The Politics of Consumption: Material Culture and Citizenship in Europe and America

The Politics of Consumption: Material Culture and Citizenship in Europe and America

The Politics of Consumption: Material Culture and Citizenship in Europe and America

The Politics of Consumption: Material Culture and Citizenship in Europe and America

Synopsis

Objects and commodities have frequently been studied to assess their position within consumer - or material - culture, but all too rarely have scholars examined the politics that lie behind that culture. This book fills the gap and explores the political and state structures that have shaped the consumer and the nature of his or her consumption. From medieval sumptuary laws to recent debates in governments about consumer protection, consumption has always been seen as a highly political act that must be regulated, directed or organized according to the political agendas of various groups. An internationally renowned group of experts looks at the emergence of the rational consuming individual in modern economic thought, the moral and ideological values consumers have attached to their relationships with commodities, and how the practices and theories of consumer citizenship have developed alongside and within the expanding state. How does consumer identity become available to people and how do they use it? How is consumption negotiated in a dictatorship? Are material politics about state politics, consumer politics, or the relationship between these and consumer practices?From the specifics of the politics of consumption in the French Revolution - what was the status of rum? How complicated did a vinegar recipe have to be before the resultant product qualified as 'luxury'? - to the highly contentious twentieth-century debates over American political economy, this original book traces the relationships among political cultures, consumers and citizenship from the eighteenth century to the present.

Excerpt

All modern nation-states, because of their dependence upon mass popular armies for their defence, taxation for their economic survival, and mass suffrage for their legitimacy, need to instill a sense of belonging, of shared responsibility, and of loyalty in their citizens. Because few nation-states have the coercive capacity to enforce co-operation on such a scale, they rely on voluntary compliance and participation. Citizens must, somehow, come to identify with people whom they have never met and will never meet, to be willing to pay for them and die for them. They have to trust that others will pay, and die, for them in turn. a nation's citizens must decide, at times, to do things that are not in their own or their family's, or their town's, or their region's best interest. This identification with strangers and a willingness to put the interests of an abstraction called the nation ahead of one's own does not come to people naturally; it must be learned. All modern nationstates face this pedagogic task, but differing histories of state formation and criteria for citizenship have shaped how they approach it.

In this chapter, and in the larger project of which this is an overview, I suggest that in modern nation-states, conceptions of citizenship, in combination with understandings of the relation between the local and the national, shape national cultural policy and how the nation is lived in the everyday lives of a nation's inhabitants. Grasping the self-understanding of historical actors is, of course, notoriously elusive. I would like to propose that a productive point of access to these domains is the design and consumption of everyday goods ‘of style’, including furniture, flatware, architecture, fabric and jewellery. Taste in such objects is particularly revealing in modern consumer societies because it is both inevitable . . .

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