Why ‘Empire of Things’ Is a Companion to ‘Capital’

An argument to invest 33 hours.

June 29, 2016

Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First by Frank Trentmann

Published in March of 2016.

Empire of Things could be read as a companion book to Thomas Piketty’s surprise 2014 hit Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Where Capital was about how money is created, Empire of Things is about how money is spent.

Both books ground their arguments in a global economic history.  Both books are big.  (The audiobook for Empire is a bit over 33 hours, where Capital is comparatively concise 25 hours).

Where Empire and Capital differ most (save a different focus), is that Capital is all about theory building, and Empire is largely atheoretical.

One reason behind the cultural impact of Capital was Piketty’s theoretical explanation for inequality - namely that wealth (and especially big wealth) will grow faster than income.  Capital is a book length argument as to why the rich get richer, and why this tendency (if left unchecked by policy) is ultimately destructive for society.

Empire offers no such formulation.  What Empire of Things does - and does beautifully - is provide a ground-level view of the history of getting and using things.

Frank Trentmann’s big point in Empire is that drive to acquire, and the worry about the drive to acquire, is nothing new.  Both the ancient Greeks and intellectuals in dynastic China were concerned about the corrupting influence of things.

We tend to think of the consumer economy as the creation of the the post-World War II expansion.  While the unprecedented economic growth in the US and much of West between 1946 and 1973 did bring consuming to new heights, the relationship between earning, spending, and buying has much deeper (global) roots.

What is different today, as in comparison to the years characterized by first agricultural and then industrial economies, is that societies most well-off are also the hardest (or at least longest) workers.  Today’s professional class consumes at levels unknown in history, but also works very hard for that privilege.  

Trentmann’s discussion of the relationship between time (work and leisure) and consumption makes for fascinating reading. Throughout the world, (save perhaps in some Scandinavian countries) citizens have traded time for things.  We may have more things than our parents and grandparents, but we work more hours (at the level of the household, if not the individual). 

This trend is driven partly by increases in the costs for housing, education, and health care - increases in prices that are driving work patterns that resemble early (pre-unionized) industrial workers.

Empire of Things is an important book - but I worry that it will be little read and discussed.  (At least in comparison to Capital).  A 33 hour book has a high opportunity cost, as reading this one book crowds out 3 other books getting read.

Nor can the themes in Empire be synthesized down to a simple argument.  Where both Capital and Empire are full of facts, trends, and stories - only Capital builds into an original theoretical framework.

If you love economic history (as I do), and you want to situate the world of owning and using stuff within an historical context, then you should invest the time and energy to read Empire of Things.

Can you recommend your favorite economic history books?

Did you read Capital?  And if so, would you consider Empire of Things?

What are you reading?



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