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Americanisation in 20th Century Europe: business, culture, politics. Volume 2

Nick Tiratsoo
Mathias Kipping

Americanisation, Cultural Transfers in the Economic Sphere: a Comment

Terry Gourvish

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  • 1 This is an edited version of remarks delivered in Roubaix, 22 September 2001.

1Americanisation, the theme of this stimulating, bi-focal international conference, has been difficult to discuss in the prevailing circumstances, so soon after the events of 11 September 2001.1 The actions of the terrorists have struck a deep wound into the concept of Americanisation, as have the more wide-ranging protests from the environmentalists and others, evident, for example in the recent rioting in Genoa. Furthermore, Americanisation’ is a complex, even elusive, phenomenon, which presents challenges to historians seeking to analyse it in a comparative way. It is also a matter of personal as well as scholarly experience. I hope I may be permitted to illustrate this from my own life. When I was a child, austerity and food rationing were a necessary accompaniment to life in post-war Britain. I well remember the sense of liberation and joy which accompanied the arrival of the food parcels sent by my uncle Ralph from Long Island, New York. Moving on a decade or so, Americanisation came to mean something very different to me during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Protesting as a student against American ‘imperialism’ and ‘war-mongering’ was another facet of my personal love-hate relationship with the notion of America’. It is a tribute to the organisers of this conference that the hurdles of contemporary gloom and analytical hazard have been negotiated so successfully, as the papers at this conference indicate.

  • 2 J. J. Servan-Schreiber, The American Challenge, Harmonsdsworth, Pelican, 1969; E.F. Schumacher, Sm (...)

2As we have seen, the study of American economic influence poses many challenges, and these apply as much to the ‘B’ Session papers, which were concerned mainly with microeconomic matters, as in the A’ session papers, which handled macroeconomic questions. The broader significance of North American economic endeavour is not a recent invention for scholars, of course. Raised first perhaps in the anxieties produced by the amoral capitalism of the great robber barons of the late Nineteenth Century, it gathered pace after the United States became the dominant world power in the second half of the Twentieth Century. In the 1960s, the writings of Servan-Schreiber and Schumacher also provided a critical tone. The economic activities of the American monolith was damaging to Europe; ‘small’ was beautiful, and the large-scale multinational corporation was something to be feared, an approach which, two decades later, produced the alternative model of ‘flexible specialisation’.2 However, Americanisation also provides a conceptual challenge because the notion contains such an inherent circularity. After all, in a very real sense American theory and practice, diverse as it is, and difficult to capture as it undoubtedly is, arose from European origins and European models. Thus, in the industrial sectors I know best, railways and brewing, American firms derived much of their capital and technology from Europe. The United States railroads owed much to the experience of Britain, Germany and France; the leading American brewers were essentially successful transplants from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Scandinavia. And the United States is of course a federation of States where the influence of settlers from European countries produces a diversity of economic, social and political influences. The dangers we face in analysing the concept are, then, very real: of making too much of American influence or of reducing everything to the contentious notion that everything ‘American’ is essentially ‘European’.

3Session ‘B’ revealed three principal ways of analysing the microeconomic aspects of Americanisation: (i) at the level of the technique, whether a production process or an organisation System; (ii) at the level of the industry or branch; and (iii) at the level of the firm. None is superior to the others, and each provides its own challenges. At the level of the technological or management System, there is abundant evidence of diversity in the diffusion of ideas, and of adaptation to the local environment. At the industrial level, there is the difficulty of generalising satisfactorily about conditions when archivai collections are biased towards the larger firms, those which survived for a long time (the notorious ‘survivor technique’). At the level of the firm, size is a very critical element, and quite obviously, the specificity of the single case does not advance the issue of ‘Americanisation very far. However, the case can provide a corrective to historical analyses which are based on explanations which are normative, often the expressions of implied best practice (or sometimes an exaggerated worst practice), formulated by the industry’s political lobbyists.

4Given the above, it will be no surprise to discover that the ‘B’ session papers exhibit a diversity of approach. Nevertheless, some important and common themes have emerged:

  1. the importance of engaging in the debate about consumption and the ‘culture’ of consumption, the subject of papers by Heinonen and Pantzar, Hilton, Obelkevich and Segreto, which were enlivened by vigorous debate from the conference floor ;
  2. the influence of American ideas and practice in defined areas of the modem firm, in design, marketing, and accounting, as seen in the contributions by Berland et al., Byrkjeflot, and King;
  3. the American film as cultural import, and the impact of Hollywood on domestic film industries in Europe (Braun, Miskell, and Sedgwick);
  4. the American influence in management and organisation, seen in the papers by Amdam and Sogner, Bertrams, Coopey and Porter, Lanthier, Puig, and Sluyterman; and
  5. the American influence in methods of production and managerial control (Booth, Daumas, Knox and McKinlay, Lescent-Giles, Ranieri, Garcia Ruiz, and Saul).
  • 3 W. Knox and A. McKinlay, “Working for the Yankee Dollar: American Inward Investment and Scottish L (...)

5The lessons which emerge from these important contributions, most of them based on new, primary research, are to this commentator at least, as follows. First, that the search for a single, satisfactory definition of ‘Americanisation’ is likely to be a Holy Grail. Most contributors recognised that it was important to establish what ‘Americanisation’ represented in their analysis, while accepting that the concept was ‘always partial and conditional, and at all rimes refracted through national politics and the established production agendas of indigenous manufacturing sectors’.3 It is therefore unsurprising that no unanimity of approach has emerged. There was no single, monolithic American ‘influence’, but a series of evolving ‘influences’, changing over time, and adapting in response to local circumstances. This is the case whether the subject of inquiry is Taylorism, Fordism or post-Fordism, the American film industry or the importance of American consultancy firms.

6Second, the argument that the European origins of the United States invalidate the existence of an ‘American’ economic system should be rejected. The contribution of European settlers and the precepts of the First Industrial Revolution to American progress must be acknowledged, of course, but they should not be used to deny the existence of a very real contribution to economic organisation by American capitalism.

7Third, the argument that adaptation and response by the ‘host’ country invalidates the notion of ‘Americanisation’ should also be firmly rejected. The United States was the setting for an unparalleled harnessing of economic and managerial resources in the modem world, as the works of Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. make clear. While his broad generalisations have been much maligned in recent years, there is no doubting the strength of the contribution made by the large-scale corporation in the United States over the period 1870-1970. Whatever the refinements and resistances exhibited by entrepreneurs and managers in European countries, the impact of American experience, in management education and training, organisation, production methods, and technological Systems was clearly evident. This is what makes ‘Americanisation’ such a fascinating and enduring subject for study.


1 This is an edited version of remarks delivered in Roubaix, 22 September 2001.

2 J. J. Servan-Schreiber, The American Challenge, Harmonsdsworth, Pelican, 1969; E.F. Schumacher, Small is beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered, London, Blond and Briggs, 1973; and M. J. Piore and C. F. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide, New York, Basic Books, 1984.

3 W. Knox and A. McKinlay, “Working for the Yankee Dollar: American Inward Investment and Scottish Labour, 1945-70’Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, 7, 1999, p. 8. Anyone doubting this should examine the issues raised in the Finnish film Leningrad Cowboys Go America.


London School of Economics

© Publications de l’Institut de recherches historiques du Septentrion, 2002

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