Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 11, Day 1. Our topic today is Consumerism and Radicalism Western Europe in the first couple decades after WWII and our teaching assistant is Dante.
Let’s start with announcements. By now I hope you have given some thought to your Final Papers and chosen a topic. If you’d like to review the assignment and the list of prompts, you can find that on the course website under Assignments. If you want to create your own topic, you need to get my approval, and you should do that by Wednesday of this week at the absolute latest. We’ve got two aspects of this assignment on the horizon. First, your Introduction and Outline will be due on Sunday, April 19 at 5pm. You should submit that on Sakai. Your Intro should be one paragraph long and include your thesis statement, which is the answer you will give to the question I asked you in the paper prompt. And your outline should be detailed. Second, I will be meeting with each of you individually on MS Teams on Thursday, April 23 to talk through your materials. I’ll send around the sign up sheet by email, so please remember to sign up for a meeting time, and please let me know if you have access issues and need to do the meeting by telephone.
This week we are returning to Western Europe and exploring the “economic miracle” of the 1950s-1970s. I think this is a particularly interesting period to study, because we’re tracing the beginnings of the period of history we’re still living in today. The Europe of these decades begins to look familiar, and we can see the emergence of ways of thinking and interacting socially and politically that are still with us now.
As we’ve discussed before, and as you gathered from your reading for today, this is a period in which liberal democracy was resurgent in Western Europe. It didn’t look so good for liberal democracy in the interwar period, but as WWII ended and the Cold War began, most Western European nations reaffirmed their commitment to this form of government. They also invested heavily in the creation of welfare states, which we’ll discuss more today. At the same time, even as Europeans once again asserted the value of the sovereign, ethnically homogenous nation-state, this formula was called into question by other global developments. Under pressure from the US and amidst the buildup of the Cold War, Western Europeans drew together through the NATO military alliance and the European Economic Community, which lay the groundwork for the eventual emergence of the European Union. And despite the genocide and massive population transfers of WWII and the forced deportation of ethnic Germans immediately after the war, which made the idea of an ethnically homogenous nation-state more possible than ever, in these decades Western Europe was also becoming much more diverse. Thanks to the influx of refugees, guest workers, and those displaced by decolonization, in the 1950s-1970s Western European nations incorporated substantial new populations from across Europe and around the world—a process that did not always proceed smoothly.
As Mazower explains, the “economic miracle” of these decades went hand in hand with the development of the Welfare State, and these processes reinforced each other. As citizens found themselves with guaranteed access to affordable housing and healthcare and more disposable income, they turned away from radical politics (which we can also see as a reaction against the extremism of the interwar period) and toward consumerism. People began to identify less by class than by lifestyle. Advertisers catered to newly-defined social groups, and especially the new category of “teenagers.”
The idea of the “teenager” was a direct result of postwar historical processes. Of course, this group existed in society before, but before WWII they were conceptualized as “young adults.” Unless they were wealthy, they left school by 14 or 15 and started working. They were expected to contribute their wages to their parents’ household until they got married, and then set up a household of their own. Naturally, these young people had their own interests; dating, politics, even street brawls. But they pursued these things as recently-arrived adults, not as members of a separate social category. Postwar teenagers, by contrast, saw themselves neither as adults nor children. They and their elders saw them as a separate group, and a large one at that, thanks to the baby boom. Many more of them stayed in school, thanks to the welfare state ensuring their family’s income. They also had money to spend, and advertisers soon approached them with a variety of consume-based lifestyle options. They wanted to have fun, have nice things, listen to new music, and most of all, to define themselves as different from their parents, which was something neither parents nor social critics knew what to do with.
For the most part, this first generation of teenagers was harmless, and again, we a lot of their impulses seem familiar to us today. But some in this generation rebelled not only against their parents’ values, but also against their desire for political consensus. This brings us to the context for today’s primary source, Jean-Paul Sartre’s interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Cohn-Bendit was one of the leaders of the student protests that took place in Paris in May 1968. These protesters, along with those who protested the Vietnam War on both sides of the Atlantic and those who fought for the rights of women and minorities in new ways, felt that the self-satisfied postwar world created by their parents’ generation rested on fundamental hypocrisy. They realized that the idealistic promises with which they were raised—the idea that the playing field was level and anyone who tried hard had an equal chance to succeed—were really only intended for white middle class Europeans. They saw the decolonization struggles around the world as righteously undermining that hypocrisy. They turned to communism to find answers for how to create a more egalitarian society.
In Paris, this movement brought together students, who demanded that the universities become more egalitarian and revise their curricula to become more global, and workers, who demanded improvements to their labor conditions. As you can gather from context, this alliance was not an easy one, and it pushed the students to realize some of their own prejudices. In the end, divisions on the Left enabled the Gaullist government to overcome the protest movement. But while they didn’t overthrow the government, they did have a big impact: the universities made major changes to their policies and workers saw improvements in their conditions. It’s worth considering whether this is a type of victory in itself, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit suggests.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. One of the most important aspects of this period in Western European history is the “economic miracle.” European economies grew at a phenomenal rate and functioned smoothly, with both profits and wages increasing for a solid two decades. In fact, it worked so well that European economists got cocky and started to think the boom would last forever. We know it didn’t. But let’s look at the model behind the “economic miracle,” which is essentially one of managed capitalism. Using economic planning, governments invest heavily to promote the development of business and cope with its failures. Capitalism does its thing, but the state provides a safety net to ease the swings of the business cycle. That means the highs are not as high, but the lows are also not as low. What do you think of managed capitalism? Does the experience of Europe after WWII—especially compared to after WWI—demonstrate that managed capitalism is a better form of capitalism? Or do you think Europeans gave up an opportunity for even better economic growth?
2. Mazower also discusses the development of the Welfare State, which we first encountered before spring break, when we read Beveridge’s “New Britain.” Not all of Beveridge’s proposals were implemented. But Western European governments did invest heavily in new housing, guarantees of full employment, and most importantly, healthcare. All of this was expensive, and it was paid for through heavy taxes, but citizens accepted that because the benefits were worth it to them. In fact, they still basically accept that deal in the European welfare states of today. This intersects with a debate we have been having in this country. Several presidential candidates, most notably Bernie Sanders, promised to create a European-style, tax-funded universal insurance program for America. After reading about the creation of such a system in Western Europe, do you think it’s a good idea for America? Why or why not? How has the coronavirus pandemic affected you thinking on this issue?
3. Another factor fueling the postwar economic boom was the rise of consumerism, which in turn was promoted by a new style of advertising that focused on creating desires and aspirational lifestyles. Re-read the section titled “The Individualistic Mobilization of Europe” on pp. 302-308. Consider the types of things advertised, the messages of advertising, and the way the goods and experiences Europeans purchased changed the way they lived. On the whole, do you agree with the pessimists who saw this phenomenon as doing harm to Europeans, tricking them and making them shallow and crass? Or do you agree with the optimists who argued that the new advertising and consumer goods gave people a greater opportunity than ever before to discover and define themselves as individuals?
4. With consumerism and advertising for on the rise, Europeans spent much of the 1950s and 1960s concerned about Americanization. But Mazower argues that this fear was overblown. Europeans usually preferred their own versions of cars, films, and pop music to exports from overseas. In your analysis, what was the fear of Americanization really about? How does it relate to the experiences of WWII, the rise of the Cold War, and decolonization? Is it a similar to fears about globalization today, or is that a different phenomenon?
5. In his section on protest, Mazower details the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s. Some of the issues raised here are familiar to us from our reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which was published in 1949. But the issues of the 1960s don’t entirely overlap with Beauvoir’s concerns. Consider the similarities and differences: how does this shape our understanding of the development of the women’s liberation movement in these decades? How did the economic miracle and rise of consumer society affect this moment and its goals?
6. Mazower also discusses the rise of student protest movements. In his analysis, the main thing these protesters achieved was to drive a wedge into the postwar politics of consensus and revitalize political debate. The older generation was averse to extreme politics because they had lived through the 1930s and 1940s. Do you think such cycles are inevitable? Will children always rebel against the political pieties of their parents? Or is that an invention of the 1960s and the mythologization of the protest movements over the last few decades? From your vantage point as grandchildren of the ‘60s generation, do you think consensus or debate is more important in politics?
7. In his final section, Mazower explores the theme of labor migration, which we touched on last week. He points out that racism and prejudice were always a part of Europeans’ interaction with migrant workers, even when their labor was in high demand. He notes that in the 1970s, “Although west Europeans recognized that the expression of racial prejudice was no longer as acceptable as before the war, much of their underlying hostility towards foreigners especially those from outside Europe, remained.” (Mazower, 326). How does this add to what we learned last week when studying decolonization? How do we see this attitude manifesting in contemporary European political issues like Brexit? Can we draw a parallel here to American policy toward immigrants and migrant laborers?
8. Let’s turn to Jean-Paul Sartre’s interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the student protesters in Paris in May 1968. This text gives us a window into the generational difference that became evident as the Baby Boomers reached adulthood. Sartre, who was a leading intellectual alongside Simone de Beauvoir, spent the war years aiding the Résistance and then developed his philosophy of Existentialism. Cohn-Bendit, of course, had no such experiences; he was born in 1945 and grew up during the economic miracle. How do you see this generational conflict playing out in their conversation? Does Sartre treat Cohn-Bendit as an equal or as a child? Does Cohn-Bendit welcome Sartre’s questions or treat them as hostile?
9. For a radical protester, Cohn-Bendit is surprisingly gradualist. He assures Sartre that the revolution cannot be achieved all at once, but must proceed through gradual adjustments. Make a close reading of Cohn-Bendit’s answer on pp.98-99. How would you characterize his perspective? How does it differ from the extreme positions of previous radical leaders like Stalin or Hitler? In your analysis, is Cohn-Bendit’s gradualism a reaction to the tragic outcomes of interwar extremism, a natural result of the postwar consensus, or something else?
10. Cohn-Bendit is also very concerned about the uneasy relationship between the students and the workers. He accepts that the workers don’t entirely trust the students and claims he doesn’t want to direct them or interfere with their revolutionary goals. On p.102, he specifically refutes the idea of the “Vanguard Party,” which was Lenin’s addition to the theory of Marxism. On what grounds does Cohn-Bendit reject this theory? How does he retell the story of the Russian Revolution to fit with his claims? Why is it important to him to re-theorize what happened in another country fifty years earlier? How does that help us understand his vision for his own movement?
11. Not only is Cohn-Bendit against a revolutionary vanguard, he is also against having a firm Party program and established demands. How does he justify this position? In your view, what are the pros and cons of the type of revolutionary movement he describes? Do you think it is a movement that can bring about real change? How does it compare to more recent movements like Occupy Wall Street?
12. Sartre and Cohn-Bendit have their tensest confrontation near the end of the interview, when Sartre asserts that the students’ demands aren’t really revolutionary. Cohn-Bendit asserts, “Purely material demands may have a revolutionary content.” (Sartre and Cohn-Bendit, 104) He gives two examples, university restaurants (dining halls) and Cités Universitaires (dorms), which he wants to be open to all young people, not just students. Do you agree with him that those would be revolutionary changes? If we opened up our facilities at W&J to workers, how would it change your experiences? Would it make us a truly egalitarian institution, or would we remain “bourgeois,” as both men claim?