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Irresistible Empire: America's Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe, by Victoria de Grazia

Reviewed by
Mark Luccarelli



ne of the fundamental ideas of late 20th century America was that the collapse of actually existing communism reflected a permanent turn in human affairs. Francis Fukuyama called it “the end of history”: the exhaustion of alternatives to the liberal democratic state in the form we see it today. Proclaimed in 1989 as the Soviet system began a free fall into oblivion, Fukuyama’s thesis attained the status of a creed in most quarters. Without it the wider political acquiescence regarding America’s increasing role in world affairs during the post Cold War period, as well as the agreement of both political parties as to the necessity of a “war on terrorism,” would be incomprehensible. The American intelligentsia largely has consented to the idea, seeing the present configuration of the global economy as a, more or less, autonomous outcome of “globalization.” 

The geopolitical considerations of the American state in shaping globalization —a vision of endless growth and the commodification of everything—is usually shunted aside in favor of viewing it as a free market utopia entailing a powerful cultural process of liberation for the masses through consumption.  Our estimation of American influence is deeply related to these ideas inasmuch as the U.S. has been the leading economic power since the end of the 19th century and has endeavored to spread its version of an open capitalist society.

What we see in de Grazia’s book is an attempt to detach consumption as a cultural phenomenon from its wider political moorings.  Hence, the book exhibits what we might term an ‘over-correction’ of the stoic old Left view that dismissed commodities as the flotsam and jetsam of capitalism.  A generation ago left-leaning intellectuals were almost uniformly critical of “capitalist culture”—especially advertising, mass consumerism and entertainment industries.  Some might well have taken their inspiration from Thorstein Veblen whose The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1902 was a critique of the first Gilded Age (arguably we arrived at a second one in the 1990s, if not Reagan’s 1980s). De Grazia’s work, by contrast, fits uncomfortably well with a fresh cohort of intellectuals who swallowed the ‘market revolution’ whole.

For de Grazia, consumption apparently is liberation. What matters is the personal freedom of choice that buying provides along with its social spin-offs -  their corrosive effects on tradition, social class and patriarchy.  However, the ability to distinguish between means of subsistence, on one hand, and artificially created needs, on the other, remains a fundamental critical tool; useful, for example, when distinguishing private pleasures from public goods. For de Grazia such a perspective seems hopelessly out of step with the march of history: “By the early 1980s it was clear that every movement to build an ‘insurmountable barrier against the invasion of false needs’ had failed . . .”(466). 

Still, de Grazia does us a service in offering a largely untold story of how American patterns of consumption became influential in post-war Europe and even in the shaping of European social democracy.  She’s right to point out that most of this impact is obscured by contemporary political sentiments as well as by the sheer passage of time.  Her fascinating story begins in the 1920s when “Americanism” burst on the European scene, prompting a “transatlantic clash of civilizations.” She starts with the Rotary Club which planted chapters across Western Europe until the rising nationalisms of the 1930s and an ensuing war washed them away (until they revived in the 1960s). Rotary embodied certain ‘small town American virtues,’ which is to say it combined a pro-business mentality with a service ethic rooted in America’s open-ended civil society tradition of voluntary association. 

Rotary also was internationalist and anti-militarist in the mode of Henry Ford. There should be no room for warfare or silly nationalism in an open world dedicated to the practical business of selling cars and improving life for everyone. Yet the Rotarians found their message bumping up against limits. European branches were subject to the full play of local complexities, including nationalist orientations, the suspicions of organized religion, and traditional conceptions of social prestige.  So chapters abroad incorporated and exhibited indigenous cultural traditions. Sometimes, in adapting to local conditions, they  violated sacrosanct  Rotary principles. The Italians, for example, used Rotary to shape a social network replicating traditional stratification. At other times, the Rotary Clubs were the antithesis of American counterparts. The Germans wielded the club like a weapon within their 1920s culture wars such that cosmopolitan Berlin soon was influenced by American (and Russian) modernism in everything from architecture to music.

Rotary certainly provided shock troops for an all out assault on the European way of life. The goal of generating American living standards accompanied Ford’s planned inexorable expansion. Ford wanted to know what to pay workers in Europe in order to equal American standards.  His perplexed company found that measuring the ‘standard of living’ was impossible in countries where the market was thoroughly fragmented by class and by location.  European consumption habits and practices reinforced distinctions of social class, and created an “old bourgeois regime of consumption,” distinguishable from “modern mass consumer culture” (10).

De Grazia argues that there is no way to separate the European tradition of “aesthetic consumption” with its ethic of restraint, from the regime of consumption with its reliance on class-specific distribution networks which denied the working class its share of the ‘good life’. Just as European merchandising was divided between department stores for the bourgeoisie and small shops for the working classes, “bourgeois Europe” promoted a culture that divided the privileged from the have-nots. In contrast, by producing mass quantities and distributing them in low cost chain stores, American consumer culture promoted a more even playing field. Hence when the new “habits” of consumption arrived in Europe, they “pressed up against European societies’ barriers of ‘distinction’” (107).

Among these ‘habits’ was the American kitchen and its paraphernalia of consumer products, the triumph of which not only improved the European standard of living, creating a “cross-Atlantic consumer household,” but permitted an organized cultural regime to “step over the family threshold into the privacy of daily life” (426). The American model household was seen as a source of women’s liberation, as leading French and German feminists attested. American homes were no longer a woman’s domain; responsibilities were shared. American consumer culture, de Grazia concludes, began the process of replacing “homo oeconomicus with the better-socialized ‘Economic Woman’” (434).

Prepared food surely freed up the housewife’s time. Yet the greatest importance lies in the creation of what we once called “mass culture.”  De Grazia sees this as a process that includes Hollywood’s triumphal assertion of “entertainment value” over the European art film and the of the appeal to popular taste in mass advertising over the tradition of aesthetic consumption.  It is all a part of the process of globalization. Here de Grazia gets it right. 

Mass consumption—symbolized in supermarket treatment of all costumers as equals—was an invention whose “Americanness” can be best appreciated in light of its clash with European consumer patterns.  Rotary Clubs,  as components of the civil society, reflected an “aptitude for association” (de Tocqueville, quoted on 27) that preceded development of a specifically American capitalism, just as European consumption practices reflected their own distinct mentalities.  The values of American Rotarians—especially ,“the service ideal” which adapted the “Calvinist idea of individual redemption through on-earth social action” (34) to an instinct for salesmanship—became the foundation for “the new ethic of consumer-oriented capitalism” (35).  The Rotarians always adhered to democratic mores and practical-mindedness, thereby becoming “practical idealists” (37) who constituted the foundation of American capitalist culture.[1]

This was a part of spreading American hegemony by inspiring friendship, affection and imitation (what Joseph Nye aptly calls “soft power”) rather than relying on political power or military force.  But de Grazia sees consumerism in its own terms, as a largely autonomous process. Cultural formations (assemblages of values and practices with accompanying social mores) spread across national lines because they are superior to, and more popular than, pre-existing ones. As it disperses, culture undergoes change so that what was peculiarly “American” about consumer culture got eclipsed as this cultural pattern spread into Europe, becoming a part of ‘the global’ commodity culture.  According to de Grazia all traces of the old bourgeois European culture faded while the new  social democratic oneemerged which shared a surprisingly great deal with American liberalism. Both rested on a social foundation of rising prosperity, though in the case of the Europeans—and here lies a strength of her book—there was a marked hesitancy to acknowledge the extent to which they partook of the American model. 

One reason for this reluctance is related to an inherent limitation in de Grazia’s theoretical model in understanding cultural change, namely the way in which cultural paradigms become ‘naturalized.’  In fact, many aspects of American culture were almost routinely Europeanized, adjusted to the national norms of different societies.[2]  De Grazia overlooks this because she tends to think of “consumerism” as a whole and because her larger point is that commodity culture was in the process of constructing an independent global cultural sphere.

She fails to acknowledge the strong cultural “survivals” of the European past.  Germany maintains to a remarkable degree their old bourgeois reading culture; despite the “pizza” craze and new fast food restaurants. Italy is still absorbed in its traditional foodways and in the importance of craft to life generally. France continues to funnel state support to the arts and to insist on real architecture in its public buildings (even factories have architectural values: note Airbus’ impressive new assembly plant in Toulouse). The Norwegians reinvented the harsh but vibrant conditions of their past life as a modern friluftsliv—“fresh air life”—which provides a code of fitness that has stood against the tendency of the consumerist ethic to “supersize” us all. European consumption patterns continued in some respects to be restrained by these older practices and customs.  Granted they are less important now than a generation ago, as recent changes to the European system of higher education certainly attest, but still there is a deeply ingrained sense in European societies of the importance of circumscribing acquisition and emphasizing restraint and “taste” acquired through education.  This stance corresponds to a kind of aesthetic consumption which combined show with restraint. 

Initially, those values were connected to a skewed system that rationed education and restricted upward mobility. But now that those conditions have been changed in Europe the older aesthetic values, under new circumstances,  turn out to be themselves pretty healthy. What makes European cities so interesting and livable is that the State has converted the buildings and grounds of the upper classes into public spaces, regulation controls excessive concentrations in urban cores and public transportation systems keep the cores viable.  Very few American cities have managed this feat.  There still is a palpable reluctance in Europe to permit commodification to penetrate all spheres of life. 

All these achievements may be seen as limited, as secondary, made possible only by the regulatory state, a reflection of a limited provincial perspective, the survival of scorned 19th century nationalisms. Yet they should not be ignored for they point to a powerful fact: the survival in Europe of deep feelings about preserving (and improving) the public character of life. The concerns have to do with  a common identity, basic equality, the economic viability of agricultural and industrial regions, and the structure of social democracy.  This lies behind lingering sentiments for socialism and nationalism. Of course, there are dangers in such sentiments as any review of Europe’s ideologically strident past reveals.  Indeed both the recent anti-EU votes, and the widespread anguish about them, show us polities caught between their desire to maintain a distance from the failed past and their fear that in creating a new Europe they will become too much like the society (USA) it is meant to hold at bay.  The American “Empire” that Europeans experience may be irresistible, but not in the sense de Grazia means.

This sense of being trapped in history is prevalent. The problem of consumption is rooted in the success we’ve had in becoming powerful economies capable of transforming nature in accordance with our will.  An organized system of production requires an organized system of consumption. As productive systems become more efficient, the question of how to distribution becomes acute, especially how to avoid over-production and under-consumption. Both communism and fascism tried to construct planned regimes that matched production output to consumption and both collapsed in the face of the consequences their respective systems generated:  war in one case, and stagnation in the other.  They were false hopes.  Yet de Grazia devotes merely a page to socialist cooperativism (distribution through consumer-owned stores) in Belgium. She dismisses the economic planning of the Popular Front government in France as a failure. And although she duly notes that Sweden was the only European country that kept pace with American income growth rates before WWII, she ignores Swedish experiments in garden cities and consumer cooperatives. She prefers to focus instead on the hideous Nazi regime to underline her point that American style capitalism was the only real alternative.

De Grazia’s highly selective reading of European history is more than matched by her discussion of American history—and particularly that of the role of the American working class.  Applauding American workers’ high wages and their “entrepreneurship as consumers” (99), de Grazia misses the central irony of 20th century American history:  that the individualist consumer paradise was saved by a great showing of communitarian spirit in the form of a revitalized union movement, the actions of the organized American Left, and massive State intervention during the 1930s.  Furthermore, there’s something unseemly about tooting one’s horn about high wages in the U.S. when the State-centered regulatory system which supported those wages during most of the 20th century has been undermined over the past thirty years by a neo-liberal regime, producing increasing disparities of wealth—and a new class of largely powerless and underpaid service workers.

In the end, de Grazia simply misunderstands the triumph of American consumerist capitalism, remaining silent about the strategic investments—the expensive conduct of a Cold War—that underwrote the project.  In fact, though we’d never guess by reading Irresistible Empire, geopolitics were at least as important as economics in shaping Cold War Europe.  This is more than a minor academic nuance. We otherwise are unable to understand why today the Bush administration resurrects raw military power and political intimidation as the major components of American foreign policy—leaving all forms of “soft power” in the lurch.  Indeed, it doesn’t explain why the Europeans resigned themselves to the decline of the western alliance and decided, at least in the short term, to engage the new players in world politics—China, India, Brazil—with their own version of geo-economics, the perhaps competing “irresistible empire” of European productivity, technology and investment.


[1] I think de Grazia does us a disservice on the other hand in failing to clearly point out that the origin of the values was in the civil society in the 19th century before the arrival of mature capitalism.  Entrepreneurial capitalism simply appropriated this cultural space bending it to its own end.

[2] Much good work has been done by European Americanists on this phenomenon.  See for example, Erik Aasard, Elisabeth Harion-Sarifidis and Dag Blanck, “American Influences in Sweden,” http://www.engelska.uu.se/research.influence.html


Mark Luccarelli teaches American Studies at the University of Oslo in Norway.


Logos 4.3 - summer 2005
© Logosonline 2005