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Europe looks for America

In European eyes, says Alan Harding, Bill Clinton is no John Kennedy and the USA is no longer the promised land

The USA used to conjure up images of the Statue of Liberty welcoming the huddled masses of the world; now America means Rodney King being kicked and beaten into unconsciousness. A more recent generation thrilled to Neil Armstrong walking on the surface of the moon; their children play with Japanese computer games. The USA was always the biggest and the best; now IBM, once the flagship of American capitalism, returns the largest-ever corporate loss.

These changes in perceptions of the USA are more important than they seem. European impressions of America have always been a cipher for the hopes and expectations of people in Europe itself.

More than America

One of the most famous European commentators on America, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in the 1830s that 'in America I saw more than America; I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress' (Democracy in America, p14). De Tocqueville feared the triumph of American-style democracy over the old hierarchical order. Many others have celebrated the triumph of liberty and equality. And some have condemned the vulgarity of the great American experiment. The USA never fulfilled either the highest hopes or darkest fears invested in it. But those who look towards it have always, at least until the past decade, remained pregnant with expectation at what America could offer the world.

For 300 years Europeans have sought to give coherence to the sense of what America made possible through a plethora of images. They have variously described the USA as a child, an innocent and a giant, as a new Greek colony in which the old civilisation is uncorrupted, and as Rome to Europe's Greece. The common thread is that, for Europeans, the USA always represented the future. It meant that the world and its horizons were not constrained by hardship in an old country. There were new possibilities that could be made reality in a new world - the world of Thomas More's Utopia and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis. America was the Promised Land.

For millions of Europeans who travelled to America, and for those who remained behind, it represented liberation from persecution and corruption. America was untainted. Virtue and hard work would be their own reward. The Russian radical Alexander Herzen declared in 1851 that for the free man there was 'no other refuge in Europe than the deck of a vessel making sail for America' (quoted in EH Carr, The Romantic Exiles). In our own century, however, the hopes of Europeans escaping from their own continent were much higher than those of many who had lived in the American reality.

Dorothy's rainbow

In his song 'The Promised Land' which chronicles the black migration to the latest land of opportunity - California - Chuck Berry concludes 'This is the Promised Land calling/ The poor boy's still on the line'. Only in the past few years have Europeans gained the sense that blacks have had for many years, that America is something other than the land at the end of Dorothy's rainbow. Europeans may not make exact comparisons between their own wages and those of Roseanne's husband, or even know that life expectancy in the South Bronx is lower than in Bangladesh. But the USA is no longer the land of their dreams. Young Irish and many Britons, the poor men and women of Europe, are almost the only Europeans who still make the ocean journey one way.

Teeming creativity

Britain had the first Industrial Revolution, but it was in America that the productive power of machinery reached out to define the scope of the twentieth century. European capitalists cast admiring glances at Ford's production line and at the work efficiency methods of Frederick Taylor. The Chrysler Building and the Brooklyn Bridge provided the imagery of modernity and a teeming urban creativity.

Jaundiced and backward-looking Europeans of the old order bemoaned the vulgar materialism of the USA. European workers, however, aspired to the prosperity that this new world seemed to offer. For European intellectuals and artists, many of whom were exiled in the USA during the fascist 1930s, America became a source of creative energy. Many brought darker shades to their American vision - film noir is one result - but even in the worst days of the Depression, America was compared favourably with Europe.

Whatever its failings, the American capitalist model was better than the decay and decadence of Europe. Fifty years on, as the capitalist world undergoes a new depression, Europeans are once again stunned - not by the vibrant urgency of the American economy, but by the collapse of its bridges and roads and the apathetic response this engenders.

Face to face

In the years between, Europeans came face to face with America. The American way, 'Americanisation', came to them and most Europeans greeted it with enthusiasm. As early as 1899 the Pope coined the term 'Americanism' to describe the impact of the modern on traditional beliefs. But it was the Second World War and the establishment of US world supremacy which opened the floodgates.
'Then the future began to arrive in the present. It arrived at the Europeans' doorstep, their markets, their press, their schools. It arrived in the shape of investments, new foods, industrial products, machines, gadgets. The future intruded in the shape of missionaries, evangelists, salesmen, advertisements, and movies. It took the form of new brides in the oldest of families, new faces in the highest society. It also appeared at lower social levels in strange attitudes and ideas, new ways of thinking, new styles of living, and alien values. Europeans began to hear these innovations from the mouths of their own children and with increasing apprehension and dismay. The future was no longer a remote transatlantic barometer or a flickering image on a distant screen in the west. The future was an intrusive, unavoidable, living presence. They called it "Americanisation".' (C Vann Woodward, The Old World's New World, p80)
In Britain during the war, and across Western Europe after it, tens of thousands of GIs brought an energy, brashness, optimism and lack of deference which reinvigorated the tired Europeans. The phrase that the GIs were 'overpaid, oversexed, and over here' has come down to us as a mark of a resentment which the average Briton let alone German never really felt. In fact only the old establishment which envied American power and the pro-Soviet left which invented the label 'Coca-Cola imperialism' were anti-American.

For the rest of the population America was not only chocolate, cigarettes and stockings but the hope of prosperity and a more comfortable life. Young people wanted to jitterbug and then rock and roll, but the music came to them not just as an ethereal voice on the radio. It came on the wave of US economic power.

Through the Marshall Plan an unprecedented input of American capital facilitated the reconstruction of Western Europe. America raised everyone's expectations. My mother bunked off from picking Brussels sprouts in the Land Army to watch Bette Davis and Clark Gable. She listened to Frank Sinatra and Johnny Ray, but her younger brothers and sisters who couldn't remember the thirties and thought not being hungry was normal wanted more.

Spending power

By the middle of the 1950s in Germany the economic miracle was under way. Britain was less dynamic but there was full employment. What's more, young people - 'teenagers' as they were known in the American idiom - had a new spending power and relative independence from old social constraints. Their higher expectations could not be satisfied in the environment of postwar Britain. The mores of the upper classes were a source of contempt. The bomb-damaged streets were something to escape from. The lead singer of the Ted Heath Band did not provide a role model.

America was where the action was and America was Jimmy Dean, Brando and, more than anyone, Elvis. Britain's youth not only listened to him. It started to look like him. It began to act like him. Everyone wanted to be Elvis or go to bed with him. The youth had no respect.

British youth were not the only ones appropriating American culture. Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and the New Wave reinvented French cinema in homage to the American B-movie. French kids followed what was going on, but they had to listen to Johnny Hallyday.

Even when British youth redefined the culture and moved ahead of white middle America, an element of American culture was the catalyst. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got together because Jagger had the latest Chuck Berry import. Throughout the sixties and into the seventies black American music was the rhythm for the homage to the American experience.

America still defined political radicalism. The image of freedom was the civil rights movement. The image of opposition was the movement against the Vietnam War. The American establishment was an ogre but the way to subvert it was still the American way.

Up in flames

Yet the Vietnam War became part of the fault line that cracked the European view of America from the sixties. Suddenly the new world was bombing south-east Asia back to the Stone Age. The hopes for an end to poverty and oppression engendered by American government programmes known as the Great Society were going up in flames as America's urban ghettos were rocked by a black rebellion.

The acute crisis in American society was underpinned by economic decay. The US economy was still colossal in comparison with all others but its industrial plant was more decrepit. In terms of capitalist production, the USA was no longer a young country. The scale of investment necessary to reinvigorate the ageing manufacturing base proved beyond the capacity of American capitalists.

In 1971 the Nixon administration was forced to end the Bretton Woods exchange system which had fixed the dollar to gold and ensured that the USA reaped the benefit of trade being dominated by its own currency. There was no longer enough strength in the American economy to justify the supremacy of the mighty dollar.

American dystopias

Self-doubt replaced self-confidence throughout American society. In Europe, a troubled and withdrawn America could no longer be the model. Once more the American experience became the way that Europeans understood the world. This time, however, instead of adopting the American dream, Europe took over the American sense of loss and decay. Europeans watched and reproduced American dystopias and nihilism.

The awe in which America was held was replaced by growing criticism of American presumption. Europeans could see that America was not the power it had been as the tourists struggled to make the dollar stretch on their European tour. Once Europeans laughed in their millions at Mickey Mouse; now they have left the European Disneyland as a wasteland. From Disneyland to Bill Clinton, Europeans think of America as all style and no substance.

Ghetto fashion

Today German youth can buy more Japanese sound systems than GIs can; yet they still have nothing better than American music to listen to or American idioms to imitate. The irony is, however, that many of Europe's youth are now most likely to adopt the styles of the American ghetto. The longest disco queue in Frankfurt is outside the clubs where black American servicemen hang out. Youth fashions are the baseball hats, expensive trainers and insignia of American sports teams. The fascination with the music and fashion of the US ghetto (where violent death is the alternative to grinding poverty, and apathy or indifference are the only cool responses) is a perverse summation of the lack of any new purpose or confidence in European society.

True to their long relationship with America, Europeans now echo the American people's own sense of their country not as a land of the future but as a place of the past. Americans have an acute sense that their children will be the first generation to be worse off than their parents. As Ridley Scott illustrated in Black Rain, the landscape of the future is Osaka, not Los Angeles. In this movie the gangsters drove German Mercedes, not Cadillacs.

Tatty vestiges

The dominant mood is nostalgia for a lost dream, lost possibilities. The American dream may be over, but, because there is little else on offer, too many people on both sides of the Atlantic cling to its tatty vestiges. The hard truth is that if you could put America on the stage today you wouldn't get a lean, mean youth breaking guitar strings in the King Creole club, but a fat, middle-aged junkie sweating out corny ballads in a Las Vegas casino.

When Europeans look at the USA today, the majority regret the passing of their own aspirations. For most of this century America was both the future of democracy and the future of capitalism. To regain the hope for the liberation of humanity which once united us, Americans and Europeans need to learn that capitalism and freedom are in fact mutually exclusive. That is the lesson of the end of the American century.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993

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