Thursday, July 22, 2010

The citizen-consumer in American history

Many activist groups in American history have claimed the mid-18th-century colonial tax revolts against Great Britain as precedent, the much-vaunted and so-called Tea Party movement being only the most recent. But historian Lawrence B. Glickman in his 2009 book Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America shows that the link between citizenship and consumption is more prevalent and consistent in American life than most people think.

There has been some recent research that links political consumption of the present day with the anti-slavery movement in Great Britain, starting in the late 1700s and culminating with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. One such study is Adam Hochschild's book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves (2005), detailing the many techniques of what social movement theorists call "resource mobilization" pioneered during effort that continue to be used by today's social justice activists. One such device is the "buycott" campaign of medallions -- "Am I Not A Man and A Brother?" -- designed by Josiah Wedgewood (shown in this blog's inaugural post) that appeared on everything from brooches to music boxes.

Glickman's assertion is that in fact the influence comes from America, then migrated over to England. It has persisted here throughout our nation's history.

One effort that seems particularly relevant for today is the free produce movement, which started as part of the abolitionist effort in the 1790s and lasted until the 1860s. The "free" in this case refers not "to without cost" but "not enslaved." In a precursor to today's Fair Trade, free produce was a "buycott" encouraging conscientious consumers of the day to shop for goods made by those who received wages for their work.

Among the subsequent expressions of the synergy between citizenship and consumption are the "white label" campaigns of the late 19th- and early 20th-century anti-sweatshop movement. In these campaigns, the "look for the union label" mark became a way for women in particular to express political solidarity in times before they could vote. Another example is the "don't buy where you can't work" campaigns against retailers in Harlem and other areas with high African American populations.

According to Glickman, it was really in the postwar era that the rise of the consumer movement as specifically concerned with consumer safety separate from social justice was solidified. While Glickman doesn't take note of this directly, the eclipse of the progressivist agenda was certainly connected to the rise of what Lizabeth Cohen terms "the Consumers' Republic" of Cold War consensus. Even in this case, the link between citizenship and consumption was forged by the acknowledgment, especially on the part of workers, of the broad distribution of goods as the right of every American to enjoy.

Recent years have seen the growth of what some term "postmateriality," the emphasis on things other than pure marginal utility in the operation of markets. The social science underlying this idea comes from World Values Survey, a longitudinal study conducted over the last several decades by Ronald Inglehart at the University of Michigan. Essentially providing the statistical evidence for Abraham Mazlow's hierarchy of needs, the World Value Surveys shows an increasing emphasis on self-actualization as a valued good as societies become further and further removed from having to provide for day-to-day material sustenance.

One way self-actualization gets expressed is through what have come to be termed moral markets. That is, transactions involving consumers whose identity is in part connected to their purchasing decisions based on values rather than simply value, justice and fairness rather than mere price. These transactions are conducted under rubrics like Fair Trade, green, blue, eco-conscious, etc.

More and more this identity (in social science speak, "subjectivity") is being seen in the American context, though the US lags behind contemporary Europe in this regard. The recent economic meltdown may have helped forge a stronger link between the identities of citizen and consumer with the creation, as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, even though some critics see it as falling short of where it could have been.

Image above right: The New Negro Alliance of Washington DC boycotting People's Drugs in the 1940s to protest its discriminating employment practices. Go to for more information.

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