1950 – Present Day “The Rise of the Consumer”

The question of whether or not the years 1900-1950 should be considered “the age of catastrophe[1]” as Eric Hobsbawm has stated, requires that one consider the social, political, and economic upheaval experienced by the peoples of Europe and Asia during this time. This consideration should define catastrophe as “a momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin.”[2] To do so helps to disjoin fact from hyperbole and reduces opportunities for dogmatic interpretation as such a large span of time and events is susceptible to producing.

The events of this time period often include momentum and tragedy. There was extreme momentum in the 60 or so days from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the first battle of WWI, when due to alliances, each country was required to join the war. One tragedy of WWI was the reticent recognition that the industrialization of war machines was much more powerful than originally anticipated. Battlefield tactics were not changed to account for this, leading to massive casualties in seemingly endless trench warfare. The greatest tragedy of WWI was not just the massive loss of human life but that it was sacrificed for minimal and insignificant economic and political gain. The tragic cumulative result of WWI was WWII.

The horrors of WWI brought about intense despair and provoked a listless populace into ideas of racial purity. Germany was shell shocked, and only incredibly charismatic and powerful leaders could convince them it was time to go to war again. The economic ruin of Germany from both the war and the Treaty of Versailles was used by Adolf Hitler to overturn the long held belief that all people in Germany, regardless of race or religion, had claim to the title of citizen. The momentum of WWI, “the war that will end war[3]” would wash forward further unrest in Germany and give rise to the National Socialist Party. Extreme misfortune befell the “inferior races” of Nazi Germany. In his book Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning details the lives of ordinary peaceful German policemen forced to murder their neighboring Jewish German citizens in the name of eugenic cleansing, military duty, and the empty glory of the Nazi empire.

Russia would undergo a similar transformation. In the name of Marxism and communism, Vladimir Lenin would rally thousands against the established aristocracy.  The promise of equality for the worker and the abolition of private property, gave rise to a new form of centralized governance. When Lenin died in 1923, a ravenous and morally corrupt Josef Stalin readily took control. Shortly thereafter Stalin began a policy where, at times, randomly chosen ordinary Russian citizens were murdered or sent to forced labor camps in an effort to scare off any capitalist rebellions and to solidify Stalin’s power. Secret police interrogated and tortured without provocation simply to strike fear into the body politic.  Stalin was not concerned with eugenics or the acquisition of territory, but was overwhelmingly fascinated by conquests of power and nationalistic communism. His restructuring of old Russia into a mechanized industrial power saved it from capitulation in WWII, but this required installing the core tenets of the Communist Manifesto into a culturally diverse, resource rich and vast land. The most efficient way to do this was through fear and central control.

The overthrow and potential ruin created by these fascist regimes gave momentum to Britain and the United States to intervene once again. It was an extreme misfortune for the citizens of Europe and Asia whose everyday lives were turned upside down and destroyed. “Catastrophic” may very well be too weak a term to define the upheaval and destruction cast by the wills of a few evil men during this time period.

The period of 1950 to present day began as a continuation of the age of catastrophe for at least one of the world powers – Russia.  However, the promise of technology and the empowerment of the individual consumer would soon lead to a stagnant and futile cold war and, finally, a capitulation of Soviet style communism. The decades of 1950 to present day should be considered the “quiet rise of the consumer”.

The Yalta Conference established zones of influence for democracy and communism. Germany and Berlin were divided up and pieced out to the victors of WWII. Germany itself was in shambles. The war had destroyed its infrastructure, beheaded the government and crushed the will of the people. From these ashes, a new and divided Germany would arise, thanks in part to the US and the Marshall Plan. West Germany and Austria would experience explosive economic growth in the 1950s – a Wirtschaftswunder (German for “economic miracle”), but East Germany would not experience such a revival. The economic battle lines had been drawn further, strengthened by Khrushchev and the Brezhnev Doctrine, hardening the “Iron Curtain[4]”.  Soviet Russia resisted change even after the destruction caused by the fascists of WWII, and was dedicated to holding on to its old ways as long as possible.

The 1950s in the U.S. was a time of unbridled economic growth. The U.S. was not damaged during the war like much of the rest of the world, and therefore was able to turn its highly charged and efficient war infrastructure into factories foe consumer goods. The advent of the credit card, and the acceptance of a new consumer demographic, the teenager, pushed supply and demand for consumer goods to new highs. There were also a number of economic agreements within Europe such as the European Common Market and the establishment of economically friendly international trading policies like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which helped spread consumerism globally.

The rapid spread of consumerism led to the mandate of choice amongst the populations of Western Europe. In contrast, Eastern Europeans did not have such choices. They were consumers of only what their government made for them. Eastern Europeans enjoyed the benefits of communism – parks, free schooling, and job security.  However, knowing that other Europeans had the choice to buy something that was not made by the government, in addition to access to career and travel opportunities, eventually fueled revolutions and led to the failure of Soviet Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall.[5]

The Cold War did not amount to mass casualties. It did not amount to mass destruction and the sudden upheaval of established states. The Cold War was purely a stalemate, a standoff. The Cold War was a resistance of the old Soviet regime to recognize centralized tightly controlled power over large numbers of people could only persist in a vacuum free of western consumerism.

The rise of science and technology enabled mass media, which in turn communicated western culture and ideals towards freedom outside of national boundaries. This led to the economic power of the consumer to choose which firms and industries should thrive. These firms and industries in turn gave increased government tax revenue and provided higher military expenditures. The governments who coddled the consumer the most eventually found themselves more globally powerful than governments who did not. This was the quiet and subversive rise of the consumer as a world power, the chosen world power.

Bibliography

Browning, Christopher Ordinary Men Harper Collins; 1993

 

McKay, Hill, Buckler, Crowston, Wiesner-Hanks, Perry A History of Western Society Bedford/St. Martins 2011

 



[1] Eric Hobsbawm The Age of Extremes: the short twentieth century, 1914-1991 New York: Vintage, 1994

[3] Wells, H.G. The War That Will End War London, F. & C. Palmer, 1914

[4]  Churchill, Wiston Sinews of Peace (speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946)

[5] McKay, Hill, Buckler, Crowston, Wiesner-Hanks, Perry “State and Society in the East Bloc” Chap.30 in A History of Western Society Bedford/St. Martins 2011

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