Civilising Markets: Traditions of Consumer Politics in Twentieth-Century Britain, Japan, and the United States

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Against a narrative of global convergence, this discussion has highlighted the importance of different traditions for the changing identity and political place of consumption in twentieth-century Britain, the United States, and Japan. More specifically, we have shown that the relationship among consumers, states, and markets has varied both cross-nationally and over time. In Britain, the free trade citizen-consumer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was succeeded by a plurality of consumer identities and groups. This pluralisation assisted the relative marginalisation of consumer interests in the mid-twentieth century by more producer and statist-oriented traditions of economic planning and welfare. In recent years, however, consumers have moved back to the centre of national political discourse as the country revisits questions of civil society in the wake of economic reform. In the United States, the ethical consumerism which focused on conditions of labour at the turn of the twentieth century transmuted in the 1930s into a democratic vision of a more affluent society with access to goods for all. That vision was partly achieved during the post-war period, but at a distinct price: it sharpened social and racial hierarchies and, after a brief period of political supremacy that put producers on the defensive, sparked the fragmentation of the collective consumer identity as business regained the upper hand. Finally, in post-war Japan, the strength of consumerism as a social movement depended heavily on its ability to incorporate the materialist dimensions of consumption into a nationalist political agenda that emphasized the economic health of the nation and, consequently, enhanced the power of producers in the political economy.

The evolution of these distinct forms of consumerism did not correlate with cycles of material deprivation or affluence. Rather, the strength and sustainability of consumer politics depended on the ability of movements to connect with and contribute to national definitions of citizenship and the public good. Thus, consumer movements flourished when they worked within traditions that enabled them to translate questions of material needs into promises of social and political inclusion; when the prevailing political winds disadvantaged such synergy, as they did in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century, early post-war Britain, and in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, consumer movements found themselves relegated to the sidelines of political discourse.

These observations have implications for social movements more generally. Contrary to the so-called ‘resource mobilization’ approach to social movements,71 they suggest that the political ‘success’ of a social movement depends on far more than access to resources such as allies within the political system; it also rests on the ability of movements to frame their objectives in ways that complement or contribute to broader cultural norms and prevailing ideas about democracy and political economy. This chapter stresses the importance of looking beyond the action/reaction model of relations between organized consumers and political economies favoured by critics of globalisation. At crucial times – in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain and in 1940s-60s America – organised consumer politics was an important pillar of the liberal politico-economic settlement that shaped global as well as local politics.

The experiences of consumerism in Britain, the United States and Japan should give proponents of a ‘global consumerism’ pause. For although a significant amount of convergence has taken place among the principles and aspirations of different national consumer movements, consumerism continues to have local roots. Through each of the three periods examined in this discussion, consumers defined themselves primarily in relation to national political economies and in accordance with national political cultures and traditions. Contemporary consumers may be in the business of civilizing global markets, but they do so in ways that both reflect and contribute to the longevity of domestic political cultures and local markets.

1*The authors would like to thank Mark Bevir for comments, and Frank Trentmann also the ESRC and AHRB for award L 34341003.

 See, for example, N. Klein, No Logo (New York, 1999).

2 See S. K. Vogel, “When Interests Are Not Preferences: The Cautionary Tale of Japanese Consumers,” Comparative Politics (January 1999), pp. 187-207; P. L. Maclachlan, Consumer Politics in Postwar Japan: The Institutional Boundaries of Citizen Activism (New York, 2002).

3 C. Nonn, Verbraucherprotest und Parteiensystem im wilhelminischen Deutschland (Düsseldorf, 1996); T. Lindenberger, “Die Fleischrevolte am Wedding. Lebensmittelversorgung und Politik in Berlin am Vorabend des Ersten Weltrkiegs”, in M. Gailus and H. Volkmann, eds., Der Kampf um das tägliche Brot: Nahrungsmangel, Versorgungspolitik und Protest 1770-1990 (Opladen, 1994), pp. 282-304; M. Friedman, Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through The Marketplace and the Media (London, 1999), pp. 68 ff.

4 B. J. Davies, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill NC, 2000), T. Kaplan, "Female consciousness and collective action: the case of Barcelona, 1910-1918," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7 (1982), J. Smart, "Feminists, food and the fair price: the cost of living demonstrations in Melbourne, August-September 1917," Labour History 50 (1986), B. Waites, "The government of the Home Front and the 'moral economy' of the working class," in Home fires and foreign fields: British social and military experience in the first world war, ed. P. H. Liddle (Lonodn, 1985), pp. 175-193. M. Geyer, “Teurungsprotest, Konsumentenpolitik und soziale Gerechtigkeit während der Inflation”, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte XXX (1990), pp. 181-215; F. Trentmann, “Bread, Milk, and Democracy: Consumption and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Britain”, in M. Daunton and M. Hilton, eds., The Politics of Consumption (Oxford, 2001), pp. 129-163.

5 For the co-operative movement, see P. Gurney, Co-operative Culture and the Politics of Consumption in England, 1870-1930 (Manchester, 1996); G. D. H. Cole, A Century of Co-operation (Manchester, 1945).

6 T. Billington Greig, The Consumer in Revolt (London, 1912). For the role of middle class women gaining access to the public spaces of consumer society, see now E. D. Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women and the Making of London's West End: (Princeton NJ, 2000)..

7 H. Cox, ed., British Industries and Free Trade. (1903).

8 For a visual representation, see, the East London Water Consumers’ Defence Association, ‘The Eastern Question Must be Settled’ (1898), a poster which portrays ‘public opinion’,in PRO, London, COPY 1, 143 folio 165. See also the notes in J. Thompson, “The idea of ‘public opinion’ in Britain, 1870-1914” (Cambridge unpubl PhD Thesis 1999), pp. 44ff.

9 Public Record Office, London, T 168/54, “The Conditions and Effects of ‘Dumping’” (7 July 1903).

10 F. Trentmann, “National Identity and Consumer Politics” , pp. 215-42.

11 See further F. Trentmann, “Commerce, Civil Society and the “Citizen-Consumer”“ in , pp. 306-31.

12 British Library of Political and Economic Science, London, Coll. Misc 246, ff. 97, interview with Harold Begbie of the Daily Chronicle.

13 Several German states, for instance, had introduced special taxes on department stores, a practice followed after the war by France as well as some states in the United States. For the critique and politicisation of modern consumer society, see U. Spiekermann, Warenhaussteuer in Deutschland: Mittelstandsbewegung, Kapitalismus und Rechtsstaat im späten Kaiserreich (Frankfurt/Main, 1994); Hans-Peter Ullmann, Secondary H-P Ullmann, 'Der Kaiser Bei Wertheim: Warenhaeuser Im Wilhelminischen Deutschland', Secondary Der Kaiser Bei Wertheim: Warenhaeuser Im Wilhelminischen Deutschland, in Dipper (ed.)^(eds.), Europaeische Sozialgeschichte: Festschrift Fuer Wolfgang Schieder (Place Published: 2000), 223-236, D. Briesen, Warenhaus, Massenkonsum Und Sozialmoral: Zur Geschichte Der Konsumkritik Im 20. Jahrhundert: (Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 2001).. By contrast, see the connections in late Victorian Britain between imperial patriotism and the Ladies’ Guide Association’s mapping of public consumer spaces, discussed in Rappaport, Shopping, p. 133.

14 One of the few free traders who briefly recognised this was J. A. Hobson who observed that a growing product chain might create a ‘[d]ecentralisation of ends and motives’, thus unravelling a shared ‘social meaning’ between participants in trade, Industrial System (1909), p. 310.

15 D. J. Gerber, Law and Competition in Twentieth Century Europe: Protecting Prometheus: (Oxford, 2001)..

16 A. H. Enfield, The Place of Co-operation in the New Social Order (London, 1920), p. 6.

17 The targets of British legislation were retailers, rather than producers who had been left to their own devices in the pursuit (or abuse) of quality. For this, and the weak record of the Local Government Board, see J. Phillips; M. French,'Adulteration and Food Law, 1899-1939', Twentieth Century British History, pp. 9, 3, 350-369.. This contrasts with the more bureaucratic and punitive powers of states like Germany, where the law of 1879 empowered the police to search for unsafe foods, and the United States, where new agencies, such as the Bureau of Chemistry, were created within the federal system to address the increasingly complex field of food policy.

18 For different value systems and interests within working class culture, see P. Johnson,'Conspicuous Consumption and Working-Clas Culture in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, pp. 38, 27-43..

19 L.B. Glickman, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (Ithaca, 1997).

20 L. R. Y. Storrs, Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumer's League, Women's Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era: (Chapel Hill NC, 2000)., pp. 16f.

21 Similar arguments about the dangerous halo of cheapness at any cost were made on the British left but were marginalized by the free trade revival; see F. Trentmann, “Wealth versus Welfare: the British Left between Free Trade and National Political Economy before the First World War”, Historical Research, LXX, 171 (1997), pp. 70-98.

22 Cit. in Storrs, Civilizing Capitalism, p. 19.

23 T. H. Breen,''Baubles in Britain': The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century', Past and Present, 119, 73-104..

24 Storrs, Civilizing Capitalism, chs. 5, 6.

25 K. Davies, "A moral purchase: feminity, commerce and abolition, 1788-1792," in Women, writing and the public sphere: 1700-1830, eds C. Grant and E Eger (Cambridge: 2000), pp. 133-159.

26 K. Kish Sklar, “The Consumers’ White Label Campaign of the National Consumers’ League, 1898-1918,” in , pp. 25ff.

27 As the League’s official history, The First Quarter Century, put it in 1925, cit. Storrs, Civilizing Capitalism, p. 22.

28 See further S. Garon, “Luxury Is the Enemy: Mobilizing Savings and Popularizing Thrift,” Journal of Japanese Studies 26, no. 1, pp. 41-78.

29 See R. Porter, “Consumption: Disease of the Consumer Society?”, in J. Brewer and R. Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (London, 1993), pp. 58-81; L. B. Glickman, “Born to Shop? Consumer History and American History,” in L. B. Glickman, ed., Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (Ithaca, 1999), p. 1.

30 A. Yamamoto, Nihon seikatsu kyôdô kumiai undôshi [The history of Japan’s lifestyle cooperative movement] (Tokyo, 1982), p. 674; Maclachlan, p. 79.

31 E.M. H. Lloyd in Nation and Athenaeum, 9 Dec. 1922, pp. 384f.

32 Trentmann, “Bread, Milk and Democracy”, in Hilton and Daunton, Politics of Consumption, pp. 146ff.

33 C. Nonn, “Vom Konsumentenprotest zum Konsens: Lebensmittelverbraucher und Agrarpolitik in Deutschland 1900-1955,” in., pp. 32 ff.

34 See, for instance, C. Addison, “The Nation and Its Food,” (1929) in

P. Redfern, ed., Self and Society: Second Twelve Essays, Social and Economic Problems from the hitherto Neglected Point of View of the Consumer (London, 1930).

35 F. Trentmann, “The Erosion of Free Trade: Political Culture and Political Economy in Great Britain, c. 1897-1932 (Harvard PhD Thesis, 1999), chs. 5 and 6.

36 S. Turnell, "F.L. McDougall: eminence grise of Australian economic diplomacy," in The economics and politics of international trade, ed. G. Cook (London: Routledge, 1998), pp.

37 Hull Archives, Cooperative Party discussion paper (1955), FAO 55/3/1806, topic 1 (1), emphases in orig.

38 H. J. Laski, “The Recovery of Citizenship” (1928) in P. Redfern, ed., Self and Society: First Twelve Essays, Social and Economic Problems from the hitherto Neglected Point of View of the Consumer (London, 1930), p.7.

39 For this see the current doctoral research by Stefan Schwarzkopf at Birkbeck College. In contrast to the popular image of a hegemony of psychological theories of total human manipulation in the 1950s and 1960s, as pronounced by the Frankfurt School, more complex views of consumption and subjectification continued to be developed in British psychology after World War Two; see Peter Miller and Nikolas Rose Peter Miller,'Mobilizing the Consumer: Assembling the Subject of Consumption', Theory, Culture and Society, 14, 1, 1-36..

40 Final report of the Mixed committee of the League of Nations on the Relation of Nutrition to Health, Agriculture, and Economic Policy (League of Nations Document No. A. 13. 1937. II. A.), p. 33.

41 C. Beauchamp, “Getting Your Money’s Worth: American Models for the Remaking of the Consumer Interest in Britain, 1930s-1960s”, in M. Bevir and F. Trentmann, eds., Critiques of Capital in Modern Britain and America: Transatlantic Exchanges 1800 to the Present Day (Basingstoke and New York, 2002), pp. 127-150; M. Hilton, ‘The Fable of the Sheep’, Past and Present, 174 (2002), esp. pp. 229ff.

42 C. McGovern, “Consumption and Citizenship in the United States, 1900-1940, “in Strasser, Getting and Spending, pp. 37 ff.; see also R. Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-40 (Berkeley, 1985).


44 Dewey (1931), cit. in L. Cohen, “The New Deal State” in Strasser, Getting and Spending, p. 117.

45 A. Brinkley, End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York, 1995), p.71. While the broad-based identity of all citizens as consumers would dominate amongst New Dealers, some groups, like the NRA Women’s Division retained a more limited, sectional view of the consuming class as that of middle-class housewives, distinct from the working class; see M. Jacobs,''Democracy's Third Estate': New Deal Politics and the Construction of a 'Consuming Public'', International Labor and Working-Class History, 55, Spring, pp. 27-51..

46 For Consumers’ Research, the consumer was essentially a private person – Schlink was suspicious of consumerism as a social movement or political programme and sought to keep consumption separate from labour issues, whereas Consumers Union carried on the earlier progressive identification between the consumer as worker. The vision of Consumers’ Research, in short, was not to reform capitalism but to restore markets. The discussion here and below draws on L. Glickman,'The Strike in the Temple of Consumption: Consumer Activism and Twentieth-Century American Political Culture', The Journal of American History, 88, June 2001, pp. 99-128.; Hayagreeva Rao,'Caveat Emptor: The Construction of Nonprofit Consumer Watchdog Organizations', American Journal of Sociology, pp. 103, 4, 912-961.; Beauchamp, “Your Money’s Worth”, in Bevir and Trentmann, Critiques of Capital; For the following discussion, see also Meg Jacobs,''How About Some Meat': The Office of Price Administration, Consumption Politics, and State Building from the Bottom up, 1941-1946', The Journal of American History, pp. 84, 3, 910-941., and now L. Cohen, A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America: (New York, 2003)..

47 L. Cohen, “The New Deal State” in Getting and Spending, pp. 120f.

48 Cit. Jacobs, “Democracy’s Third Estate”, p. 37.

49 Jacobs, “How About Some Meat”, p. 927.

50 As the Japanese government supports legislation designed to protect consumers in a freer market setting, many advocates have softened their opposition to deregulation; see Maclachlan, Consumer Politics in Postwar Japan.

51 See E. Ohnuki-Tierney, Illness and Culture in Contemporary Japan: an Anthropological View (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 21-50; Maclachlan, Consumer Politics in Postwar Japan, pp. 178-80.

52 M. Shoshichi, “Food Should not be Compared with Industrial Products,” Japan Economic Journal (May 22, 1984), pp. 20-21.

53 T. Naokazu, Nihon no shôhisha wa naze okoranai no ka [Why Don’t Japanese Consumers Get Mad?] (Tokyo, 1990), p. 104.

54 P. Maclachlan, “The Struggle for an Independent Consumer Society: Consumer Activism and the State’s Response in Postwar Japan,” in F. Schwartz and S. J. Pharr, eds., The State of Civil Society in Japan (New York and Cambridge, forthcoming).

55 See L. Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic (forthcoming). The earlier, female identification of the consumer was never complete; before World War One, for example, US free traders invoked a male consumer, Modern Archives Centre, Churchill College (Cambridge), Char 2/44 f. 108, Tariff Reform Matter, no. 15 (1910), by the Tariff Reform Committee of the Reform Club, New York.

56 F. Kornbluh,'To Fulfill Their 'Rightly Needs': Consumerism and the National Welfare Rights Movement', Radical History Review, pp. 69, 76-113..

57 D. Vogel, Fluctuating Fortunes: The Political Power of Business in America (New York, 1989), p. 40.

58 See R. N. Mayer, The Consumer Movement: Guardians of the Marketplace (Boston, 1988); D. Vogel, Fluctuating Fortunes; and J. M. Berry, Lobbying for the People: The Political Behavior of Public Interest Groups (Princeton, 1977).

59 See also the confrontational nature of the French grassroots consumerism, G. Trumbull, “Strategies of Consumer-Group Mobilization: France and Germany in the 1970s”, in Daunton and Hilton, Politics of Consumption, pp. 261-282.

60 See Vogel’s Fluctuating Fortunes.

61 For the growing popularity of Conservative proposals to restore consumer choice, see I. Zweininger-Bargielowska, Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption 1939-1955: (Oxford, 2000).. Cf. J. Hinton, “Militant Housewives: The British Housewives’ League and the Attlee Government,” History Workshop Journal, 38 (1994).

62 F. Willey, 20 March 1959, cit. in Hilton, “Consumer Politics”, in Hilton and Daunton, Politics of Consumption, p. 243, with further discussion of the Molony Committee, which led to the government-funded Consumer Council in 1963.

63 Maclachlan, Consumer Politics in Postwar Japan, p. 47; see also G. Smith, The Consumer Interest (London, 1982).

64 S. Locke, "Modelling the consumer interest," in Changing regulatory institutions in Britain and North America, ed. B. Doern; S. Wilks (Toronto: 1998), pp. 162-186. In the course of the 1980s, the European Council emphasis moved away from consumer rights towards consumer choice. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty can be read as a shift in direction towards consumers’ right to regulation. For this see H-W. Micklitz; S. Weathrill,'Consumer Policy in the European Community: Before and after Maastricht', Journal of Consumer Policy, pp. 16, 285-321.. For the importance of the EU in facilitating consumer cooperation, see A. Young, "European consumer groups: multiple levels of governance and multiple logics of collective action," in Collective action in the Euriopean Union: interests and the new politics of associability, ed. J. Greenwood and M. Aspinwall (London: 1998), pp. 149-175.

65 The Citizen’s Charter – Five Years on, Cm 3370 (1996), p.2. For different perspectives on public sector reform, see J. Potter,'Consumerism and the Public Sector: How Well Does the Coat Fit?' Public Administration, pp. 66, 149-164.; J. Harris,'State Social Work and Social Citizenship in Britain: From Clientelism to Consumerism', British Journal of Social Work, 29, pp. 915-937.; J. Gabe; M. Calnan, "Health care and consumption," in Health, medicine and society: key theories, future agendas, ed. S. J. Williams; J. Gabe; M. Calnan (London: 2000), pp. 255-273, Y. Gabriel; T. Lang, The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and Its Fragmentations: (London, 1995)., ch. 10; J. Clarke, "Consumerism," in Imagining Welfare Futures, ed. G. Hughes (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 13-54.

66 As the British prime minister, Tony Blair, has remarked recently, ‘the public know …that they are more than consumers of public servants. A patient in accident and emergency demanding his hand is stitched up acts as a consumer fuming at the delay. But when he sees a ghastly car crash victim rush past him on a trolley he acts as a citizen, understanding that a more urgent case comes first.’ A. Blair, The Courage of Our Convictions: Why Reform of the Public Services is the Route to Social Justice (London, 2002), p. 26. See also Labour’s Citizen’s Charter (1991).

67 Recent examples are NCC, Involving Consumers: Everyone Benefits (2002); Consumers’ Association, Setting Aside the CAP (2002).

68 National Consumer Council, Feeding in to Food Policy (London, 2001).

69 Consumers’ Association, Setting Aside the CAP (2002).

70 A recent Mori survey for the National Consumer Council in Britain found an almost even balance of motivations behind consumer activism. 24% of responses were ‘to support the community’, 23% ‘to help other people’, 22% ‘got very angry about service provided’, and 20% ‘to help support myself/my family’; NCC, Consumer Activism Omnibus Survey (London, 2002).

71 See J. D. McCarthy and M. N. Zald, “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory,” American Journal of Sociology 82, no. 6 (1977), pp. 1212-41; A. Oberschall, Social Conflict and Social Movements (Englewood Cliffs, N.J, 1973); J. Q. Wilson, Political Organizations (New York, 1973).

Cultures of Consumption, and ESRC-AHRB Research Programme

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Working Paper No: 5

Date: 1 October 2003

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