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American Mania: When More Is Not Enough
Like the never-ending search for El Dorado, the American dream has ranged from the early settlers’ visions of a heaven on earth … to the dreams of new frontiers that drove America’s westward expansion … to Martin Luther King’s dream of equality for all citizens. Throughout this journey, technological advances have been intertwined with the marketplace. Americans instinctively see the commercial opportunities that new technologies may bring – the challenge to grasp the future and to make it prosperous. But as Peter Whybrow points out, not all needs flow through the marketplace. Markets are tools, just as technology is a tool. The purpose of the marketplace is to serve prosperity, not to be the basis for it.
One might ask, in our commercial success, have we achieved what the founding fathers had in mind, and if so, why are so many citizens stressed out and discontent? Obviously, seeking more of what we have is not the answer. America’s pursuit of prosperity is pushing the mind and body to the limits – damaging both individual and public health. This is the American paradox – the paradox of prosperity.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, American commerce rapidly extended its global reach to penetrate some of the world’s most remote and sacred places. “Even in Beijing’s ancient Forbidden City, the 5 million Chinese who each year enter the Palace of Heavenly Purity must now pass the brand logo of Starbucks coffee. American fresh-glazed donuts and decaf lattes have established themselves at the symbolic center of the tea-drinking universe. Such American icons – with Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Disney being the leaders – are a familiar part of urban landscapes around the world. America has become synonymous in many countries with the youth-driven, pop culture of Hollywood blockbusters, the Internet, Nike sneakers, and music video.”
Whybrow gives a firsthand account from a visit to Poland. There, he notes, young people wear imitations of American clothes complete with corporate logos. They see commercial sponsorship, fast food, and trendy boutiques in a positive light – as evidence of their new democracy. For the Poles, the open market and an influx of branded goods provide welcome evidence of freedom and choice. Whybrow’s student guide said it this way: “Like America’s revolution, ours was for freedom and a set of principles, not for a paradise. I accept commercial sponsorship because free trade is indivisible from a thriving democracy. For me, it’s an American dream come true.”
The simple logic that freedom of choice in the marketplace is equivalent to democracy is a compelling message in Poland and other East European countries where precious freedoms have only recently been retrieved. But in European nations where democratic ways have been long established, global commerce is seen as being not about democracy but about money. For many Europeans, the coming of a McDonald’s restaurant represents the Trojan horse of America’s commercial imperialism. They think the international markets are biased in favor of the massive financial resources of American corporations that are greedily intent on increasing their profits.
McDonald’s is typical of American companies indulging in international expansion under the banner of market freedom. The company even advertises itself as the “largest and best known global food service retailer.” Between 1996 and 2000, the growth of new McDonald’s restaurants occurred mainly outside the United States. In Poland alone, between 1993 and 1998 – only 5 years – the number of McDonald’s restaurants increased from 10 to 130. The “golden arches” have now established themselves in approximately 120 countries, with over $36 billion in worldwide sales.
In France, the invasion of American mass-marketing techniques is seen as diminishing choice by destroying local markets. Many French people view American society as materialistic, competitive, and commercially driven. This goes well beyond the food industry and into entertainment, since America overwhelmingly controls the film market in Europe. Amid growing public alarm that American values and money are swamping France, even members of the French government have begun to speak of defending the national interest to preserve that which is distinctly French.
So, what explains the worldwide appeal of American mass-marketing techniques? Why do the French continue to buy Big Macs and visit EuroDisney despite their national sentiments? While it is commercial dominance that drives the expansion of American pop culture across the world, it is also true that the majority of people find the goods enticing.
Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Disney are each pioneers in the art of expanding consumer markets through the “branding” of fantasy fulfillment – selling moments of reassurance and comfort in a stressful world – in a friendly place where everything works as it should, where there are tasty things to eat and drink, and where happiness prevails.
When it comes to making people smile, Disney is one of the most powerful brand names on the planet. This focus on attracting and pleasing a mass customer base is the philosophy that McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss, Gap, Amazon.com, and other Internet companies now emulate in their self-promotion. These American corporations have built a global market for themselves by creating brand loyalty in the young. With an addictive message, the individual is invited to sidestep the reality of an imperfect world and live the American dream of plenty, even if it’s mass-produced.
Beyond the branding of fizz and fantasy it is the continuous expansion of the market that permits profits to grow while costs are held down. Mass markets demand megacompanies, and while such corporations have improved the material standard of living for many people, their growth is crippling to local communities and economic microcultures. Wal-Mart, the American retail giant, offers a powerful example. When Sam Walton opened his first store in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962, his advertising slogan was the same as it is now: “We sell for less.” Walton’s special edge was that by mass purchasing he offered goods at prices lower than those that local variety and hardware stores needed to charge to stay in business. In its dominance over the domestic market, each day Wal-Mart sells approximately 474,000 pairs of shoes and 52,000 pairs of jeans – an astounding achievement that would have been impossible before information-age technology and the globalization of trade.
The service goal of Wal-Mart stores is to “drive unnecessary costs out of business,” and it achieves this by pushing its 65,000 suppliers to adopt lean practices. This has fostered a globalization of the production chain, where to meet the low wholesale prices Wal-Mart demands, many vendors subcontract with overseas agents running factories with unregulated, and sometimes highly questionable, working conditions. Fiercely opposed to union organization, Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the United States, with more than 1 million full-time and part-time employees. Its down-home folksiness disguises the chain’s subversion of small-town society and the dramatic changes in local employment that occur whenever it enters a community. In smaller towns some 25 percent of local retail shops commonly disappear when a new Wal-Mart opens nearby. This weakens the diversity and viability of the local market economy and of the community itself.
“Bigger is better” is the corporate mantra of the multinational company. Giants must become super giants if they are to survive in the competitive global markets, either by dominating a major market – as Wal-Mart has done in America – or through the acquisition of potential rivals and international competitors. Whybrow points out that superpower conglomerates now dominate the food and agricultural business, banking, pharmaceuticals, media, telecommunications, and the auto industry. Some of the world’s largest corporations have budgets higher than the gross national product of certain industrialized countries. The global marketplace is now dominated by only a few hundred companies, about 40 percent of which are American.
But megacorporations and globalization are ill quipped to solve social inequality. They may even worsen it by destroying local economies. Once you start eating at McDonald’s, you stop cooking at home, and once you stop cooking at home, you stop buying local produce. It’s all a vicious cycle. Wherever major franchises move in, local businesses are forced out. Whybrow proposes that the anonymity of the international corporation must be broken and local economies nurtured if global capitalism is to benefit not just corporate managers and investors but also the majority of the world’s people.
Whybrow suggests there is an irony here. The principles of self-expression, freedom to think, and local self-rule are the fundamental principles that Americans struggled to preserve in the fight for independence. These are the beliefs that shaped the early guiding images of the American dream. The ultimate irony is that the commercial Americanization that is now threatening to destroy small local markets around the globe originally grew out of the hopes and aspirations of ordinary American families living in small rural communities. Whybrow focuses on this subject in his next chapter.
By HST Reporter: Peter, 19
Are you suffering from American Mania? Take the American Mania Quiz at www.PeterWhybrow.com
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