Tuesday, January 27, 2015

More on the "Consumer Revolution"

I have noted before (and here and here) the neglect of the role of demand in more recent historical accounts of the Industrial Revolution. The typical view used to emphasize demand, like in Landes' Unbound Prometheus, but more recent accounts like Allen or Mokyr emphasize technological change and supply side forces.

Thankfully, there is a whole new literature that puts an emphasis on the so-called Consumer Revolution, in particular the work of Maxine Berg. T. H. Breen in The Marketplace of Revolution goes further and suggests that the economic reasons behind the American Revolution were also associated to the transformation in consumer culture. In his words:
"What gave the American Revolution distinctive shape was an earlier transformation of the Anglo-American consumer marketplace. This event, which some historians have called a 'consumer revolution,' commenced sometime during the middle of the eighteenth century, and as modestly wealthy families acquired ever larger quantities of British manufactures— for the most part everyday goods that made life warmer, more comfortable, more sanitary, or perhaps simply more enjoyable—the face of material culture changed dramatically. Suddenly, buyers voiced concerns about color and texture, about fashion and etiquette, and about making the right choices from among an expanding number of possibilities."
In this view, the demand for new goods (and not so new too), tea, coffee, tobacco, chocolate, china, calicos, silks, etc. was central for the technological revolution of the 18th century. What Breen seems to suggest is that the same Consumer Revolution that was taking place in England was taking place in America, and that the subordinated role in the colonial pact, and the trade restrictions imposed by the many Parliamentary Acts, are at the heart of the movement for independence. In other words, not only demand might be relevant to explain economic growth, but economic growth might be central for political developments.

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