When anti-globalization protesters took to the streets of Washington recently, they blamed globalization for everything from hunger to the destruction of indigenous cultures. And globalization meant the United States.
The critics call it Coca-Colonization, and French sheep farmer Jose Bove has become a cult figure since destroying a McDonald’s restaurant in 1999.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, globalization is neither homogenizing nor Americanizing the cultures of the world.
To understand why not, we have to step back and put the current period in a larger historical perspective. Although they are related, the long-term historical trends of globalization and modernization are not the same. While modernization has produced some common traits, such as large cities, factories and mass communications, local cultures have by no means been erased. The appearance of similar institutions in response to similar problems is not surprising, but it does not lead to homogeneity.
In the first half of the 20th century, for example, there were some similarities among the industrial societies of Britain, Germany, America and Japan, but there were even more important differences. When China, India and Brazil complete their current processes of industrialization and modernization, we should not expect them to be replicas of Japan, Germany or the United States.
Take the current information revolution. The United States is at the forefront of this great movement of change, so the uniform social and cultural habits produced by television viewing or Internet use, for instance, are often attributed to Americanization. But correlation is not causation.
Imagine if another country had introduced computers and communications at a rapid rate in a world in which the United States did not exist. Major social and cultural changes still would have followed. Of course, since the United States does exist and is at the leading edge of the information revolution, there is a degree of Americanization at present, but it is likely to diminish over the course of the 21st century as technology spreads and local cultures modernize in their own ways.
The lesson that Japan has to teach the rest of the world is that even a century and a half of openness to global trends does not necessarily assure destruction of a country’s separate cultural identity. Of course, there are American influences in contemporary Japan (and Japanese influences such as Sony and Pokémon in the United States). Thousands of Japanese youths are co-opting the music, dress and style of urban black American. But some of the groups they listen to dress up like samurai warriors on stage. One can applaud or deplore such cultural transfers, but one should not doubt the persistence of Japan’s cultural uniqueness.
The protesters’ image of America homogenizing the world also reflects a mistakenly static view of culture. Efforts to portray cultures as unchanging more often reflect reactionary political strategies than descriptions of reality. The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa put it well when he said that arguments in favor of cultural identity and against globalization “betray a stagnant attitude toward culture that is not borne out by historical face. Do we know of any cultures that have remained unchanged through time? To find any of them one has to travel to the small, primitive, magic religious communities made up of people… who, due to their primitive condition, become progressively more vulnerable to exploitation and extermination.”
Vibrant cultures are constantly changing and borrowing from other cultures. And the borrowing is not always from the United States. For example many more countries turned to Canada than to the United States as a model for constitution-building in the aftermath of the Cold War. Canadian views of how to deal with hate crimes were more congenial to countries such as South Africa and the post-Communist states of Eastern Europe than America’s First Amendment practices.
Globalization is also a two-edged sword. In some areas, there has been not only a backlash against culture itself. American policies on capital punishment may have majority support inside the United States, but they are regarded as egregious violations of human rights in much of Europe and have been as egregious violations of human rights in much of Europe and have been the focus of transnational human rights campaigns. American attitudes to-ward climate change or genetic modification of food draw similar criticism. More subtly, the openness of the United States to the world’s diasporas both enriches and changes American culture.
Transnational corporations are changing poor countries but not homogenizing them. In the early stages of investment, a multinational company with access to the global resources of finance, technology and markets holds the high cards and often gets the best of the bargain with the poor country. But over time, as the poor country develops a skilled work-force, learns new technologies, and opens its own channels to global finance and markets, it is often able to renegotiate the bargain and capture more of the benefits.
As technical capabilities spread and more and more people hook up to global communications systems, the U.S.’ economic and cultural preponderance may diminish. This in turn has mixed implications for American “soft” power, our ability to get others to do what we want by attraction rather than coercion. Less dominance may mean less anxiety about Americanization, fewer complaints about American arrogance and a little less intensity in the anti-American backlash. We may have less control in the future, but we may find ourselves lining in a world somewhat more congenial to our basic values of democracy, free markets and human rights.
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