John Brewer’s recent review of T.H. Breen’s book about consumerism and early America has helped crystallize for me some thoughts I had about it when I read it a few months ago and suspected it was slightly bogus. Breen wants to import Lizbeth Cohen’s correct assertion that a consensus for increased democracy in the marketplace emerged in the 1950s (which, incidentally, sidelined questions people might have had about decreased democracy in the voting booth — the loss of meaningful choice there as well as a civic sphere of action) to the 1770s. Consumerism according to Breen made colonial Americans politically conscious in way that allowed them to transcend geographic and religious differences and unite under the banner of shared experiences (shopping for imported goods), shared language (that of the commodity), and shared desires (for more unfettered, untaxed access to those commodities, and more of them).
The only problem with this thesis is, as Brewer points out, that the opposite seems to have been true — colonial Americans rejected consumerism in favor of moral restraint (the luxury debate of the era) and economic self-sufficiency (mercantilism still reigned, and The Wealth of Nations had yet to be published). Brewer sees this as a classic example of themischief that comes from anachronistically applying terminology to a historical period. It’s impossible to understand aperiod without understanding the debates that animated them and the language these debates lent to the society to stabilize its meanings. Thus I’ll start with A.O. Hirschman’s The Passion and the Interests, which offers the original arguments for capitalism in the terms that seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers tried to understand it.