The Culture of Globalization
Sudhanva Deshpande, Newsclick, December 16, 2009
There is no question about it. Globalization is changing the way we eat, drink, dress, think. Every day we see events taking place in New York, or London, or Sharjah, or Beijing beamed into our homes via satellite television. We find Hollywood films dubbed in our local languages and running to packed houses. We find beauty contests being organized in our localities, schools, or colleges. We find children asking for two-minute noodles, hamburgers, and canned cola drinks. We find autorickshaw drivers wearing T-shirts proclaiming ‘California! Here I come!’
The TV antenna has become perhaps the most common signpost of human habitation anywhere in the world. Telephones have linked virtually the entire planet. The internet has made it possible for people in all corners of the world to communicate with each other, access and exchange information very quickly, efficiently, cheaply, and without regard to national boundaries. Millions of dollars can be transferred in a matter of seconds across the globe over computer networks that link banks, stock markets, and other financial institutions.
Globalization is changing our culture. Take the case of cinema. Taking its cue from Hollywood, our cinema is becoming more expert at depicting violence. We see cars in films skidding, turning over, sliding, hitting other cars, and exploding into a huge ball of fire. We see severed limbs, blood gushing out as a bullet hits a body, brains being blown apart. There is more and more sex in our cinema. Our heroes and heroines are dressing up like international fashion models. Song sequences in our films have started looking and sounding more and more like western music videos. More and more films are being shot on foreign locations.
A number of people feel very concerned about all this. They lament that Indian culture is being destroyed, and that a foreign, alien culture is being foisted on us. They tell us that Indian culture, Indian values, Indian customs are being degraded.
There is no question that what is happening merits concern. But concern on what grounds? When we are told that globalization is destroying Indian culture, are we to assume that there is a single, monolithic entity called ‘Indian culture’? Or do we assume that all foreign or western cultural influences are pernicious? Or are we to assume that either there are no decadent, reactionary elements in our own culture, or if there are, they are somehow, magically, totally benign? Surely not. We know that there is a no such thing as a ‘pure’, unsullied culture. There is a wide diversity of cultures in India. These cultures have always interacted with each other, they have learned from each other, they have shaped and influenced each other. And this has been happening since the dawn of human civilization. A huge number of things that we regard as essential to our lives in the modern world have been given to us by the west—railways, the printing press, shirts and trousers, cinema and radio, democracy, and, indeed, Marxism itself. We also know that there are as many reactionary elements in what is routinely called ‘Indian culture’ as there are anywhere in the world. Now, if all this is indeed the case, then why does the cultural influx that accompanies globalization cause us worry?
We do not oppose globalization and the culture it brings with it because it is ‘foreign’, much less because it is ‘western’. We do not believe that there is something called ‘Indian culture’ that has remained uncontaminated over the ages. We do not oppose the free intermingling of various cultures. And certainly, we do not believe that Indians have to depend exclusively on imports for their share of decadence.
We oppose the culture of globalization not because it is foreign, but because it is the culture of imperialism. This culture seeks to keep in place, to perpetuate, and to strengthen the highly unequal, inegalitarian, oppressive, and exploitative system of world capitalism.
Capitalism is the first global mode of production. In order to reproduce itself, capitalism needs to do at least two things. First, capitalism needs to reproduce itself on a constantly expanding scale. It needs to annex all those realms where the sway of capital has not yet been established. As Marx and Engels had put it in The Communist Manifesto,
The need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.
This tendency towards globalization is inherent in capitalism, and the sphere of culture is no exception to this rule.
Secondly, capitalism needs to reproduce itself not only at the point of production, but in every realm of human life, including the cultural. In fact, the existence of capitalist production relations depends, to a very large extent, on the acceptance and consent given to these relations by large sections of the people. The sway of capitalist culture is crucial to the maintenance of this consent. The reproduction of capitalist culture is, therefore, a matter of life and death for capitalism. And since capitalism is a global mode of production, it reproduces capitalist culture too globally.
In reproducing itself on a constantly expanding scale, capitalism also tends to concentrate and centralize production. This tendency has made itself apparent in the sphere of cultural production as well. Thus, for instance, only a handful of large multinational conglomerates control the production of the bulk of television programmes produced in the USA each year. These very programmes are the ones that are seen by people across the globe repeatedly: think of the number of programmes of American origin that we can today see in India.
The globalization of culture means, at the simplest level, that cultural goods (films, music, television shows, etc.) can cross national boundaries more and more easily, that the same cultural goods are available for consumption to people across the globe. The direction of flow of cultural goods, however, is by and large the same as the direction of flow of economic goods. That is to say, the countries which import cultural goods are most often also the countries which import economic goods. In other words, the relationship of dominance and subservience which characterizes the relationship of the metropolitan imperialist countries with the third world countries in the economic sphere is more or less replicated in the cultural sphere. This is because the sphere of cultural production, distribution, and consumption is not an autonomous sphere unlinked to the sphere of economic production, distribution, and consumption. On the contrary, the structures which support cultural production and consumption are the very same structures that support economic production and consumption.
The television provides perhaps the best example of this. Increasingly, transmission is taking place via satellites. Manufacturing, launching and maintaining satellites is an expensive proposition. Very few poor countries, if any, can afford the luxury of satellites for entertainment purposes—if they can afford satellites at all, they would prefer to use them for security, meteorological, and other priority purposes. Buying time on existing satellites is not inexpensive either. Rich countries, their broadcasting corporations, and other multinational corporations can, however, afford satellites for a range of uses, including television broadcasting. Further, even running a television station is an expensive venture—apart from all the expensive electronic gadgetry, you require a steady production of programmes to transmit. All this requires a lot of money. Western broadcasting corporations, however, have an immense reservoir of serials, chat shows, films, information-based shows, etc., that are relatively cheap for television stations to buy and transmit (often, by simply dubbing them into the local language).
The globalization of culture also means the homogenization of culture. The sway of capital means the standardization of economic production across the globe. The same tendency is also seen in the realm of culture. Just as, say, a pair of jeans, or a computer, or canned food produced in any country is exactly like any other pair of jeans, or computer, or canned food produced on the other side of the world, cultural products also begin to be more and more standardized. Therefore, for instance, in the early days of MTV in India, the channel was full of only western songs and singers, but increasingly, the share of time given to Indian songs and singers has increased over the past 3-4 years. However, far from representing a weakening of the hold of western culture, this signifies its very opposite: the increasing production in India of cultural goods that are not distinguishable from the cultural goods produced in the metropolitan capitalist countries in any important respect. In other words, what we are witnessing is the standardization and homogenization of cultural goods across the globe.
The capitalist culture which imperialism today seeks to universalize across the world, takes particularly obnoxious forms in countries of backward capitalism where the feudal remnants, especially feudal cultural remnants, are still alive. It not only manifests itself in such societies as the culture of extreme individualism, consumerism, and commodity fetishism, it is also an extremely patriarchal culture, and it commodifies women’s bodies. It is a culture that militates against all progressive, democratic ideas. It is a culture that does not hesitate to promote every kind of backward, reactionary, irrational, and obscurantist idea. This is the reason why ‘mythological’ and other kinds of irrational serials like Ramayana, Shaktimaan, etc., appear with such monotonous regularity on Indian television.
The RSS, BJP, Shiv Sena, and other right-wing communal–fascist parties and organisations pretend to be the only true guardians of Indian culture. Nothing could be farther than the truth. The forces of Hindutva have never stood against the onslaught of imperialist culture in our country. And for good reason. The middle classes, mercantile sections, technocrats, and others who are so seduced by the fantasy of an aggressively Hindu India are the very sections who have benefited most from globalization and the array of goods it has made available for consumption. More: the consumption of the products of Western capitalism becomes ‘proof’ of the forward-looking nature of Hindutva. Thus, for instance, Advani carries out his ‘rath yatra’ in a Toyota van, and the Michael Jackson concert in Mumbai is organised by the Shiv Sena with Bal Thackeray as the presiding deity at the event.
The RSS seeks to take over the very diverse, even conflicting belief structures and practices of Hinduism in different parts of the country and incorporate them into a single, monolithic version of Hinduism. This version of Hinduism is what it calls Hindutva. The RSS argues that religion, not language, is the only basis for nationality in India—thus, Hindus constitute one nation and the Muslims and other minorities constitute other, separate nations. Since India belongs to the Hindus, if any minorities wish to stay here, they must do so as second-class citizens. This is what the ‘cultural nationalism’ of the RSS actually means. Thus Hindutva is a fundamentally authoritarian, anti-minority, upper-caste, patriarchal and masculinist ideology that seeks to destroy the multi-lingual, multi-national character of this country and the syncretic nature of the belief structures and practices that have characterized the religious and spiritual universe of the majority of the people of India. This represents a fundamental assault on not only the cultural and spiritual lives of non-Hindus, but on the cultural and spiritual lives of all Hindus as well.
Thus the cultural offensive of globalization, fascism, and feudalism are not three discrete, unlinked forces—they are very deeply, indeed structurally, welded together. Our fight, then, will have to be against all three.