the Indian National Congress in the mid 1920s. But within just a few years from anti-colonial women’s groups and also middle class Indian nationalists, you had opposition. And within a few years the course, unbleached, unfashionable khadi shirt was replaced by fashionable, patterned, coloured khadi.

“Even Gandhi was not able to really turn people’s simply away from the world of goods. If he can’t do it I doubt the minimalists can either.

“The interesting question is: why are these movements failing? And the main reason is that if the majority of society consumes, lives and works according to a different rhythm, it’s very difficult for these groups to sustain themselves over time, because they’re out of sync. You literally leave society. That’s not very attractive. So instead we need to get to the centre of society and change the rhythm within within the centre.”

The fascinating thing about modern history is that until the 19th century most people did not even think of themselves as consumers.

“In the second half of the 19th century we then see the emergence of the consumer where people say, well actually we have shared attributes and qualities and the potential for change. We are all consumers. Why don’t we get together as consumers to develop that power. And in the late 19th century you then had the first organised consumer groups: shoppers leagues, consumer co-operative movements etc. And for many of them the power of the purse was a way to effect changes in living conditions and working conditions.

“The lessons for us today is that we live in a consumer society, but it’s funny, if you think about it, that there’s hardly any country which has a powerful Department of State that looks after consumer affairs. We leave that to the market. And similarly in schools, kids on most countries, are not taught what it means to be a consumer and the responsibilities that come with it. I think we need to go back and take some leaves out of the books of earlier consumer activists and think about how we can live in a consumer society where people are socialised and taught to think about motives and consequences of their actions.”

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