The rise and rise of the consumer society

The consumer society originated in the industrial revolution. Today, the presence of ordinary and conspicuous consumption is taken for granted. Like many other things today, the origins of this phenomenon lie in this peaceful revolution, which began in Great Britain.

Prior to the industrial revolution, there was no huge amount of clothes or sugar or other goods being mass produced. Most Europeans, in the centuries prior to the industrial revolution, were content with having one or two pieces of clothing and eating relatively simple meals consisting of minimal sugar.

In fact, one can easily measure the historical advancement of consumerism and the industrial revolution via tracking the amount of sugar consumed.

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As seen above, the sugar consumption shot way up between 1860 and 1900. This was the period when the US overtook Britain in becoming the premier industrial economy in the world.

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As seen above, the number of manufacturing workers more than doubled during the same time.

What was clear by the early twentieth century was that there needed to be a massive market which had to consume all the consumer goods being produced in the US, Europe and various colonies.

So, industrialists such as Henry Ford increased the wages of his workers so that they would have enough money to buy his cars plus the various other goods being produced by the economy.

What is also curious about what transpired over the last hundred years is that everyone, no matter in US or in Europe or Japan, wore the same clothes, drove cars, drank cola, ate a whole bunch of sugar and used similar electronic equipment. The only differentiator, it seems, exists via the curious phenomenon of “brands”, some of which are nation-specific. Many are global.

Today, in 2017, the consumer society is becoming the norm in even more countries of the world. China and India have emerged as not only major economies, but also massive markets for consumer goods. Everyone, in most consumer markets, today uses the same internet and smartphones, while wearing the latest fashion, which has a curious uniformity all over the world.

Moreover, the rise of social networks has connected more people than ever. It has given rise to the attention economy. Now, everyone has the potential to become a micro-celebrity and constantly fret over likes and shares. Also, the phenomenon of personal brands has become ubiquitous.

The interesting aspect of all this is that it has come about more or less via people trading and communicating in a self-organized manner. There has been little involvement of massive, bureaucratic, centralized authorities in bringing this about other than getting out of the way of the consumerism juggernaut. As the theory of self-organized criticality wisely observes, human economic activity has organized itself in a beautiful, organic fashion.