Autos and Progress
The Brazilian Search for Modernity
University Press 2010
New Books in HistoryNew Books in Latin American StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Science & TechnologyNew Books in TechnologyNew Books Network March 19, 2010 Marshall Poe
Here’s something I learned by reading Joel Wolfe’s terrific Autos and Progress: The Brazilian Search for Modernity (Oxford, 2010): the United States and Brazil have a lot in common. Both hived off European empires; both struggled with slavery and its legacy; both are profoundly multiethnic and multiracial; both have spent much of their respective histories settling a vast “wild” frontier (though, to be fair, it was already “settled” by indigenous people); and, most importantly for our purposes, both are car-crazy, and indeed for almost the same reason. In the United States, the automobile meant modernity. It was the implement with which we, Americans of every stripe, would “tame” a continent and thereby realize our national potential. The Brazilians, according to Wolfe, feel the same way. Joel does a masterful job of explaining how the promise of this crucial technology entered the Brazilian psyche and became not only the vehicle of modernity (pardon the pun) but also the symbol of everything modern. Along the way Joel explodes one of the foundational myths of modern anti-globalism (and what used to be called “anti-imperialism”), namely, that powerful “multinational corporations” muscled their way into undeveloped countries and fostered a crippling “dependency.” Not in Brazil. The Brazilians invited Ford, GM, and VW into the country with a full understanding of what they were getting; they embraced the values these corporations fostered, all of which were seen as “modern”; and when things weren’t working out, they essentially forced them to act according to Brazilian interests. The Brazilians were, so to speak, in the driver’s seat of automobilismo; the supposedly all-powerful multinationals were along for the ride. In the end, both enjoyed the journey, despite some rough patches. I’m happy to say, however, that this book has no rough spots at all. You will drive carefree from the first to the last page. Have a good trip.
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