Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement

Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement

Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement

Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement


The first comprehensive history of consumerism as an organized social and political movement, this book explores consumer movements, ideologies and organizations in twentieth-century Britain. It explores the history of organizations such as the Co-operative movement and the Consumers' Association and analyzes the role of the National Consumer Council, the Office of Fair Trading, and international consumer organizations as well as the growth of ethical consumerism. A major contribution to the topic of the role of consumption in modern society, it will be essential reading for historians of twentieth-century Britain.


Consumption, consumerism, consuming, price and material culture are all crucial to our understandings of twentieth-century history. They must be accorded the same historical significance as notions of production, work, the wage and perhaps all the ideologies associated with a productivist mentality. in the final analysis, they are perhaps more important: as one recent historian of twentieth-century American commercialism put it, 'consumerism was the [ism] that won'. We are all consumers now. Yet to herald the triumph and all-pervasive nature of consumer society is not to deny the diversity of consumerist visions of society and culture, as well as of the economy, the state, politics and government. Smith's adage that 'consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production' is oft repeated to remind us of the centrality of the commodity to modern life, but it actually misses its true significance. Consumption has been one of the most recurring means by which citizens have moulded their political consciousness and shaped their political organisations, as well as being one of the main acts around which governments have focussed their policies and interventions. in twentieth-century Britain, the politics of consumption has offered itself as a persistent 'middle' or 'third way' solution to a party political system dominated by the interests of manufacturers and workers. This is what unites all the individuals, groups and institutions to be covered within this book, most of whom can be located under the admittedly large umbrella of social democracy and democratic socialism. Consumption has inspired an important socio-political movement over the last one hundred years, though it has not followed the same shape or trajectory as those usually associated with labour and capital.

Consumerism therefore does not simply involve the story of the success of one culture, one economy or one way of life. Consumerism is a mobilising force at the heart of twentieth-century social and political history.

G. Cross, An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America (NY,
2000), p. 1.

A. Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776; Chicago, 1976), vol. 2, p. 179.

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