- The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present
By now, most readers are familiar with de Vries’ paradigm-shifting notion of a European “industrious revolution,” which he first laid out in an impressive journal essay in 1994. Since that time, economic historians have revised substantially the narrative of economic progress in Western European history. Gone is the familiar parade of British inventions, which had borne the weight of explanation for European industrial expansion throughout generations of history exams. Gone, too, is the argument that crucial changes necessary for “take-off” occurred in the late eighteenth century and thereafter. With the evaporation of a particular form of British exceptionalism has come a changed focus for inquiry, from the supply to the demand side of the picture. Scholars from an array of disciplines, many of them depending on economic theory, have explored the phenomenon of consumption as the driving force behind a very different kind of transformation. In this collection of interlocking essays, de Vries poses the problem this way: How did Europeans move from being leisure-rich in the context of a conservative, coercive economy to embracing a money- and consumption-orientation in comparatively free economic arrangements?
The industrious revolution has thus become a history of motivation, orientation, and workforce management at the level of the household, as well as an account of different types of employment and expenditure. It is an argument filled with explanatory thickets and sand traps, which de Vries navigates with a confidence that is both inspiring and unnerving. Readers will find three chapters at the center of the book most useful as a masterful synthesis of scholarly work in economics, sociology, and history, including discussions of women and the family.
The first and later chapters, however, depend on sociological modeling that is less satisfying and, at times, pointlessly polemical. De Vries is enamored of Becker’s concept of “Z-commodities,” which enables him to focus on the ambiguous way in which families combined effort and pay packets to achieve efficiency in consumption (26–27).1 Through this device, it becomes possible to assume that everything that working families [End Page 443] achieved in the economic sphere was funneled effectively into consumer objectives as early as the seventeenth century. In order to champion such activity, de Vries feels compelled to shadow-box with Marxist and feminist arguments of the past (many of them dating from the 1980s and even 1970s, and some of them irrelevant to the subjects at hand) that focused on the subordination of female and child labor and the exploitation of workers by manufacturers. His insistence on familial coordination does not necessarily require identifying an equal measure of genial cooperation, though it seems to be the implication. De Vries’ chapter on the withdrawal of women from the labor market in the nineteenth century (“The Breadwinner-Homemaker Household”) is marred by incorrect representations (few, if any, scholars of women’s history would mount an argument about separate spheres in the terms that he presents) and internal contradictions. Yet his discussions of child labor, along with the quantitative data on European households, will prove useful to further discussion.
Despite these problems, The Industrious Revolution belongs on the shelf of every scholar of the industrial period and all those who wish to understand the complex nature of what we used to call the “industrial revolution.” Readers will find invaluable information and numerous bon mots (“perspiration, not inspiration . . . [governed the] first industrial revolution” ) assembled therein to help them comprehend a generation of creative scholarship. That de Vries generates so much heat and energy stands as proof of the vitality of a long-standing historical debate.
1. Gary Becker, “A Theory of the Allocation of Time,” Economic Journal, LXXV (1965), 493–517.