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From Citizen to Consumer

Friday, August 1, 2003

Lizabeth Cohen.
A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.
Knopf. 576 pages. $35.00

 

Soon after the September 11 attacks, members of the Bush administration exhorted Americans to demonstrate their patriotism by maintaining high levels of consumer spending. President Bush declared that the American economy was “open for business,” and Vice President Cheney urged Americans not to let terrorists “throw off their normal level of economic activity.” Many pundits and social critics proclaimed that the republic had reached a new low. But readers of Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen’s new book, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, will likely conclude that we have been residing in these particular depths for many decades. In her expansive study, Cohen aims to demonstrate the importance of mass consumption to all dimensions of American society in the years following World War ii: its residential and commercial landscapes; its class consciousness, gender norms, and race relations; its political ideals and forms of political action. “Mass consumption did not only deliver wonderful things for the purchase,” she writes, “it also dictated the most central dimensions of postwar society . . . with major consequences for how Americans made a living, where they dwelled, how they interacted with others, what they expected of government, and much else.” By reviewing the history of postwar America through the lens of consumption, Cohen wants to show “that mass consumption had become the central defining engine, not simply of the American economy but of its politics and culture as well.”

Cohen begins her story in the Depression, when the idea of the consumer as a distinct yet all-enveloping social category first arose. When Americans before the 1930s “contemplated what made for the most robust national economy, the most stable American polity, and the most independent citizenry,” Cohen writes, “they overwhelmingly pointed to the vitality of production.” During the Depression, however, consumption came to be recognized as the activity at the heart of the American economy. The focus on consumers was conspicuous among the nation’s policymakers, especially President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Brains Trust.” Progressive thinkers imagined consumers as an independent interest group that could counterbalance business and labor. New Deal agencies such as the National Recovery Administration first gave government representation to consumers as such, and new regulatory laws aimed at protecting consumers, including the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, were enacted late in the 1930s.

At the same time, as Cohen explains in a somewhat weak section on the period’s economic thought, Keynesian economic theory gained influence in the United States. The prevailing economic doctrine, Say’s Law, held that production and consumption would automatically reach equilibrium. Keynes argued that while this was true, it was possible for equilibrium to occur at varying levels of economic vitality. A mature economy such as that of the United States might conceivably remain in a depressed state indefinitely. Some stimulus was needed, and that had to come from government measures to boost consumer spending. Thus, along with radical New Deal efforts to channel money to needy Americans came an equally radical rhetoric that urged them to abandon habits of thrift and spend their money quickly.

The New Deal also saw a rise in grassroots consumer activism. In the words of a contemporary Harvard Business Review article, Americans showed an increasing “dissatisfaction with the goods and services and the marketing practices involved in their distribution” and a greater “demand for information and protection in the market.” They responded by putting pressure on both businesses and government through an upsurge in consumer education classes, product-testing agencies such as Consumers’ Research, organized strikes against high prices, and lobbying on consumer issues. A majority of these campaigns were led by women who, in Cohen’s words, channeled “the role assigned to them in the household” into greater political participation and influence. African Americans — who were losing jobs disproportionately during the Depression and were confronted with inferior merchandise and higher prices — also stepped up attempts to wield their consumer spending power in the 1930s. Boycotts, “Don’t buy where you can’t work” movements, and campaigns to support black-owned businesses proliferated.

In the multiplicity of consumer-related ideas and activities that arose in the 1930s, Cohen discerns two dominant and rival strains. The first was found in grassroots consumer activism and the belief of many New Dealers that consumers deserved protection by, and representation in, the government. This was the ideal of the “citizen consumer,” according to which the consumer, with “government as ally,” acted inside and outside the marketplace to “safeguard the rights of individual consumers and the larger general good.” The second strain, encouraged by Keynesian ideas about underconsumption, was the “purchaser consumer” ideal, which held that consumers could best promote the general good by spending liberally to buy whatever was in their individual interests. Of these two ideals, Cohen obviously prefers the first. The citizen consumer ideal promoted a more active and vigilant public, gave opportunities for political assertion to relatively powerless groups such as women and blacks, and prescribed more state intervention in the economy. All of this Cohen clearly favors but does not explicitly defend. The purchaser consumer ideal, on the other hand, encouraged citizens to trust businesses to provide them with high-quality goods at fair prices, to disengage politically and not press government to extend its reach into the economy, and to indulge their desires without restraint. Cohen does not so much openly denounce purchaser consumers as use value-laden language to cast aspersion on that ideal.

Cohen’s presentation of the purchaser consumer ideal is not entirely negative. In its formative period, she depicts the ideal as having strong democratic and egalitarian elements. New Dealers embraced Keynesianism in part because it argued that “dynamic consumer demand depended on a wide distribution of purchasing power,” making economic egalitarianism a virtual economic necessity. This notion was carried forth into the postwar period, when robust consumer spending was seen as essential to sustaining growth and preventing a relapse into depression. Mass consumption was expected to both elevate and equalize the overall standard of living, dissolving barriers of social status as the working class surged into a “mass middle class.” Cohen argues, however, that the egalitarian aspirations of the purchaser consumer ideal were not ultimately fulfilled. The economic and social structures of the postwar period sustained old inequalities and encouraged new ones. The remainder of her book is dedicated to explaining how this occurred.

 

During the Second World War, the purchaser consumer ideal went into remission. Government spending on the military was sufficient to support the economy; what was needed from consumers was to restrain their consumption so that precious raw materials would not be diverted from the war effort. Rationing and price-control systems were established, and these were enforced through extensive bureaucracies of citizen consumers, again mostly women. Yet Cohen suggests that the purchaser consumer ideal was never really discarded: Consumers were exhorted merely to stifle temporarily their consumer urges, which could then be released during the anticipated abundance of the postwar economy. Wartime advertising promised spectacular new products, and government campaigns for war bonds appealed both to present patriotic obligation and to future consumer pleasures that wartime savings would make possible. At the end of the war, many Americans, including labor and women’s groups, hoped that the government and consumer activists would continue to play a significant role in the postwar economy. These groups, however, lost out to retailing and manufacturing associations that argued that releasing controls and letting the free market reign were the real path to higher productivity and prosperity. President Truman phased out the majority of wage and price controls in 1946, and the consumer movement withered in the postwar period.

Businesses promoting an unfettered free market and the purchaser consumer ideal received considerable support from the growing international rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Free enterprise linked with mass consumption came to be seen as the heart of “the American Way of Life.” Cohen writes that mass consumption was viewed as “evidence of economic egalitarianism,” of “an abundance that beat the Soviets at their own game of creating the classless society.” In this way, the prewar Keynesians’ hopeful linkage of mass consumption with egalitarianism gained new emphasis. Other central American ideals came to be identified with consumer society. The nineteenth-century archetype of the independent working man was revitalized, only now the working man gained independence through consumption rather than production. Stated Eisenhower: “An American working man can own his own comfortable home and car . . . he is not the downtrodden, impoverished vassal of whom Karl Marx wrote.” Similarly, advertising and political speeches conflated consumers’ free choice in the marketplace with such political liberties as free speech and the right to choose one’s representatives.

According to Cohen, these images amounted to “an elaborate, integrated ideal of economic abundance and democratic political freedom, both equitably distributed,” which “became almost a national civic religion from the late 1940s into the 1970s.” She labels this paradigm “the Consumers’ Republic.” It was a comforting vision, she argues, for it “promised the socially progressive end of economic equality without requiring the politically progressive means of redistributing wealth.”

The role of the state in the Consumers’ Republic was complex. The federal government did not take charge of directing the economy to the degree desired by advocates of central planning, nor did it act as a restraint on business in the manner that citizen consumers had hoped. But its involvement in the economy did exceed that of any prewar period, including the New Deal. Most of this involvement was geared toward boosting and maintaining Americans’ purchasing power. On the necessity of this, business, economists, and labor agreed. The Employment Act of 1946 announced the government’s responsibility to “promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.” A variety of federal programs contributed to this end, including the 1944 gi Bill, federal highway construction, social programs such as unemployment insurance and Social Security, the Veterans Administration, and the Federal Housing Administration.

Cohen acknowledges a surge in general prosperity during the postwar period. The national output of goods and services doubled from 1946 to 1956, and did so again by 1970. Both mean and median family incomes doubled from 1949 to 1973. Home ownership leaped, as did purchases of automobiles and home appliances. Yet Cohen claims that “the universal prosperity and equality assumed to be intrinsic to a vital mass consumption economy succeeded more in making promises than in ensuring delivery.” The Consumers’ Republic did not become a classless society.

 

Part of the reason for this, Cohen argues, was that the opportunities pledged to citizens, especially veterans, in the postwar period were not in fact available to all. A study published by the University of Chicago in 1951 reported that the gi Bill had provided strikingly little social mobility to American workers. Few of those veterans who had not, before the war, planned to attend college made use of college scholarships — in part because a majority had not completed high school. The working class’s ability to take advantage of loans to buy homes or start businesses was similarly circumscribed. The gi Bill channeled its funds through existing real estate and financial institutions, which were reluctant to lend to working-class veterans who lacked property or credit records. Veterans scaled back their aspirations and became willing to return to their old jobs.

Though the egalitarian aspirations of the Consumers’ Republic never extended to sexual or racial equality, Cohen assesses those aspirations on these fronts as well. Even more than members of the working class, African Americans were deprived of the benefits available to veterans in the postwar period. Moreover, the segregation enforced in the public spaces of Southern states spread to the North and West as growing numbers of blacks moved to these regions. Discrimination in and exclusion from commercial activity became a principal source of frustration and anger as blacks were exposed to the prosperous images and egalitarian rhetoric of the Consumers’ Republic but found that its fruits were denied to them. Increasingly, however, blacks were able to channel their influence as consumers to bring about changes in these policies and in racial attitudes more broadly.

Cohen sees the postwar period as one of considerable retrenchment in the status of women. The waning of the consumer movement saw the end of a primary avenue for women’s political participation. Men discharged from the military recovered many of the new responsibilities women had assumed during the war. Women — even most female veterans — had no access to the opportunities for advancement and self-reliance provided by the gi Bill. Single women were rarely granted mortgages or access to credit, while married women found that their husbands were required to be the legal holders of any mortgages or accounts. Divorced, separated, and widowed women were left with no credit standing at all. Women even lost power within the realm of consumption, Cohen argues, as their husbands, who supplied the income and had access to credit, commonly made decisions regarding the substantial purchases (of cars, furniture, appliances) of the postwar era.

The residential arrangement of postwar America perpetuated existing inequalities and contributed to new ones, Cohen suggests, as suburbia became the “distinctive landscape of the Consumers’ Republic.” Fed by highway construction, va mortgages, and the desire to escape overcrowded, often deteriorating city buildings, the suburban population increased by 43 percent between 1947 and 1953. Suburbanization gave a majority of Americans their first opportunity for property ownership, and it raised the standard of living for millions. Initial suburban developments such as Levittown were designed to serve the “mass middle class” imagined by the Consumers’ Republic, with a balance of white-collar and blue-collar residents. But class distinctions soon reasserted themselves, as white-collar residents moved on to new developments with larger houses and a more exclusive residency. In the succeeding decades, suburbia became highly stratified, Cohen writes, as people “selected among homogenous suburbs occupying distinctive rungs in a clear status hierarchy of communities.” Builders began to target their new projects at specific populations through lot size, home size, and community attributes, giving their developments “instant socioeconomic identities.” Once established, wealthier communities preserved their class character through use of zoning laws establishing minimum lot sizes and prohibiting multiple-family dwellings.

Zoning laws were designed especially with an eye toward keeping out undesirable races. Indeed, Cohen perceives that “race was intrinsic to the process of postwar suburbanization.” Fear of the swelling population of blacks in Northern cities supplied an additional motivation to whites thinking of moving out. For white homeowners, these fears were amplified, for the dynamic real estate market of the postwar period made “property values” a newly salient concern. As middle-class blacks moved into the first rings of suburbs around many urban areas, the process repeated itself. White communities erected barriers against black entry through zoning, red-lining (by which mortgage lenders labeled black or racially mixed areas an undesirable financial risk), and informal agreements among homeowners and real estate agents in the area. Thus, racial prejudice, combined with an unprecedented commodification of the home, created a Northern landscape segregated even more by race than by class.

The postwar stratification of American communities meant that municipal services would be unequally distributed. With higher incomes and smaller populations, wealthier towns were able to service their needs even with low tax rates, while cities were left with a poorer population needing more services and struggled to fund them with higher tax rates. The amenities provided by suburban communities also came to include elaborate new shopping centers. These offered proximity to the suburbs, ample parking, a precise mix of stores, and a safe, carefully controlled environment. Suburban malls soon drew shoppers away from urban downtowns, contributing to the economic deterioration of those areas. Like the communities in which they were situated, shopping centers came to be designed with specific social classes in mind. And mall owners succeeded in excluding entirely undesirable urban elements such as beggars, the homeless, and racial minorities.

By the end of the 1960s, the idea of mass consumption at the heart of the Consumers’ Republic became obsolete, writes Cohen. A majority of sellers in the 1940s and 50s still aimed their goods at an average, middle-class “Mr. and Mrs. Consumer.” But the marketers they hired to do this more effectively, assisted by the budding academic discipline of sociology, soon began to perceive within the mass a multitude of different subsectors. The process began with the recognition that people with different income levels differed in their tastes, preferences, and aspirations in addition to their disposable wealth. Marketers went on to break consumers down by age, gender, race, ethnic background, education, and geography. The assumption was now that members of different social sectors were “profoundly different in [their] mode of thinking and way of handling the world,” in the words of sociologist-turned-marketer Pierre Martineau. Advertisements, and even the products themselves, were soon designed with one or another market segment in mind. Cohen describes the result as “a new commercial culture that reified — at times even exaggerated — social difference.” Thus, consumption, imagined as a means by which American society would be leveled and unified, became instead a locus and source of social divisions.

 

Has cohen succeeded in providing a new vision of postwar American history? It must be said that many of her arguments are not wholly original, having appeared in the literature of various historical subspecialties. Women’s historians have written on the gender norms of the reconversion period, the field of urban studies includes many volumes on the process of suburbanization, and cultural historians have described the rise of marketing and its links with sociology. Cohen’s principal accomplishment is to bring all of these ideas together into a single volume, organized around the theme of consumption.

Still, a few things are lost in the process. I found myself wishing for greater attention to the language of the period and for an in-depth look at a particular family or town. Cohen’s prose is not always the liveliest, and she aggravates the textbook-like feel of the narrative with the separate sections on women and blacks that appear at regular intervals. If their stories are central to the history of postwar America, one would think Cohen could find a way to integrate them into the main narrative. More important, Cohen fits so much material under the framework of consumption that the theme begins to lose any power to structure her argument and research. Lunch counter sit-ins for civil rights and the class stratification of the suburbs both involve consumption, but in such different ways that I am not sure what greater insights are achieved by placing them side-by-side.

Cohen’s use of the paradigm of the Consumers’ Republic is a bit flabby as well. Her identification of this ideal — in which each individual’s expenditures benefited overall prosperity and a rising tide lifted all boats without painful or controversial redistribution by political means — as the animating creed of postwar society is insightful. But the standards by which she judges the Consumers’ Republic are far beyond the hopes of even the more utopian of its postwar proponents. Cohen is indignant because the Consumers’ Republic did not produce a perfectly classless society — but what was the likelihood that it would? What it did achieve is impressive — a dramatic rise in the standard of living and a more equal division of wealth than anytime before or, for that matter, since. And Cohen’s sections on women and African Americans bring a different, and entirely current, set of values to bear on the Consumers’ Republic. Her sections on women feel especially anachronistic: The independent, career-minded woman was never a part of the Consumers’ Republic ideal; rather, the aspiration was for a society in which even working-class husbands earned enough to allow their wives to concentrate their attentions on home and family. It is apparent how Cohen feels about this arrangement, but she gives us little insight into how women viewed it in the 1940s and 50s.

Which brings me to the problem of Cohen’s politics, which are ever-present throughout the book. She is either incapable of or unsatisfied by the neutral exploration of a historical phenomenon, yet she rarely endorses or condemns anything outright. Instead she imbues her writing with opinion through subtle or unsubtle value-laden language, in the manner of “oppressive,” “inequitable,” and “heroic.” It is the kind of writing that assumes the reader shares Cohen’s beliefs, and it will be a major irritant to any reader who does not. Cohen’s politics also lead to more serious distortions. A recurrent theme in the book is that the divisions and inequalities of the Consumers’ Republic resulted from the postwar decision to leave major sectors of the American economy in the hands of the private market. For instance, Cohen writes that “the extent to which private real estate markets shaped postwar suburban communities over time exacerbated inequalities.” But after reading her detailed explication of the class, race, and gender discrimination of federal agencies such as the va and fha, one has to wonder why she imagines that public control of residential development would have yielded more equitable results.

In this tendency, Cohen follows a genre of history writing that blames various social ills of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on the imperatives of an ever-expanding and intensifying “market.” Cohen, like others in this school, appears to forget that what she terms the market is really an aggregation of decisions made by individuals. In fact, Cohen presents plenty of evidence indicating that Americans in the postwar period preferred to live among people of a similar class and race and took advantage of the opportunities afforded by the development of new residential communities to do just that. But though she disapproves of these decisions, to call the American public selfish, cowardly, or uncivic would cast doubt on her faith in the sanctity of democracy, so she evades these judgments by placing blame on impersonal market forces.

Still, A Consumers’ Republic is a valuable study of a time in American history that is beginning to recede from view. Cohen brings together important recent work from many historical fields and gives it an original spin, pointing out the centrality of consumption. She presents a wealth of material in ways that will inspire further debate and study. We could rightfully have hoped for a book that is less dutiful, more imaginative, and freer of political bias, but Cohen has done us a service nonetheless.

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