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The Consumer Society

Overview Essay
by Frank Ackerman

When did the consumer society begin, and why? Turn the clock back just a few centuries, and our ancestors, of whatever class and nation, displayed neither the attitudes toward consumption nor the behavior described in the previous sections of this book. But did they awaken gradually to the dawn of mass consumption, or were they roused abruptly in a "consumer revolution"?

The questions about the history of consumer society are so broad that it is necessary to begin by delineating what will not be included in the discussion. A basic distinction must be drawn between the existence of occasional luxuries or goods consumed for symbolic purposes on the one hand, and widespread, nonutilitarian consumption as a way of life on the other. Traces of luxury and symbolic consumption can be found throughout history; anthropological and archeological evidence suggests that such consumption is even older, perhaps as old as human material culture itself. [1] In contrast, consumer society -- in which ever-growing consumption becomes the principal aspiration, source of identity, and leisure activity for more and more of the population -- is a much newer construct.

Our question is not when consumption beyond subsistence first appeared, but when it took over. This distinction parallels the one made by Karl Polanyi between the quite ancient appearance of markets and the more recent domination of society by the market. [2} Since the rise of markets and of mass consumption are closely related, Polanyi's conclusion that the dominion of the market was finally established in England in the 1830s is potentially relevant to the history of consumerism.

Surviving Perceptions of the Past
Before the 1970s it was possible to complain that very little had been written about the history of consumption. The gap was filled, first by the massive works of

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