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Popular politics and liberal consumerism in England, 1830–70
Author: Peter Gurney

Nineteenth-century England witnessed the birth of capitalist consumerism. This book argues that liberal consumerism managed to steer a course between historical alternatives and helped defuse the heat generated by their clash. It shows how liberal consumerism helped maintain stability in a society that was on the brink of collapse but also what was lost in that victory for both consumers and citizens. The early to mid-Victorian period witnessed a most significant confrontation that pitted competing visions of consumption against one another. It considers the ways in which not only Chartists but also their antagonists in the Anti-Corn Law League, the vanguard of economic liberalism, made sense of hunger and mobilised around consumption. The book discusses the major scandals that rocked the New Poor Law through the late 1830s and 1840s, such as the scandal of the Andover workhouse in 1845, when rumours of cannibalism were widely circulated. An important theme that has been marginalised in recent work on the Chartist movement is the appeal of democratic discourse. The book argues for an intimate connection between popular radicalism and forms of consumer organising in the first half of the nineteenth century. While the early writings of Charles Dickens that brought immediate fame prioritised hunger and scarcity, the writer also revelled in the excesses of middle-class consumerism. The book reconnects the culture and politics of the League and the wider project of free trade, and considers how middle-class charitable initiatives tackled starvation leading to the development of the modern humanitarian campaign.

Mapping popular politics onto consumption
Peter Gurney

The field of nineteenth-century popular politics has attracted generations of historians, constituting the empirical terrain on which many important methodological and theoretical breakthroughs have been made. Cultural historians have taught us a great deal about middle-class consumption practices, focusing particularly on the impact of more spectacular forms like department stores, but they have tended not to pursue links between politics and consumption. This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book foregrounds particularly the contested and uneven development of the working-class consumer in England between the First and Second Reform Acts. It argues that popular liberalism depended for its success to a hitherto unacknowledged extent on what we might call liberal consumerism. The book concerns how middle- and working-class consumers were configured and mobilised by popular political movements during a crucial period of capitalist transition.

in Wanting and having
The politics of consumption in England during the ‘Hungry Forties’
Peter Gurney

This explores how consumption and consumer issues lay at the heart of popular politics during the early 1840s. It shows the ways in which Chartists and supporters of the Anti-Corn Law League made sense of hunger and consumption issues and how these organisations offered competing solutions to the problem of working-class underconsumption. Modern historians have rightly pointed out that the notion of the 'Hungry Forties' was a retrospective invention, coined by supporters of free trade who used it as part of their historical case against tariff reform. As scholars in different disciplines have demonstrated, the practice of cannibalism provided an important boundary line between savagery and civilisation, a boundary firmed up by the discoveries and writings of Victorian ethnographers and anthropologists. Mass immigration of the Irish into England put even more strain on relief agencies and shaped the contours of late Chartism in important ways.

in Wanting and having
Popular entitlement and the New Poor Law
Peter Gurney

This chapter explores the hypothesis that the New Poor Law aimed to produce consumers by looking at how ideas concerning the reform of popular consumption practices shaped the Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834. The issue of the workhouse dietary and the entitlement of dependent consumers came to a head in the middle of the decade, when the gruesome story of the workhouse at Andover in Hampshire became a national scandal. A letter entitled 'The Andover Cannibalism' drew on tales of shipwreck and cannibalism at sea, which enjoyed wide popularity in order to produce a more historical and rather less sensationalist explanation of events. The chapter argues that although workhouse scandals may have done something to protect the entitlement of poor consumers in the short term, their most important effect was to help forge a middle-class humanitarianism.

in Wanting and having
Democratic discourse and the Chartist challenge
Peter Gurney

This chapter explores the way in which democratic ideas were imbricated in Chartist culture, informing its solidaristic rituals as much as the practice of self-government. It discusses the discursive shift inspired by democratic and revolutionary movements on mainland Europe when George Julian Harney attempted to reinvigorate Chartism following a period of defeat and state repression by adopting a continental language of 'social democracy'. The chapter considers the linguistic and institutional splitting that gathered pace after the climacteric of 1848. Discourses of democracy were deeply embedded in the culture of the Chartist movement, in its ritual and symbolism, about which recent scholarship has taught us much. The alienation of liberal middle-class opinion heightened as democracy became tied more securely to a developing 'working-class' identity. The emphasis in the recent historiography on the essentially 'constitutional' nature of Chartism has led to serious misunderstanding of the Chartist challenge.

in Wanting and having
Popular radicalism and consumer organising
Peter Gurney

This chapter argues for an intimate connection between popular radicalism and forms of consumer organising in the first half of the nineteenth century. It considers exclusive dealing and early co-operative stores as Chartist responses to the specific experiences of working people as hard-pressed consumers. The chapter shows how Chartists took up the weapons of political shopping and shopkeeping because they were exploited as consumers as well as producers. James Leach argued that a reconfiguration of politics and economics was necessary in order to protect the poor consumer. Evidence of the Chartist response to the uncoupling of politics and economics can be seen in relation to the 'Chartist Co-operative Land Company'. According to the editor of the Northern Star, repeal of the Corn Laws and the victory of free trade in 1846 served to emphasise the fact that politics and economics were increasingly becoming separate domains.

in Wanting and having
Dickens on working-class scarcity and middle-class excess
Peter Gurney

This chapter explores the shift from the politics of necessity to the politics of affluence in Charles Dickens's early work. It considers Dickens's intervention in the debate on hunger in the late 1830s, when Chadwick and others argued over whether it was still possible to starve to death in England. The serialisation of Oliver Twist in Bentley's Miscellany from early 1837 and the publication of the novel in three volumes the year after consolidated Dickens's reputation as one of the most popular authors of his generation. From the mid-1840s, Dickens embraced the free trade utopia as a solution to working-class scarcity, initially with a passion of which John Bright would have approved. Middle-class reviewers often criticised him for supposedly caricaturing the rich, while Reynolds's Newspaper branded him a hypocrite nearly a decade after Dombey and Son appeared, reckoning that he 'struck "twelve o'clock all at once"' with his early success.

in Wanting and having
The religion of free trade and the making of modern consumerism
Peter Gurney

This chapter chiefly considers a vital and largely overlooked moment in a long evolution, a specific iteration of modern consumerism. It attempts to bridge the historiographical divide by reconnecting the culture and politics of the Anti-Corn Law League and the wider project of free trade. The chapter explores the ways in which the bazaar pulled together commerce and politics. It also considers the central role played by middle-class women and suggests why their participation was thought vital. The chapter discusses contradictory attitudes towards consumption and continuing fears provoked by the commercialisation of politics. It suggests that the culture of the League, embodied in the bazaar of 1845, helped to prepare the ground for the emergence, or rather invention, of the modern consumer in Victorian England. The Great Exhibition undoubtedly did a great deal to further popularise both ideas of free trade as well as the concept of the consumer.

in Wanting and having
The consumer politics of popular liberalism
Peter Gurney

In short, a particular politics of consumption, a liberal consumerism, underpinned popular liberalism, and this chapter explores this theme in detail by focusing on the Lancashire 'Cotton Famine' of the early 1860s. The chapter considers how middle-class charitable initiatives stepped in to meet this emergency in order to prop up the social norm of consumption of working-class consumers. It argues that the crisis was also fundamental to the development of the modern humanitarian campaign. Many middle-class commentators warned that such behaviour would lead many of those who sympathised with the plight of cotton operatives to recoil: recipients of relief were required to be consistently passive and grateful. The metropolitan bourgeois press asked what right had working-class consumers to revolt when they were not actually starving and blamed Joseph Rayner Stephens and the Irish for the unrest.

in Wanting and having
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The Age of Veneer': the limits of liberal consumerism
Peter Gurney

This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book shows how contests over who could speak for the consumer lay at the heart of popular politics in early- to mid-Victorian England. The continuing reality of consumer exploitation exposed the limits of liberal consumerism most visibly. The limitations of liberal consumerism were therefore apparent even when it was in the ascendant. If the persistence of truck and adulteration and the spreading reach of advertising posed serious questions about the meaning of liberal consumerism for radical and other critics, dogmatic free traders had their own complaints. For ideologues like Richard Cobden, repeal of the Corn Laws represented only a very partial remedy for the many fetters that he believed bound consumption and trade.

in Wanting and having