- Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the Cold War Farms Race by Shane Hamilton
In 1957, a coalition of American businessmen and representatives from the Department of Commerce presented an exhibition titled Supermarket USA at a trade fair in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. The exhibition was a replica of what viewers were supposed to assume was an ordinary American supermarket—shelves fully stocked with a wide variety of packaged goods and large lush produce, flown in from the United States. American planners intended the local audience to take away a specific message: Capitalism is superior to communism because it results in markets like these—abundant, diverse in products, and accessible to people of all incomes. They were supposed to turn on their communist leaders in disappointed rage and topple the regime for the sake of access to breakfast cereals. Although Western journalists gleefully reported that Yugoslav officials were envious, that envy had different consequences from those desired by the Americans. Yugoslav officials simply established their own state-run supermarkets to showcase the goods of their own nation.
Shane Hamilton takes the title of the exhibition for his important new book, which explores the many ways in which the supermarket, both as an idea and as a physical space, was used as a rhetorical device in Cold War discourse. He also draws attention to the ways in which supermarkets continue to be misunderstood as symbols of the free market. Hamilton argues that the power of supermarkets to convey the message of capitalism's benefits was deeply compromised by the actual factors that produced these markets.
Although American politicians and businessmen touted the supermarket as a shining example of free enterprise, Hamilton reveals that supermarkets could not have existed without an industrialized food chain made possible through a variety of government interventions. Most important among these were federal projects to promote the industrialization of agriculture and the distribution systems necessary to get the consequent abundance to markets. If the emblem of American consumer choice was actually engineered through government supports and controls, does free enterprise actually exist beyond its starring role in procapitalist propaganda?
Supermarkets played an important role in what Hamilton identifies as the "farms race," parallel to and just as important as the arms race of the Cold War era. Soviet and U.S. officials vied for the allegiances of smaller nations in this farms race by each claiming to produce more food. Despite America's clear advantage over the USSR in production, [End Page 602] Soviet leadership persisted in claiming dominance. Hamilton chronicles Premier Leonid Brezhnev's stubborn insistence that the USSR would at any moment out produce the United States with a kind of sympathy that helps readers understand just how important it was to Soviet leadership that Russians believed the system was working to feed the masses. This is a skillful exposition of how inextricably bound material well-being and ideology often are and how much it matters who sets the standard for "enough." It also mattered to American leadership that ordinary people in the United States understand supermarkets as indicators of their system's success.
Hamilton organizes his argument chronologically, beginning with the emergence in the 1920s of the chain supermarkets that depended on and thus encouraged industrialized supply chains and helped move American agriculture toward larger, more corporate farms. Chapters on the establishment of the American supermarket at home are followed by fascinating examples of what happened when Americans and others attempted to replicate the model abroad, in Venezuela, Yugoslavia, Russia, and Western Europe. Here the brilliance of Hamilton's title becomes clear, as readers see the many ways in which procapitalist/anti-communist entrepreneurs and government officials tried to tie the two concepts together. Anti-communists represented America as an ideological supermarket, a land of endless options, and the supermarket as America, a place for the gratification of diverse and abundant desires. Anti-capitalists could use the supermarket as an example of capitalist excess and the fetishization of material goods.
With a fluid writing style...