[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Irresistible Empire,' by Victoria de Grazia
checker at panix.com
Sat May 7 10:48:18 UTC 2005
'Irresistible Empire,' by Victoria de Grazia
New York Times Book Review, 5.5.8
'Irresistible Empire': McEurope
By JOHANN HARI
America's Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe.
By Victoria de Grazia.
Illustrated. 586 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.
Victoria De Grazia slaps Europeans in the face with her title: face
it, mes amis, you are part of the American empire. Zut alors! As a
proud European, I confess to letting out a small splutter. Didn't we
just snub the emperor-president, George W. Bush, by rejecting great
swaths of his foreign policy? Don't we have a social democratic model
that avoids the vertiginous inequalities of the United States? Aren't
we free and self-determining democracies, building up our own
superpower based in Brussels?
Well, maybe -- but if Charlemagne or Napoleon could see their
continent today, they would be with de Grazia. One glance at Europe's
great capitals, and they would assume Europe had been conquered,
occupied and settled by Americans. The men who dreamed of l'Europe
profonde would curse the ubiquity of Eminem as they sat in the greasy
KFC on the Falls Road in Belfast munching their Chicken Popcorn. They
would stagger their way around Italy's most beautiful city, guided by
a McDonald's map of McVenice.
''Irresistible Empire'' is the story of how this happened, of how an
imperium came to Europe in the form of an emporium. Unlike the Middle
East and Latin America, Europe has seen only the peaceful face of
America's empire. De Grazia, a professor of history at Columbia
University, shows how -- in just one century -- the Old Continent was
subject to slow conquest by a million consumer goods.
She talks us through the rise of a string of outwardly banal
institutions: Rotary Clubs, supermarkets, the Hollywood star system,
corporate advertising. With the careful skill of an expert defusing an
explosive, she teases out the dense clusters of political ideology
embodied in these seemingly everyday social institutions.
The old European capitalism was epitomized by the small neighborhood
store. At its core was ''a commercial ethic that still sought trust in
the longevity of contacts and the solidarity of face-to-face
contacts.'' Slowly, this model was eclipsed by an American capitalism
epitomized by the out-of-town supermarket, big, anonymous and neon.
The local, the diverse and the class-segmented were all ironed out in
favor of a mass standard of consumption.
Instead of the Great Man theory of history, de Grazia gives us the
Great Bargain theory. It's startling just how rapidly Europe has been
changed by this new model. Who knew, for example, that in the late
1950's there was not a single supermarket in Milan, and this was by no
means untypical for a European city? How many of us realize that as
recently as 1954, only 9 percent of French people had a refrigerator?
Yet in a work crammed with exhaustive research, the reader pines for
analysis. All of contemporary European politics spins on the question:
Were the developments de Grazia details good for Europe?
The answer cannot be squeezed into the simple-minded good-and-evil
story craved on both sides of the Atlantic. De Grazia concentrates
primarily on the areas where Americanization has had a broadly
positive effect. But even the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote
lovingly in his ''Prison Notebooks'' of how Americanism and Fordism
were hollowing out the old feudal snobberies.
Perhaps unwittingly, de Grazia steers away from the areas where
corporate Americanization has been pernicious for Europe. I would like
to see her turn her remarkable skills to charting the effect of
American corporate buyouts on Europe's news and entertainment media.
Nor does she mention the environmental impact of this economic system.
And is any analysis of European supermarkets complete without
mentioning the biggest public health scare on the continent for 50
years? The supermarkets, relentless pressure for cheap food and
industrial agriculture all pushed farmers to feed processed meat to
cattle -- thus leading to Mad Cow disease.
The other gap in de Grazia's narrative concerns a strange historical
irony: Americanization gave birth to the idea of Europe. ''Henry Ford
was as much a father of the European idea as anyone from Europe, given
his company's pioneering effort to treat the European region as a
single sales territory,'' she notes dryly. She's right, but the point
is left hanging. Ford set in motion the conflict that will define the
European Union over the coming decades. It can be summarized in a
simple question: Does Europe exist to achieve Ford's goal -- one vast
market for American goods -- or to resist this possibility and create
a distinctively social democratic alternative?
De Grazia focuses on one relatively minor European-resistance cause --
the slow food movement -- and at first it seems an eccentric choice.
Founded in the late 1980's, it has a simple purpose: to give everybody
the time and space to eat good, unprocessed food slowly and carefully.
When America waves a Big Mac, the Slow Foodies want Europe to wave a
bowl of freshly cooked pasta al dente. But if they are few in number,
their approach symbolizes the wider European reaction to American
neoliberalism: slow down. Europeans want long vacations, generous
welfare states and flexible work hours. They -- we -- are trying to
articulate a different model of consumerism that values leisure and
family as much as work, work, work. Can this work? Is there a way to
combine America's dazzling consumer economy with social justice and
Like many Europeans, I have a dystopian vision of the death of Europe
as an alternative to America. Far from resolving tensions across the
Atlantic, the irresistible empire's blanding out would simply produce
a long European grudge, a quiet rage that we had sold our identity for
a bag of Doritos. I see it now: Napoleon and Charlemagne sit grumbling
in a doughnut shop after a long day in the new Euro-America. Napoleon
swallows hard on a Krispy Kreme, turns to a weeping Charlemagne, and
whispers, ''Dude, I so hate America.''
Johann Hari is a columnist for The Independent in London and the
author of ''God Save the Queen? Monarchy and the Truth About the
More information about the paleopsych