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Economic culture and its transfer: an overview of the Americanisation of the European economy, 1900-2005

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Americanisation is the (selected and adapted) transfer of values from the US to Europe. While this model is well established in cultural history, economist and economic historians had difficulties with this concept. However, the book's title 'Culture Matters!' is the latest insight of distinguished economists such as Michael E. Porter, Jeffrey Sachs, Francis Fukuyama and others.1 The contributors to this issue not only agree, but try to provide an answer to the question that is asked in the subtitle of the book: 'How Values Shape Human Progress'. More precisely, they ask how American values influenced European economic performance during the twentieth century. Europe experienced three major waves of Americanisation: in the 1920s, during the boom-phase 1949-1973, and finally from about 1985 until the present day. By using Americanisation as a cultural concept, as well as describing the waves, why they occurred can also be explained: the Europeans were eager to learn how to improve their economy during phases in which the US excelled not only in the economic field but also in others (politics, military strength, etc.). Thus, it can be understood how and why rationalisation swept over Europe as a wave in the 1920s, and why the US film industry became dominant; why during the boom European countries set up business schools; why firms changed their systems of government; and finally why since about 1985 Europeans have embarked on a process of privatisation and de-regulation. Thus, Americanisation gives us a better understanding of what has happened and is still happening with us Europeans - and why. The general trend was to become less cooperative and more competitive in all aspects. Why did Americanisation occur in waves? Already by 1914 some branches of American industry were superior to their European competitors. Selected European firms successfully adopted US standards. But what caused the three waves was not action by a couple of individual businesses: it needed a general feeling of American superiority. Cultural, political, military and financial strength provided the background for each of the waves, while they petered out when this background was no longer existent: during the world economic crisis of the 1930s, in the 1970s with the Vietnamese War, and at the time of the financial and oil crises. Americanisation started again when, with the breakdown of socialism, the US emerged as the world's sole hegemonic power, due to the US IT industry, and American ideas on private property and in the financial sector, all of which pressed for less cooperative and more exclusive, private ways of doing business and conducting one's personal life. The contribution shows how rationalisation spread in Europe during the 1920s. For the boom-period 1950-1973, the showcases are the Marshall Plan, mass distribution including the introduction of self-service and market research, management education, de-cartelisation, foreign direct investment and specific changes within internal organisation of enterprise. The last wave is explained by the changed role of finance, both in private life and in the economy, and in technological change. All these changes over time were entrenched in a handful of American values. It was the deepening of these values in the US themselves that, in combination with an upswing of political, military, cultural and economic power, prepared the next wave of Americanisation.
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Keywords: Americanisation; economic ideas; transfer of values

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Bergen, Norway

Publication date: August 1, 2008

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