Paul FRANKE (MPI für Bildungsforschung): Cities Only Capitalism Could Have Built – The Production of Monaco (1860–1960) and Las Vegas (1945–1976)
Contribution to the Summer university “Cultures and knowledge of economy (18th-20th c.)” at the GHI Paris, June 21-24, 2016.
Historian Hal K. Rothman wrote in his book Neon Metropolis, that Las Vegas would be a city only capitalism could have built. For him, this meant the focus on consumption, rather than production, unseen levels of greed, 24/7 entertainment and social mobility. This paper will argue he struck a nerve on an even more profound level. Both Monaco and Las Vegas should be studied as consumption experiences, produced in an historical process.
They seemed to offer a specific gambling experience, a distinctive way of how the games were played, and how people would interpret playing them. It was this development that allowed historical agents in the gambling industry not only to infuse gambling there with a specific meaning in terms of consumption, but to link it with a new morality as well. Individuals, groups and networks actively sought to establish Monaco and Las Vegas respectively, not only as profitable locations for casinos, but altered the experience of gambling here for patrons on a fundamental level.
The notion of Moral Economy is used to shed light on the moralization that the historical actors refer to in the sources. Gambling in Monaco and Las Vegas was supposedly not only of special quality in terms of customer satisfaction, but also of special moral character. Agents from different levels in the casino industries in Monaco and Las Vegas not only pushed for certain representations in the media, but also shaped city spaces, cultivated consumption environments and designed business models and practices. In doing so, they turned “Monaco” and “Las Vegas” from mere cities to household names for a specific and supposedly unique experience of games of chance. For Monaco this process started in the 1860s. Monaco was singled out for its allegedly special and unique atmosphere and gambling experience. Entrepreneurs and officials furthered this development via architecture, game-design, press-campaigns, and even the manner in which they physically orchestrated the casinos. Between the 1860s and the 1960s, the casinos were not only the backbone of Monaco’s national income, but also a moralized economy.
In Las Vegas, the process of turning a location of casino gambling into a specific consumption experience started years after the first casinos were built there. After World War II an alliance between city boosters, businessmen and the casinos started to promote Las Vegas. Those efforts cumulated in the process of producing the ”Las Vegas” experience in the following 30 years. Influential casinos pushed the boundaries of established business forms. They cultivated spaces, practices and business models, to set the “Strip” apart from other forms of gambling which appeared to be more deviant, or inadequate when compared to Las Vegas.
The paper interlinks the history of both cities with the broader history of gambling and of modern capitalism, in which goods and services are on a material level more or less interchangeable, yet are infused with distinctive meaning.
Paul Franke is a PhD student at the Humboldt University of Berlin and at the International Max Planck Research School for Moral Economies of Modern Societies (IMPRS Moral Economies) of the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development since 2014. He holds a BA in History and Theology and a Master in History from the University of Bielefeld.