A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass
Consumption in Postwar America
by Lizabeth Cohen
The friendly clerk with plastic gloves at Bagel Oasis asks what I'm reading. I hold up Consumer Society in American History: A Reader. "Ohhh," she groans, like I've told her I've got a nasty presentation at work to prep for. And there I was hoping our sales transaction would culminate in a joke about the suburban implications of the "everything" bagel.
Consumerism engulfs us, defines us, inspires and torments us. David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise, about bourgeois bohemians (from ecotourists to trendy TV intellectuals) as the new ruling class, became a bestseller. Pre-Dave Eggers and McSweeney's, a zine called The Baffler seized center stage in the indie thinkpits arguing that coolness had become capitalism's favorite merchandising tool.
Now Lizabeth Cohen has arrived to bring the full apparatus of academic American history to the topic. Her previous book, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919--1939, catapulted her from Carnegie Mellon to Harvard and represented an intellectual benchmark of the most un-Bobo variety. Using Chicago as a case study, Cohen showed why mass culture wasn't the easy assimilator into middle-class WASPness that historians of the 1920s had assumed; it could take firmly ethnic forms. And even when the working classes started to blur (nonwhites excepted), the result was as likely to be a vibrant AFL-CIO-led GM sit-down strike as a ticket to Gone with the Wind.
A Consumers' Republic looks to the next chapter: the postwar suburban American Dream of single homeownership, shopping malls, and I Love Lucy. Cohen sees a "consumer republic" that, again, contrary to stereotype, actually didn't make all of us alike. Instead, its effect was one of segmentation, her keyword, eroding the kinds of crossings cities are famous for, where different racial and class types are forced to mingle. Cohen is at her best returning to the case study, this time using her native New Jersey (land of megamalls and the mythic NJ Turnpike), to prove beyond doubt--with charts of Veteran's Administration loan patterns, etc.--just how deliberately suburbia was socially engineered by government agencies and business leaders.
If this were 20 years ago, the next step would be to hear how baby boomers, enraged by the stifling suburbs and enthralled by rock, rose up to challenge the hollowness of postwar consumer culture. No such luck anymore. In the face of Republican ascendancy, Wal-Mart, Nike, and ever-widening wealth disparities, the reigning interpretation is that consumerism sucketh all. Though Cohen's focus is mostly 1945-1970 or so, a pretty rollicking time in places (with progressive attainments we crave today), the story for her is the cementing of a suburban structure that would inevitably push property-value-conscious homeowners to reject "big government" and dissolve the New Deal coalition.
It's hard to feel satisfied with an account of mass consumerism that notes African American exclusion from cheap credit and umpteen neighborhoods but ignores the same group's central role in defining cultural style. Not to mention neglecting sports, music, food, or anything cultural beyond the disparate life arcs of Newark natives Philip Roth and Amiri Baraka. This is almost a throwback to the days when Marxists divided everything into base and superstructure.
Cohen's approach raises the question of whether, in its push to gain academic legitimacy, the new consumer history has been practicing a form of exclusionary segmentation itself. Unskilled, or uninterested, in practicing interpretive criticism or descriptively engaging the ambiguities of consumer behavior, she has a tough time moving beyond case studies to carve through a topic that's inherently endless and polyphonic.
However shunned in Fremont bagelry, Lawrence Glickman's reader of a couple of years back, Consumer Society in American History, is a more varied set of takes on consumerism, documenting how very gradually historians and other analysts have learned to stop holding their noses and just rub their faces in the thing. In the final chapter, "Coming Up for Air: Consumer Culture in Historical Perspective," Jean-Christophe Agnew asserts the need for a hybrid cultural history of consumption that would marry American social and labor history with literary and cultural theory. Amen. For now, I'll just spend my hard-earned dollars and free time on books that highlight the many examples left to exploit, like Andrew Hurley's Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in Postwar Consumer Culture. Gobble gobble gobble.