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.”
Conversely, European society, in her account, was riven with class distinctions and inequalities that militated against a homogeneous mass culture. It was not that Europe was without its own forms of consumerism, like the famous Parisian department stores or the growth of mass leisure. But marketing and consumption were inflected through the class distinctions that dominated European society. At its most active Europe was “economically competitive, aesthetically formidable, and deeply troubling in its sensuality, social inequalities, and disdain for American ‘civilization'”; but she also often refers to European commercial practices as an “old regime,” a somewhat passive culture whose chief function was to react, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, to American innovation. It also differed from America—this was especially true in Germany and Italy, the chief subjects of de Grazia’s study—in its protectionism, using state or local political power to subordinate the market to collective interests.
We could, of course, question the accuracy of these American and European ideal types. Did the sale of numerous Model-T Fords really dispense with American social and racial inequality? Was there no distinctively European mass consumption or branded goods? Were all European nations equally protectionist or autarkic? But it is more interesting to ask where this version of America and Europe, the one breathlessly dynamic and innovative, the other an “old regime,” came from.
In fact, de Grazia’s account closely resembles the stories that American managers told one another and the European public in order to justify their efforts to penetrate European markets. She sometimes points out that the account she gives of American progress and European stagnation is not her own but reflects an economic history that was designed to serve certain commercial ends—“claims of accomplishment,” she says, were “presented as claims of superiority.” But her overall analysis often repeats the presuppositions and prejudices of such history. As she comments, American entrepreneurs in pursuit of a mass market liked to think of Europe as a single inert entity ripe for conquest rather than as an active complex of different nations and cultures. De Grazia’s case studies repeatedly show that American intervention played out differently in different national settings. But when she shifts back to her imperial thesis Europe once again becomes an undifferentiated whole. In short, she often seems trapped within the assumptions of American businessmen who wanted to convert European commerce to an American way, not least in sharing their claims for success.
What cannot be denied is the extent and nature of the effort to bring the American way of business to Europe. De Grazia’s story begins with the growth of the Rotarian movement, the spread from the American Midwest of societies of businessmen devoted to propagating an ethic of service, the importance of philanthropic voluntarism rather than political intervention in promoting the public good. She devotes two early chapters to how American assumptions—about the standard of living and about good retailing practice—were brought by businessmen like Filene into Europe. She goes on to show how American chain stores spread through Europe, and how American mass retailing relied on brand-name recognition and corporate advertising to sell Europeans the “consumer durables, the convenience items, the comfort goods—the utility car, household appliances, perfumed toiletries, and packaged foodstuffs” that were associated with the American way of life. Of course Europe had long had its own brands. But rather than emphasizing the character and use of a product, American advertising firms like J. Walter Thompson highlighted its personality and charms, stressing, she says, “illumination instead of lighting fixtures, prestige instead of automobiles, sex appeal instead of mere soap.” Hollywood, de Grazia claims in a subsequent chapter, played a part in this process, introducing to European audiences “a world of sensory speedup, jam-packed with the props of everyday life,” reinforcing “a new economy of desire for more details, more sights, more movies with similar excess.”
De Grazia’s account of the propagation of American business practices repeatedly raises the question of how successful or effective this process was in capturing the imagination or changing the habits of Europeans. Her account of how the Rotary Club, first set up as an association of businessmen in Chicago in 1905, spread to Europe an ethic of philanthropic voluntarism under its new guise as the Rotary International serves as a good example of both the strengths and weaknesses of her approach. She maintains that the history of the Rotarians shows “how European elites were nudged by the new spirit of capitalism to change their conception of everyday culture by embracing the service ethic.”
This would seem a good example of how Americanization succeeded. But did it? The notion that businessmen associating to promote culture, welfare, and the public good (and recognizing that it was good for business) was a North American invention can only be sustained by ignoring a long history of European capitalist involvement in philanthropy and public improvements. Certainly it would be strange news to the manufacturers of northern France, like Philibert Vrau, whose many public works included founding the Catholic University of Lille, the financiers of Leipzig who funded its orchestra, and the wine merchants, cotton manufacturers, and patent medicine tycoons who plowed their wealth into the hospitals, parks, and cultural institutions of Britain. This is only one instance in which de Grazia gives us too little sense of the environment in which American ideas were introduced.
This seems all the more important for, as de Grazia herself shows, the soil in which American values were planted often produced a hybrid which differed from its progenitor back home. The apparently universal values of the Rotarians were inflected nationally. The Germans were sticklers for the rules,
the British proved to be far better constitutionalists, the French better at ferreting out the politics embedded in procedure, and the Italians expert at flouting the rules or simply ignoring them altogether in the name of their own pleasurable but self-involved notions of conviviality.
The German Rotary eventually turned against the commercial values its American parent was founded to support. By the outbreak of World War II Rotary Clubs in Italy and Germany had been disbanded, their Jewish members ejected, persecuted, or in exile, their other members continuing to meet informally, but not under the umbrella of an international organization. Here, as elsewhere, we see how American ideas and values played out in a European setting, often with surprising results.
Indeed the story that de Grazia tells of American incursion before World War II is one of only limited success. Quite apart from the fact that much of Europe was not yet economically equipped to embrace mass consumerism, European governments resisted the encroachment of American consumer culture in a variety of ways. By 1937 all European countries except Britain and Sweden had introduced laws designed to restrict the growth of chain stores. Though Hollywood made great inroads into the European market in the 1920s and 1930s, the period just before and during World War II saw a boom in the national film industries of France, Italy, and Germany, which were protected from transatlantic competition.
During the 1930s governments in France, Germany, and Italy all tried to shape the economy and patterns of consumption to further national and political goals, rather than leaving them to the market. Thus French Prime Minister Léon Blum’s left-wing coalition, the Popular Front, reduced the working week without lowering wages in order to spread employment, set up public works to increase the number of jobs, and raised agricultural prices to help peasant producers. In a period of deep recession, autarky and protectionism were the order of the day.
The Allied victory of 1945 made Europe more receptive to Americanization. But even then, as de Grazia reminds us, there were still many forms of resistance. The war “had not at all cleared the way for a civilization of creature comforts on the American model.” Instead the postwar era, she argues, saw the beginning of a conflict between the vision of the social citizen, which had a long prior history in Europe, and “the American notion of the sovereign consumer.”
In the early postwar years, the US government’s expansive support for the reconstruction of Western Europe helped spread American consumer values. De Grazia views the Marshall Plan “not as enlightened benefaction, but as bearer of new ways of thinking about producing affluence.” Two percent of the Marshall Plan’s budget was set aside for advertising the American way of life in such displays as the one that toured France under the title Le Vrai Visage des États-Unis. As the sociologist David Riesman brilliantly explained in his hilarious essay “The Nylon Wars” (1951), the cold war was as much about consumer goods as political ideology. American politicians wanted to make liberated Europe, and especially West Germany, into a showcase for consumer democracy, and American entrepreneurs were eager to oblige by opening up new markets for their goods there.
The birth of Western European consumer societies was painfully slow at first. The immediate postwar years were marked by an austerity across Europe every bit as severe as during wartime shortages. Much of the European middle class had little disposable income, and American investment did not grow significantly before the late 1950s. But by then a “sudden spurt in personal consumption” seemed to herald the beginning of a European “consumer society.” American capital and American companies moved back to the Continent in increasing numbers. As de Grazia puts it, Western Europe
was ever more visibly spanned by the long hand of American corporate enterprises and by the neocalvinist ethic of service capitalism of a reborn, rapidly spreading Rotary club movement, the revamping of mass distribution systems, the proliferation of full-service advertising, marketing, and polling agencies, the renewed triumph of Hollywood films, and the circulation of yet more new social inventions—the self-service supermarket, the all-equipped consumer household, and the endlessly proliferating lifestyles shaped by fast-changing consumer industries of the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Finally, it seemed that the Market Empire had triumphed.
But the story was not so simple. American supermarkets may have turned heads and excited crowds when they opened in European cities; they may have begun to change the structure of food provisioning and the nature of shopping; but their penetration, as de Grazia acknowledges, was resisted by small traders and shopkeepers and members of the left, and they varied greatly from country to country. In 1971 when 70 percent of food budgets in the United States was spent in supermarkets, the figure was 32 percent in Germany, 14 percent in France, and a niggardly 2 percent in Italy. The budget, marketing practices, and culinary priorities of the Italian housewife, the massaia, were hardly those imagined by supermarket entrepreneurs when they thought of “Mrs. Household Consumer.”
How successful was the American colonization of Europe? In many of the sectors of the economy that de Grazia singles out, American capital and know-how were very important, and the Marshall Plan helped supply both. Certainly many European governments, on both the left and the right, wanted to create a less class-riven, more prosperous Europe and aspired to what was perceived as American affluence and equality. In the 1950s and 1960s American culture and its artifacts were probably more widely admired than they have ever been and certainly a lot more than they are today. There was always skepticism both about Americanization and about the benefits of consumer society. What Europeans sought was the end of the want and misery they had suffered through the 1930s and 1940s and the creation of governments that would respond to the needs of their citizens rather than waging war on their own civil society and on other nations.
Thus most European countries tried to create alternatives that steered between the brutally interventionist autarky of totalitarian regimes, whether fascist or Communist, and the free enterprise so celebrated by American capitalists. Whether in Christian Democratic Germany or socialist Britain the move toward a “one-class market” was in part effected by interventionist economic policies emphasizing full employment and the rise in social benefits associated with the welfare state. De Grazia’s suggestion that “Europeans Traded Rights for Goods” seems wide of the mark since this was the very moment at which social rights and welfare systems were being created. Politicians as different as the conservative Ludwig Erhard in Germany and the socialist Antony Crossland in Britain shared the vision of a managed economy in which market forces and government regulation worked hand in hand, in which enhanced consumption was allied to citizenship.
De Grazia’s case studies mostly end in the late 1960s. She comments generally about how European businesses came to compete successfully with American enterprises thereafter, notably in retailing, portraying the period before the crises of the mid- to late 1970s as the apogee of American Empire. We are left pondering the fate of that empire. De Grazia seems to be telling two stories. On the one hand, she argues, in a rather abstract way, that mass-market capitalism, the American way, finally triumphed in Europe in the postwar era, because it offered Europeans the pleasures and freedoms (some illusory, some not) of a modern mass society. On the other, she shows repeatedly how this American way was bent and twisted into new shapes by European governments and consumers and, on occasion, subject to outright rejection. This leaves the reader in something of a quandary. Was the empire irresistible? Was it an empire? How long did it last?
If de Grazia’s claim is that the US had an important part in ensuring that Europe did not return to the totalitarian and command economies of the pre-war era, and did not succumb to fully fledged socialism, then she is surely correct. Equally persuasive is her view that American entrepreneurs, politicians, and businesses wanted to align the European with American ways of life. But what is less clear from her account is why Europeans should have succumbed to mass consumerism (if they did so), and what sort of consumer societies emerged in Europe. This is not helped by the fact that she says remarkably little about consumers themselves except as the object of manipulation by companies and by capitalist regimes such as the United States. We learn very little (the Italian housewife is the exception) about their values, practices, and aspirations. This is very much a top-down analysis.
The question remains whether the practices of mass consumption are necessarily connected to a particular “way of life.” The term “consumer society,” as de Grazia herself points out, covers many different forms of consumption. Nor does it have, as was commonly supposed by many theorists of consumer society in the cold war era, a clear connection to a particular sort of political regime—a point that current developments in China have brought home forcefully.
It seems extremely difficult to make a strong case about American commercial imperialism, not least because in so many respects European countries today still resemble each other so much more than they do the United States. At bottom they are social democratic regimes, or as de Grazia herself characterizes them, “socially committed market” economies, in which the unfettered workings of capitalism are curbed and limited in myriad ways. They are not free-market societies.
Despite the rise of neoliberalism in the age of Reagan and Thatcher, the role of the state in Europe’s managed economies has continued to grow. Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP ran at the same levels in Europe and the US in the “Great Society” years of the 1960s—indeed during the New Deal it was probably higher in North America than Europe. But by the mid-1990s the American figure was 33.5 percent and the European 51 percent. It need hardly be added that the percentage of such funds devoted to military rather than domestic costs is far higher in the US, more than double the per capita expenditure of its nearest European ally, the United Kingdom. This reflects a basic Atlantic divide between Europe (even Britain) and the United States. The public health services, welfare systems, and social regulation in Europe’s consumer societies were on a scale unimaginable in the United States, and they continue to be so. In Europe, to a large extent, radio and television are publicly owned. As a result advertising does not have the same salience as in the US. Most European countries spend about half the percentage of GDP on advertising that the US does.
Patterns of work and consumption also continue to differ. Europeans work and historically have worked much shorter hours, expressing a preference for leisure rather than more income. A much greater proportion of the European workforce is unionized—about double the US figure. Small and middle-size businesses are more important as employers, providing work for 66 percent of the workforce in the EU, and only 46 percent in the US. Worker protection is much stronger in Europe, and productivity in the US is higher.
American per capita private consumption expenditure far exceeds that in Europe; so does the level of consumer debt. As a result Americans have more “stuff.” US households move twice as frequently as the European average, and are much more likely to own their residences, which are far larger, containing nearly twice as much space for their domestic appliances and consumer goods. Both as consumers and workers, Americans diverge from the general European pattern.
Underpinning these structural differences are important differences in attitude. A survey in 2003 by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project again reveals American singularity. According to the survey, most Americans and most Europeans agree that it is better to live in a free-market economy (though what they mean by that is very different in each case); they like the pace of modern life, think conserving the environment important, feel that the growth of global trade and communications is beneficial, disapprove of fast food, and believe both birth control and family planning to be beneficial.
But on other issues, differences of opinion are large. Only 29 percent of Americans believe that the state has any responsibility to take care of the very poor; Europeans overwhelmingly view this as a vital function of government. Self-help is more real to most Americans. The percentage of Americans who believe that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control” is 32 percent, compared, for example, with a German figure of 68 percent. American hostility to taxation and state intervention is far more pronounced than in Europe. And only in the US do a majority of citizens believe that commercialism and consumerism are not a threat to their culture.
There are, of course, many other differences, as recent commentators on both the left and the right agree. Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream and John Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral could scarcely be further apart in their views of how admirable they find contemporary Europe, but they concur in its difference from the United States, a profound difference that has existed for a very long time. That difference is one both of values—about the place of the market in society and its relation to government—and about the sorts of behavior that they produce. As Irresistible Empire amply demonstrates, shrewd American entrepreneurs and patriotic zealots (often one and the same person) have tried hard and often successfully to inculcate “American” business practices in Europe. Europe would be a different place without them. But their effects and successes have been far more limited than either the proponents or the critics of “consumer society” have claimed.
November 30, 2006
[^*]: Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man (London: Mercury, 1963), p. 54.