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The Making of Consumer Culture in Modern Britain.

The Making of Consumer Culture in Modern Britain. By Peter Gurney. (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. Pp. viii, 274. $110.00.)

Consumption--consumerism--is widely claimed as the prime source of self-definition and identity in today's world, a clamant phenomenon the ideology, discourse, and practice of which has been attracting historians of modern Britain for some thirty years. Following an early focus on the boom in luxury commodities for the urban middle classes in the eighteenth century, the field has grown extensively to cover many aspects of modern consumerism. In this rich, spirited, and astute study, Peter Gurney offers a general account of the field while concentrating on the particular history of retailing and shopping, emphasizing how politics and its struggles have been the most potent determinant in the making of consumer culture.

The book's title evokes E. P. Thompson's themes of class struggle in the early years of capitalist industrialization, revisited in part 1, 1800-1870, in the turmoil over the Corn Laws and New Poor Law. If consumption was an elemental matter of survival for the many, the cooperative movement (Gurney's research specialty) was a notably constructive response, an encouraging example of working-class agency and group identity, 'democratic consumerism' in contest with bourgeois 'liberal consumerism' and its idealization of the cellular home and family with its material glorification.

Part 2, 1870-1920, examines the advent of the big stores, modern advertising, and the issue of pleasure as business interests learned to stimulate rather than simply meet demand. At the same time the 'Co-Op Commonwealth,' if less than a majority, traded with increasing success on working-class solidarity, while a socialist wondered if "greater material comfort may co-exist with lesser satisfaction" (66-67). The early 1900s saw a party political fight that roiled the nation--and generated intensive new scholarship--as the now orthodox policy of free trade was challenged by the protectionist forces of fair trade. Domestically, 'The People's Bread' was the issue, while imperial preference acknowledged new responsibilities of empire in Britain's meteoric rise to world dominance.

According to Gurney, consumer culture in Britain fully matured during the short twentieth century, 1920-2000. Government controls on supply--'Fair shares for all'--saw the nation through two world wars, following which a resurgent capitalism aided by advertising and the rise of monopolies boosted growth and consumption under a succession of Conservative governments. The mutualist ethic of the cooperative movement collapsed by the 1960s as wider prosperity and self-fashioning prevailed, given added stimulus as New Labour shed its socialist inheritance to rebrand itself the consumer's friend in acknowledgment of the newly coined 'consumer sovereignty.'

The aspirations and anxieties attendant on modern consumerism have generated a pathology to darken its triumphalism, addressed here in a review of major theorists: Marx on fetishism, Veblen on the fever of social emulation, and Baudrillard on consumption as a form of hysteria. In an epilogue, Gurney steps aside from the dispassionate mode of the social historian to declare the discourse of consumer sovereignty "a pernicious fiction" (209). In British historiography, the struggle continues.

Peter Bailey

Indiana University
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Title Annotation:EUROPE
Author:Bailey, Peter
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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