Friday, March 18, 2016

Production or Consumption: Which Comes First?

Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Jan de Vries says that this book “is a study in economic history,” one that addresses “consumer aspirations rather than productive activities,” and that focuses “on the household unit rather than the individual” (ix). He asserts that in the history of consumer behavior, demand does not simply follow supply. Instead, demand interacts with supply. A second part of his argument is that consumer demand is represented not by the tastes of individuals, but rather by the desires of family units. Consumer demand that stems from households, and a willingness to work more in order to meet that demand, is what de Vries means by the term industrious revolution (ix-x).

Most of the book deals with “northwestern Europe: England, the Low Countries, and parts of France and Germany” and also British North America during the so-called long eighteenth century, 1650-1850 (x). In short, de Vries says that the industrious revolution both preceded and helped to generate the industrial revolution. Along the way, he provides some answers to a few basic questions about the history of consumption. For example, is consumption guided more by consumer agency, or by structural and institutional forces like manufacturers, merchants, and cultural traditions? The author notes that most theorists have operated on the premise that supply precedes demand. He argues, by contrast, that the relationship between supply and demand is much more interactive. His thesis illustrates the idea of reciprocity:
[M]y historical claim is that northwestern Europe and British North America experienced an “industrious revolution” during the long eighteenth century, roughly 1650-1850, in which a growing number of households acted to reallocate their productive resources (which are chiefly the time of their members) in ways that increased both the supply of market-oriented, money-earning activities and the demand for goods offered in the marketplace (10).
Naturally, a simultaneous increase in both demand and supply, one that moves a society from poverty to relative prosperity, assumes a coordinated and increasingly-efficient system of labor and consumption. According to de Vries, that is exactly what happened in “significant parts of western Europe (and colonial North America)” over “the course of the long eighteenth century" (72).

I thoroughly enjoyed learning what I did from this book. Among other things, The Industrious Revolution corroborated and added to some things I have gained from a couple of my other recent books. In Chapter 3, a subsection titled “The Working Year” compares medieval and early modern Europe to what at least some parts of Europe became with the rise of the Protestant Reformation. Effectively, almost all of the many holy days were deleted from the annual cycle. As de Vries points out, the Reformation permitted people to work, at least, about 20% more each year (87-92). This part resonates with Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton, 2013), in which the author describes the effect that the Reformation had on the cult of the saints. The significant increase in available working days that came with the Reformation makes me wonder: which came first, assent to Protestant teachings, or a desire for more work for the sake of more consumption?

Also in Chapter 3, under “Agricultural Specialization,” de Vries notes that American historians have sometimes imagined that there were, at one time, many Jeffersonian, landed, and self-sufficient gentlemen. Afterward, beginning sometime around 1830, a Jacksonian market revolution changed everything in America. But the fact is, says de Vries, in the Jeffersonian period Americans were feverishly trading the natural resources of North America for consumer goods from abroad, especially England. In other words, long before the Jacksonian Era, Americans were neck-deep in the trans-Atlantic market (95-96). This observation completely matches the evidence presented by Kariann Yokota in her book, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation (Yale, 2011).

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