Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Glickman, Lawrence B.|
Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America. By
Lawrence B. Glickman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. xix
plus 403 pp).
For all the accusations that are persistently made against the culture of consumption, one always stands out: that consumption is antithetical to citizenship and that it directs our energies towards private gratification rather than the public good. Over the past decade of so, a number of historians have demonstrated that this has not always been the case. Consumers have often acted as citizens and they have brought a politics, an ethics and even an ideology to their consuming decisions. Lawrence Glickman's wide-ranging survey of consumer activism provides a near definitive guide to the history of these types of politicised consumption in America since the 18th century. As he states in his preface, he sees consumption "not as the negation of citizenship, but as an instrument of solidarity, a mode of ethical agency, and a bridge to healing relationships with both nature and the animate world" [p. x].
Buying Power builds on a by now well-established US literature on the history of consumer movements, of boycotts, of 'consumer-citizens', of the political economy of consumption, and of consumer politics more generally. Indeed, Glickman's earlier works (including his monograph, A Living Wage, and his reader, Consumer Society in American History, both published by Cornell University Press in 1997 and 1999 respectively) have proved influential in encouraging others to examine the political aspects of consumer society. Buying Power takes on board all of the findings of this new research, synthesises it and contributes additional excellent archival work in offering an authoritative guide to all forms of consumer activism.
The book begins with an analysis of the consumer protests of the American revolution, demonstrating the extent to which participants in the Tea Party drew as much on older notions of consumption as use as they did on novel concepts of consumption as purchase. Glickman emphasises that the consumer protestors of the American Revolution operated in a period of transition rather than one of a radically new attitude to goods. This is an important point, as Glickman argues persuasively that too often successive generations of consumer activists believe themselves to be the pioneers of this political tactic. Historians too, often acknowledge the events of the eighteenth century but then assume that consumer activism did not really gather momentum until the late-nineteenth century. Glickman corrects this mistake, and the first third of the book takes us through a diverse range of consumer protests, from anti-slavery campaigners, to the 'rebel consumers' of the Southern nonintercourse movement, and on to the widespread take-off of the boycott as a political tactic in the 1880s.
He then overviews magisterially the tremendous range of consumer organisations and consumer politics emerging from the Progressive era through to the New Deal. He covers particularly well the National Consumers' League, the League of Women Shoppers and the two organisations most closely associated with transforming consumer activism into a consumer movement: Consumers Research and Consumers Union (the latter emerging from the former following a strike by staff in 1936). The final section traces consumer activism as an exemplar of the changing fortunes of liberalism in postwar America. Here, Glickman importantly asserts the significance of Consumers Union, showing it to he more than an organisation promoting rational self interest, and he deftly details the persistent opposition to organised consumerism, especially that associated with Ralph Nader. The New Right ultimately made liberalism a dirty word, as shown in Glickman's case study of the failure to pass legislation creating a Consumer Protection Agency in the 1970s. This shows how organised business, lobby groups and think tanks increasingly associated liberalism with meddlesome big government, and just how significant the movement for consumer protection was to the development of this strand of US politics.
It is difficult to criticise such a well-researched and elegantly presented book. It is comprehensive and yet succinct, and Glickman has a keen and expert eye for focussing on events and organisations which bring out the broader themes of his work. He has undoubtedly succeeded in his aim to show that consumer activism has been a persistent, if diverse, presence in American politics. And he has filled in many gaps that have long persisted in the US literature on consumer society: especially research on the nineteenth century and in his fair and proper assessment of the modern consumer movement.
Certain quibbles might be made. The history of consumer activism since 1980 is dealt with in only eight pages in an epilogue. Even if the historian is not required to bring their story right up to the present, the events of the last thirty years--which Glickman argues to have constituted a significant revival in consumer activism through ethical shopping and so on - surely require more detailed treatment in such an overview. And the story told is rather insular. While Glickman is interested to an extent in transnational links in the nineteenth century, the story is very much a US one in the twentieth. Yet the Consumers Union played an important role in creating a worldwide consumer movement from the 1950s and the Consumer Protection Agency itself owed much to the precedents taking place in Europe.
More significantly, questions remain over the precise nature of Glickman's subject. Consumer activism in this book is treated as a political tactic for diverse causes, yet it is also treated as a form of politics in its own right, and even as a 'philosophy' and 'tradition' Such a range of motivations that lie behind boycotts are difficult to treat as a coherent subject, especially when many consumer campaigns are as reactionary as they are progressive. Glickman is well aware of the difficulties in putting often opposed groups into the same book, but often his subject is made to appear more coherent than it actually was. Phrases such as consumer activists "proposed a new physics of time and space" [p. 7] is one such example of how an imposed coherence can lead to exaggerated claims.
Yet this remains an excellent history that sits comfortably among the very best of the books that have been produced on American consumer society over the last two decades. Indeed, in many ways, it finally answers many of the questions we might ask of US consumer politics. American scholarship has advanced far more quickly in studies of consumption than in Europe and elsewhere. The definitive nature of Glickman's work suggests the study of US consumer activism is nearly complete. New work in this field will take inspiration from Glickman but is more likely to be directed to other countries, not only in Europe but the wider world.
University of Birmingham
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