Comments delivered by Honorary Graduand Jan de Vries at the Degree Congregation, University of Warwick, 15th July 2013
Mr. Vice Chancellor, distinguished colleagues, graduates and their families and well-wishers. My greetings to the entire community of the University of Warwick, and my sincere thanks for the great honour that has been granted to me.
Seeing this assembly of accomplished young people on the cusp of taking on the challenges of our world, I, as so many before me, cannot resist thinking back – nearly 50 years in my case – to when I was in your shoes. It was an exciting time. Perhaps for that reason I cannot remember a word of what the wise men and women at my graduation exercises had to say. Not a word.
So, honoured though I am to be in this position, I also feel uneasy. What wise words can I convey to you here that can stand up to the occasion? I have settled on a three-minute sermon on the topic of your future lives as consumers.
For many, many centuries, such an address didn’t even require three minutes. Consumption not intended for the maintenance of body and soul was called luxury, and luxury put your soul in mortal danger; nearly all of the seven deadly sins were implicated in acts of consumption. And this danger to your soul was also a corrupting influence on society. No good could come from it.
Almost exactly 300 years ago, a Dutch physician named Barnard Mandeville, who had removed himself to London to escape imprisonment for libel and slander, famously argued that, yes, luxury consumption is, indeed, the very embodiment of vice; but, it happens also to be the source of national prosperity. The sins of the people are the foundation of society’s prosperity and comfort.
People long struggled with Mandeville’s claim that commercial societies were morally bankrupt and mired in hypocrisy; that more sin led to greater well-being. But, in time, they set this dilemma aside. The behaviour that leads to prosperity simply could not longer be thought of as vice. Today, consumption is judged primarily on the basis of taste, not of mortality. We don’t ask many difficult questions about the actual objects of desire. Who is to judge? And, journalistic commentary on the economy regularly reminds us that all will be well when consumers open their purses again. What is socially important about consumer demand is aggregate demand.
In an earlier era of economic crisis, this same message was already being absorbed. In 1934, a humorist writing in Punch had a kindly bishop inquire of a bright-haired lad what he hoped to be when he grew up:
I want to be a consumer,
The bright-haired lad replied
As he gazed upon the Bishop’s face
In innocence open eyed.
I’ve never had aims of a selfish sort
For that, as I know, is wrong.
I want to be a consumer, Sir
And help the nation on.
In our current international economic difficulties, you too may be asking, now that you are all grown up: how can I help? Other speakers at events such as this focus their inspirational words on your bright futures as productive members of society and all the good that you can do for the world. I want to focus your attention for a moment on your future life as consumers. It isn’t easy to consume well. And it is important.
It is important to you personally, to be sure, but also to society, and not simply, as the bright-haired lad understood, because with your spending, you do your bit to keep the wheels of commerce turning today.
Back when the challenge of Mandeville was still thought troubling, a solution was proposed – by no less than Adam Smith. Today, it is largely forgotten, but it is worth remembering. Smith argued that the foundation of society’s prosperity is not any consumption (as Mandeville had it), but prudent consumption. The prudent person substitutes pure self regard and self interest for self betterment. He or she considers the present utility of goods, but also the utility of future consumption – what we might today call sustainability.
An historical view of economic life reveals a great deal of variance in how societies have consumed over time. Some for better; some for worse. Consumption is an art, you might say, worthy of your attention. But, I do not need to remind the graduates assembled here that the arts are of genuine importance to society. They are not a mere luxury.
My congratulations to you all.
Jan de Vries
Two Warwick graduates have been successful in being awarded Kennedy scholarships issued by The Kennedy Memorial Trust to study at Harvard and MIT, one of whom is History and Politics graduate Jennifer Quigley-Jones.
In 1697 the Amsterdamsche Courant advertised a new product – a pocket globe – ‘2 inches in diameter and encased in a leather cover on the inside of which was presented the heavens with constellations’. Peter the Great bought one as he travelled through Amsterdam, but most consumers passed it by. This small mechanism ‘Amsterdam in the world’ seemed obviously attractive to the many now carrying pocket watches; over 400,000 such watches per year were made in the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century. Though expensive, they were a common male possession, bought at significant stages of the life cycle, or when there was cash spare – for the sailor at the end of a voyage, the farm labourer at the end of the harvest. These ubiquitous pocket watches open Jan de Vries’s original investigation of the eighteenth-century consumer revolution, a process he termed the ‘Industrious Revolution’.
Those new or exotic commodities inspired the men and women of ordinary households to transform their work practices and material cultures with momentous consequences for the production and consumption of European economies moving into the Industrial Revolution. Pocket watches appealed to Adam Smith’s lovers of toys, seeking not so much utility as clever machines. ‘All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number.’ Adam Smith had so charted in 1776 how such ‘trinkets and baubles’ transferred the power of landed elites to commercial society.
That dynamism and power of commercial society has inspired Jan de Vries during his nearly fifty years as a historian. He has taken us through the experiences and lives of very ordinary people, passing through the inner courtyards, cupboards and sea chests of peasants and seamen, urban burghers and artisans, merchants and artists. As the major economic historian of the Netherlands he has set the rural, urban, mercantile and art history of this precocious Northern European economy within the wider Europe and the world.
Between his books, The Dutch Rural Economy in the Golden Age (1974) to The First Modern Economy (1997) which he wrote with Ad Van der Woude lay his deeply influential works on Europe, The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis (1976) and European Urbanization 1500-1800 (1984). His major articles of the later 1990s and his 2008 book, The Industrious Revolution and the Industrial Revolution led a whole generation of historians into the study of consumer culture. His provocative analysis of the households of Northern Europe showed how more and more people discovered that money could buy new goods – tobacco and sugar from the Americas, tea, porcelain and textiles from Asia, and their European substitutes, as well as all those new toys and trinkets. Households and especially women of these households worked harder for the cash to buy these rather than for self-subsistence, so that even in face of stagnant wages, labour forces expanded, the material culture and consumption of households grew richer, and these early modern economies grew. De Vries’s more recent work on the Dutch East India Company and his sceptical though engaged debate on the challenges of global history have also made him a central figure in the opening of European historical research to connections with the wider world.
Jan de Vries brings a powerful analytical voice and distinguished scholarship to both history and economics. He has kept these fields together in a way no other economic historian has been able to. Through periods of post structuralism and postmodernism he has maintained the strong presence of economic history within his History department at Berkeley. He is the economic historian read by other historians. He has shown us the ordinariness of even great people; the everyday, repeated behaviours of farmers and landscape painters lend themselves to quantitative analysis, and to the analysis of institutions and markets that influence those behaviours. He is also the economic historian who has conveyed the importance of history to economists.
De Vries has managed to combine this with close archival work on topics which at the outset might seem small – barges and bread – but which he has built into subjects of large significance. His book on Barges and Capitalism (1981) brought us into the lives of a highly mobile and independent group of people seeking a dependable and punctual as well as cost effective way of moving about so that they created a network of canals and barges. And so Jan de Vries travelled imaginatively aboard a trekschuit for a 5 or 6 hour trip, meeting along the way a Leiden University student on his way home after term, a North Holland sailor on his way to Amsterdam to join a VOC ship to the East Indies, a Gorinchem girl on her way to enter service in the townhouse of Utrecht nobleman, a party of Portuguese Jews on their way to the burial of a friend, a young Englishman on a tour of the Dutch cities, and a young baker’s assistant and his servant girlfriend on a day’s outing.
Now he is writing a book on Bread, focussed on the regulation of prices of grains and bread, on baking trials and the correspondence of magistrates and bakers across the Netherlands between the 1590s and the mid nineteenth century. That long history of one commodity shows us the wide mix of types of bread most consumed, and the great shift in consumer choice between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for white wheat bread whatever the cost or taxes on it. These big issues of social institutions and markets are at the core of these deep histories of barges and bread.
Jan de Vries was born in Ouder-Amstel, the Netherlands and came with his family to the US during World War II, when he was just four. He grew up on farms then small communities outside Minneapolis. His father went into the building trades, and was a house painter and sheet rock or dry wall taper; Jan de Vries helped him and went with him to union meetings, a fact he likes to convey among meetings of eminent art historians: how do painters estimate the value of their work? He studied at Columbia, and loved living in New York City; then Yale, and from 1973 was appointed to teach economics and history at Berkeley. In 1982 he was appointed Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of European History at Berkeley, and has taught there over his career. He was Chair of the History Department, interim Dean of Social Sciences, and from 2000-9 serving as Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. He is Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and member of the Society for Dutch Literature and many other international scholarly organisations. He was awarded the Dutch Heineken Prize in 2000. This is the major European prize for outstanding achievement in the field of European history. He was President of the Economic History Association (US) 1991-1993, and edited the Journal of Economic History for several years. He was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford in 1997-8, and Fernand Braudel Fellow of the European University Institute in Florence in 2012. During these periods and other occasions he has developed close connections with the Warwick History department, the Eighteenth Century Centre and the Global History and Culture Centre where he has appeared frequently for conferences, seminars and lectures.
Latest news Newer news Older news