As a ‘threshold decade’ in which the long-lasting post-war boom in western industrialized countries came to an end and massive social and cultural changes began to manifest themselves, the 1970s have come to be recognized over the last ten years as a major topic in contemporary history. As Sina Fabian emphasizes, particularly in German historiography, the 1970s have been interpreted primarily as a decade of severe crisis. Fabian aims to challenge this perception in her study with an explicit counter-narrative by focusing on consumer history, which was indeed characterized by a growth in individual prosperity and the expansion of mass consumption. Instead of conceptualizing the Federal Republic in the 1970s as a society ‘after the boom’, to use a phrase popularized by Anselm Doering-Manteuffel and Lutz Raphael in an influential book published in 2012, Fabian postulates a ‘boom in the crisis’. Fabian aims to examine consumer behaviour from a ‘bottom-up perspective’ in order to tell a veritable ‘everyday history’ of the alleged decade of crisis. By extending her period of investigation into the 1980s, she intends to develop a better grasp on longer-term societal changes. To achieve this goal, she compares changing patterns of consumption in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the United Kingdom. This comparison is guided by two central questions: firstly, she inquires whether and in what way the two oil price crises and the subsequent economic crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s changed consumer behaviour and consumption practices in both countries over the long term. Secondly, she asks whether changing consumer behaviour points to larger social change, namely, an increasing individualization, as was already being claimed in the 1980s. Fabian examines these questions by evaluating a very broad and heterogeneous body of source material that, in addition to statistical material and contemporary sociological studies, also includes diary records, leaflets, travel brochures, pop song lyrics and readers’ letters, to name but a few examples. The monograph is divided up into three major chapters. The first chapter examines the general development of consumption in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, Fabian outlines the growth of average personal incomes in the United Kingdom and the FRG, discusses the winners and losers of changing income distribution and analyses how overall consumption expenditure and the social distribution of consumer goods changed. The second main chapter is dedicated to the growing sector of travel and tourism. Fabian inquires about the concentration process in the tourism industry, individual travel activities and destinations, the motives for travelling and especially changing travel practices. It is only in the third major part of the book where Fabian finally examines motorization and private transport, that is to say, the effects of the oil price crises of 1973/74 and 1979/80 on the car itself, on buyer behaviour, on automobile usage and mobility patterns and on the social expansion of vehicle ownership. Fabian is able to prove empirically that the oil price crisis and the subsequent economic crisis had only a short-term impact on consumption patterns in general and on travel practices and private transportation in particular, a finding that applies to both Great Britain and the Federal Republic. Only in times of acute economic crisis, and moreover when there was a pronounced consciousness of crisis, did households cut back on spending, restrict their travel activities and purchase smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. These short periods of partially reduced consumption notwithstanding, the period under investigation as a whole, can indeed be characterized as a transitional era, as the formation of a mass consumer society came to a completion in both countries and in both sectors of consumption under investigation. Not only did an ever-increasing number people travel, but the average range of travel expanded considerably. In the United Kingdom, and even more pronounced in the FRG, it was in the 1970s that the final breakthrough to mass motorization actually happened. It is not surprising that Fabian interprets these developments primarily as a result of the sharp rise in average real incomes and it were particularly the lower income groups which benefited from this. At the same time, Fabian emphasizes that social inequality drastically increased. Although the overall level of consumption was rising, certain groups were increasingly excluded, in particular the growing number of long-term unemployed. Due to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal politics, these changes were more dramatic in the United Kingdom. These results are certainly not completely new and anything but surprising, but Fabian’s work excels by providing ample empirical evidence to support these conclusions. With regards to the second main concern of the book—increasing social individualization—Fabian can at least partially identify such tendencies in the fields of travel and tourism. She can demonstrate that even in the still dominant market segment of package tours, holidays and especially trips abroad played an important role in the testing and appropriation of new, more individual consumption practices. Whether, however, these results make it possible to draw further conclusions about more general trends of individualization is, at least in my opinion, open to doubt. Even more problematic are, in my view, her conclusions concerning private transport. Fabian argues that the car as a standardized, mass-produced consumer product made individualization largely impossible. In addition, she claims that under the influence of the oil price shock and emerging debates surrounding car safety and the environment, governments in each country imposed limits on the individualization of consumption through increasingly strict traffic and product regulations. On the one hand, one might object that mass production does not necessarily imply that an individual appropriation of motor vehicles is impossible. In its extreme form, this appropriation could even be accompanied by an active modification of the mass product, as was customary in the tuning scene which was particularly active in the 1980s. On the other hand, the question could be raised as to whether the automobile could be possibly simply the wrong object of research when it comes to investigating an increasing individualization and differentiation of consumer styles. Furthermore, I was not convinced by Fabian’s justification for selecting the United Kingdom and the FRG as objects of comparison merely on the basis of their similar levels of consumption in the early 1970s and comparable public discourses during the period of investigation. In light of the massive different effects of the crises, the much more significant deindustrialization and increase in social inequality in the United Kingdom, the very different social security systems and the very different political approaches to coping with the crises in both countries, it is hard not to wonder whether this selection actually is convincing. To make the comparative approach more productive, one might wish for a more nuanced treatment of the deviating developments in both countries that goes beyond the frequent references to the effects of Thatcherism in the United Kingdom. As one of the main outcomes of her investigation, Fabian finally argues that consumption practices cannot be understood separately from political and economic changes, and that the perception of a crisis by the general public and the consumer practices that come about as a result sometimes differ strongly from contemporary interpretations and the predictions of intellectual elites. Both of these results seem to me not only to be rather unsurprising but also, with all due respect, somewhat trivial. All of this, however, does not alter the fact that Boom in der Krise is an extraordinarily broad-based, source-saturated, thoroughly researched and largely persuasive study that makes an important contribution to the historical research on the 1970s and 1980s, expanding our understanding of this important era of change. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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