The Americanization of Europe is a long-standing theme that has generated a large literature. But no previous work has tackled it with the historical vigour and synthesizing ability of Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire. The origins of us hegemony as a global order—what de Grazia calls Market Empire—lie, she argues, neither at home nor in the world at large, but in Europe. ‘The Old World was where the United States turned its power as the premier consumer society into the dominion that came from being universally recognized as the fountainhead of modern consumer practices.’ Europe was the key zone for American cultural and commercial expansion, because there it confronted the ‘authority that the European region had accumulated since the age of merchant capitalism as the centre of vast material wealth, astute commercial know-how, and great good taste’. Irresistible Empire is the story of the way the us triumphed over this venerable, alternative model of a ‘material civilization’. If it could not in the end resist, what chance had other, less well-defended parts of the world?
Five ideological features marked out the uniqueness of the Market Empire, in de Grazia’s eyes. From the outset, it treated other nations as having ‘limited sovereignty over their public space’, while vigilantly guarding its own; it exported elements of civil society along with its goods; it set ‘rules of best practice’, laying down norms of economic organization; it projected an ethos of ‘democratic sociability’, popular rather than elitist; and it presented itself as a peaceful enterprise, to a continent torn by violence and war. De Grazia does not make the mistake of assuming that these traits in themselves accounted for American success in Europe. As she points out, they rested on the huge economic advantages enjoyed by us capitalism in the size and depth of its continent-sized domestic market, super-abundant natural resources, absence of pre-capitalist social classes, and ability to test out products capable of selling across ‘vast distances, varied climates and a mobile, needy, racially segregated, ethnically diversified customer base’. It was from these that the Market Empire acquired its competitive edge. But it is a central part of de Grazia’s case that the us exported a package of cultural models and rules, derived from its dynamism at home, actually in advance of any decisive penetration of European economic markets themselves. If America despatched both goods and values abroad, the ethos often came first—as if to prepare the ground for the commodities that would follow. One might almost say the ideological superstructure was rolled out first, to await the arrival of the economic base. The key to this, in de Grazia’s view, was the power of norms-making, ‘the Market Empire’s winning arm’. A storm of entrepreneurs, politicians, writers, gurus and assorted philanthropists descended on Europe, to make it clear that the success of America lay in its capacity to distil precepts from ‘best practice’. The message was unambiguous. ‘This is how we do it here’, they seemed to say, ‘and if it works here, it will work everywhere.’
For most writers, Americanization is essentially a post-Second World War phenomenon. Part of the fascination of Irresistible Empire is the way it shows that the us impact started much earlier, in the twenties and thirties, to which most of the book is devoted. Its first six chapters look at the impact of American ways in pre-war Europe. They deal successively with the spread of Rotary Clubs; of Fordism as the reference for a ‘decent standard of living’; of chain stores, from Woolworth upwards; of brand identifications like the Hoover or Gillette lines; of corporate advertising, spearheaded by J. Walter Thompson; and of the star system in the cinema constructed by Hollywood. Each of these chapters is stylishly written and exquisitely crafted, with an elegant irony but no condescension, and teems with exotic figures—none more so than Edward Albert Filene, the ‘Apostle of Distribution’—and entertaining sub-plots. Geographically, they focus essentially on Germany, France and Italy, in that order. The result of this concentration is to leave aside not just the ussr—where Americana were the object of much admiration and fantasy in this period—but also to a large extent Great Britain, which in so many ways was the main importer of Americanism in Europe, while often pretending to distance itself from it. These are real limitations. But Irresistible Empire, which has no time for either churlishly reactionary denigration or jauntily progressive celebration of consumerism, is in its own right a wonderful work of scholarship, that is a continual stimulus to think hard and on occasion argue back.
De Grazia opens her story with a contrast designed for dramatic effect. The Rotary International, founded in Los Angeles in 1922, in the name of ‘Service before Self’, was present by 1930 in both Duluth, Minnesota—Sinclair Lewis’s home town, and real-life habitat of Babbitt—and Dresden. The downtowns of the two cities afford plenty of material for wry comparison (her selection of the Saxon capital is hardly innocent—she could have paired Duluth with a similarly nondescript European counterpart, with a history stretching back no more than sixty years, of which there were plenty). At noontime on Prager Strasse in Dresden ‘the formalities of bourgeois culture graced with aristocratic gestures’ were still palpable, while Duluth was ‘all a-flurry’. The typical Rotarians in the latter were mildly philistine, optimistic, get-up-and-go businessmen in the image of Babbitt. In Dresden they were cultured high-bourgeois, as refined in taste and manners as their fellow Rotarians in Munich—one of whom, de Grazia tells us with evident relish, was none other than Thomas Mann. Since the rules of the Rotary demanded that each branch select an eminent representative of each profession, and the two towns were sociologically quite distinct, the composition of Duluth’s elite naturally differed from Dresden’s. Yet both joined the same association. What is puzzling is why the good citizens of Dresden, who had a plethora of local associations to choose from, took to one invented in the usa. Was it the appeal of the Rotary’s strict rules and procedures to German spirits, or a longing to rejoin an international community from which Germany had been ostracized during the war—but in that case, why did they identify this with the usa and not, say, Great Britain and France? Was it the attractions of cosmopolitanism and modernity that led them to adopt an American model? If so, would this not show how receptive certain European elites already were to ideas from the usa?
The rest of the book suggests as much. The high-wage regime vaunted by Ford for ensuring a ‘decent standard of living’—critical to the appeal of the American model, as well as to the creation of a market for consumer goods—and without which there would have been no model, did encounter resistance in Europe, from the likes of the Rotarians in Dresden and others. But then, as de Grazia makes clear, what defines a living standard is open to dispute. How applicable in Europe was a universal dollar-based basket of goods? What of cultural traditions? Wine was a common feature of working-class meals (even in the 1930s) in France or Italy. Today it is not even common in Britain. Expensive wine would have been a calamity for Italian workers and an irrelevance for British ones. Yet, whatever the calculations, one thing is plain: popular standards of living were far higher in America than in Europe at least until the 1970s, not because Europeans preferred to live more simply but because their economies did not allow them to do otherwise. There was never any prejudice against having an American-style kitchen or a washing machine. At times de Grazia seems ready to follow Sombart in suggesting that status hierarchies inherited from feudal relations kept the European working classes in their place, while their American counterparts, delivered of any such nineteenth-century notions, strutted about without any feeling of inferiority. It is more likely that what tethered European workers to their station was not ideology but lack of cash.