The Politics of Mass Consumption

In Postwar America

By Lizabeth Cohen

Knopf. 567 pp. $35

We are all shoppers now. As market economies extend over most of the globe, consumer purchases serve as the most visible badges of pleasure, taste, status and aspiration -- the heart and soul of what dour sociologists call "expressive individualism." But in America, getting and spending has long been something close to a civic faith. The American way of life -- itself largely a postwar marketing conceit -- resides most of all in the freedom of markets, and even our most vital social goods, such as housing, health care and education, are apportioned along a fairly strict grid of market access.

We have largely come to take this consumer-centric social world for granted -- indeed, in the face of a terrorist enemy that depicts our consumer appetites as satanic, we tend more and more to celebrate them as foundational national virtues. In reality, however, the notion of mass consumer abundance is still a comparative novelty in a republic with fairly deep Puritan and production-minded roots. Consumer society is also a very self-conscious political creation, contrived on anything but a level playing field. Harvard University historian Lizabeth Cohen traces the recent history of our consuming life in her lively if at times impressionistic survey A Consumers' Republic. Also the author of a Bancroft-Award winning study of New Deal unionization and co-author of a college survey textbook, The American Pageant, Cohen teases out the subject of her new book into a big-canvas narrative format while tending closely to the critical question of how fitfully the consumers' paradise of our postwar social order lived up to its bold promise of prosperity for all.

She begins the story in the trough of modern consumer demand, the Great Depression. Under the aegis of the New Deal, not merely was government mobilized as a key force of economic stimulus, but consumer behavior took on new political meaning. Consumers were enlisted to serve on industrial production and price control boards overseen by the new National Recovery Administration, and Franklin Roosevelt went on to hail consumers -- at least in rhetorical terms -- as the lead constituencies for a host of allied New Deal agencies after the NRA went under in 1935. With the advent of World War II, the federal government took a still more active hand in managing industry for wartime production -- and in rationing consumer goods in order to keep scarce raw materials moving through their proper supply lines. This was, Cohen writes, the heyday of "the citizen as consumer" -- an era when the nation's very security hinged on responsible consumer behavior and across-the-board industrial sacrifice.

With the war's end came a new set of economic mandates -- the need to stabilize prices and labor markets with the return of a huge demobilized military workforce. By Cohen's account, this produced a new consumer dispensation: the age of the "purchaser as citizen," an American ideal-type "who simultaneously fulfilled personal desire and civic obligation by consuming." The Truman and Eisenhower years ushered in a host of new programs and legislation to undergird this ideal, from the GI Bill to the Interstate Highways Act, and in the process summoned forth much of the landscape of mass consumption we know so well today: a newly dispersed (and heavily white) cohort of suburban homeowners, comfortably sundered from an increasingly poor and industrial urban America.

It is in this latter respect that Cohen's otherwise familiar narrative breaks some welcome new ground. By marshaling a wealth of secondary research, she is able to chart the ways in which the benefits of the GI Bill -- particularly VA mortgage and education loans -- were not the universal elixir of upward social mobility they are commonly taken to be. Rather, as she writes, "evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the better off a GI was going into the war, the better off VA benefits made him after it." In part, this was itself a simple study in segmented consumer demand: GIs already inclined to purchase a home or attend college were best positioned to make the most of VA subsidies. But also contributing to this pattern of inequality, in Cohen's view, were the state and local authorities charged with administering the GI Bill's largess. As she notes, "The federal government channeled its dollars through existing institutions -- the real estate industry, banks, private colleges -- and thereby underwrote rather than challenged longstanding discriminatory practices."

Still, the universalist rhetoric of the GI Bill and other postwar consumer reforms provided a new organizing standard for those excluded from the blandishments of the consumers' republic -- notably women and African Americans. One of the strengths of A Consumers' Republic is Cohen's account of how civil rights activists deliberately targeted the symbols of market access that segregationist rule had closed off to them, from public transit and lunch counters to rental subsidies and mortgages. Likewise, many women got a bracing lesson in the limits of economic citizenship from the consumers' republic: After being mobilized into the industrial workforce during the war and then abruptly discarded, they were similarly kept from exercising meaningful economic power as shoppers with the postwar closing of the federal Office of Price Administration. And when the modern "second wave" feminist movement stirred to life, women successfully challenged 1950s federal legislation that denied them equitable access to consumer credit and bank loans -- while shifting a disproportionate federal tax burden onto some of them under head-of-household filing provisions.

Yet the real political proving ground for the new landscape of consumer society was local. The new American suburban polity arose from a patchwork of local government structures -- from unincorporated townships to counties -- that functioned as a sort of class-insulated frontier democracy. By mandating, for example, oversized single-home lot divisions -- a practice known as "upzoning" -- suburban governments were able to formalize much the same economic exclusions (and collateral racial ones) familiar to black and Jewish would-be homeowners under the earlier discriminatory regime of restrictive covenants. Thanks to an array of decisions in state court cases upholding the zoning and taxing sovereignty of these suburban jurisdictions, there also soon emerged a similar, withering set of inequities in government services such as public education -- financed principally by property taxes, which bulk especially large in suburban polities not encumbered by sizable social service and welfare outlays. The ideal of racial integration embodied in the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling "became increasingly meaningless," Cohen writes, "as . . . persistent localism, fortified by a stratified real-estate market and substantial municipal property taxes, made remedying inequality extremely difficult."

Cohen does a good job of keeping the not-always arresting details of taxing and zoning policy anchored in real-world political settings. She does so by referring to important case studies from New Jersey, in many ways the model postwar suburban state. However, like many historians of a left-ish persuasion, she can hamper her own measured assessments of market injustices by soft-pedaling or romanticizing the behavior of excluded victims. It's a considerable stretch, for example, to argue on the basis of a few anecdotal reports that thousands of urban rioters of the late 1960s "engaged in looting local stores as a way of avenging exploitative treatment and satisfying their pent-up desires for basic consumer goods, promised but not delivered by a supposedly prosperous postwar America." Doubtless some rioters had something like such a social agenda in mind -- and doubtless many others were engaging in mayhem for mayhem's sake. In either event, it's worth noting that these riots produced very much the opposite effect of greater access to nonexploitive consumer markets, as developers and investors rapidly decamped from urban riot sites, in many cases never to return.

Such lapses also serve to point up the limitations of Cohen's larger interpretive scheme linking citizenship with consumption, two forces that don't seem as dialectically cozy as she takes them to be. In some settings -- such as the emerging market democracies of the former Soviet bloc -- the act of consumption does indeed come freighted with a strong political meaning. In others, however, consumption is at best a political nullity -- and at worst, as much of her own narrative shows, a stubborn obstacle to forging a public life that extends beyond the buying self. In her epilogue, Cohen acknowledges this dilemma -- when marketers and political operatives alike segment the mass consumer public into rival demographic cohorts for the sake of short-term gain, arriving at "a common set of political and social goals" is among the consumer republic's "greatest challenges." Cohen proposes that in response to this dismaying trend we seek to revive the "purchaser as citizen" model of activism adopted in the civil rights and women's movements, and she dismisses more austere critics of mass consumption as adherents of a civic ideal lost in "an unregainable past -- if it ever existed at all." Yet it's hard to avoid the reflection that the civil rights and feminist drives for access to mass consumer markets stalled precisely at the point where such access was won: Civil rights leaders were unable to sustain the momentum of Martin Luther King Jr.'s fledgling but ambitious "Poor People's Campaign" in the wake of King's death; and feminist leaders made far less headway in universalist campaigns for the Equal Rights Amendment and comparable worth than they have in court-driven crusades for reproductive rights and against sexual harassment. In today's consumers' republic, in other words, the forces that define a public interest may have been gotten and spent. *

Chris Lehmann is deputy editor of Book World.