- Paperback: 576 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; REPR edition (Dec 30 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0375707379
- ISBN-13: 978-0375707377
- Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 2.8 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 522 g
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #312,828 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America Paperback – Dec 30 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
After WWII, Americans' lives were shaped by economic, political, social and cultural structures premised on the notion that mass consumption would bring widespread prosperity and social equality. In an ideal America, mass consumption would "provide jobs, purchasing power, and investment dollars, while also allowing Americans to live better than ever before, participate in political decision-making on an equal footing with their similarly prospering neighbors, and to exercise their cherished freedoms by making independent choices in markets and politics." Although the postwar era offered a period of unprecedented affluence and encouraged certain forms of political activism, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Cohen (Making a New Deal) powerfully illustrates the consumer culture's failures in terms of social egalitarianism. The postwar housing shortage spawned suburbs that starkly emphasized class and racial differences; well-intentioned innovations, such as the G I bill, had little impact on women, working-class men and African-Americans; targeted marketing segmented citizens along class, gender, age, race and ethnic lines, accentuating divisions and undermining commonalities; and economic inequality expanded greatly during the past three decades. Cohen's sharp and incisive history particularly highlights the struggles of blacks seeking civil rights and women pursuing greater representation within the republic, illuminating the ways that mass consumption both helped and hindered their progress. Ultimately, Cohen asks whether mass consumption has successfully created a more egalitarian and democratic American society. The answer is balanced, judicious and laced with suggestions for how American citizens can begin to articulate a common vision for the future, even as the nation's population grows ever more diverse. 64 illus., 3 maps.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* Without question, this is a difficult, demanding, and dense book--but it is also a greatly significant contribution to this season's business literature. Cohen, author of the prizewinning Making a New Deal (1990), submits a copiously researched, brilliantly conceived, and ultimately quite instructive study of American economics since the Depression. Stated in its simplest terms, her thesis, which she elaborately, even excitingly develops, is that from the 1930s until the present day, particularly since WW II, the U.S. defines what she calls a consumer republic: "an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption." She posits that within the second half of the twentieth century, good consumerism and good citizenship became twin concepts--ideals that were mutually inclusive. The belief arose and gained veracity that to maintain American might, the good citizen must also be the good consumer. The ramifications of this political notion are explored in various aspects of how and where Americans lived over the past half-century, with considerable attention paid to the effect of the consumer republic on black Americans. Not just for business readers but also for those who are serious about history, political science, and sociology. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
This word is a defining aspect of our American world... Consumerism covers daily life, whether it be drug discounts, tourism, marketers, insurance, cars, homes, technology or just plain old product reviews. We Americans are defined by our consumption.
Lizabeth Cohen has given us a thoroughly researched, readable history on consumerism, and how it came to be such a force and part of our lives in America. She argues that after WWII the "Consumer Republic" was launched, full force, affecting life styles, government and even belief systems. Though the beginning of a consumers movement had occurred before 1940, the "Consumer Republic" took form and force after the second world war.
Cohen's writing style is informative, to the point of being academic. "A Consumers' Republic" is a history book. Thus, it may be a bit more pedantic than most general readers would like.
I found a few omissions that distracted from the overall excellence of the book. One being that Cohen does not investigate how consumerism has been incorporated into, and seriously affected, American Christianity. She does not address how Christianity, especially considering the 'Protestant work ethic', helped to shaped and drive consumerism into being. She does not explore 'why' Americans live to consume, "shop til they drop." Neither does she reflect on the effects that unbridled consumption have on both the social fabric of our nation or the ecological impact on our land.
That said, this book is a "need to read" for students of American history, marketing, those involved as consumer activists, and business. Recommended. 3.5 stars
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.
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