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Selling the American Way


At first sight it is a little hard to know why the astonishing economic recovery of Europe after World War II should have provoked so much controversy. Yet from the 1950s onward, few questions have been more vigorously discussed than that of how and with what consequences Western European nations entered the age of affluence. Commentators and critics on both the left and the right debated the new economic order, lambasting or lauding a newfound affluence and consumerism. The debate, of course, was never just about the economy, but was part of what was seen as the struggle between American capitalism and Soviet communism for the heart and soul of Europe.

Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe is both a study of the forces working to “Americanize” Europe and a contribution to the debate about their value. Its aim is twofold: to examine the long-term history of the idea that selling America’s commodities would help convert other nations to an American way of life and, more controversially, to chart what she sees as the inexorable triumph of what she calls “the Market Empire,” “a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium.”

The strength of her account lies in its long-term perspective: she opens not, as we might expect, with the postwar recovery that began in the 1950s but with a speech Woodrow Wilson made in Detroit in 1916 to the first World’s Salesmanship Conference in which he urged American entrepreneurs to “go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America.” Thereafter most of her study focuses on the 1920s and 1930s when companies like Ford, J. Walter Thompson, Woolworth, and Gillette penetrated European markets and tried to develop a mass market, large-scale retailing, branding, and product recognition through corporate advertising. Their success, she shows, was far from complete. Widespread poverty, social snobbery, the puritanical attitudes of the left, and the tendency of right-wing governments in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to subordinate their economies to “national” political interests prevented American companies and their supporters from transforming Europe into an outpost of the Market Empire. Only the reconstruction of Europe after 1945 and the Marshall Plan, she claims, made this a reality.

De Grazia approaches the issue of Americanization through a series of finely drawn case studies which examine not merely the obvious examples of American commercial practice—the chain store, big-brand goods, Hollywood movies, and the supermarket—but also the mechanisms by which she believes American capitalist values were spread through Europe. Many of these individual chapters read like stand-alone essays—nuanced, witty, and carefully polished accounts, for instance, of the Rotary International or the European poster industry. But there is often a big stretch between these case studies—filled with larger-than-life characters like Edward Filene, department store millionaire, founder of the Twentieth Century Fund, proponent of scientific merchandising, and outspoken critic of Nazi Germany, or Richard W. Boogaart, the Kansas entrepreneur who helped bring supermarkets to Italy—and the larger claims de Grazia makes about “America” and “Europe.” This is not helped by her extremely abstract and somewhat monolithic treatment of the United States economy and society, or by her tendency to identify “Europe” with the countries that dominate her case studies, notably Italy, Germany, and to a lesser extent France. In fact, the evidence in her case studies sometimes seems to undercut her larger claims about American imperialism.

Those claims do not move far beyond the ideologically tendentious and poorly grounded assertions made by many European intellectuals in the cold war debate about what economic historians, writing about the years between 1950 and 1974, have called the “Golden Age” of the European economy. Indeed, her study is haunted by the ghost of generations of European and American intellectuals, from Marx onward, who have been profoundly troubled by both commodity consumption and mass society. She seems to find it hard to understand consumption as anything other than an exercise in false or fake values.

Certainly the aftermath of World War II saw a remarkable transformation in Europe. Emerging from wartime devastation that had destroyed whole swathes of the Continent, shattered its infrastructure, and disrupted its agriculture, the economy of every Western European country apart from the United Kingdom grew at a faster rate in this period than that of the United States. Germany, Spain, Greece, and Portugal grew twice as fast as the US, their success almost matched by Austria, Italy, and France. High levels of employment, better wages, and strong welfare systems helped create a new sort of affluence that reached down to Europe’s working classes.

For the first time many Europeans had disposable income to spend on items other than the essentials of food and clothing. Cars, televisions, kitchen and household appliances—goods whose ownership had previously been confined to the rich and to the prosperous bourgeoisie—spread (albeit at different rates in different countries and more slowly than is often assumed) into the homes of clerks, shopkeepers, small proprietors, and skilled workers. Cheap vehicles, like the Volkswagen Beetle, the Renault 2CV, the Fiat Cinquecento, and the Morris Minor crowded Europe’s roads. In 1950 Italy had only 342,000 vehicles; fifteen years later there were five and a half million. The same pattern held for other consumer goods: in both Italy and France, for example, television ownership jumped more than tenfold in the decade after 1957.

Though the trends were similar, the new patterns of consumption varied both regionally and nationally, as they continue to do today. Cars were more numerous in Britain than on the Continent, motor scooters predominated in Italy; washing machines spread first in Northern Europe; the French spent more on food, the Italians more on clothing. New retailing practices, such as chain stores, also varied from nation to nation.

First journalists and then academic critics and commentators used the new term “consumer society” to describe these changes: a world in which social relations were dominated and defined not, as in the age of the industrial revolution, by production, but by consumption. From the beginning this development was the source of controversy. In the eyes of such cold war warriors as Walt Rostow in his hugely influential polemic The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960), a society of mass consumption was the natural culmination of free enterprise and a bulwark against the spread of communism. But for much of the European left, consumer society was a system designed to bribe the masses with consumer goods into acquiescing in their own exploitation. This political debate was also inextricably bound up with another about national identity. European commentators of every political hue agonized about the extent and value of what the French Marxist newspaper L’Humanité famously called the “Coca-colonization” of the European nations, the exportation across the Atlantic of American business practices and the products and habits they supported.

From the outset this debate lacked clarity and definition. On the one hand, those who saw consumer goods as a barrier against socialism credulously linked the good life with the density of consumer goods, equating, for example, automobile ownership with democracy. Thus Seymour Martin Lipset in his best-selling Political Man measured democracy not only by political participation, education, and wealth, but by the number of cars, telephones, and radios per capita. “In the more democratic European countries,” he wrote, “there are 17 persons per motor vehicle compared with 143 for the less democratic,” adding for good measure, “In the less dictatorial Latin-American countries there are 99 persons per motor vehicle verses 274 for the more dictatorial.”*

On the other hand, the left was committed to a view of the consumer as credulous, manipulable, and passive, the sort of figure marketing experts dreamed about but knew was hard to find. Like the “flash” British working-class consumers described in Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), they were portrayed as abandoning class solidarities, including the struggle against capital. Lured by “a candy floss world” and “sex in shiny packets,” as Hoggart put it, they succumbed to the sirens of mass marketing. Versions of these views have, like a cracked record, played over and over in the seemingly unending debate about the effects of consumerism on modern life.

Neither right nor left paid much attention to how the new consumers themselves thought about or understood what they were doing. For the supporters of mass consumption, acquisitiveness was a part of human nature; for its opponents, it was a matter of false values. For both it was often seen as a question of “Americanization.” But what exactly was meant by this overused term? Sometimes it was equated with making leisure into a commodity and commercializing culture (something Europeans had been doing for centuries). Sometimes it was seen as the depiction (most notably in Hollywood film) of an idealized American way of life characterized by affluence. And often it was envisaged as the importation of American business practices that were designed to create mass markets, a development that de Grazia studies in depth. But it was also equated, as L’Humanité made clear, with the adoption or consumption of brands like Coca-Cola or Gillette whose most noted characteristic was their “Americanness.” There were even occasions when Americanization was equated with capitalism tout court, as if Europeans wanted to forget or deny their own part in its invention.

Yet even when, as was often the case, the different sorts of Americanization were muddled, there was one assumption that united both the critics and proponents of consumer capitalism: the belief that the process entailed not just business practices or products or forms of consumption but the creation of what was nebulously described as a particular “way of life.” This clearly was Woodrow Wilson’s assumption in 1916; it has been held by many commentators on both sides of the political divide ever since. It is the fundamental misapprehension that de Grazia’s study seems to corroborate but often undermines.

De Grazia is certainly convinced that what is at stake is not merely a set of business or consumption practices. She speaks rather portentously of a “clash of civilizations” between the stereotypical American and European approaches to commercial culture—the former modern and progressive, the latter traditional. America was, she says, a mass consumer culture driven by scientific marketing, branding, and economies of scale, committed to self-regulation and the forces of the free market. Its ethos, she stresses, was democratic: not politically democratic, certainly, but “democracy in the realm of consumption coming down to espousing equality in the face of commonly known standards.” It was also marked by a belief in voluntarism rather than government action, and a notion of “the good life” as the ownership of certain goods measured exclusively in quantitative and pecuniary terms. Less happily it entailed, she argues, a way of life characterized by “overweening confidence in technology, raucous commercialism, and tolerance for social wreckage as the price paid for progress.”

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