Irresistible Empire, by Victoria de Grazia

Under the axles of evil
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The Independent Culture

This book gives a door-stopping gloss on Churchill's remark that Americans always do the right thing... but only after exhausting all the other possibilities. Our capitulation to their capitalism is the subject of this elegant work. It is an eloquent book too, written with measure and cadences and care which have their roots in Old World learning rather than New World Write-Lite and its flashy neologisms.

In fact, so much does the style of Victoria de Grazia, a Columbia professor of history, depend on European academic models that it rather undermines the thesis that Coca-Colonisation, our abject surrender to American consumerism, is the main feature of contemporary economic and cultural history. Still, in a nice phrase of the author's, it is the story of the "rise of a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium".

De Grazia defends the American achievement against the European accusation that it is a rootless society with no memories, no common idea, no national character. Dickens, Fanny Trollope and de Tocqueville were saying all that more than 150 years ago. What is radical about her account is the argument that Europe, rather than the continental US, was the theatre where the players were most hypnotically entranced by the American Dream.

From Ford to Howard Johnson, Americans required standardised products and created the heraldry of "brands" to identify them. And urban Europe Hoovered them up as eagerly as consumers did in the rural mid-West. In this way statecraft (which is to say coercive geopoliticians carrying very big sticks), salesmanship and standardisation "defeated" - de Grazia's confrontational vocabulary is significant - the European way of life with its quaint interests in class, charm, craft and taste.

And the result? Well, one example would be the evil empire of Ronald McDonald which desecrated Rome's Spanish Steps with a nasty 450-seater burger bar in 1986. Cui, as we say in the Old World, bono?

To continue with de Grazia's thesis: just as Europe's bourgeois dotards succumbed to the snares of the superior American standard of living and enthusiastically swapped their pommes dauphinoise for fries, so Hitler and Stalin succumbed to superior American morality. Eventually, we reached the end of history.

She identifies five elements in the American process of consumer domination. First is an almost complete disregard for other nations' sovereignty: the American translations of "free trade" and "globalisation" are solid US monopoly and artless Americanisation. Second, the export of a Niceville concept of civil society. "Advertising," President Calvin Coolidge said, "ministers to the spiritual side of trade". Third, perversion of European intellect through the repellent jargon and bogus methodologies of management consultancies. Fourth, the spurious democracy of brands. Fifth, peace.

This is an impressively learned and intelligent book but, given its vast scope, there are inevitably errors of detail and omission. Henry Ford's "any colour so long as it's black" was not an aesthetic proscription to conquer gaiety, but a simple admission of his mania for thrift and efficiency. In the days of the Model-T, freshly painted cars were put out to dry in the sun and, given its thermal properties, black paint dried fastest.

Ford's monochrome monopoly was broken when General Motors' in-house huckster, Harley Earl, started painting cars in DuPont's new bright colours. Later as Vice-President of Styling, Earl (who gave the world chrome and tail fins) became possibly the most influential designer of all time. Your suburban grandfather's Vauxhall Cresta was a copy of an Earl design for Oldsmobile. Curious not to mention this man and his contribution to the Axles of Evil.

But it is in interpretation that Irresistible Empire is most seriously flawed. Surely the entire conceit of America's invasion of Europe is wrong? Has not the majority of influence been the other way? Take the invention of flight. The Wright Brothers' uncontrolled hop of 1903 was just a stunt. The French made all the running in the early history of aviation. Later, Boeing's important swept-wing technology was imported from Germany, as were NASA's launchers. Rocket science is German science.

Anyway, Airbus now regularly beats Boeing in world markets. And the great American universities? German academic method inspired them too; except Yale and Harvard, which were influenced by Oxbridge.

American modern art depended on European imports: Jackson Pollock was a xenophobic media invention promoted as a homegrown counter attack. Americans may have invented video, but Sony told them what to do with it and bought Hollywood to show them how. Starbucks sells cappuccino and latte, not mint julep. The Rolling Stones, beginning their triumphant 42nd anniversary tour of the US now, successfully commercialised dreary American blues and re-exported it.

Americans may have invented rock'n'roll, but the English showed them what to do with it. An Englishman created the internet. Kodak totally failed to understand the digital revolution and will very likely go bust. IBM totally failed to understand the computer revolution, ruinously selling off its manufacturing to the Chinese. I will not mention the banking and accounting scandals but, as if to underline the catastrophic collapse of the American Business Model, by any reasonable accounting standards General Motors is bankrupt.

De Grazia' conclusion makes the bulk of the book read as though it were written a very long time ago. True, she uses a recent photograph of a truckload of Pampers nappies approaching a ro-ro ferry en route to Sicily as pictorial evidence of American hegemony in consumer practices, but her tone is more apologetic and reflective. Her subject is the Slow Food Movement, launched at Paris's Opéra Comique the year the Berlin Wall came down. With its dedication to "quiet material pleasure", its interest in località and terroir, its disdain of GM foods (not to mention GM cars), its love of charm and craft and singularity, its finesse and sensitivity, the Slow Food Movement represents the opposite to McDonald's and Coca-Cola, now bruised and diminished by consumer revulsion.

Slow Food's Carlo Petrini says the only two things necessary for the maintenance of life are sex and food. These are things the Americans have never been able to do well.

So far from being triumphalist, Irresistible Empire has an elegiac feel. A beautiful photograph on the cover shows a woman - possibly the American Business Model herself - sitting atop the Pratt & Whitney JT3-D turbojet of a Pan Am Boeing 707. The plane first flew in 1954. Pan Am entered an irrecoverable dive into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1991. If you ask me, there is something irresistible about American decline.

Stephen Bayley and Gustave Flaubert's 'A Dictionary of Idiocy' is published by Gibson Square

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