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A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America Hardcover – January 21, 2003

4.2 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.

From Booklist

*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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition (January 21, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375407502
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375407505
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #433,085 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
From Simon Patten's reworking of the theory of supply and demand into his the theory of consumption at the beginning of the 20th century, Americans have been steadily moved away from citizenship to consumership. Lizabeth Cohen charts the stimulation of desire, describes the segmentation of the American public by marketers, real estate developers and political consultants, and traces the deleterious effects of this fragmentation upon the public sphere. She shows with detailed examples and masses of research how this discourse was created and supported by both the government and the corporation, as well as the public, and how in the process the rights of citizens were transformed into the pale substitute of consumer rights. Particularly thought-provoking is her thesis that the segmentation of the market happened in concert with the end of mass political movements, and how polictical movements are now indistinguishable from consumer movements. Well writen, with good illustrations.
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Format: Hardcover
Over the past decade Lizabeth Cohen has been at the forefront of a new type of American history: consumer's history. In this fast growing field historians look at the development of consumption and consumers, both as an ideal and as a reality, and as a new source of identity. There were reasons to be wary of this trend. Were economic realities and questions of power going to be ignored in a celebration of growing affluence? Was the integrity of culture to be ignored in a vindication of mass consumption?
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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Lizabeth Cohen's "A Consumers' Republic" does much to explain how citizenship has been significantly redefined by consumerism in postwar America. The thoroughly readable book is full of insights and should interest all readers of 20th century American history. It will also prompt many to ponder how America might try to heal its frayed society while there is time available to do so.
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.
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Format: Paperback
The above quote from the book reveals its fundamental problem. Consumerism is stretched to include (for example) racial equality, housing policy, and politics: this dulls any edge the concept might have as an analytic tool. What is a consumer? We're told "the word's original meaning" - - "to devour, waste and spend" - - but not its current one. The author tries to distinguish between the "citizen consumer" and "purchaser consumer". The supposed dichotomy between these roles was no more obvious to me than to those consumer advocates who - - to the author's apparent surprise - - "found it possible to endorse both simultaneously".

So the book is a kind of grab bag of the USA's post-war social problems, often using the author's home state as an example. At times, she seems on the verge of dissecting New Jersey as Mike Davis does Los Angeles (high praise from me), but never quite sustains such a level. For example, there's a fascinating account of how policies of "upzoning" were used to create homogeneous suburbs of large, expensive, detached houses. But when explaining how this led to racial polarization - - in an era of supposed desegregration - - she can only show us the 'after' map, not the 'before'. However, the use of photos, advertisements, and newspaper cartoons is exemplary: often amusing, sometimes shocking.

Towards the end of the book, the author finds it necessary to expand the concept of "consumer" to "consumer/citizen", and finally to "consumer/citizen/taxpayer/voter": a clear sign of a dead end. On the final page, her vision is vague and feeble: we "could reinvigorate the liberating aspects of the purchaser" and "could seek to reverse the trend toward the Consumerization of the Republic by not shrinking from articulating the important things that only government can do". Hardly a programme of action. But maybe that's too much to expect.
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