In post-WWII America, dramatic changes were under way. On the domestic front, the rising middle class with disposable income, an emerging teen culture with rock and roll as its background score, social movements from African Americans, women, Hispanics and other changed the dynamics of the culture. On the foreign policy front, America was evolving as a dominant world power.
Economist John Kenneth Galbraith called the post-WWII era The Affluent Society where middle class America emerged supported by its thriving economy. This new economy led to mass consumerism for adults, and, for the first time in history, a large teen culture with unprecedented disposable income. The teen culture fueled a political, economic and cultural revolution for civil rights, women's rights and equal opportunity, all to thew background score of rock and roll music.
Do you agree with this statement? Explain why.
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John Kenneth Galbraith’s observation that the culture of consumerism and the increased affluence of America’s youth contributed to the vast social, cultural and political transformations that swept the country during the 1960s. This, however, is not the major theme of The Affluent Society; on the contrary, Galbraith’s essay on economic and cultural transformations post-World War II is focused primarily on the widening gap that he perceived as occurring between the haves and the have-nots, as private enterprise created an enormous middle class and increasingly affluent upper-class while social welfare programs and concerns about income-gaps were neglected. The more philosophical dispositions regarding social transformations would be discussed in The New Industrial State (1967) and in Economics, Peace and Laughter (1971), with the former noting the cultural changes resulting from the rise of massive corporations and the marginalization in American culture of the role of the individual, and the latter providing a useful discussion on the paradoxical evolution of American society towards greater cultural and social awareness resulting from increased affluence and the liberating phenomenon associated with that affluence. As Galbraith wrote in Economics, Peace and Laughter,
“Escape from the commitment to economic priority has, it will be clear, a broadly emancipating role. It enables us to consider a range of new tasks from the improvement of our cities to the cleaning up of roadside commerce, to the enlargement of cultural opportunity, to the redemption of mass communications from the hucksters, to the suppression of the influence of weapons makers on foreign policy. The political and social power that is available for these tasks is not negligible. Scientists, humane scholars, teachers, artists and the community that is identified with these preoccupations have been asserting themselves with increasing influence and self-confidence.”
Now, by the time this passage was written, the enormous political transformations taking place were already well-underway. The war in Vietnam and the continued struggle among African Americans for civil rights had galvanized much of the nation’s youth, especially in larger cities and on university campuses across the country. The transformation would be complete with the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974 following the revelation of the Watergate break-in and its connection to the White House. The culmination of a decade’s worth of social and political activism had changed the country for the foreseeable future, and perceptions of government have never been the same. Galbraith’s observations regarding the role of a more affluent population of teenagers and young adults –a theme that became more prevalent in subsequent editions of The Affluent Society – is a little sketchy, though. Drawing a link between the nation’s economic direction and the social changes that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s is, to this educator, a dubious proposition. Yes, the nation’s youth were able to spend money on rock-and-roll albums and on the purchase of tickets to concerts and, yes, the cultural transformations underway may have contributed to social unrest, but suggestions of a connection are tenuous. The struggle for civil rights, advanced considerably during the 1950s with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Education (1954) and the use of the U.S. Army and National Guard to integrate public schools in the South, was adopted as part of a wider struggle by white youths protesting the escalating conflict in Southeast Asia. Additionally, cultural influences tracked societal developments – not the other way around. The early days of rock-and-roll were scarcely rebellious in terms of the lyrics; it was the anti-establishment aesthetics that were new, not the actual content of the music. The Beatles, for instance, did not transition from their early uniform-wearing clean-cut image to the later drug-infused libertarian image overnight. That transformation was a sign of the times, not the precipitating development.
There is no question that the war in Vietnam was the seminal event in fostering social and political transformations in the United States. One can easily surmise that the counter-cultural movements that stood at the forefront of those transformations would not have occurred absent the galvanizing events in Southeast Asia. That the civil rights and women’s liberation movements would coalesce around the anti-war fervor and merge with it into one large movement was a product of the times, and likely would have occurred irrespective of the economic transitions that occurred following World War II. Galbraith’s observations warranted discussion, but it is possible that this particular observation was without merit.
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