Matthew Hilton

 

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

Cover Interview of October 19, 2009

The wide angle

The book is very much a product of my training as a social historian.  That is, I have attempted to uncover the hopes and aspirations of ordinary groups of people.  While much of social history has been concerned with the lives of the working class, I chose to examine how people think and behave as consumers: with how they spend, rather than how they earn their money.

In particular I am interested in how the everyday problems of getting and spending—dealing with faulty and dangerous goods, overcoming unscrupulous manufacturers, dealing with inequities in the marketplace, challenging the tactics and assumptions of advertisers, and so on—have translated into political agendas.

Ralph Nader provides the classic case in point.  His analysis of the US motor industry demonstrated that the problem was not simply the poor design of one brand of commercial vehicle.  The problem was deeper and multilayered.  The reason why a consumer might be offered a dangerous motorcar was ultimately due to problems about collusion in the industry, the lack of standards, the absence of federal government regulation and the non-existence of a form of political pressure to act on behalf of the public or consumers.

Ralph Nader therefore gave rise to the public interest movement.  He became the leading consumer advocate in the US, achieving a public profile such that he was even talked of as Jimmy Carter’s running mate in the 1975 Presidential election.  (That Nader entered politics again a quarter-century later is another matter.)

But I also want the book to start a debate about consumer society distinct from much of the liberal critique so prevalent in the West.  Think of all the popular works devoted to consumer society.  They go back to Thorstein Veblen’s critique of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in his Theory of the Leisure Class.  They include the classics of 1950s liberalism—Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders and J.  K.  Galbraith’s Affluent Society.  The sixties counterculture gave rise to numerous attempts to seek a more meaningful existence beyond the false neon lights of commodity capitalism.  They continue to this day, ranging from Naomi Klein’s No Logo to the more recent debate about ‘affluenza’.

The inadequacy of all these books is that they oversimplify so much about consumer society.  Middle-class liberal guilt too readily condemns the aspirations of ordinary people eager to participate in the good life.  Important economic issues about trade and finance are misunderstood such that we are expected to be for or against free trade.  Significant political decisions about public intervention in the market place are reduced to a ‘nanny state’ versus libertarian individualism.  But most of all, these books relate the problems of consumer society purely in terms understandable to the rich.

Consumer society is our common guilty indulgence for which we must constantly chastise ourselves.  Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that.  But the focus does obscure another more important question—the question of who should get to participate in consumer society.  Debates about participation were central to Roosevelt’s New Deal, to the GI Bill at the end of the Second World War, and to the establishment of welfare regimes and social market economies across Europe in the 1940s and 1950s.  They would remain important too to the world’s poor.  But now poverty is treated as an issue separate from consumer society.  The poor don’t get to have a say in the world of affluence; instead their plight is left to structural adjustment, philanthropy and pop concerts.  My point is that the poor too should be incorporated into any discussions about consumer society; poverty is not a problem distinct and external to consumer society.