The historian Frank Trentmann has written the first total history of consumption. Empire of Things is an original, ambitious account that begins in the fifteenth century, spans the globe, and examines a wide range of regimes, from liberal democracies to fascist dictatorships. The book could hardly be more relevant: since the Great Recession began in 2007, the world has been mired in a global economic crisis with the consumer at its core. As inequality soared in the years leading up to the crash, middle-class consumers, in the absence of rising incomes, relied on credit to sustain their standards of living. Sensing an opportunity, banks and other financial firms began selling mortgages to people who could not afford them. When the debt bubble burst, millions lost their homes, pensions, and hopes for a more prosperous future. European welfare states introduced harsh austerity measures, Asian domestic demand slowed, and the global economy faltered for years.
This sequence of events revealed the inadequacy of the two prevailing narratives about consumption. For classical liberals, the accumulation of material wealth reflects freedom of choice, “the bedrock of democracy and prosperity,” Trentmann writes. According to this narrative, the United States’ victory in the Cold War represented a triumph of economic liberty and individual choice; so successful was the spread of consumer capitalism that it inspired rising middle classes across the globe to stand up to authoritarian regimes. Social democrats and progressives tell a different story. For them, capitalism has fed false desires, turning “active, virtuous citizens into passive, bored consumers.” In this view, Trentmann writes, “private, self-centered hedonism has killed the public spirit.”
Trentmann rejects this dichotomy, arguing that “consuming is too diverse and its history too rich to fit either extreme model: complacent mass consumption or individual freedom.” Instead, he wants to “take a step back” and offer readers not judgment but a historical exploration of the birth and evolution of consumption. Such an approach offers helpful background for evaluating contemporary phenomena: the globalization of
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