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Response to Review of Social Opulence and Private Restraint: the Consumer in British Socialist Thought Since 1800

The reviewer is to be congratulated for a very clear and lengthy exposition of some of the key themes of the volume; though more, I think, might have been made of the extraordinary richness of the political economy of the consumer and consumption to be found in British socialist political economy; so often seen as the poor relation (in terms of its theorising) of European socialism. More too might perhaps have been made of the contemporary relevance and resonance of the volume's central theme, that of social opulence: the notion, sustained through two centuries, that consumption, if it assumed a social form, could create an enriching and fulfilling 'social opulence'. This would entail investment in social infrastructure – health, education and welfare services – but also in society's built, recreational and cultural environment, in its social spaces, in fostering an informed civic engagement, in displaying and celebrating the richness of its cultural diversity and, critically, in cherishing the natural world.

Indeed it is this concept of social opulence which could be used to explicate and sell a Corbynomics which otherwise seems to lack a big idea or organising principle. For it allows public expenditure to be rendered as consumption, a social consumption, that adds to the pleasures and quality of life; that promotes social interaction, social cohesion and civic engagement and that values and invests in the natural world.

In addition, two points of criticism require a response. First, the reviewer states that 'in Social Opulence and Private Restraint, Thompson limits himself to several epochs in Britain's modern history'. Here I feel the perjorative 'limits' is rather unfair. I have structured the book in such a way as to periodise the 19th and 20th centuries but I don't think that in any way can be said to limit its historical sweep. Nor does the reviewer amplify this statement and explain what the limitations are and which historical epochs might have been overlooked.

Second, the reviewer suggests that 'a different analytical, radical socialist critique is dealt with in a quite underwhelming manner, for example the New Left's understanding of the consumer within a certain set of socialising relations. The axis of puritan/liberal, the extent to which the consumer is awarded their freedom in socialism when confronted with affluence, is the key social democratic concern here. The production of the consumer, the creation of the worker-consumer subject, is not particularly prominent'. There is also here the associated charge that there is an absence of recognition of 'the profoundly political economic aspect of Left thought, a deep take on the constitution of the economy and its bearers'. In fact the production of the worker-consumer is dealt with at a number of points in the volume but in particular in chapter two, 'Socialist political economy and the growth of mass consumption, 1880–1914', in the discussion of Morris and the Morrisian socialists and again, and at some length, in chapter five, 'Social democracy and the apotheosis of the consumer' where, with the New Left's post-Fordist socialism, the worker-consumer emerges as the mover and shaker of rapidly expanding niche markets. As to the earlier New Left: their critical position on consumption and the consumer is discussed at some length in chapter four, 'Conceptualizing the consumer in an age of affluence'. And as to their specific discussion of the 'worker-consumer subject', as the reviewer acknowledges, quoting the volume itself, that chapter deals both with capitalism's construction of the consumers it required, their 'dreams, fantasies and social pretensions', and their susceptibility as workers to such a construction; a susceptibility stemming in Stuart Hall's words, from their 'pattern of existence'. More might perhaps have been made of the consumer-worker but it is a theme which is not neglected in the volume as a whole.

The review ends in a spectacularly abrupt manner. ‘Thus Thompson observes at one point, “there have always been theorists and politicians on the Left, who, if by no means ascetics, have nonetheless leaned in the direction of austerity” (p. 184)'. Is there another 'point'? Or, to put it another way, what is the point of concluding with this particular 'point'. Now, as a fan of Dickens, and The Archers, I am all for narratives that leave readers and listeners in suspense. But this leaves them devoid of any prospect of a denouement. And here it is Conan Doyle, not Dickens, who comes to mind. For, as Holmes might have put it, there is 'the curious incident' of the conclusion. But there isn't a conclusion. Holmes: 'That is the curious incident'.