Gestation of consumer culture

Behind the scenes, I’ve been working on a series of posts that I fear I most likely will never publish. I have a lot of those. 300 or so at last count. I worry I’ll bore you to tears or get snarky emails whining “this has nothing to do with fashion”. I’m utterly fascinated by the history of manufacturing, its gestation. How we got here, where we’re going. I have this idea that there’s got to be some kind of golden age in apparel manufacturing, that if we could just find it, we could return to it. Or better, rediscover the elements of what made us successful in the past, reinventing for a new era of consumer culture. I don’t know what to call the series, another reason I haven’t published it. Yesterday’s entry from the Wall Street Journal, The Myth of Deindustrialization, almost pushed me over the edge. Today’s riveting review of a book entitled A Farewell to Alms from the NYT did. 

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, believes that the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues.Because they grew more common in the centuries before 1800, whether by cultural transmission or evolutionary adaptation, the English population at last became productive enough to escape from poverty, followed quickly by other countries with the same long agrarian past.


Copying copiously, I’m asking for trouble:

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upperclasses of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

The Industrial Revolution, the first escape from the Malthusian trap,occurred when the efficiency of production at last accelerated, growing fast enough to outpace population growth and allow average incomes to rise.

One thing he says, raises a red flag:

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes.

It seems to me we are increasingly gravitating towards that again. Are we coming full circle? Does this incrementally mark the downward progression of culture?

While Dr. Clark’s thesis is not without controversy, it explains in part why I think it is fabulous that the well to do are having three and four children. Fertility is a health issue, the wealthy can afford better care, then there’s mate selection. Wealthy men have more choices; as the Survival of the Prettiest claims, health factors are often judged as “beauty”.  Does Dr Clark’s theory explain why over time, the population is getting better looking? They are you know. While ugly people abound, people are prettier than ever before. Prettiness is almost commonplace in the young.

The book is called A Farewell to Alms.

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6 comments

  1. vespabelle says:

    I read the article this morning. It was especially interesting to me since my husband and daughter and I have been rewatching the Connections series (with James Burke and his oh so cool tan denim pants suit!) If you haven’t watched this series in a while, I highly recommend rewatching it. Even though the show is almost 30 years old, a lot of what he talks about is still incredibly relevant to our totally manufactured world today.

  2. Mary Beth says:

    If retirement savings is a hall mark of a culture engaged in successful industrial behaviors than this might be good news: Retirement Assets Reach Record $16.4 Trillion, Now Account for About 40 Percent of Household Financial Assets (http://www.ici.org/home/07_news_retire_rpt.html#TopOfPage) which goes on to say:
    “The nation’s retirement nest eggs reached a record $16.4 trillion in 2006, an 11 percent increase over the prior year and a 55 percent increase since 2002….”

  3. Kathleen says:

    I prodded vespa for more details on the show because I hadn’t heard of it. There’s a wiki entry on it. She says they’ve been getting the dvds of the show from their local library. It looks very interesting. I’m so out of the loop…

  4. Jennifer says:

    I used to watch Connections are kid all the time, that and nova, scientific america and voyage of the Mimi with a very young Ben Affleck. Jame Burke the host of Connections has gone to write several book including connections which is available at amazon
    http://www.amazon.com/Connections-James-Burke/dp/0316116726

    Some of the other books he has written are:

    The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made Carburetor Possible – and Other Journeys

    The Knowledge Web : From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back — And Other Journeys Through Knowledge

    The Day the Universe Changed: How Galileo’s Telescope Changed The Truth and Other Events in History That Dramatically Altered Our Understanding of the World

  5. Kevin Carson says:

    From the reviews I’ve seen, Clark seems to have gone too far in emphasizing demographic or evolutionary changes as an explanation for thrift and the Protestant work ethic. One big factor, according to a lot of radical historians, is that these values were actually imposed from above: the peasantry was forced off the land via Enclosures and other state nullification of traditional land titles; at the same time, the owning classes declared war on all the feast days in the old Catholic calendar. The tail end of the process was the rise of the factory system, with the imposition of the factory schedule wiping out the last vestiges of “St. Monday.” The overall theme behind all of this: the owning classes decided that the laboring classes weren’t working hard enough, and the only way to make them work hard enough to feed the rentiers was to deprive them of independent access to the means of production and subsistence.

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