Prosperity for All: Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalization.
|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: Prosperity for All: Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalization (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Hilton, Matthew|
Prosperity for All: Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalization,
By Matthew Hilton (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009. xi
plus 315 pp.).
Kuala Juru, a small village of fishermen in Malaysia, became famous for the brave struggle of its inhabitants to defend their ancient traditions in the 1970s. A great industrial complex built in the proximity had begun to pollute the river causing the death of the fish; the situation worsened when the government built a bridge and a dike that altered the course of the river. To defend their economic activities and their lifestyle, the fishermen did not turn to labor unions or political parties but to the Consumers' Association of Penang. This association helped them to concretely look for an alternative, creating a cooperative to cultivate kerang (sea-cockles). Success was such that the way of life of the ex-fishermen returned to the former levels; and it kept on growing so that all the families soon enjoyed a higher standard of living never experienced before. Consumption and material goods increased, and the ancient traditions disappeared forever.
In this excellent book, Matthew Hilton, author of studies on consumerism in twentieth-century Britain and NGOs, outlines a global history of the consumer movement, giving us an original and sometimes provocative picture. As for the fishermen of Kuala Juru, the history of these movements shows different and sometimes ambiguous aspects in a transnational perspective.
The main point of the author concerns the limitation of a Western-centered view. The presence of similar movements in other countries makes clear the subtle ideological line that divides the global consumer movement: more liberty of choice for the individual or better standards of living for everybody? The first choice inspires the movements in the rich countries; the second one those in poor countries.
Matthew Hilton begins by tracing the history of the consumer movement in the West. The first groups appeared in the United States in the 1950s, as the Consumers Union, led by Colston E. Warne, whose politics was centered on the consumer defense through independent testing of goods (hence the abundance of magazines such as Consumer Reports in USA, Which? in the UK, Que Choisir in France, Test in Germany). The success of comparative testing is related to fears surrounding the new affluence of a middle class that has just discovered "luxury" goods like cars, domestic appliances and branded goods. A new world was born, different from the previous one, and this created satisfaction together with anxiety: "affluence was to be controlled" (p. 23). All this quickly moved to Europe - with the Marshall Plan, productivity missions, etc. - so that the "American way of life" and worries about its consequences expanded at the same time.
In the Cold War period the governments tried to reassure consumers and to guarantee a market of reliable goods, in view of the rapid economic growth. Laws for the protection of consumers appeared throughout the West, in Eastern Europe (here exemplified by the case of Poland), and in Japan. The "interests" of the consumer became more and more a political question.
Things unquestionably changed in the less-developed countries. Take the case of Malaysia, a country that experienced an intense economic development that brought benefits and costs. Here consumer movement developed precociously, because poor people came across many problems from the perspective of consumers: product safety, high costs, scarce regulation, and invasion of foreign brands. In areas where most people still live in great poverty, exclusion is social and economic at the same time. As Matthew Hilton writes, the implicit meaning of the famous kitchen debate of Kruschev and Nixon becomes apparent in Penang: "the politics of consumer society was as much about who participated and who did not, as it was about defending the rights of those already within it" (p. 79).
In the years after the great expansion of the NGOs, all this brought developments such as the affirmation of "Asian values" in Malaysia and Singapore. The Western liberal model of rights was considered unsuitable to the Asian tradition, which was founded more on community and leadership than on individualism and pluralism. Hence the attempt to create an alternative to that model of development and the appearance, here and in other countries, of anti-Western resentment.
An important part of the book analyzes the complex evolution of the main consumer organization, the International Organization of Consumers Union (IOCU), later Consumers International, currently present in 115 countries and ranking fourteenth among the most influential NGOs on intergovernmental associations. IOCU's policy was characterized by a practical issue-based approach, growing links with the UN, and successful networking in the 1980s (with pros and cons, since informality and media effects prompted a low political influence with respect to traditional formal organizations). But finally the strong reaction of organized business against consumer movements, alongside a growing political Neoconservatism, put an end to this expansion.
In the last chapter we land in the realm of multinational capitalism and the global marketplace that clearly exposed the contrast between the rich North, in favor of free trade, and the poor South, in favor of government controls on great multinationals and forms of protectionism for domestic traditional economies. Under the generic label of "anti-globalization movement", we find the request for controls on international trade so that its benefits are more fairly distributed among the different areas of the world.
In this compelling history, Matthew Hilton draws portraits of some of the most influential leaders of the consumer movement, like the icon Ralph Nader and Anwar Fazal, IOCU's President from 1978 to 1984, who contributed to the exposure of the problems of developing countries within the organization.
This is an important book about central and still undervalued aspects of our society. It is the result of a vast and global study and shows an unusual ability to identify the great problems underlying the historical narrative. Its transnational perspective recreates not only an effective picture, but heuristically stimulates new questions and reflections. After all, as the author notes, the lacerations of the consumer movement are an accurate mirror of our own ambivalence toward consumption and globalization.
University of Milan
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