The Concepts of Luxury and Waste in American Radicalism, 1880-1929.
In 1885 economist Richard T. Ely noted that a "specific vice of our time, and one which political economists of all schools condemn, is extravagance and luxury. It is waste of economic powers, injuring those who indulge in it, and exciting envy and bitterness in the minds of those who are excluded" (p. 45). Relatively fresh in the 1880s, Ely's concerns became familiar in the criticism that shadowed the rapid growth of the American consumer economy between 1880 and 1920. Although the excesses of consumption had long been a target for social critics--consider Hogarth's satiric portraits of eighteenth-century London or the attacks on luxury by upholders of republican virtue in the Early Republic--it was not until the late nineteenth century that such critics began to assume that luxury and waste were inherently linked to the emerging market system. Even so trenchant a critic as Karl Marx failed to note the profound impact that consumption was having on social relations. Yet by the 1880s, an increasing number of commentators, including Ely, Ignatius Donnelly, Upton Sinclair, Walter Rausche nbusch, and perhaps most conspicuously, Thorstein Veblen, had changed the conversation and given Americans a vocabulary for talking about the inefficiencies, if not the ills, of market culture. New terms for a new economy, "conspicuous consumption, "conspicuous waste," and "conspicuous leisure" carried the theoretical work of critics like Veblen into broader social usage.
In The Concepts of Luxury and Waste in American Radicalism, 1880-1929, Sulevi Riukulehto presents a "conceptual history" (p. 18) of this critical discourse as it developed in four areas: economics, arts and letters, the social gospel movement, and political thought. Within each of these areas, Riukulehto focuses on the concepts of luxury and waste as they were developed by critics interested in effecting radical economic change. The strength of this approach is that it allows Riukulehto to underscore the conclusions shared across four different fields of inquiry. We learn, for instance, that Ely, Veblen, and Donnelly all believed that economic depressions stemmed from chronic under-consumption (rather than over-production); also that Donnelly's "imitation scheme of consumption" (p. 203) preceded Veblen's more famous theory by several years. The discussion of Ely is especially illuminating since Ely does not usually attract much attention from scholars of consumer history; yet as Riukulehto demonstrates, he w as one of the first economists to undertake a systematic study of consumption. Equally noteworthy is Riukulehto's brief examination of "waste" in the context of the emerging conservation philosophies developed by Gifford Pinchot, Richard C. Van Hise, and others, but also reflected in Ely's economic writings. Here, consumer and environmental history share territory that merits further exploration.
At its weakest, The Concepts of Luxury and Waste in American Radicalism rehashes well-established information or drives toward predictable conclusions in the context of padded-out historical backgrounds. That "social gospelers condemned the luxurious life as immoral and sinful paganism" (p. 150) seems a fairly obvious point. Moreover, to devote several pages to survey discussions of populism and socialism in America blurs the book's purpose. This lack of focus is especially apparent in the uncertain status of the category "radical," which, notwithstanding Riukulehto's concern with "economic radicalism" (p. 15), accommodates a variety of ideological positions and leads to the remark that the "radicalists seem[ed] to have no common view on luxury and waste" (p. 211). Finally, Riukulehto's argument suffers from imprecise language and awkward prose, problems that careful editing could have caught.
Well researched and amply informed by the secondary literature, The Concepts of Luxury and Waste in American Radicalism is a useful book on an important topic. Although Daniel Horowitz's 1985 monograph, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940 (not cited in Riukulehto's bibliography) remains the best single study of this general subject, Riukulehto's work merits a look by specialists in the field.
Timothy B. Spears is an associate professor of American literature and civilization at Middlebury College. He is the author of 100 Years on the Road: The Traveling Salesman in American Culture (1995). At present, he is working on a cultural and literary history of migration to Chicago during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
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|Author:||Spears, Timothy B.|
|Publication:||Business History Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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