A smart and engaging look at how US consumerism swept aside European cultural conservatism to create a transatlantic, transnational market.
Globalism has an American face, writes de Grazia (History/Columbia Univ.), but perhaps not for much longer. While 80 percent of Europe’s 519 million inhabitants are by now accustomed to going to supermarkets, just shy of the 85 percent mark in the US, the leading innovator in getting people in China and South America to shop one-stop is now Carrefour, a French firm. (Carrefour, she adds, is even beating out Wal-Mart in China, but facing stiff competition from Taiwanese and Thai chains.) Thus the wheel turns, set in motion by the expansion of the American “Market Empire” throughout the 20th century; the resultant economic and political hegemony “was built on European territory,” where American concerns had to combat patterns of production and trade long established by the European bourgeoisie. Overturning the old order was spurred on by both the demands of local peoples for better living standards and by the occasion of two world wars that opened European markets; when the second finished off the ancien régime, programs such as the Marshall Plan were on hand to build a consumer society friendly to US goods from tractors to films to hula hoops. Just so, the European success of firms such as McDonald’s has depended on changing local habits to conform to American models—doing away with the extended lunch break, making long commutes the norm, and so on. Yet, de Grazia notes, even the Marshall Plan had competitors, such as England’s Beveridge Report, which hinted at ways of rebuilding that lacked the American “overweening confidence in technology, raucous commercialism, and tolerance for social wreckage as the price paid for progress.” The US model is looking shopworn at the beginning of the 21st century—but even if it has a different accent, the Market Empire endures.
A lucid, accessible introduction to globalism and its discontents.