Land of Desire: Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture by William Leach (Pantheon Books, New York, 1993)

The original American culture was an idealized blend of Republican virtue, Christian piety and community values overlaid against a backdrop of slavery, gambling, genocide and war. Whatever its true ideals and real scope, Americans believed themselves deeply moral creatures immersed in a system of villages and hamlets, self-sustaining farms, and Church communities, despite the presence among them of squalid slave sales, Native American removals, and immigrant bias. Soon after the Civil War, however, a new American culture arose, a business culture on a quest to produce and sell goods cheaply and “in constantly growing volume and at higher profit levels,” a nearly utopian social culture that after 1890 acquired such power, and “despite few wrenching crises along the way, has kept it ever since. That culture, the one we’ve inherited and currently inhabit, is a pure state-sponsored corporate consumer capitalist enterprise, one that is now degenerate, divided and lost.

According to the brilliant historian William Leach that culture, from the 1890’s on, gave birth to American corporate business that, “in league with a key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this. American consumer capitalism produced a culture almost violently hostile to the past and to tradition, a future-oriented culture of desire that confused the good life with goods. It was a culture that first appeared as an alternative culture—or as one moving largely against the grain of earlier traditions of republicanism and Christian virtue—and then unfolded to become the reigning culture of the United States. It was the culture that many people the world over soon came to see as the heart of American life.

Leach’s brilliant, incisive and detailed book deals with the formative years of that culture, 1880-1930. It is not the story of Robber Barons, but of educated, scientific, and sometimes obsessed retailers, salesmen, marketers, publicity agents, brokers, designers, philosophers, educators, advertisers, showmen and hucksters, who, in league during the 1920’s with the Federal Government, spread mass consumer culture to every corner of the country.

In this new culture, the one we all inhabit now, money is the prime value and acquisition its logical consequence. Dreams are forever on sale, new ones appearing as old ones die. The state and business are profoundly intermingled, with business dependent on government in many ways. The corporate aesthetic mantles every square inch of our country and the average American is plied day and night by banks and corporations with messages urging them to buy. The corporate concept of the American human is an insatiable, desiring machine or as an animal governed by an infinity of desires. What is most human about people is their quest after new experiences and goods, fashions and modes without boundary or end.

This American idea rejects the “humanity” of commitment, binding relationships, permanent roots, land love, continuity, community and even country. The consuming self is the whirlwind of ego clothed in the ideology of the “market”.  Leach’s grand book, “Land of Desire” is the preeminent picture of the rise of department stores, theaters, movie houses, saloons, brokerages, financial institutions, the Department of Commerce, distribution networks, marketing and advertising during an age of ferment and turmoil, an age beset with downturns, crises and, eventually, the Great Depression.

Leach’s conclusion: “The good is not in ‘goods’. The good is in justice, mercy and peace. It is in consistency and integrity, in living according to truth and right. It inheres in men and not in things. It is other than the goodness of goods and without it goods are not good.”

Read this book and vote with your conscience.