The emergence of consumerist ideology

In: Uncategorized

31 Jan 2009

The February 2009 issue of History Today has an article by Keith Thomas, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, on the emergence of a consumer society in Britain from the 17th century onward. He argues:

“What we see during the 17th and 18th centuries is the gradual emergence of a new ideology, accepting the pursuit of consumer goods as a valid object of human endeavour and recognising that no limit could, or should, be put to it. Consumption was justified in terms of the opportunities it brought for human fulfilment. The growth of a consumer market, unrestricted by the requirements of social hierarchy, offered increasing possibilities for comfort, enjoyment and self-realisation. Poverty was no longer to be regarded as a holy state; and there was no need to feel guilt about envying the rich; one should try to emulate them. Or so the advocates of laissez-faire commerce would argue.”

The article is broadly in the tradition of Thorstein Veblen, the author of The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) in seeing the accumulation of wealth as a means to demonstrate standing and gain esteem in relation to other individuals. It also discusses how upholders of the traditional Protestant ethic objected to what they saw as frivolous displays of luxury.

Thomas’s article is based on an extract of his book, The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England, which is published in February by Oxford University Press.

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