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A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Anglais) Broché – 30 décembre 2003

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Chapter 1

Rise of the Citizen Consumer

A paradox arose in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Hard times forced many Americans to struggle to find and keep work, to feed their families, and to hold on to their homes or pay their rent. Yet increasingly they were being viewed by policymakers—and were thinking of themselves—as consumers, as purchasers of goods in the marketplace. Even as many people were barely making ends meet in the thirties, two images of the consumer came to prevail and, in fact, competed for dominance. On the one hand, what I will call citizen consumers were regarded as responsible for safeguarding the general good of the nation, in particular for prodding government to protect the rights, safety, and fair treatment of individual consumers in the private marketplace. On the other hand, purchaser consumers were viewed as contributing to the larger society more by exercising purchasing power than through asserting themselves politically.

Consider these two contrasting depictions of the consumer from the 1930s. When in 1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, it authorized this keystone program of the first New Deal to include representatives of the “consuming public” alongside business and labor. In practice this meant that the National Recovery Administration (NRA) made consumers members of some code authorities as well as established a Consumer Advisory Board (CAB), which, despite a constant struggle to get equitable recognition from NRA officials, gave consumers a legitimate voice in the federal government's efforts to foster recovery. After angry consumer advocates descended upon Washington to complain about the inadequacy of the CAB, a Consumers' Counsel was added as well.

The comments of one of CAB's members, the prominent Columbia University sociologist Robert S. Lynd, document well the citizen consumer perspective that prevailed among New Dealers at the time. Again and again Lynd articulated the importance of empowering consumers-whom he labeled "forgotten men"—to a viable democracy. The consumer “stands there alone—a man barehanded, against the accumulated momentum of 43,000,000 horse power and their army of salesmen, advertising men, and other jockeys. He knows he buys wastefully . . . that his desires and insecurities are exploited continually, that even his Government withholds from him vitally important information by which both it and industry save millions of dollars annually.” As a remedy, Lynd and other New Dealers repeatedly called for permanent representation of the consumer point of view in government, most fully through the creation of a federal consumer agency to complement those already devoted to commerce, agriculture, and labor. They also sought protections for consumers against exploitation by business or government, such as requiring quality and labeling standards for all products. Nothing less than the viability of American democracy was at stake, Lynd insisted. “The only way that democracy can survive . . . is through the quality of living it can help the rank-and-file of its citizens to achieve,” not simply an adequate standard of living.

The competing vision of Americans as purchaser consumers came through powerfully in a twenty-six-minute public relations film that the Chevrolet Motor Company produced in 1937, entitled From Dawn to Sunset. Released only months after General Motors, Chevrolet's parent company, signed an historic union contract with the United Auto Workers (UAW), it depicted employees in twelve plant cities serving the corporation and the nation more as purchasers of goods, including but by no means limited to cars, than as workers in factories. The film followed the typical day of an “army of interdependent automotive workers and salaried personnel” in these twelve cities, showing repeated scenes of workers receiving pay packets and then, often accompanied by wives and children, spending them in downtown stores on everything from new living-room furniture to children's bicycles and stylish clothing. To triumphal music, the narrator proclaimed that “tens of thousands of men on one single payroll have money for themselves and their families to spend,” making possible “the pleasure of buying, the spreading of money, and the enjoyment of all the things that paychecks can buy.”

Chevrolet obviously had a vested interest in depicting new UAW members as well-paid and job-secure customers rather than as tenacious rank-and-file unionists. But much more was at stake. That Chevrolet sought to improve its public image by boasting that “the purchasing power of pay packets fuels the local economies of twelve plant cities” revealed the company's confidence in consumers as the savior of the nation's economy. Because “America has a ready purse and gives eager acceptance to what the men of motors have built,” the United States will enjoy “a prosperity greater than history has ever known,” the film proclaimed. It was the buying power of consumers in the aggregate, not the protection of individual consumers in the marketplace, that manufacturers like General Motors, along with a growing number of economists and government officials by the late 1930s, thought would bring the United States out of depression and ensure its survival as a democratic nation.

Why in the thirties did a wide range of Americans, from ordinary citizens to policymakers, begin to recognize that consumer interests and behavior had profound economic and political consequences for the nation? And what did it mean that they endorsed two very different prescriptions—the citizen consumer and the purchaser consumer—for the proper role of consumers? Answering these questions matters not only for understanding the 1930s, but the decades that followed as well. The new expectations that Americans developed during the Great Depression for how consumers should contribute to a healthy economy and polity would leave a legacy for World War II and the postwar era.

Discovering the Consumer Interest

The 1930s, of course, were not the first time that Americans took note of the importance of consumption and consumers. Almost from its initial European settlement, America participated in an economy of commercial exchange, and gradually over the centuries a market revolution increased the amount of goods that Americans purchased rather than made at home (or did without). Not only did people consume more ready-made products as time passed, but the accumulation of luxury goods-at first, imported china and textiles, later fineries manufactured domestically-marked distinctions among Americans, such as between urban and rural dwellers and among social classes. Moreover, at crucial moments of political conflict, Americans exercised their clout as consumers, withdrawing their purchasing power to put economic pressure on their opponents. On the eve of the American Revolution of the late eighteenth century, colonists shirked imported British tea and fabrics. Likewise, nineteenth-century workers organized boycotts of their employers' goods as part of their campaigns for shorter hours, higher wages, and better working conditions. But despite the longstanding significance of consumption in their lives, when Americans before the twentieth century contemplated what made for the most robust national economy, the most stable American polity, and the most independent citizenry, they overwhelmingly pointed to the vitality of production and the power of producers.

The Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked a significant shift toward recognizing the centrality of consumers to the nation's economy and polity, so much so that I will refer to it as the “first-wave consumer movement.” Aspects of the Progressive program could qualify as proto-citizen consumer, anticipating as they did concerns and responses that would emerge more fully in the “second-wave consumer movement” of the 1930s and 1940s. The Progressives identified consumers as a new category of the American citizenry, an ideal broad-based constituency desirous and deserving of political and social reforms to limit the dangers of an industrializing, urbanizing, and politically corruptible twentieth-century America. Because all men and women were thought to suffer as consumers from unfairly jacked-up prices, defective manufactured goods, and unresponsive if not deceitful politicians, reform was easily pursued in their name. Progressives sought more direct democracy-primaries, initiatives, referenda, recalls, and female suffrage-as well as specific remedies to protect consumers and taxpayers from exploitation, such as municipal and consumer ownership of utilities and fairer tax policies. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act (1906), although weak, were passed to set some minimum standards for the safety and quality of goods increasingly being produced for national markets. And Progressives promoted anti-trust legislation, culminating in the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC, 1914), to protect against monopolies that violated an idealized America where consumers were best served by local, independent, and competitive businesses.

Consumers at the grass roots complemented Progressive reformers' efforts by asserting their power in the marketplace. Housewives in some local communities successfully boycotted merchants to bring down prices when they climbed too high. Particularly well documented are the protests of New York's immigrant Jewish housewives in kosher meat boycotts in 1902, rent strikes in 1904 and 1907-08, and cost-of-living protests in 1917.

Likewise, organized workers who long had rejected wage labor as slavery depriving workers of their freedom as citizen producers now accepted the reality of industrialized labor and began to agitate for “a living wage” adequate to provide an “American standard of living” for working-class consumers. A fair shake at consumption-achievable through the eight-hour day, government-regulated minimum wages, and union labels-seemed to promise workers both a better quality of life and full rights as citizens. In the tradition of their nineteenth-century antecedents, workers also expanded their use of consumer boycotts to punish uncooperative employers, as during the Seattle labor movement's impressive organizing drive after World War I.

Most visible nationally were the efforts of middle-class women's reform organizations, such as the National Consumers' League (NCL) and its state chapters, to convince female consumers to practice “ethical consumption,” selective buying to pressure employers and the state to improve wages and working conditions for employed women and children. Through its symbolic “Consumers' White Label” campaign, for example, the league urged consumers to purchase only white muslin underwear bearing a label testifying to its manufacture under morally acceptable and sanitary conditions, both to protect their own families from injurious goods and to lobby for protective labor legislation, child labor laws, and improvements in retail and factory work environments. The NCL viewed consumer organization instrumentally as a strategy to better the working conditions of producers; only tangentially did it concern itself with the exploitation of the consumer.

During the 1920s mass consumption-the production, distribution, and purchase of standardized, brand-name goods aimed at the broadest possible buying public-grew more prevalent. By the end of the decade, most Americans, regardless of how much money they had to spend, recognized the growing dominance of mass consumption in the nation's purchasing. Not all Americans participated equally in mass consumer markets; many more lacked a car, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, and radio in 1930 than had one. Yet the expansion of a middle class with more time and money to spend, the extension of consumer credit and installment buying, and the burgeoning of advertising ensured that more and more Americans would consider themselves mass consumers by the 1930s.

At the same time that mass consumption boomed in the 1920s, however, governments only acted minimally to protect consumers from the growing dangers of substandard and sometimes dangerous products, unfair pricing, and misleading advertising. Manufacturers, distributors, and advertisers essentially enjoyed free rein in the increasingly national mass marketplace. During this business-dominated decade, consumers' political consciousness was not high. Much of the fervor had gone out of Progressive Era reform movements. But so long as exciting new products like automobiles, radios, and household appliances kept coming on the market, and affluence seemed to be growing-at least for the middle and upper classes who could afford these consumer durables-few challenged the status quo by calling for stronger regulation. General acceptance of a doctrine of “voluntary compliance” even weakened the authority of the existing regulatory agencies established during the Progressive Era, the FTC and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Rather, those in power in a Republican-dominated Washington argued that the consumers' and manufacturers' joint interests were best served by allowing business to pursue unfettered technological innovations and economic efficiencies. The free market would do the rest to deliver to consumers the best-quality goods at the cheapest prices.

As most Americans concentrated on getting ever greater access to the fruits of mass consumption, some persistent Consumers' Leaguers and unionists still sought to enlist consumers in the battle to improve the conditions under which these goods were made. But few Americans during these years considered consumers a self-conscious, identifiable interest group on a par with labor and business whose well-being required attention for American capitalism and democracy to prosper. That shift in mind-set would await the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the second-wave consumer movement it inspired.

The depression and the Democratic administration's eclectic efforts to overcome it, collectively known as the New Deal, remade the American political economy. A national welfare state emerged, industrial relations were restructured around state-sanctioned collective bargaining, and the federal government assumed a more active role in the economy. Less often mentioned but equally noteworthy was a growing recognition by those in and out of government of the importance of considering the consumer interest in reconstructing a viable economy and polity. By the end of the depression decade, invoking “the consumer” would become an acceptable way of promoting the public good, of defending the economic rights and needs of ordinary citizens.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued in his American Capitalism of 1952, and historian Ellis Hawley elaborated a decade later, that a lasting impact of the New Deal lay in the way it implemented the concept of “countervailing power” or “counterorganization.” By this Galbraith and Hawley meant the New Deal government's efforts to organize economically weak groups to balance more powerful interests. This approach to restoring the economic equilibrium upset by the Great Depression avoided more direct confrontation with existing bastions of power such as big business.

Well known is the New Deal's “counterorganization” of farmers, laborers, and small businessmen. Less appreciated is its growing attentiveness to consumers as a way of institutionalizing, and protecting, the public interest. As the federal government vastly expanded in authority, it became imperative politically that the general good somehow be represented. Making “consumers” a residual category and empowering them to speak for the public became a way of mitigating the excessive power of other political blocs, including the state itself. Attending to the consumer also conformed to another prevailing tendency of the New Deal, the commitment to resuscitate a severely damaged economy without jettisoning the basic tenets of capitalism. Empowering the consumer seemed to many New Dealers a way of enhancing the public's stake in society and the economy while still preserving the free enterprise system.

From the Hardcover edition.

Revue de presse

“Provocative . . . original. . . . Rich in detail and perception.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Substantial, illuminating, and sophisticated. . . . A creative, provocative and often compelling account. . . . Sweeping and fascinating. . . . A genuine contribution to postwar American history.” —Chicago Tribune

“Ingenious. . . . Exceptional. . . . Cohen thinks big. . . . Her history is impeccable; her almost superhuman investigations into obscure sources and archives bring many rewards.” —The New Republic

“A sobering book—and an essential one. . . . Broadly ambitious. . . . The first historical account to examine closely the social world of postwar consumerism and the politics that were so tightly enmeshed with it.” —The American Prospect

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) HASH(0x9ebddfcc) étoiles sur 5 15 commentaires
38 internautes sur 38 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9ebc56a8) étoiles sur 5 The End of Citizenship 8 février 2003
Par Panopticonman - Publié sur
Format: Relié
From Simon Patten's reworking of the theory of supply and demand into his the theory of consumption at the beginning of the 20th century, Americans have been steadily moved away from citizenship to consumership. Lizabeth Cohen charts the stimulation of desire, describes the segmentation of the American public by marketers, real estate developers and political consultants, and traces the deleterious effects of this fragmentation upon the public sphere. She shows with detailed examples and masses of research how this discourse was created and supported by both the government and the corporation, as well as the public, and how in the process the rights of citizens were transformed into the pale substitute of consumer rights. Particularly thought-provoking is her thesis that the segmentation of the market happened in concert with the end of mass political movements, and how polictical movements are now indistinguishable from consumer movements. Well writen, with good illustrations.
35 internautes sur 42 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9ebc59d8) étoiles sur 5 Consumption and Greed 11 mars 2003
Par - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Over the past decade Lizabeth Cohen has been at the forefront of a new type of American history: consumer's history. In this fast growing field historians look at the development of consumption and consumers, both as an ideal and as a reality, and as a new source of identity. There were reasons to be wary of this trend. Were economic realities and questions of power going to be ignored in a celebration of growing affluence? Was the integrity of culture to be ignored in a vindication of mass consumption?
Now that Lizabeth Cohen's new book has been published we can see that those reasons were misguided. This is a thoroughly documented book that is unusually scrupulous in the attention that it pays to problems of class, gender and race. Cohen starts in the thirties, looking at consumer movements and boycotts, and at two differing ideas of the consumer. One is the "citizen consumer," who is the hero of the book, the consumer who protects his (and very often her) rights and does not placidly accept what businesses deign to give them. The other, more prominent, consumer is the Consumer as Purchaser, the Keynesian consumer who stimulates the economy by his purchases. We then go to the war, and see how the government sought to limit price increases with the help of citizen cooperation. We learn about the many female volunteers, while we also learn that African-Americans, who most needed it, got the least help and the least employment with the OPA. Then we go to the postwar world where, despite popular support, Congress abolishes the OPA. Meanwhile the new consensus, the GI Bill, and the boom of suburbia promise a brave new world of abundance for all, or almost all.
Although women unions and minorities have used consumption and consumer's rights movement to express their grievances, one of Cohen's major themes is how the consumer's republic failed to break down the hierarchies of society and indeed reinforced them. Race was the most obvious failure. Although it has been told before, it is still shocking to learn that black soldiers in the Second World War were excluded from stores and restaurants that German Prisoners of War could freely enter. Cohen also reminds us that shabby treatment of Afro-American soldiers was not merely confined to the South, but to the whole country, including in the West where they were previously non-existent. This takes us to New Jersey, Cohen's native state. Although it had public accommodation laws dating back to the 19th century, storeowners often excluded black customers. Indeed, during the Depression both the Salvation Army and the Red Cross would refuse to help African-Americans in some places. In what is the tour de force of the book Cohen, based on massive amounts of evidence, discusses the struggles in New Jersey for successful civil rights legislation, and the racial segregation and outright exclusionism of the suburbs (encouraged by consumer prejudice, business practice and federal guidelines). We learn about New Jersey's selfish politics of localism, how school funding is based on inequitable local taxation, and of the difficult fights to ensure adequate funding for all.
Especially helpful is Cohen's description of the limited effect of the GI Bill. Most of its students would have gone to university anyway. The poor found that its educational benefits wouldn't be of much help to those who hadn't graduated from high school or who were looking for vocational education. Women and African-Americans faced further hurdles in trying to invoke the GI Bill. They faced outright discrimination, blacks couldn't easily enter the traditional veteran's leagues, and one popular one they did enter was red-baited to death. Both groups had second-rate status in the army, and African-Americans were given much more dishonourable discharges for criticizing their mistreatment. Women, for their part, had trouble getting credit cards, and when working women applied with their husbands for a Veteran's Administration Loan, the wife would have to promise she was either infertile or would get an abortion if she became pregnant. Women also had to step aside for returning veterans so that their proportion in one city university fell from 20% in 1940 to 14% in 1947. Meanwhile, the working class did not vanish in a wash of affluence. They kept their identity, which was enforced by a certain class segregation in suburbia.
Cohen also looks at the growth of shopping malls. She discusses how they were isolated from minority populations (one inner-city youth was killed in 1995 crossing a seven-lane highway because the mall were she worked did not allow buses to stop there). She also points out how they work to limit free speech and distort resources. She then goes to look at the rise of market segmentation in the fifties and sixties and how advertisers and businessmen concentrated their efforts at specific groups. She then discusses the rise and fall of the consumer's movement, as Ralph Nader, Rachel Carson and others inspired a great rush of pro-consumer legislation and greater regulatory effort in the sixties. But the consumer's movement had weaknesses as a truly enthusiastic mass movement, while attempts to institutionalize a consumer's voice in government were defeated in the seventies. There are some weaknesses in this book. As a discussion of advertising, it is less stimulating than Jackson Lears' "Fables of Abundance." More could be said about the pernicious effects of advertising for children, including the insane Reagan administration decision to allow the replacement of educational programming with program-length advertisements for toys. And there is not much about the culture of consumption, a problem that has vexed intellectuals from Veblen to Adorno. But as an account of how consumerism moved decisively from working for the common good to what is good for me is best for all, Cohen's work has no rivals.
13 internautes sur 16 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9ebc5210) étoiles sur 5 A remarkable piece of research 1 février 2004
Par Malvin - Publié sur
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
Lizabeth Cohen's "A Consumers' Republic" does much to explain how citizenship has been significantly redefined by consumerism in postwar America. The thoroughly readable book is full of insights and should interest all readers of 20th century American history. It will also prompt many to ponder how America might try to heal its frayed society while there is time available to do so.
In the Acknowledgements, Ms. Cohen explains that this impressive book was written over the course of ten years. Her thesis profited from audience feedback at numerous college lectures and presentations she made during this time and with able assistance from a number of talented student researchers. With over 400 pages of text and 100 pages of notes, the book represents a remarkable achievement and is a testament to Ms. Cohen's intelligent use of the academic research process.
Ms. Cohen is in top form when she chronicles the struggles of women and African-Americans to assert their rights in what she calls the "Consumers' Republic" of 1945 to 1975. The author provides background material by documenting how a variety of bread-and-butter consumer issues mobilized millions into action from the Depression through WWII. Ms. Cohen then shows how power gained by women and minorities through their contributions to the war effort later found expression in the Civil Rights, women's liberation and other movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
However, Ms. Cohen explains that policy makers in the aftermath of WWII were influenced and corrupted by, among other things, unparalleled levels of corporate power and ideological rivalry with the Soviet Union. Mass consumption was seen as a solution to help keep manufacturing profits high and was propagandized in order prove to the world that the U.S. was practically a classless society. The reality was different, of course. The author discusses how racial, gender and class biases were reaffirmed and institutionalized by the GI Bill and other legislative acts. As a result of Ms. Cohen's extraordinary research, the reader comes to understand that the increasingly stratified post-WWII American society that resulted was not inevitable but was shaped by powerful interests who privileged private sector solutions at the expense of the public.
In my view, the only shortcomings in this ambitious book are Ms. Cohen's failure to discuss the environmental consequences of consumerism and her omission of the student revolt against the military/industrial complex in the 1960s. But overall, these are minor quibbles. "A Consumers' Republic" delivers plenty of thought-provoking material and is a pleasure to read. The book is highly recommended to everyone who might want to gain perspective on contemporary American society and further consider where it might be headed.
27 internautes sur 36 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9ebc5c78) étoiles sur 5 "consumer's ranks could include both everyone and no one" 10 février 2005
Par Neal Alexander - Publié sur
Format: Broché
The above quote from the book reveals its fundamental problem. Consumerism is stretched to include (for example) racial equality, housing policy, and politics: this dulls any edge the concept might have as an analytic tool. What is a consumer? We're told "the word's original meaning" - - "to devour, waste and spend" - - but not its current one. The author tries to distinguish between the "citizen consumer" and "purchaser consumer". The supposed dichotomy between these roles was no more obvious to me than to those consumer advocates who - - to the author's apparent surprise - - "found it possible to endorse both simultaneously".

So the book is a kind of grab bag of the USA's post-war social problems, often using the author's home state as an example. At times, she seems on the verge of dissecting New Jersey as Mike Davis does Los Angeles (high praise from me), but never quite sustains such a level. For example, there's a fascinating account of how policies of "upzoning" were used to create homogeneous suburbs of large, expensive, detached houses. But when explaining how this led to racial polarization - - in an era of supposed desegregration - - she can only show us the 'after' map, not the 'before'. However, the use of photos, advertisements, and newspaper cartoons is exemplary: often amusing, sometimes shocking.

Towards the end of the book, the author finds it necessary to expand the concept of "consumer" to "consumer/citizen", and finally to "consumer/citizen/taxpayer/voter": a clear sign of a dead end. On the final page, her vision is vague and feeble: we "could reinvigorate the liberating aspects of the purchaser" and "could seek to reverse the trend toward the Consumerization of the Republic by not shrinking from articulating the important things that only government can do". Hardly a programme of action. But maybe that's too much to expect.
9 internautes sur 11 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9ebc2d80) étoiles sur 5 Fascinating history, though stodgy at times 21 mars 2005
Par M. F. Iverson - Publié sur
Format: Broché
I defer to the thorough review titled "Consumption and Greed" below for a synopsis of this book.

The subject matter of "A Consumers' Republic" is engrossing and the book reveals many truths that are now forgotten and swept under the rug. Cohen uses an impressive plethora of examples to demonstrate her points, and in the end I know much more about the United States' economic and social history from the 30's to the present.

Unfortuntately, Cohen's writing often becomes convoluted and difficult to read due to frequent lengthy and difficult to follow sentences. While reading, many times I had to re-read a sentence or paragraph in order to grasp the author's intent. A few times I even wanted to put the book down and pick up a less academic book - perhaps some fiction - to give my eyes and brain a break. Much of the book is well written and flows well, but these occasional roadblocks require determination to get through and prove frustrating. However, having finished this yesterday, I'm happy I persevered. The incredible amount of research and well thought out and supported thesis' are worth five stars, but the writing brings it down to four stars.
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