Democracy at risk: American culture in a global culture.

AuthorBarber, Benjamin R.

Is American culture global? Internationalists often insist that it is, but it comes closer to the truth to say that global culture is American - increasingly trapped within American culture in its technologically facilitated, free market supported, globalizing form. While it is fashionable to try to tame the idea of the Americanizing of global culture by referring to dialectical interactions and two-way interfaces that make America global even as the globe becomes American, to me this is either wishful thinking on the part of those subjected to the depredations of what I have called "McWorld,"(1) or diplomatic rationalization by the corporate beneficiaries of globalization who want to disguise their new soft hegemony in a still softer ideological cloak.

This cloak deploys the metaphors of reciprocity and mutual assimilation, which suggest that dominant cultures are themselves modified by the cultures they affect to modify. But this is a peculiar reciprocity - the reciprocity of the python who swallows the hare: "Oh look!" cry fans of the hare, "the python has not swallowed the hare, the hare has swallowed the python! For see how like a hare the python looks!" But of course after a week or two of active digestion, the hare is gone and only the python remains.

McWorld does take on the colors of the cultures it swallows up - for a while: thus the pop music accented with Reggae and Latino rhythms in the Los Angeles barrio, Big Macs served with French wine in Paris or made from Bulgarian beef in Eastern Europe, Mickey speaking French at Euro-Disney. But, in the end, MTV and McDonald's and Disneyland are American cultural icons, seemingly innocent Trojan-American horses nosing their way into other nations' cultures.

McWorld represents an American push into the future animated by onrushing economic, technological, and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize people everywhere with fast music, fast computers, and fast food MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald's - pressing nations into one homogeneous global culture, one McWorld tied together by communications, information, entertainment, and commerce.

Even where McWorld is opposed by forces of reactionary tribalism and traditional religion, it trumps its opponents. Iranian zealots may keep one ear tuned to the mullahs urging holy war, but the other is cocked to Rupert Murdoch's Star Television, which beams in Dynasty reruns or The Simpsons from hovering satellites. Underneath their chadors, Iran's women wear Western high-fashion outfits, which, the moment they leave the transparency of public space and enter the opaque safety of the private, they flaunt as if they were in Paris or Rome. The Russian Orthodox Church may remain a bastion of faith in Russia's privatizing world, but it has nonetheless managed to enter into a joint venture with California businessmen to bottle and sell natural waters from the Saint Springs. Brooding neo-Nazis in America's far-right "militias" are comfortable recruiting on the Internet, and both the far left and the far right have turned to rock music to get their traditional messages out to the new generation.

Democracy at Risk

This new globalizing culture is likely to displace not only its reactionary critics but its democratic rivals, who dream of a genuinely internationalized civil society made up of free citizens from many different cultures. For America's global culture is not so much hostile as indifferent to democracy: its goal is a global consumer society comprised neither of tribesmen (too commercially challenged to shop) nor of citizens (too civically engaged to shop), both of whom make lousy clients, but of consumers. Consumers are a new breed of women and men who are equal (potential customers all) without being just; and who are peaceful (placid and reactive rather than active) without being democratic.

In Europe, Asia, and the Americas, markets have already eroded national sovereignty and given birth to a new global culture of international banks, trade associations, transnational lobbies like opec, world news services like CNN and the BBC, and multinational corporations, the new sovereigns of a world where nation-states scarcely know how to regulate their own economies, let alone control runaway global markets. While mills and factories sit on sovereign territory under the eye and potential regulation of nation-states, currency markets and the Internet exist everywhere, but nowhere in particular. And although they produce neither common interests nor common law, common markets do demand, along with a common currency, a common language (English, which Japanese teenagers now prefer to use whenever possible and which is an official, if not the official, language of every international conference held today).

Moreover, common markets produce common behaviors of the kind bred by cosmopolitan city life everywhere. Commercial pilots, computer programmers, film directors, international bankers, media specialists, oil riggers, entertainment celebrities, ecology experts, movie producers, demographers, accountants, professors, lawyers, athletes - these comprise a new breed of men and women for whom religion, culture, and ethnic nationality are marginal elements in a working identity. It is shopping that has a common signature today around the world. Cynics might even suggest that some of the recent revolutions in Eastern Europe had as their true goal not liberty and the right to vote but well-paying jobs and the right to shop. It is perhaps no surprise that as the Communists and nationalists return to power in Russia and Hungary and elsewhere, it is not shopping but only democracy that is put at risk.

Shopping means consumption and consumption depends on the fabrication of needs as well as goods. As I argued in Jihad vs. McWorld, the new global culture is a product of American popular culture driven by expansionist commerce. Its template is American, its form is style. Its goods are as much images as material, an aesthetic as well as a product line. It is about culture as commodity, where what you think is defined by what you wear and apparel becomes a species of ideology. Think about those Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Cadillac motorcars that have been hoisted from the roadways to the marquees of global-market cafes like the Harley-Davidson and the Hard Rock. They are not about transportation anymore. You no longer drive them, their iconographic messages drive you. They conjure up synthetic behavior from old movies and new celebrities, whose personal appearances are the key to such popular international cafe chains as Planet Hollywood.

The new churches of this global commercial civilization are shopping malls, the privatized "public" squares and neighborless "neighborhoods" of suburbia. The new products are not so much goods as image exports that help create a common world taste around common logos, advertising slogans, celebrities, songs, brand names, jingles, and trademarks. Hard power here yields to soft, while ideology is transmuted into what I have called a kind of videology that works through sound bites and film clips. Videology is fuzzier and less dogmatic than traditional political ideology; as a consequence it may be far more successful in instilling the novel values required for global markets to succeed.

These values are not imposed by coercive governments or authoritative schools, but bleed into the culture from such pseudocultural products as films and advertising, which feel neither coercive nor intrusive but are often linked to a world of material goods, fast food, fashion accessories, and entertainment. The Lion King and Jurassic Park are not just films; they are global merchandising machines that sell food, music, clothes, and toys. Titanic is a billion-dollar movie, which makes it much more than just a movie.

America's global culture is nearly irresistible. Japan has, for example, become more culturally insistent on its own traditions in recent years, even as its people seek an ever greater purchase on McWorld. Burgers and fries now dominate noodles and sushi, and Japanese teens struggle with English phrases they hardly understand to project a sense of global cool. In France, another country that prided itself on resistance to McWorld, and where less than a decade ago cultural purists complained bitterly of a looming Sixieme Republique ("la Republique Americaine") and assailed the corruptions of franglais, economic health is today measured in part by the success of EuroDisney just outside of Paris. And though the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin struggles to preserve some sense of France's commitment to social welfare against the tide of privatistic market thinking that is sweeping across the Western world, France becomes more and more commercial in a manner that is more and more American. The sudden appearance of "Aloween" as a holiday to alleviate the shopping doldrums of the pre-pre-Christmas season is only the most appealing (and appalling) example of this tendency.


Homogenization is not the whole story, of course. In light of the continuing existence of tribal bloodshed, terrorism, religious extremism, right-wing fanaticism, and civil war throughout the world, prophecies about the end of history look terminally dumb. But if microwars persist, McWorld's pacifying markets are likely to establish a macropeace that favors the triumph of commerce and consumerism and gives to those who control information, communications, and entertainment ultimate (if inadvertent) control over global culture - and over human destiny. This suggests that the historian Paul Kennedy's worry about the decline of America,(2) predicated largely on the decline of its...

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