Consumerism is about luxury and wants rather than needs. It exists “when the majority
of the population either possesses or aspires to own a range of goods and services that far
exceeds the level required to meet basic subsistence.” (1) While the ideology began in several
countries across the global as early as the seventeenth century, it boomed in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was this American model that was explicitly exported to the rest of the world in the 1900s, particularly Europe, as evidenced in postwar reconstruction programs such as the Marshall Plan. The standard of living rose, leisure time flourished, and percentage of money spent on food and housing declined. The automobile industry thrived as well as the sale of “gadgets” such as televisions, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, stereos, etc. The result of the preceding and ongoing industrial and technological expansion was the ascension of managers and experts with backgrounds in engineering or accounting to the higher ranks of the middle class. Unfortunately, new marketing techniques and easily accessible credit led to an obscene amount of overspending, particularly among the working class, which eventually created divisions among the poor.
The conglomerate that would become the European Union (EU) was established in 1952
“as a means of preventing France and Germany from ever going to…war with each other
again.” (2) The Roman Treaty of 1958 grew the community, and the EU eventually expanded to include twenty-eight member states. Many European states sought to create a United Europe in the 1950s as a result of the “Americanization” of the continent at the height of consumerism. Some complained that “European ways of life would be swamped by American culture,” while others “welcomed the safety granted by their American host country but nevertheless warned of totalitarian aspects of the American mass consumption and culture.” (2)
With the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union heating up in the
1950s and 1960s, Europe was split not only by the so-called Iron Curtain but also by class and politically. The decades following World War II centered on the nuclear arms race and space race, but Europe also experienced Euro-terrorism and demonstrations of their own. Indeed, the Prague Spring of 1968 and the resulting Brezhnev Doctrine are evidence of this. In Czechoslovakia, Communist Party First Secretary Alexander Dubcek led a movement that
sought to strengthen the country’s socialist system by effecting political and economic reforms. Though the campaign enjoyed widespread popular support from both Czechs and Slovaks, the Soviet Union and four other Warsaw Pact nations crushed the crusade in an invasion. (3) To ensure something similar would not happen again, the Soviet Union adopted a policy for combating “anti-socialist forces” in November of that year. (4) Movements such as these occurred all over Eastern and Western Europe in an attempt to contain the Soviet Union as famously prompted by the United States.
(1) Matthew Hilton, “Consumption and Consumerism,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World, edited by Peter N. Stearns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
(2) Stefan Immerfall and Barbara Wasner, “European Union,” in Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture, edited by Dale Southerton (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2011): 559-563, doi: 10.4135/9781412994248.n210.
(3) Pete Dolack, “Prague Spring,” in Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, edited by Gary L. Anderson and Kathryn G. Herr (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2007),
(4) L. S. Stavrianos, “The Brezhnev Doctrine, 1968,” in The Epic of Man (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1971): 465-466.