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THE DEATH OF A CONSUMER SOCIETY

  • Matthew Hilton

Abstract

This paper argues that the meaning of consumer society has changed over the last half century, principally through the prioritisation of choice over access. It does this through an examination of the global consumer movement and a consideration of its successes and failures. It demonstrates that through the movement's own tactics, and the defeats it suffered by opponents of regulation, its earlier emphasis on the right of consumers to enjoy basic needs has given way to a greater focus on choice. Consequently, the changing fortunes of consumer activism around the world both reflect and explain the reorientation of global consumer society over the last few decades.

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20 Trumbull, Consumer Capitalism, 8–9.

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32 What follows is a summary of my work on Malaysia. Further details can be found in Hilton, Matthew, ‘Social Activism in an Age of Consumption: The Organised Consumer Movement’, Social History, 32 (2007), 121–43, and ‘The Consumer Movement and Civil Society in Malaysia’, International Review of Social History, 52 (2007), 373–406.

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37 IOCU Archive, Box 61a, File G5a.32, Anwar Fazal, ‘Brave and Angry: The International Consumer Movement's Response to MNCs’, paper presented to ASEAN Consumer Protection Seminar, 1–4 Oct. 1980, Quezon City, Philippines, 8.

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39 IOCU, Report for 1975–1978, 32–43; IOCU, Annual Report, 1979, 21–36; IOCU, Report for 1972–1974, 28–30, 40–5; IOCU, Biennial Report, 1970–1972, 27.

40 Harland, David, ‘The United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection’, Journal of Consumer Policy, 10 (1987), 245–66; Esther Peterson and Jean M. Halloran, ‘United Nations Consumer Protections’, in Brobeck et al., Encyclopaedia of the Consumer Movement, 581–3.

41 Quoted in Swagler, R., ‘Evolution and Applications of the Term Consumerism: Themes and Variations’, Journal of Consumer Affairs, 28 (1994), 350. For other definitions see the Oxford English Dictionary; Consumerism: Search for the Consumer Interest, ed. D. A. Aaker and G. S. Day, 3rd edn (Basingstoke, 1978), 2; Y. Gabriel and T. Lang, The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and its Fragmentation (1995), 7–9.

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44 Interview with Anwar Fazal, 13 Apr. 2004.

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48 Schlesinger Library, Harvard University, Esther Peterson Papers, Box 89, Folder 1746: Cohen and Tremaine, Consumer Agency History, 66; Vogel, David, Kindred Strangers: The Uneasy Relationship between Politics and Business in America (Princeton, NJ, 1996); Wilson, Graham, ‘American Business and Politics’, in Interest Group Politics, ed. Cigler, Allan J. and Loomis, Burdett A. (Washington, DC, 1986), 221–35; Ackard, Patrick J., ‘Corporate Mobilisation and Political Power: The Transformation of US Economic Policy in the 1970s’, American Sociological Review, 57 (1992), 597615; Clawson, Dan and Clawson, Mary Ann, ‘Reagan or Business? Foundations of the New Conservatism’, in The Structure of Power in America: The Corporate Elite as a Ruling Class, ed. Schwartz, Michael (New York, 1987), 201–17.

49 Richard Berryman and Richard Schifter, ‘A Global Straitjacket’, Regulation, Sept./Oct. 1981, 19–28; Kenneth L. Adelman, ‘Biting the Hand that Cures Them’, Regulation, July/Aug. 1982, 16–18.

50 Adelman, ‘Biting’, 18; Harry Schwartz, ‘The UN System's War on the Drug Industry’, Regulation, July/Aug. 1982, 19–24.

51 Edwards, Lee, The Power of Ideas: The Heritage Foundation at 25 Years (Ottowa, 1997), 77.

52 Pines, Burton Yale, ‘Introduction’, in A World without a U.N.: What would Happen If the U.N. Shut Down, ed. Pines, Burton Yale (Washington, DC, 1984), x.

53 Brooks, Roger A., Multinationals: First Victim of the UN War on Free Enterprise (Washington, DC, 1982), 13; Anon., ‘Heritage Foundation Slams “Extremist” Consumer Organisations’, Multinational Monitor, 4 (Jan. 1983), 8.

54 Brooks, Multinationals, 19.

55 Ibid., 21.

56 Ibid., 23.

57 Ibid., 24.

58 IOCU Archive, Box 102, File H88.6, telex from US State Department to US Embassies, 26 Mar. 1991.

59 IOCU Archive, Box ‘Council Meetings, 1996–2003’, File CM47/3(v), Global Policy and Campaigns Unit, ‘Summary Progress Report, November 1995–September 1996’.

60 Horowitz, Daniel, The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939–1979 (Amherst, MA, 2004).

61 John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (1958; Penguin edn, 1999), 188.

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