Brave new McWorld

Benjamin R. Barber, a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland, is the author of numerous books, including "Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World" and "The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House."

Critics of imperialism have long insisted that international exchange and free trade are screens for the colonization of one culture by another. In my "Jihad vs. McWorld," for example, I argued that the dominant pop culture of the United States, embedded in fast food, fast music and fast computers, not only erodes the particularity of foreign cultures but also promotes a radical homogenization of taste and mores within American society as well as around the world. The homogenization thesis does, however, have challengers. They are mostly anthropologists such as David Howes, Constance Classen or Jean Comaroff who, reporting from the field on the reception of global markets, have been at pains to show how complex and multifaceted cultural interaction can actually be. Using terms like "hybridization" and "creolization," such scholars have noted that culture is constructed by consumption as well as by production and that through the "creativity of consumption" imperial homogenization can be turned back into cultural particularity or even into a kind of counter-colonization. Classen cites the surreal artist Leonora Carrington's charmingly ironic story about how "in the Mexico of the future one would find tins of Norwegian enchiladas from Japan and bottles of the 'rare old Indian drink called Coca-Cola.' "

Economists, though dispositionally inclined to champion cultural exchange as a facet of free trade, are not usually such anthropological sophisticates. But Tyler Cowen, an unapologetic neoliberal who teaches at that busy hive of free market economics George Mason University, prides himself on his cultural cosmopolitanism. As Chris Mooney notes in a recent profile of Cowen in the Boston Globe, Cowen is not only the author of the not-so-subtle and altogether revealing laissez-faire celebration "In Praise of Commercial Culture" (1998) but also a gourmand sophisticate who writes an online restaurant guide whose motto is "restaurants manifest the spirit of capitalist multiculturalism." He describes himself as a devoted "cultural consumer," suggesting just how rooted in the language of consumption his free trade approach to cultural exchange is. Yet he admits to tastes that run the gamut from Vietnamese cuisine to Taco Bell. He likes Beethoven but listens to Smashing Pumpkins as well. According to Mooney, Cowen collects Haitian art, has traveled to more than 60 countries and drinks French wines. A rather different breed of economist.

Once we know something about Cowen's predilections, we can be sure that in his new book, "Creative Destruction," he is doing something more than merely sharing a student's academic library research. When he opens this short work, subtitled "How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures," with a comment on the cultural complexity of Haitian music and closes it with a remark about how a visit to a Wal-Mart in Mexico will prove that America's export commercialism brings diversity rather than uniformity to other lands, we figure he's probably got a Haitian music collection and has walked the aisles of Wal-Marts in places other than Virginia. As it turns out, Cowen actually does bring the knowledge of a traveler and the love of a collector to the mixed cultural artifacts he uses as evidence for his defense of globalization and free trade. This gives to what otherwise might seem merely an ideological tract a certain experiential authenticity that enhances the persuasiveness of its sometimes dubious arguments.

At its best, "Creative Destruction" -- its title is drawn from economist Joseph Schumpeter's classic description of the dialectic in which capitalism destroys as it evolves -- offers good reasons to treat with several grains of salt the claims of critics, like this reviewer, that McWorld is homogenizing the planet and leaving in its wake a trail of devastated local cultures. That is especially true because in this work (unlike in his "In Praise of Commercial Culture") Cowen displays some ideological balance, acknowledging, for example, that while international trade can enhance diversity, it can also lead to what he calls "the tragedy of cultural loss."

Cowen's case for the pluralizing effect of global cultural trade is most effectively argued in the chapters written while he is wearing his amateur anthropologist's travel-wear rather than his economist's library bowtie, for this is where he substantiates his position from his own experience with the cultures about which he writes. His argument is twofold: "Culture" is itself an evolving category rather than a fixed signifier of some unchanging "original" essence. What critics worry may be altered and perverted by confrontation with "foreign" or "outside" influences is in fact from the outset a product of ongoing cultural interaction and exchange. There is no such thing as an original culture, no wholly other "alterity," only phases in cultural development that become embedded in time and hence regarded (inaccurately) as fixed and indigenous. As historians such as Michael Kammen would agree, cultures are all invented and hence to be viewed as collective artifacts of many different earlier historical and cultural streams.

Second, Cowen argues, even when a particular culture that is relatively insular encounters a relatively cosmopolitan "colonizing" culture, the local culture usually does as much to transform the encroaching culture as the encroaching culture does to transform it. The outcome is not homogeneity but new forms of diversity: "fusion" music or "fusion" art that, like "fusion" cuisine, is genuinely innovative in ways not limited to the cultural parts being conjoined.

It is on his first point that Cowen is most convincing. He shows, for example, that the "indigenous" music of Zaire, which dominates much of Africa today and -- critics fear -- is in danger of being lost in the din of MTV's international music, was itself actually a product of the electric guitar, saxophone, trumpet, clarinet and flute, "none of which are indigenous to Africa." Indeed, "Cuban influences, especially the Son, Mambo, Cha-Cha, Biguine and Bolero, entered Zaire by the time of the Second World War." These foreign influences accelerated in the 1950s with the visits of cruise ships, the introduction of radio and phonograph technology and with them American rhythm and blues styles. For those like me who worry about the corrupting effect of MTV on "local" African music from, say, Kinshasa, Cowen's message is "not to worry." The music was never pure but was "corrupted" long ago in ways that created its fresh and powerful hold on African and, in time, foreign audiences. That "ancient traditional culture" that cosmopolitan worrywarts anxiously try to protect from the corruption of today's new foreign influences is actually yesterday's corruption made over into tradition by time and cultural propaganda.

Take Trinidad's steel bands, among its greatest "indigenous" tourist attractions but in fact a relatively recent creation of Trinidad's interaction with the global energy market that led in the late 1930s to the replacement of truly indigenous bamboo instruments with the byproducts of the world oil trade. Steel drums cut from oil barrels not only lent themselves to interesting and varied new tonalities (Trinidadians had experimented with various other imported metal objects from the Machine Age) but were far more resilient and enduring than traditional instruments.

Or take those storied "indigenous" Navajo designs and colors -- above all the deep red serape patterns with their serrated zigzag lines -- that distinguish their traditional blankets from all others. Stunning, yes, but indigenous? Hardly. The designs reflected a pattern borrowed from "the ponchos and clothing of Spanish shepherds in Mexico, which in turn drew upon Moorish influences in Spain," though of course the Navajos altered them and made them their own. And that distinctive Navajo "bayeta" red? Drawn from threads "unraveled from Spanish cloth, which was in turn imported by the Spanish from England (English baize)."

And so it goes, from "threatened" culture to "threatened" culture, with Cowen retelling a seeming story of colonization as something quite different and far less threatening: redrawing, for example, Gandhi's campaign to protect indigenous Indian hand-weaving crafts from the colonizing influence of foreign mechanization as something of a protectionist exercise in the name of cheap local cloth that was actually made not by hand but in Indian mills. Indeed, Cowen suggests, quality foreign cloth made in technologically advanced mills in England in time forced hand-weavers (of whom 6 million survive today in India) to up the quality of their goods and develop a handicraft worth defending. Why, Cowen asks, should poorer societies in any case "be required to serve as diversity slaves," their quaint distinctiveness used as an excuse to obstruct their path to modernization?

Cowen's second more economic argument, while not without truth, is less persuasive and ends up revealing the primary defect of his overall position. In suggesting that in an open market there is a confrontation of two cultures -- in which the colonizing culture is itself as equally colonized as the society it thinks it is colonizing -- Cowen makes a mistake common to anthropologists and economists alike. He ignores the role of power: the relative political and cultural coerciveness the stronger party brings to the table. Anthropologists treat cultural exchange in a vacuum. Culture confronts culture, they posit; each borrows from the other, both emerge changed and enriched but more different than ever. Economists treat exchange within the mythic frame of perfect market freedom, where it is the result of two equally free, equally voluntary, equally powerful contractees who sit down as gentlemen and make a deal. You get our technology, which will transform your cultural goods; we get your cultural goods, which will transform our technology. You look more like us, and we look more like you.

Once the relative power of the intersecting cultures is factored in, however, the happy reciprocity of cultural hybridization is trumped by the unhappy preeminence of the dominant culture. One McDonald's in Tiananmen Square may enhance diversity in China, just as the first Starbucks in Berlin diversifies its cuisine. But the market corporations of McWorld aspire not just to penetrate but also to permeate markets, and their ultimate objective is monopoly. The tenth McDonald's is a different story than the first, and No. 100 begins to force out the competition. When the franchises break the 1,000 mark, homogenization is more salient than diversification. Pluralism is not only diminished within a given culture (Cowen admits as much), it is diminished among cultures as well, with one looking more and more like the next (the claim Cowen wants to rebut).

With a Starbucks on every corner in traditional coffeehouse Vienna, the city loses its distinctive Viennese coffeehouse culture. Competition inside the United States withers too, with delis and coffee shops being put out of business in favor of a bland global Starbucks culture. In the 1992 Coca-Cola corporate report, when Coke was going into the Indian market, it identified "Indian tea culture" as a rival that would have to be overcome if Coke was to prosper on the subcontinent. Film industries in Mexico, India and Hong Kong may still be flourishing, as Cowen says, but the percentage of world screens devoted to American-made product continues to grow in ways that make it hard to believe that Hollywood's global muscle is good for cultural diversity.

Then, finally, there is the question of the authenticity of origins, the integrity of the cultures that produce diverse goods. As Cowen himself finally acknowledges, in reproducing and commodifying cultural goods, their character is put at risk. "Cosmopolitan attitudes," Cowen agrees, "if held fully and consistently, would defeat the cosmopolitan end of diversity and freedom of choice." As cultures are borrowed from, encroached upon, altered and sold to, they may continue to affect those doing the borrowing, encroaching, altering and selling, but the sources of their authenticity upon which their own distinctive cultures are founded gradually are eroded away. Take a (fictional) recipe for Grandma's Maryland crab cakes, developed over generations by families who live and work the Maryland eastern shore: When its success as a subcultural taste icon turns it into a national brand that is sold back to Grandma's kids living in Baltimore and then to Grandma herself, who no longer bothers to cook, cultural capital is being exploited and exhausted in ways that will ultimately vitiate Grandma's disappearing culture and with it the crab cake recipe. At this point, cultural diversity is reduced to a plastic theme-park variety show that resembles the wild West shows of the turn of the century that marked the end both of frontier life and native American society as a living and evolving culture.

When anthropologists talk about hybridization, I am reminded of the sorts of exchanges "negotiated" by hares and pythons. "Oh, yes," exclaim the relatives of the hare, "you may think our cousin has been consumed, but look at the snake! There our cousin is, his profile distending the shape of the serpent! Each has transformed the other! Neither is gone, both are transformed." But wait a week or two and, as the python's relatives know very well, the hare will have vanished and the serpent will slither on in search of new prey in the false name of voluntary market exchange. Cultural exchange may be a form of "creative destruction," but over time dialectic is trumped by power, and destruction merely destroys, leaving the Panglossian Cowens of the world with neither new cultural creation nor genuine diversity but a handful of Disney souvenirs that in their shallow mimicry mock true pluralism. *

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World