an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 4, January 2007, ISSN 1552-5112




Europe, Open for Business: Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire:

America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe[1]


Paul Stasi




On May 26, 1937, two members of the United Auto Workers in Detroit – Walter Reuther, who would become a major voice in the post-WWII labor movement, and Richard T. Frankensteen – mounted the overpass leading to Henry Ford’s River Rouge factory intending to hand out leaflets entitled “Unionism, Not Fordism” to the plant’s 9,000 workers.  They were met by several men from Ford Motor’s “Service Department,” an internal security force led by Harry Bennet, once dubbed Ford’s “pistol-packing errand boy.”  A brutal, prolonged beating ensued, as dozens of union supporters were attacked in what would soon become known as “The Battle of the Overpass.”   One reporter managed to escape the scene with photographs that soon spread across the nation.  The incident turned public opinion against Ford and began the long, slow process that would lead him finally to sign a collective bargaining agreement with the UAW in 1941, making Ford the last of the Detroit automakers to recognize the union.  These facts are not hard to come by.  A quick Google search leads to a Time Magazine biography of Reuther which describes the incident in detail; my own account is largely drawn from Steven Watts’ 2005 best-seller The People’s Tycoon.[2]

You will not, however, find this episode, or anything like it, in Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire:  America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe, where Henry Ford is one of the heroes of a story about how America “established an alternative to the foundering effort of European societies, both to satisfy their own citizens’ mounting demands for a decent level of living and, building on the legacy of earlier revolutionary traditions, to champion such a standard for the larger world” (5).  Ford is, here, the originator of this “decent level of living,” the “philosopher of the five-dollar-a-day minimum wage” who gave workers “decent enough wages to buy” his products (4).

            Ford’s largesse was just one in a series of blows that, according to de Grazia, the new Market Empire delivered against “Europe’s old regime of consumption” (5).  In chapters on the chain store, big-brand goods, corporate advertising, Hollywood movies, and “Mrs. Consumer,” among others, she presents a largely untold story of how various American innovations in were adopted by Europe over the course of the twentieth century, pushing the date of this adoption back from the post-WWII era to the first half of the twentieth century.   In this regard, her book is undeniably useful and interesting, filling an obvious gap in our factual knowledge of consumer culture.  In addition, it provides a much-needed corrective to the strand of contemporary discourse that imagines a stark opposition between an American and European way of life, and places its hopes in a new European Century.[3]  Instead de Grazia both outlines the features of a relatively unified trans-Atlantic consumer culture and shows how that very unity risks obscuring “the role that American social inventions played in local [European] developments” (477).  And yet this modest descriptive aim is subverted by a value-laden language that, despite occasional reflections upon the “devastation that accompanied” the spread of consumer culture, reveals an investment in its object of inquiry (415).  Consistently stacking the decks against her European examples, de Grazia subscribes to that standard neo-liberal discourse that equates freedom with markets, leading to a simple inversion of the values of contemporary pro-European discourse in what amounts to a celebration of consumer culture.

At times, her investments require some work to uncover.  Chapter 2, for instance, describes the Ford-ILO Inquiry, a project initiated in 1929 by the Ford Motor Company to determine “living costs in the European region” in order to provide the European worker with a “general standard of living [that] was to be approximately equivalent to that of his Detroit counterpart” (79).  This project opened up what “was clearly a can of worms” (83).  What, de Grazia asks, might happen when “documents showed in black and white that Ford workers in Detroit were paid weekly, say, the equivalent of 216 Belgian francs” when “the average Belgian worker was paid only . . . a miserable 54 francs” (83)?  

            The problem with this sentence is not with its numbers – 216 is undoubtedly larger than 54 – but with the value-laden adjective “miserable.”  For the reader has no context, either in the text or the reference matter, within which to evaluate the truth of this judgment—self-evidently, since it was the very goal of the Inquiry to produce this context through the careful comparison of wages, food prices, rates of taxation, health care costs, etc.  Indeed the only context we are given – that Detroit auto workers are the best-paid workers in the United States – suggests that the comparison of the privileged “Detroit worker” to the “average Belgian worker” has already placed those unhappy Belgians at a distinct disadvantage (italics added).  De Grazia’s adjective conjures up their misery in the very act of explaining that there is no meaningful context within which to make such a comparison. [4]

            Cross-cultural difficulties of this kind consistently undermined Ford’s effort to make such comparisons.  For instance, one of its documents claimed that European workers, in contrast to their American counterparts, had an “‘aversion’ to frequent bathing” (93).  De Grazia rightly calls this an example of “social bias” and discusses the issue in detail:


For who could really say to what standards of cleanliness would [European workers] have held themselves if the climate had not been so damp and cold, if there were public baths, or if they and their parents before them had homes equipped with running water . . . What would their standard have been had they been surrounded, like American immigrants, with cheap, brightly packaged milled soap, subjected to the wrinkled-up noses and pained looks of teachers, supervisors, and fellow citizens if they smelled, and bombarded with newspaper and magazine advertisements for Camay, Palmolive, or Ponds soap that made it gross behavior to exude a new discovery called ‘body odor’?  (93-4).


This passage nicely turns from actual physical deprivation – lack of running water – to those manufactured desires we have come to associate with advertising and the capitalist market.  And yet no sooner has de Grazia disclosed the forces that create such desires than she dismisses them out of hand:  “In sum, one conclusion might be that the wants of the Detroit workers were expansive because of several decades of high wages.  If so, it could be equally be said that the wants of European workers had been depressed by several decades of low wages” (94).  We have returned to numbers.  High wages are good and low wages are bad, because “like it or not, money notoriously offers a universal form of measurement in capitalist societies, and consumer goods are nothing if not tangible choices that people are making about their own well-being” (94).  Within the space of a paragraph, de Grazia’s sensitivity to the social production of desire has given way to an ideology of more-or-less free choice about “well-being.” 

This inattention to the creation of desire is, then, a symptom of the ardent belief in the fundamental equality of the American consumer market that drives de Grazia’s argument.  Consider, in this light, the following sentences, which make the analysis I have engaged in so far seem self-indulgent:  “American consumer culture catalyzed discontents, produced ruptures, and pushed aside obstacles.  In that sense, it acted much like the French and Bolshevik Revolutions in overthrowing old regimes that proved incapable of reform and were obstructive and reactionary” (11).  The revolutionary zeal of this passage is, unfortunately, not an isolated case of rhetorical excess.  Rather, one of the most consistent claims in the book is that European consumption habits are class-based, while American habits are not.  Thus America’s Market Empire arose because of “the absence of a heritage of aristocratic customs that in Europe continued to make sumptuary habits a source of social division” (9). 

Two pages later, however, we read of a “Europe entrenched in the bourgeois regime of consumption down to the 1940s” (11).  The bibliography on the differences between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie is too long to address in a short review such as this, but de Grazia’s inability to distinguish between the two is telling.  For when the aristocracy can mean the same thing as the bourgeoisie, it becomes possible to argue for America as a bastion of social equality, a country whose consumptive patterns are based on a market that is, in the words of T. H. Breen, “strikingly egalitarian” because “[a]nyone with money [can] purchase what he or she desire[s].”[5]  One of de Grazia’s main assertions, it turns out, is that classes are bad.  Europe has them and America does not, a belief that is only possible because her notion of class is strictly a cultural one.  Class, here, does not result in different “sumptuary habits,” but is those very sumptuary habits themselves.  Eliminate different habits and you have eliminated class.  But class is not only a matter of culture – or, to use “culture” in de Grazia’s sense, objects for purchase.  Class is also a matter of money, a fact that makes the market less egalitarian than de Grazia grants.  It is precisely this inability to attend to the most basic fact of a class system – the unequal distribution of wealth – that allows for the celebration of equality that is such a conspicuous feature of America’s self-definition, a self-definition de Grazia seems to take at face value.  Those without money are simply lazy.  After all, the money is simply there for the taking; anyone who has it can do what ever he or she wants.

            More importantly, though, class is a concept that helps us understand why some people have money and others do not, by analyzing the subject’s position within the larger social structure.  Not surprisingly this structure – and the ideologies that are expressed through its operations – are omitted from de Grazia’s account, allowing her, for instance, to quote approvingly the statement that “consumption is no longer a thing of needs, but a matter of choices freely exercised” (237).[6]  Similarly, the increased consumption of household items in the United States is tied to what are called “women’s rights – at the very least their right to perform their housekeeping duties to the best of their ability” (207).  De Grazia’s account fits neatly into our post-9/11 world, in which the primary duty of the citizen is to consume.

            The “right to perform housekeeping” receives further attention in the chapter “A Model Mrs. Consumer” which describes the deliberate, systematic gendering of the consumer by American marketers.  Here de Grazia notes the various labor-saving devices that eased the burden of housework, and, therefore, improved women’s lives.  She elaborates: 


[T]he laundry revolution gave new significance to women’s labor in the household by showing that it could be substituted by machinery and therefore valued in new ways  With the time once spent on laundry, women could earn cash in the workplace.  They could improve other household services like keeping the house tidier . . . True, the homemaker was thereby subject to more and more claims on her time and skills:  she needed to select, manage, and if necessary, repair, the equipment that replaced her labor.  In the process she acquired qualities that were widely regarded as indispensable to a well-functioning consumer economy. (419)


Leaving aside the curious way in which replacement by a machine seems, in this analysis, to increase one’s value – try explaining that to the worker whose job has been outsourced or newly automated – we can observe how the new value of women’s labor remains entirely within the household; the liberated woman becomes a kind of Taylorizing middle manager.   Once again, de Grazia raises the opposing viewpoint – here the possibility that this particular form of liberation comes at a steep price – not so much to dismiss it, but rather to leave it entirely unexplored.  Instead the critique disappears before the demands of a consumer society, able to recuperate any labor saved into additional productivity and consumption.  

“Saving labor,” though, is not the point:  “Rapid commercialization” was also interested in “democratizing bodies by making them look more alike” (207).  We have arrived, here, at the ideological subtext of de Grazia’s book:  a belief in the desirability of a version of “democratization” that rests on the elimination of difference.  At this point it might be useful to step outside her text, and return to our friend Henry Ford, whose generosity to his workers had its own price, namely the intrusion of his infamous Sociology Department into their private lives and, often enough, their homes.  The department’s work, it turns out, was a mixed bag.  It encouraged cleanliness and sobriety, and offered English classes for the plant’s largely immigrant population, but its goal was clear:  “to impress upon these men that they are, or should be, Americans, and that former racial, national, and linguistic differences are to be forgotten.”[7]  This claim is the reverse of the “social bias” de Grazia detected in the Ford-ILO inquiry, a bias that amounts, finally, to the inability to see the need for social differences at all.  What prevented the Inquiry from working in the first place was cultural difference itself.  Ford’s Sociology Department shows us the “egalitarian” market’s active work to eliminate cultural markers.  My point, of course, is not to assert that Hungarian immigrants had a cultural preference for dirt, but to recognize the costs of the homogenization of American culture and the ideologies that were invested in eliminating such differences.

Indeed difference itself seems, in de Grazia’s account, to be the chief thing wrong with European culture.  It was difficult, for instance, for American advertisers to place ads in European newspapers because they were “openly affiliated with distinct social strata, particular political constituencies, and specific localities” (262).  And despite the Allied victory in WWII, European “levels of living were still stratified by social inequality, encoded in racially divided political outlooks about the meaning of the good life, and subject to all nature of government and private checks and controls” (341).  The problem, once again, is not in noticing such instances of inequality,[8] but rather in de Grazia’s habit of only applying such standards to Europe, with its history “of contentious politics” (359).  What, we might ask, has happened to America’s own “contentious politics”?  The answer seems to be that there aren’t any.  Speaking of American “diplomat-salesmen” in the post-WWII era, de Grazia writes:


That American men proved such convincing ambassadors of goodwill resulted from the robust good order of their homeland, which in turn was entirely due to the solidity of the American home and the exceptional social capacities of the Republic’s women.  Emancipated, well educated, and habituated to managing their families in accordance with the standards afforded by a decent family income, they had oriented national norms of consumption to spend less on food and clothing and more on household equipment, education, health, and leisure pursuits. (428)


Rarely has what de Grazia calls the “happy sexual division of labor” of 1950s America been described in such glowing terms.  Whereas Europe is consistently reminded of its violent history – as in the discrediting of critiques of U.S. cultural imperialism with the claim that “French intellectuals also began to draw on France’s own deep well of imperialist topoi and stereotypes to speak of their own ‘colonization’” (306) – the United States is nearly always described in the sunniest of terms.  This contrast can be seen most clearly in the book’s opening contrast between Duluth, birthplace of the Rotary club, and Dresden, the European city to which it soon spread.  “Downtown Dresden,” we are informed, “showed the accumulated largesse of six centuries of princely patronage,” its power “accrued from lording over trade in saltpeter and arms and consolidated by warmaking” (16).  Duluth, in contrast, embodies the “industriousness, optimism, and patriotic spirit that in [the city fathers’] eyes made the United States the greatest nation on earth” (17).  Only once was the town’s calm broken . . . “That was on June 15, 1920, when several thousand of the town’s residents, many out-of-work and panicky from the postwar recession, had rushed the city jail, overpowered the police, and yanked from the cells three black youths, workers from a traveling circus being held on trumped-up rape charge.  They were lynched. (18)

Here we encounter the only moment when the “contentious politics” of America’s own past – its origins in genocide and slavery and the racial inequalities that marred the “robust good order” of the American male’s “homeland” – break into de Grazia’s narrative.  There is a term for this kind of blindness. It’s called ideology.

            De Grazia, though, insists on reading ideology as a purely European phenomenon.  Writing about the spread of corporate advertising, she traces how “the lingua franca” of American commodity culture became “a universal vernacular”: “Inserting itself into the ideological void left wide open by the lack of permanently mobilized political parties, advertising emerged as the medium for getting across strong messages” (238).  She continues:


Whereas other countries employed propaganda in pursuit of their interests, by means of heavy-handed government sloganeering, America employed publicity in pursuit of its global mission, using essentially private means, the skillfully nuanced counsel of its mass-communication industries.  And whereas other countries propagated ideology, the American nation professed ideals.  (239)


Where politics was, so commerce shall be.  De Grazia’s consumer revolution is not simply analogous to the revolutions of the past but is, rather their fulfillment.  Thus when “dedicated socialist” Louis Breton, “founder and director of the National Research and Inventions Ministry” in France, has his “home furnished with all the modern conveniences,” he is lauded for “practic[ing] what he preached” (426).  American consumer culture, in her account, presents liberty “not as some abstract right but as exposure to the concrete freedom of making choices by selecting among a myriad of spectacles and artifacts” (353).  The clarity with which de Grazia announces the replacement of leftist political critique by the freedoms of the marketplace is helpful.  That her book is not an exposé of this replacement but its symptom is unfortunate.

The irony here is that the critical interest in consumption of the past twenty years – an interest de Grazia has pursued throughout her career – has positioned itself largely against a caricatured version of Frankfurt School pessimism tarred with the brush of an “Old World elite aesthetic” (266).  Popular culture, we have been told, is a more egalitarian area for study than the arch-theory of the cultural mandarins who were its most strident critics.[9]  But what the Frankfurt School understood, preeminently, was that culture was not politics, though it was permeated by the political.  De Grazia, in contrast, sees consumer culture as an alternative to politics, her populism effacing the real history of political struggle more than any of the high cultural elitists against which such work is positioned.  Indeed, her book’s key assumptions would be at home in any Balzac novel; they are spoken from within the mind of a bourgeoisie she insists America does not possess.  Ultimately, Irresistible Empire is an embedded report, written from within a positivistic mindset that hides its values behind facts and numbers.  Preferring to keep its hand invisible, it asserts that more brands of detergent we have the freer we are, and that this is a truth that has been, at least in the West, universally acknowledged.[10]  And yet we will never learn whether or not America’s empire is resistible if we don’t even bother trying.



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 4, January 2007, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe, (Cambridge; Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2005)


[2] Steven Watts, The People’s Tycoon:  Henry Ford and the American Century, (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 453-4, 446.  Time magazine’s biography of Reuther can be found at

[3] See, for instance, Timothy Garton Ash, Free World:  America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West (New York:  Random House, 2004); Mark Leonard, Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century (London:  Fourth Estate, 2005); T. R. Reid, The United States of Europe:  The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy (New York:  Penguin Press, 2004); Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream (London:  Tarcher, 2004).

[4] De Grazia’s substitution of adjective for argument happens time and again.  Two strategies are presented for resisting the incursion of American advertising:  “One preached diehard resistance . . . [and] was especially visible in the segmented markets of southern Europe . . . The other spoke to reform by developing a more varied aesthetic idiom . . .  and it was most eloquently practiced in Germany” (256).  Similarly supermarkets in Italy pit “stubbornly backward-looking local shopkeepers” against stores that “cut the cost of living while providing more variety and higher quality” (379).  Furthermore “frozen meat didn’t sell [in these stores] in spite of its excellent quality” (395).  Consumer culture here is “eloquent,” “various,” and of “high quality,” while those who resist it are “stubborn,” “backward-looking,” and too foolish to see the “excellence” of frozen meat.

[5] T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution:  How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2004), 24-5.  Breen’s book is a fascinating account of the way consumption shaped the creation of a unified social polity in 18th century America, which only occasionally slips into the kind of celebration of market culture I have been tracing in de Grazia.

[6] The statement is from Paul Cherington, “a former professor at Harvard Business School, who in 1920 was hired to head the new Research Department” of the J.  Walter Thompson advertising company (237).

[7] From the Henry Ford Museum Archives, quoted in Jonathan Schwartz, “Henry Ford’s Melting Pot” in Ethnic Groups in the City:  Culture, Institutions and Power, ed. Otto Feinstein (Lexington Mass:  Heath Lexington Books, 1971), 192.   

[8] De Grazia suggests as much, however, describing the “bright young statisticians” who, when illustrating a report on French labor, indulged in “quaint class stereotypes,” showing an “office manager . . . seated at his desk” and a “skilled worker brandishing his toolbox” (361-2).  It is not clear, though, how these signifiers of class difference – a desk and a toolbox – are stereotypical so much as simply descriptive. 

[9] For an excellent review of the recent cult of consumption see Jon Goss, "Geography of Consumption I," Progress in Human Geography 28, no. 3 (2004): 369-80.

[10] “In 1956 French stores carried only four nationally advertised brands of synthetic laundry soap; by 1970, no less than thirty” (421).