Matthew Hilton

 

On his book Prosperity for All: Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalization

Cover Interview of October 19, 2009

In a nutshell

At its broadest level, Prosperity for All is about the changing meaning of consumer society over the past half century.  I argue that whereas access to the benefits of consumer society for everybody dominated thinking in the mid-twentieth century, consumer society has more recently come to be about individual choice: that is, only for those who can afford to participate.

The book gets at this transformation through an examination of the aims and priorities of global consumer activism.  Usually associated with best buy magazines such as Consumer Reports in the US, Which? in the UK, and Que Choisir in France, consumer activism has in fact also been associated with the needs and aspirations of the developing world.  Inspired by western activists such as Ralph Nader, consumer groups have emerged in Asia, Latin America and Africa.  They have been concerned not with the value for money of cars and electronic goods, but with the rights of the poor to decent food, housing, water, transport, and energy.

In doing so they remind us that consumer society is about poverty as well as luxury.  For all the problems confronting affluent societies seemingly dominated by excessive and unsustainable consumption, for the majority of the world’s population, mere access to a world of goods is still a legitimate desire.

Unfortunately, debates about consumer society are rarely couched in these terms.  By following the fortunes of the consumer activist movement—and the setbacks it faced from the 1980s—we can see how the dominant meanings of consumer society changed as well.

Today we rarely talk about access to consumption.  Instead, we talk about choice.  Whether we see unlimited choice as the triumph or tragedy of consumer society, to focus the debate on such a narrow concept cuts out other important debates once so central to the meaning of consumer society: needs, rights, entitlements, fairness, equality, sovereignty and, ultimately, the redistribution of wealth.