Historical Context

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In The Affluent Society, Galbraith makes broad sweeping references to such historical occurrences as the Industrial Revolution the depression, and the launching of Sputnik.

The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was not a political revolution but rather a conglomeration of significant historical changes that took place in the economic, social, and political spheres of European culture over the course of the nineteenth century. The changes most commonly associated with the Industrial Revolution were in the transition from primarily agrarian economies, employing farm labor, to primarily industrial economies, employing factory labor. Significant advances in technology also characterize the Industrial Revolution—from transportation technology to energy sources to labor-saving machines. The creation of an urban working middle-class led to new political trends emphasizing reform and increasingly democratic political systems. The Industrial Revolution began in Britain, developing between the years 1760 and 1840. In the early nineteenth century, it began in Belgium, reaching France by mid-nineteenth century and Germany in the late-nineteenth century. The twentieth century saw the United States and Japan take the lead in the Industrial Revolution as well as strong development in such nations as Russia China and India. Galbraith refers frequently to the transformations brought about by the Industrial Revolution, particularly in regard to the historical evolution of economic theory.

The Depression
Galbraith frequently refers to the economic conditions of the depression in the United States, which began with the stock market crash of 1929 and lasted roughly until the beginning of World War II in 1939. The depression era was characterized by extremely high rates of unemployment—as much as twenty-five to thirty percent—and a severe decline in rates of industrial production. Through its effects on international trade relations, the depression soon spread from the United States throughout Europe. President Roosevelt, who became president in 1933, initiated a series of policies, collectively known as the New Deal, designed to address the concerns of the depression era. The extent to which the New Deal was effective is debatable. However, with the advent of World War II in Europe, the demand for wartime materials from American industry effectively ended the depression.

The Cold War and the Launching of Sputnik
Galbraith attributed the success of The Affluent Society, upon its first publication in 1958, in part to a key event affecting the period of United States relations with the Soviet Union known as The Cold War: the launching of Sputnik. The Cold War can be dated from the end of World War II, in 1945, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During this time, the United States and Russia engaged in a ‘‘war’’ of international relations pitting the communist East against the democratic West. A chief characteristic of the Cold War was the arms race, in which each side expended national resources to stockpile more and more destructive nuclear weapons. A significant event in the Cold War was the successful launching of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, by the Soviet Union in 1957. Although it had no immediate military application, Sputnik represented, in the American psyche, the potential of the Soviet Union to outdo the United States in technological advances. The subsequent crisis in American public opinion involved a tendency to question the quality of American advances in science and industry, given the economic prosperity of the nation. Galbraith’s book was thus published at an opportune historical moment when Americans were hungering for answers to the question of where America may have gone so wrong as to allow a communist nation to outshine the United States in technological achievement.

Literary Style

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Stylistic Flourish
Throughout The Affluent Society , Galbraith makes use of stylistic flourish to make his...

(This entire section contains 463 words.)

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points more entertaining and understandable to the general reading public. Robert Lekachman explains, in an introduction toJohn Kenneth Galbraith and His Critics (1972), by Charles H. Hession, ‘‘As even casual readers and severe critics of Galbraith usually attest, the man writes a lovely English prose—witty, supple, eloquent.’’ The use of figurative language and Biblical reference, for example, demonstrates Galbraith’s frequently praised talent for word play and for coining catchy, original phrases. For example, in the opening chapter, he warns the reader that his book puts forth controversial and original ideas that may challenge generally accepted notions held to be the norm. He criticizes the social atmosphere in which ‘‘the bland lead the bland.’’ Galbraith here refers to a Biblical parable from which the commonly used phrase ‘‘the blind leading the blind’’ is often quoted. Thus, through a humorous turn of phrase, Galbraith condemns the ‘‘bland’’ conformity that characterizes defenders of the status quo. While this comment in itself is not central to Galbraith’s discussion of economic theory, it demonstrates the stylistic flourish by which he successfully communicated complex ideas to the general public, creating a popular bestseller of what could have been a bone-dry economic treatise.

Galbraith begins two chapters with epigraphs, or short, pithy quotes, that reflect upon the content of that chapter. In opening chapter 10, for instance, Galbraith quotes from W. Beckerman’s article, ‘‘The Economist as Modern Missionary’’ (1956). Beckerman asserts that ‘‘the problem of creating sufficient wants … to absorb productive capacity may become chronic in the not too distant future.’’ This quote illuminates Galbraith’s assertion that high levels of economic production have come to be considered the ‘‘keystone’’ of economic stability, which is a problem in an affluent society because, in essence, no one really ‘‘needs’’ to buy much more than they already have. Galbraith elaborates upon this epigraph in this chapter by proposing that the industry of advertising has grown astronomically as a means of ‘‘creating sufficient wants,’’ which the consumer does not naturally possess. Galbraith thus begins his chapter with an epigraph, a quote from another economist, as a basis upon which to develop his own arguments. In the opening to chapter 17, Galbraith begins with an epigraph quoted from economist R. H. Tawney. Tawney’s quote, in essence, asserts that money cannot buy human health and happiness. Throughout the chapter, Galbraith builds upon Tawney’s statement in arguing that a sense of ‘‘social balance’’ is needed, whereby the state addresses needs of society not necessarily fulfilled by consumer abundance, such as education and other social services. As Tawney was a well-known social historian, Galbraith lends legitimacy to his own argument through opening his chapter with Tawney’s words.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1950s: Following the communist victory, a rapid transformation takes place, and the Industrial Revolution belatedly makes its way to China.

    Today: Some consider the age of the Industrial Revolution to have passed into the Information Age—in which advances in computer and information technology have transformed the conditions of labor and production.

  • 1950s: During this post-war period, the United States enjoys an era of booming economic prosperity.

    Today: Although the United States continues to enjoy a period of economic prosperity characterized by the lowest unemployment rates in decades and many average Americans profit from stock market investments during the late nineties, the stock market takes a downturn and workplace layoffs begin in 2001.

  • 1950s: The Soviet launching of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik I, causes the United States to question its own achievements in science and technology. The ‘‘space race’’ begins, and the United States creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to conduct research and development of space exploration capabilities. The first United States satellite, Explorer, is launched.

    Today: The United States and Russia agree to a joint space station program, part of which involves the United States space shuttle and the Russian Mir space station combining efforts in space exploration.

Media Adaptations

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  • Galbraith contributed to the television series The Age of Uncertainty, broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1977.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Beckerman, W. ‘‘The Economist as Modern Missionary,’’ in Economic Journal, March 1956.

‘‘The Great Mogul,’’ in Time, February 16, 1968, p. 24.

Hession, Charles H. John Kenneth Galbraith and His Critics. New American Library, 1972, pp. x, 95.

McFadzean, Sir Frank. The Economics of John Kenneth Galbraith: A Study in Fantasy. Centre for Policy Studies, 1977, pp. vii, 1.

Pratson, Frederick J. Perspectives on Galbraith: Conversations and Opinions. CBI Publishing Company, Inc., 1978, pp. ix–xiii, 49–50, 54.

Reisman, David. Galbraith and Market Capitalism. New York University Press, 1980, p. 6.

Sharpe, Myron E. John Kenneth Galbraith and the Lower Economics. International Arts and Sciences Press, Inc., 1973, p. x.

Stanfield, James Ronald. John Kenneth Galbraith. Macmillan, 1996, pp. ix, 41–42, 59.

Further Reading
Galbraith, John Kenneth. Name-Dropping: From FDR On. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999. Galbraith offers personal anecdotes about his encounters with a variety of United States presidents and other high-level government officials.

———. A Tenured Professor. Houghton, 1990. A Tenured Professor is Galbraith’s novel about a professor and his wife who discover a stock market scam that allows them to spend their enormous earnings on liberal causes.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. W. W. Norton, 1988. The Communist Manifesto (originally published in 1848) is the widely read pamphlet outlining Marx’s and Engels’s basic theories of socialism.

Reisman, David. Tawney, Galbraith, and Adam Smith. St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Reisman provides a comparative analysis of the economic theories of Galbraith, Adam Smith, and R. H. Tawney.

Sasson, Helen, ed. Between Friends: Perspectives on John Kenneth Galbraith. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999. Between Friends is a collection of essays by a variety of people who have encountered Galbraith, both at the professional and the personal level.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide