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The cultural challenges of globalisation

By Aseem Shrivastava

Outside the illusions of multiculturalism, there can be no authentic communication between people from different cultures unless and until each is allowed and willing to belong, once more, to the soil in which they grew up

How it could all be

A globalised world, facilitated by growing commerce and rapid developments in technologies of transport and communication, presents historic opportunities for the mutual enrichment of human cultures. But is this actually happening? Before one attempts an answer to this question, it is worth reflecting on the conditions under which such opportunities might be harnessed.

For international cultural contact to bear succulent fruit, several conditions ought to prevail in the sphere of human relationships. There has to be an atmosphere of mutual respect, cultural equality and, importantly, curiosity. Without such a “democracy of cultures” it is likely that people belonging to one culture will harbour notions of superiority (and/or people belonging to the culture they interact with bear feelings of inferiority). The truth is that we really have no reliable or even consensual criteria for comparing cultures. In sublime realms, for instance, how is one to make authentic comparisons between the musical compositions of an Amir Khusrao and a Beethoven? At the base end of things, what sense does it make to compare the brutalities in an American prison with those in a Chinese one?

This is not to make an apology for cultural relativism. There are obvious moral standards cutting across cultures which make murder, rape or child abuse crimes under the laws of nations otherwise markedly different from each other. Because the ethical challenges of human life are ultimately universal in nature, and every society has to confront them sooner or later, cultures are remarkably more self-sufficient for most purposes than is usually recognised.

There is an additional prerequisite for mutual cultural enrichment in a globalised world. Each side in the exchange has to know their own culture to an adequate depth (in the absence of such knowledge, there is little to offer the other). This cannot happen without an abiding (yet self-critical) respect for and appreciation of one’s own culture. When this is not present, it is more than likely that the hegemonic culture (abetted by accumulated power and wealth) will, over time, take the place of the historically weaker one. Instead of enriching and learning from the latter, it will knowingly or inadvertently contribute to its gradual erosion and ultimate demise. The history of lost cultures since the early days of imperialism and colonialism attests to this truth.

There is another reason why some cultures face erosion and possible extinction. In a world in which people from some places are inclined to reject their own cultures (because of the colonial legacy of shame towards one’s own past), it is very often the case that their knowledge of what they are rejecting wears thin. Children of the comprador elites in so many Third World countries offer easy examples.

Cultural interaction in such a world is likely to boil down to a transaction in surfaces, since people on one side (or both sides -- since hegemonic cultures are also in decline, having ceded ground to commerce) are unacquainted with the depths of their own lore and traditions. (In India, for instance, educated people are often complimented if they are able to speak their own mother tongue well, something which is unthinkable in Britain or even Russia.) This does not mean that the psychological depths somehow vanish. Human nature is such that the spurned past persists there and lives a furtive life in unsuspected regions of consciousness, tormenting people with unnamed anxieties.

How the world actually is

The above may be taken as a starting point for judging the cultural dangers and possibilities of globalisation in the contemporary world. But before doing that one thing still needs to be cleared up.

Everyone is led to take for granted that globalisation has actually happened. But is it true?

What has become globalised is the movement of capital. Short of there being a single global currency, money in all its myriad multiplying forms is travelling freely across the world, occupying, say, an American pocket in the morning, a Chinese bank account in the afternoon and an Iranian one by nightfall, perhaps changing hands many times between these (temporary) locations. Production and supply chains are also global now, making it impossible to trace a typical product -- like a mobile phone -- to any single country of origin.

But the story with regard to labour -- ordinary working people -- is strikingly different. Human mobility is a function of class. While millionaires and their political patrons jet around the world, buying and selling companies or islands, their less fortunate fellow citizens are not as free to move or transact. The movement of working people and their families across national boundaries is nightmarishly difficult in the global economy, especially from poorer to affluent regions of the world. Immigration laws in Japan, Europe and the US have become much more draconian with the passage of time. And countries like India, mimicking the policies of their rich counterparts in the West, take an increasingly stern view of immigration from poor neighbours like Bangladesh. A hundred years ago, when even passports and visas were not required in many cases, the movement of people was significantly freer than it is today.

So it appears that it is not globalisation in the fullest cultural and political sense of the word that has occurred. If the world was truly globalised, we would see quite a different view when we open our windows. As there are growing restrictions on human movement and liberties (typically in the name of security in the age of war and terror), it becomes clear that what is happening is not so much globalisation as the internationalisation and concentration of capital. One is forced to infer that the growth and proliferation of capitalist imperialism (under the military dominance of the US) is no more globalisation than power is freedom.

As regards the cultural consequences of a global labour market, westerners sometimes pin the blame for the dilution and decline of their own cultures on immigrants from Third World countries. But the immigrants would not be there if economic conditions in their own vulnerable lands had not been worsened by adverse trade and finance regimes imposed on them by imperial institutions like the IMF, or if global arms profiteers had not furthered their militarisation and involvement in wars both civil and uncivil. Nor would they be there if employers in wealthy host nations did not want them to do the jobs that no one else was willing to do (especially for those wages).

More to the point, from our perspective no culture can be diluted because of the mere presence of relatively poor and powerless outsiders. The more plausible explanation for the decline of the cultures of the western world (a phenomenon that many historians and critics date to times before the world wars, long before immigrants arrived from the South in large numbers) is the fact that so-called modern societies have been primed by the corporations and their media for economic growth and by the State for warfare. The overwhelming devotion to commerce (and wars for resources, if they are deemed necessary) has been an obvious fact of social life in the western world for decades now. Could commerce and aggression be the twin assassins of culture?

Consider some of the other conditions under which globalisation is happening. We continue to live in the long shadows of conquest. The US has been the dominant world power for over half a century. Since the exit of the Soviet Union from the frontlines of the Cold War in 1990, it has been the lone superpower. The present phase of globalisation was launched in the 1990s by the US in the interests of its own transnational corporations. If the global cultural dominance of the US has no historical precedent, it is because its government and corporations have capitalised on the power vacuum left behind by the erstwhile Soviet Union to flex military, political, economic and cultural muscle across the world to a degree unknown in world history. Imperialism -- witness US aggression in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq -- does not any more have to involve outright conquest as in the days of European colonialism. The market and the marines guarantee success for the powerful. Most of the military and economic lessons Washington wishes lesser powers to learn are delivered by the periodic demonstration of the seriousness of its intention of achieving global “full spectrum dominance” (across land, water, air, space and information). Imperialism, far from dying a long-awaited death, is coming into its own.

So if we are discussing the cultural aspects of a world ‘globalising’ under US ‘leadership’, it is all too obvious that possibilities of communication, understanding and mutual enrichment are severely circumscribed by the world’s de facto embrace of the American Dream (of limitless material prosperity) sold ceaselessly through such media as television. This is true even of nations and cultures to which the US is otherwise unfriendly.

Time was when America was the name of a country. Today it is the name of the world’s way of life, a condition of being and a state of mind. It is a sobering reality that cultures as far apart as Saudi Arabia and Thailand, Iran and South Africa (not to mention India and China) have all set their sights on building national economic might. Cultural matters are usually important to people nowadays only insofar as they promote the interests of big business and add feathers to nationalist caps. Unsurprisingly, not only is the external hardware of every society beginning to get homogenised after the American pattern, the mental software that people carry -- the accents and intonations of language, tastes in film and music to name only a few features of the phenomenon -- are also getting rapidly Americanised.

Countries like India, which have barely woken up from the long, troubling and still largely unexamined legacy of European colonialism, now offer a vast culture of uninhibited imitation of the West, sponsored by our culturally impoverished elites. It is in such a context -- dominated by American cultural hegemony -- that we, perforce, have to weigh the prospects of communication between the peoples of the world. There are Indians who remember their culture only when its bright end has to be showcased before curious and eager foreigners. They feel and live closer to New York than to Nagpur. On the other hand, there are westerners who still flock to India looking for spiritual enlightenment having all but forgotten their own Eckharts and Teresas.

In an era of so much cultivated ignorance, how are the cultural possibilities of globalisation to be explored? Outside the illusions of multiculturalism, there is no authentic communication between people from different cultures unless and until each is allowed and willing to belong, once more, to the soil in which they grew up.

If one comes from a culture that has been subject to conquest, one might wish, for a start, to arrest the ongoing rejection of one’s own culture in the name of such chimeras as ‘progress’ or ‘development’. Without this prior decolonisation of the inner life it is difficult to see how any movement in the direction of authentic communication can come about. And for those who come from cultures which haven’t yet surrendered their lust for power and conquest, there is a perhaps longer road to be covered if the habits of power which conspire against culture and meaningful human communication are to be unlearnt.

Without these twin forms of unlearning, any dream of mutual cultural  enrichment is doomed to turn into a nightmare and flounder in the pitfalls of bad faith, leaving the world more xenophobic and stupid than ever before.

(Aseem Shrivastava wrote his doctoral thesis on Environmental Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has taught economics at university and college level in India and the US. He now works as an independent writer, focusing on issues emanating from globalisation)

Infochange News & Features, August 2009