Book review: Empire of Things: How We Became A World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-first

Consumerism isn’t just about buying goods and services. It has come to define the way we shape our identities and how we interact socially every day, as JP O’Malley discovers in a supersized tome that traces its history.

Frank Trentmann

Allen Lane, €38

KARL MARX, writing in the mid 19th century, famously argued that the history of mankind, predominately, has been one of class struggle.

Too often, Marx’s ideas have been misunderstood, whittled down to soundbites, or not read at all. 

Fanatic communist dictators, like Lenin, and Mao, subsumed Marxism into their own propaganda to instal blood-thirsty totalitarian regimes.

What’s often forgotten, however, is that Marx studied, with great analysis, how — with modernity beckoning in the distance — human behaviour drastically altered with the rise of global industrial capitalism in the west.

Sporadically, this began to develop in the 14th century, in pockets of the Mediterranean. And it increased significantly from the 16th century onwards: when the British and Dutch began trading goods, and capital, to a level unmatched in history hitherto.

The production, and more importantly, the consumption of goods, from this moment onwards, dramatically changed how societies organised themselves: especially when it came to attitudes regarding the working day.

In his magnum opus, Das Kapital, Marx joined the dots between poverty and consumption together. 

Explaining how the “connection between the pangs of hunger of the working class, and the extravagant consumption of the rich, for which capitalist accumulation is the basis, reveals itself only when the economic laws are known.” 

Like many radical thinkers, Marx was not without flaws.

He believed history followed a strict scientific logic, where the all-powerful Leviathan would eventually wither away, and the end result would be egalitarian world socialism.

Utopian thinking was not uncommon in the 19th century. And Marx really did believe humanity could be a paradise. A daft and naïve concept perhaps.

Still, it would be foolish to underestimate Marx’s towering intellect and contribution to human knowledge. Even his greatest opponents lavished him with praise.

Why, you may ask, bother painting such a detailed and nuanced portrait of Karl Marx, when critiquing Frank Trentmann’s latest book, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-first?

Well, firstly, because it’s important to understand the fundamental principals of capitalism itself, if one is to discuss consumption in any great detail: as both subjects clearly go hand in glove.

And also because Marx’s name crops up quite a bit in the narrative. Mostly for the wrong reasons though. More of that in a moment.

Coming in at just under 700 pages, Trentmann’s book is enormous in scope and aims to follow the entire life cycle of consumption through its numerous stages.

So, we travel to Renaissance Italy, Ming China, Victorian Britain, ending up in the apotheosis of the consumer and neoliberal paradise: the United States in the 21st century.

As Trentmann reminds us — without irony, or much concern for that matter — three-year-olds can now recognise McDonald’s famous yellow arches before they can recall their own surname.

If consumption was once what the classical economist Adam Smith referred to back in the 18th century in his book, The Wealth of Nations, as the sole end and purpose of all production; today, in the west at least, it appears to be the sole end of being.

Consumerism, Trentmann continually reminds the reader here, is about far more than simply the purchasing of goods and services. 

It has come to define the way we shape our identities, and, how we interact socially on a day-to-day basis too.

Any day I walk through the alienating corridors of the tube stations in central London, I’m continually reminded of this fact. You don’t tend to look, or interact, with people. 

Instead, you fixate on the inescapable conveyor belt of advertisements on billboards: which offer you a vast array of dreams and fantasies, promising you the opportunity to escape your own mundane existence.

Even if one doesn’t agree with much of Trentmann’s thesis — and I certainly don’t — the historian must be given credit for the way he arranges the material here.

Especially given the sheer volume of information.

A book like this has the potential to be boring, dull, and full of academic snobbery. But it isn’t.

And, Empire of Things is written with the kind of colour, verve, and strength of storytelling required, for the reader to stay committed till the very end of the book.

The narrative gets all the technical aspects pretty much spot on, but elsewhere, problems arise.

For starters,Trentmann underestimates the readers’ intelligence.

And his crafty approach to history is a bit like the way spin doctors in the glorious days of New Labour behaved: all style, no substance, and always attempting to push a sneaky set of ideas through a glamorous mythology.

Trentmann claims, for instance, throughout the book, that he is essentially ideologically neutral.

All he wants to do, he insists, is to give us a realistic historical picture of consumerism as he goes.

For far too often, Trentmann posits, the subject of consumerism has been written about from deep within the trenches of academia. 

Here — in his view at least — the topic has been drawn down stark ideological battle lines. 

There’s the Marxists on one side: explaining that consumerism has corrupted our notion of the self.

These tree-hugging-moralistic-ideologues point fingers at corporations and advertisers: claiming they manipulate people’s individual needs.

Then there is the neoliberals on the other side. 

These profit obsessed robots tell us that all matters pertaining to the market is about choice and individuality.

Well, according to Trentmann, such a division of ideas is extremely unhelpful when writing a book about the history of consumerism.

“This book does not set out to adjudicate a moral debate, let alone decide whether consumption is good or bad,” the historian writes in the introduction.

Paradoxically, though, the book turns into being just that: full of the kind of bias, and spiky cynicism, the author claims he wants to avoid.

Moreover, Trentmann’s inability to admit to an agenda — when he clearly has one — is intellectually dishonest. 

It’s blindingly obvious, after a while, where Trentmann’s soft spots lie. 

Namely: British imperialism; a penchant for the market driven politics of Tony Blair; the corporatisation of culture; the interior of 19th century French bourgeois properties; the depressing and inane culture of middle-class politeness, as well as the triumph of neo-liberal values.

Trentmann’s fetisization of these subjects is particularly galling; as is his sinister method of glossing over historical details: especially when writing about intellectuals of a Marxist persuasion: such as Eric Fromm, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, whose ideas he treats with disdain.

Then there is Trentmann’s shoddy analysis of Marx himself.

Describing Marx’s critique of consumerism, for instance, Trentmann argues that Marx, by converting objects into abstract commodities, “essentially wrote consumption out of the story.” 

In reality, however, Marx was critical of capitalism — a system, it must be stressed, whose sole purpose is to produce more goods, where the end goal is simply to accumulate more and more capital — because he understood that, historically, it has always been exploitative. 

And, that it alienates human beings by preventing them from engaging in creative labour, because they become perpetual slaves to those with the power, and capital, to produce more goods.

Trentmann fails to admit that the process of consumption — within the parameters of capitalism as we presently experience it — is, for the most part, one section of society, the poor, producing goods for another section of society, the rich, to consume.

This is just as true today, as it was in Marx’s time in the mid 19th century. However, the ruling classes have now become experts at hiding the workers who produce these goods from the public eye: in the west at least.

Just ask yourself where your laptop was made? 

Or indeed any of the clothes you are wearing. Unless you can afford to be a shopper with a huge ethical conscience — I certainly cannot — it’s most likely they were made in a factory in the global south, under horrendous working conditions: as bad as anything in Victorian Britain.

It’s just you don’t have to see or hear about the people who make the goods you consume now, because, well, they are thousands of miles away.

Refusing to discuss, in any great detail, the ethical implications of living in a society that is essentially one giant vortex of transactions, ensures massive gaps begin to form in Trentmann’s argument.

Trentmann attempts to convince the reader that we’ve been living in an age of consumption, anyway, for more than 500 years. 

And, that whether we like it or not, “we need to face up to the considerable power and resilience that consumer culture has demonstrated.” 

The sheer scope and ambition of Trentmann’s narrative ensures that anyone who takes the time to read this mammoth undertaking of research certainly won’t come away feeling bored.

However, right-leaning historians like Trentmann, Niall Ferguson, Jesse Norman, and others, who write books aimed to prop up the neo-liberal agenda — masquerading as impartial history — ought to have the decency to state their thesis from the outset: which is to defend the status quo, side with the establishment, and reinforce, at all costs, the power that capitalism strangles over most layers of society.


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