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How's the Recession Affecting Consumers? An Interview with Historian Lawrence Glickman

Lawrence Glickman is professor of history at the University of South Carolina. His books include A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (1997) and Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (1999). He recently co-edited (with James W. Cook and Michael O’Malley) The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present and Future, and, in July his new book, Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America will be published by the University of Chicago Press.

Many consumers are exercising more restraint now than they ever have, and not just ones who have either lost their jobs or are in danger of doing so. Some pundits are speculating that the change will be lasting. Have consumers in past recessions pulled back? If so, did they return to previous levels of spending once good times returned?

Throughout the twentieth century, commentators have predicted or encouraged a Return of Thrift (the title of a 1996 book by Philip Longman). Time after time, however, restraint has lost the battle against pent-up demand following recessions and depressions. A major exception was World War II during which restraint was mandated by government policy, and strongly abetted by consumer activists, who were among the biggest advocates of rationing and the policies of the Office of Price Administration (OPA). After the war ended, America went on a massive and extended buying binge.

Historians are better at analyzing the past than predicting the future, but I think it's safe to say that history provides little solace for those who hope that lasting restraint will emerge from the current recession. At the same time, so much wealth has been lost in the last two years (especially in real estate and equities) that it may, in fact, take some time before spending reaches the levels of the early years of this decade. Finally, I would emphasize that a large number of consumer activists have over the ages warned of the dangers of excessive thrift. Buying into Keynes's "Paradox of Thrift," they have, for the most part, highlighted the dangers for the macroeconomy of the collective withdrawal of spending. Indeed, they promulgated the "underconsumptionist" thesis since the late nineteenth century-the belief that ramping up purchasing rather than tightening the nation's collective belt was the best means of ending recessions--an idea that became widely accepted during and after the Great Depression.

You have just completed a book on the history of American consumer activism. How have periods of economic contraction affected consumer activism?

Throughout US history economic downturns have set off waves of consumer activism. The most intense decade of consumer activism in the United States occurred in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. In that period, and in other periods of recession, consumer activists have tended to encourage not thrift or nonconsumption but instead what they call "ethical consumerism." Ethical consumerists find fault not with consumption per se but with immoral consumption, that is, with the (often unintended) negative consequences of shopping, such as rewarding predatory businesses.

The upsurge in politicized consumption during times of economic contraction, which at first might seem counterintuitive (after all, during such periods Americans have fewer resources to put toward shopping), makes sense when we realize that during such times people are far more aware of the power of their dollar. During the 1930s, for example, new consumer organizations formed, such as the League of Women Shoppers--whose slogan, "Use Your Buying Power for Justice," provided the inspiration for my title--and Consumers Union, and popular boycotts dotted the political landscape, ranging from local "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" efforts to global boycotts of fascist Japan and Germany.

Your book treats consumer activists from the Boston Tea Party in the 1770s to contemporary "fair trade" proponents. These groups arose in very different political and economic contexts. What connections do you find among these groups?

Despite the diversity of causes that they have supported and despite their ethnic, racial, and gender diversity, consumer activists have, for more than two centuries, largely shared a view of consumers as a source of economic and political power and also as a source of responsibility for the rippling consequences of their purchases. Over the course of American history, consumer activists have believed that organized consumption or non-consumption could sustain (or, conversely, weaken) not just a product but a cause, a people, even a nation.

As I argue in my new book, by buying or refusing to buy such diverse products and services as British tea, slave-made goods, holidays at Northern resorts, union-label cigars, Jim Crow streetcars, Japanese silk, table grapes, and Nike sneakers, collectivities of consumers have sought not merely to make their preferences known but also to help or to harm materially the producers and sellers of these goods and services. In other words, they have used market forces to effect social, cultural, political, and economic change.

What was your approach in Buying Power?

My approach in Buying Power is distinctive on two fronts: first, I treat consumer activism not as a periodic practice arising every now and then since the 1760s but instead as a longstanding and continuous American political tradition; secondly, in Buying Power I rethink American history through the lens of consumer activism.

More specifically my new book explores significant moments in the tradition of consumer activism, from the Revolutionary era to the present, paying particular attention to continuities and transformations within consumer activism. One chapter, for example, examines how the coining of the term "boycott" in 1880 transformed a more-than-century-old practice that went by many names, including nonimportation, nonconsumption, free produce, non-intercourse, excommunication, and ostracism. Boycotters, I argue, used the cash and the print nexus to link and globalize seemingly local struggles. In the 1880s three different newspapers called The Boycotter were founded, each of which printed lists of boycotts and published letters from distant supporters to highlight the imagined community of solidarity. Regular newspapers and magazines also served to "nationalize" discrete boycotts, making them each seem components of a national movement.

Taking the story of the consumer movement to serve as a sort of proxy for the story of liberalism in America, the final chapter of Buying Power shows the ways in which the attack on the consumer movement of the 1960s and 1970s prefigured a new kind of conservative populism characterized by antiliberalism rather than antisocialism, which had been the key register for critics of the consumer movement for the first half of the twentieth century.

What were your principles for divvying up different eras of consumer activism?

My interest in consumer activism was first piqued by relatively recent boycotting practices, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the United Farm Workers Grape boycott and, being a historian, I sought to find antecedents for these practices in the past. Of particular interest to me was the nineteenth century, not only because I'd written a book-A Living Wage- that focused on the last third of the 1800s but also because the nineteenth century is a period that has been relatively neglected by scholars of consumer politics, who have paid closer attention, on one side, to the Revolutionary seeds of consumer politics and, on the other, to its twentieth-century maturation. My intuition was that something critical was going on in between these two eras and I wanted to show how transformations in the tradition of consumer activism mattered to its genealogy and development.

While acknowledging the important seeds of consumer activism in the Revolutionary era, and demonstrating how the consumer activism of the 1760's and 1770's drew on prior "early modern" seeds -- such as bread riots and community ostracism-- my book makes the case that these seeds didn't take root until the nineteenth century, when the print and cash nexus made possible what I call "long distance solidarity," the essence of modern consumer activism.

Following these principles, I divide consumer activism into three eras. The first, covering the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, focuses on the origins and development of this political tradition, with a special emphasis on the emergence of the language and philosophy of long distance solidarity. The second includes the crucial period of the first half of the twentieth century, a time when the tradition of consumer activism was modified and sometimes challenged by the rise of the "consumer movement" and the claim that consumers were a bloc in need of expert assistance. The third encompasses the post-World War II years, when the consumer movement was popularized, and during which ongoing tensions with liberalism, many of them nascent in consumer activism's earlier manifestations, came to the fore.