Localizing Cultures


By Jeremy Seabrook

Korea Herald
January 13, 2004

Although the word globalization suggests a comprehensive and self-evident process, it is an incomplete term. It does not indicate precisely what is being globalized: the assumption is that it means the emergence of a single worldwide economy, into which all economies must integrate themselves, or more accurately, be integrated in the passive voice. But globalization does not obligingly halt at some ill-defined frontier between economics, society and culture. Indeed, it has its own set of cultural attendants, which exercise a profound influence on the life of peoples everywhere. By definition, globalization makes all other cultures local. But to billions of people all over the world, their culture is not local. It is central to their lives and who they are. Globalization eclipses, or at least subordinates all previous ways of answering need and of dealing with the vicissitudes of human life. All other ways of life are diminished and marginalized at a stroke.

Globalization is a declaration of war upon all other cultures. And in cultural wars, there is no exemption for civilians; there are no innocent bystanders. Why should it be expected that ancient and rooted civilizations are going to accept this peripheralisation without a struggle? The answer to that is that globalization carries an implicit promise that it will relieve poverty and offer security - perhaps the most ancient of human dreams. Because of the power of global capitalism to create wealth, it is assumed that this priority must sweep aside all other human preoccupations, including all existing institutions, interpretations and searches for meaning in the world.

One U.S. academic describes it as a confrontation between global civilization and local cultures. One reason for the sense of incompleteness in the word globalization may be that it is a euphemistic contraction of global civilization; and that it is how it is promoted.

It is disingenuous to assume that economy, society and culture operate in separate spheres. Indeed, the way in which geographical entities are now designated shows the increasing porosity of these notions. An advanced economy, an industrialized nation, a mature economy are set against a developing country, an emerging market, a liberalizing society. The terms are almost interchangeable. This suggests that, once exposed to the globalizing imperative, no aspect of social life, customary practice, traditional behavior will remain the same.

There have been, broadly, two principal responses in the world, which we may call the fatalistic and the resistant. It is significant that among the most fatalistic have been the leaders of the G-7. Ex-President Clinton said globalization is a fact not a policy choice. Tony Blair said it is inevitable and irreversible. It may be considered paradoxical that the leaders of the most dynamic and expanding economies in the world offer such a passive, unchallenging view of what are, after all, human-made arrangements. These are among the richest and most proactive regimes, which can wage endless war on the great abstraction that is terror, topple regimes and lay down one WTO law for the poor and another for themselves. Is their helplessness in the presence of these mighty economic and cultural powers merely pretence?

There are two aspects to resistance. One is the re-assertion of local identities - even if local actually means spread over very large parts of the world. The reclaiming of the local is often focused in the field of culture - music, song, dance, drama, artifacts and folk culture. This suggests an attempt to quarantine it from the effects of economic integration; a kind of cordon sanitaire set up around a dwindling culture. Some people believe it is possible to get the best of both worlds - they accept the economic advantages of globalization and seek to maintain something of great value, language, tradition and custom. This is the relatively benign response. The other has become only too familiar: the violent reaction, the hatred of both economic and cultural globalization which many not merely perceive, but feel in the very core of their being, as an inseparable violation of identity. The resentment of many Muslims (not only extremists) toward the U.S. and Israel, the defensive posturing of Hindu fundamentalism, opposed both to Islam and Christianity, are the most vivid dramatizations of this.

The appearance of Christian fundamentalism in the very heartlands of the globalizing forces of the world, suggest that even here, there is a sense that values, beliefs and faith are being sacrificed to global necessity, and there has been an effort even by the most spectacular beneficiaries of economic globalization to salvage what they see as some of their most precious truths. The stigmatizing of the bearers of resistance as extremists or those who hate freedom is too simple a formulation for these complex and painful processes. To be unable to acknowledge the profound and complex social and religious disruptions that come as inseparable spectral companions of economic globalization has been the most grievous failure of the rich and powerful. That this strikes at the roots of human search for meaning ought to have been clear, particularly to those who invest so much in intelligence and security - abstractions which have become as insubstantial as the terror against which these are supposed to be deployed.

For instance, the almost mystical and transcendent purposes assumed by consumption, the prodigality and waste of resources, particularly in the presence of billions of people who must eat every last grain of rice on their plate, the disgracing of such ancient virtues as frugality, husbanding resources, sustaining water and soil, the reverence for habitats that have given life for millennia - all this is detached from the dry bureaucratic prescriptions and advice offered up by the experts and professionals of development from the sequestered luxury of five-star hotels.

When anger bursts forth, it is greeted with a monstrous show of incomprehension, and alas, wholly bogus humanitarianism, since the leaders of the globalizing world have sacrificed vast numbers of the poor in pursuit of their unrealizable vision of a whole planet colonized in their own image. The West had centuries to absorb these lessons and adapt its spiritual and religious values to those of a capitalism which usurped them, even though these did not go down without a struggle. But when these values are diffused globally, dogmatically, unmediated by time, with what violence they strike against the sensibilities of others. What a gratuitous onslaught it seems, what injurious affronts to rooted identity and custom. This then, is the context in which terror is to be stamped out. Who declared the cultural war which accompanies the economic re-arrangement of a whole world? Who initiated the terrible, terrorizing, terrifying doctrines that only by the grace of participating in the global market, will every individual in the world and those she loves, survive to see another day?

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