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Europe’s America Complex
The Old Continent lives in the shadow of the United States' material power
“We don’t want to depend,” said Emmanuel Macron last month, as he launched his latest rallying-cry for European autonomy. The French president was calling on European leaders to step up their support for green technology and manufacturing, in response to the enormous program of state subsidies now underway in the United States. “We are not meant to become consumers for American industry,” Macron declared.
The companies the E.U. is relying on for its green infrastructure may be lured away by the American offer. Sweden’s Northvolt, Norway’s Freyr and Italy’s Enel are among the firms planning to make equipment like EV batteries and solar panels on U.S. soil.
This problem is all the more sensitive because Europe is already staring down the barrel of economic decline. Thanks to its shale gas revolution, the United States is essentially self-sufficient in energy, and that’s before it gobbles up the market for renewables. By contrast, the loss of Russian fossil fuels and a failure to invest in nuclear has undermined Europe’s energy security. Then there is America’s growing lead over other rich countries in per-capita income and productivity. This all suggests the U.S. may soon be pulling away from Europe not just in terms of industrial power, but living standards as well.
Novel as these circumstances appear, they are in many ways painfully familiar. Europe is like the family that clings to the heirlooms and mannerisms of its wealthy ancestors, but has long since sold its mansion and given up its servants. It has enough economic clout to dream of acting independently, but not enough to realise those dreams. And while it may look down at America’s barbarous capitalism – at its inequality, its long working hours, its chlorinated chicken and private healthcare – Europe has little choice but to live in the shadow of American power.
This is a relationship defined by things (or as the Americans say, stuff). Europe remains the world leader in luxury goods, which now account for four of the continent’s ten biggest companies; but handbags and perfume are not the basis for a cutting-edge economy, and in any case, they are sold overwhelmingly to American and Chinese consumers. Conversely, the U.S. is always generating new technologies and mass-market products that Europeans may regard as obscene or excessive, but which they also don’t want to go without. For more than a century, the European mind has been shaped by admiration and resentment of America’s fantastically dynamic material culture.
It took a while for the United States to realise its own influence. In 1925, Paris hosted the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, a hugely influential event that gave its name to the Art Deco style, and provided an early outing for a young architect called Le Corbusier. But the U.S. was not among the twenty nations taking part. According to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, American design had not produced anything sufficiently modern or original. In stead, Hoover sent a delegation to bring European ideas back to America.
And yet, by this time the United States was clearly emerging as the pacesetter for industrial modernity. Its economic output had overtaken that of the British Empire in 1916, as Europe immolated itself on the battlefields of the First World War. During the 1920s, Europeans were already fascinated by American films, music and consumer goods. Henry Ford’s production lines and the Taylorist doctrine of scientific management were widely regarded as keys to material progress. These ideas even fed into the Modernist design movement that American museums celebrated as a European phenomenon.
There were also many Europeans who found the growing influence of the United States unsettling. Among conservatives and reactionaries, the democratic thrust of American mass culture appeared subversive and spiritually barren. On the left, the power of American capital seemed no less threatening. Yet most of these critics also wanted to learn from the American example.
In his unpublished “second book,” written in the late 1920s, Hitler observed that thanks to modern media, “the European, even without being fully conscious of it, applies as the yardstick for his life the conditions of American life.” He also warned that U.S. power would reduce Europe’s greatest states to the irrelevance of Switzerland or Holland. Various elements of the Nazi programme can be seen as an imitation of the American model, from the obsession with “living space” to the focus on mass-produced goods like radios and automobiles.
Similarly, for its supporters, the Soviet Union was “an America without moneybags and hypocrisy,” as the Czech-German intellectual Otto Heller put it. Progressive designers and Soviet industrial planners saw Fordism as a template for the future.
Another wave of American influence arrived after the Second World War, when the Old Continent once again lay in ruins. This time the United States was not shy about trumpeting its achievements. Europe was now a front line in the struggle against Communism, and the advertisement of “American living standards” was seen as a crucial weapon in that battle.
As Greg Castillo has documented, American authorities in post-war Europe staged numerous exhibitions to showcase the wonders of suburban life in the U.S., including idealised models of homes and supermarkets. Some of these events proved wildly popular: “America at Home,” a 1950 exhibition in West Berlin, was seen by 43,000 Germans in two weeks.
This was not just about creating a market for American goods; it would be decades before most Europeans could actually afford the things they saw at these shows. The aim was ideological: to link democratic capitalism with the promise of material abundance. At the traveling exhibit “We’re Building a Better Life,” which visited numerous cities in Western Europe, a billboard announced: “Thanks to technology, rising productivity, economic cooperation, and free enterprise, these objects are available to our western civilisation.”
Such propaganda was deemed necessary because, once again, parts of European society resented the influence of American capitalism. To borrow the terms of one German author, they felt Europe should cultivate its own “lean” spirit rather than adopting a “fat” American culture. More surprising was the stance taken by the Communists. Under Stalin, the line from Moscow was that local cultures and traditions had to be protected from Modernist aesthetics, which were now portrayed as a Trojan horse for U.S. hegemony.
The purpose of Modernism, claimed Soviet official Georgy Aleksandrov, was to “disassociate the people from their native land, from their language and their culture, so that they adopt the ‘American lifestyle’ and join in the slavery of the American imperialists.”
This does not sound all that different from criticisms of American influence today, whether aimed at the spread of identity politics or the homogenising effects of consumerism. Except Americanisation is now so advanced that even those resisting it are likely to use language, ideas and media platforms derived from the United States.
Castillo suggests that socialism was doomed as soon as governments in the Soviet Union, East Germany and elsewhere tried to compete with the west in catering to consumer desire, inviting comparisons that were bound to be damaging. The one Communist state to emerge victorious from the Cold War, China, did so by adopting an American model of individual responsibility and social mobility, producing enormous material dividends for its middle classes.
This history could have an unfortunate relevance for Europe in the future. It was only last year, under the impact of drought and surging energy prices, that E.U. officials were insisting on the need to tell voters their expectations about living standards were no longer realistic. In August 2022, none other than Emmanuel Macron provoked outrage by warning of “the end of abundance.”
If these premonitions turn out to be even remotely accurate, responding to the disappointment of Europeans will be a formidable political challenge. The ever-present example of the United States will make it that much more difficult.
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