Centre for Research on Globalisation
Centre de recherche sur la mondialisation

A Two Sided Coin?

Globalization from the Cultural Perspective

by Abril Trigo

www.globalresearch.ca   14 October 2003

The URL of this article is: http://globalresearch.ca/articles/TRI310A.html

A lot has been said about the benefits and evils of globalization, and a lot more will be said, no doubt about it, but I am convinced about this: globalization is a two sided coin, yes, but a heavily loaded one. Perhaps my skepticism has to do with my professional and intellectual background, and I fit in this sense with the general perception that we humanists are, for the most part, critical of globalization. Anyway, I won’t get here into the litany of the negative effects that economic globalization has on local cultures and native peoples. Instead, I’ll like to reflect, however briefly, on the intimate, structural role that the cultural plays at the core of current global processes.

What does globalization really mean?

Despite the current familiarity of the term and the opulent bibliography on the topic, which grows exponentially day after day, there is a great deal of confusion about the meanings of globalization. Such confusion is understandable indeed, given the contested status of a term that finds itself at the center of complex political struggles and ideological mystifications that pit globaliphilics or hyperglobalizers against globaliphobics and skeptics, not to mention the myriad of transformationalists or third way globalists, for control of a global imaginary that, according to German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, serves as an ideology for these cynical postmodern times in which we live. Why are there so many synonyms for globalization today? Is "transnational" equivalent to "international" or "multinational"? Is it adequate to speak of "global citizens," "global democracy," "global sexual policies," the same way we speak of "global capitalism"? Is globalization a synonym for "postmodernity," or "New World Order," or "the information age," or "late capitalism," or a multiplicity of scapes, or the ultimate "Empire"?

Used and abused in any imaginable circumstance and lacking any precise definition, the term has become a cliché that, as any other cliché, means everything and nothing, an empty and ubiquitous buzzword that fills the pages of newspapers, economic journals and fashion magazines, but also academic papers, and conferences. It is a password that lets you in the "cool" circles of wine-and-cheese connoisseurs when dropped at the right moment. A cliché, a buzzword, a password, it has become, in that sense, truly a zeitgeist, a word that captures, for some people, the spirit of the times, and, for others, the dreams –or the nightmares- of these times.

There is no question, therefore, that the term globalization is an ideologeme, an empty signifier at the center of overt or covert ferocious ideological, epistemological and political struggles that could be filled with multiple, conflicting meanings, depending on who is speaking, to whom, and in what circumstances. This is so because whoever is able to establish a consensual, accepted meaning of the term, will be able to shape a definite interpretation, a certain understanding of the economic, social, political and cultural processes involved. That is, to produce an interpretive framework, a cognitive mapping of the world in which we live, either a glossy, rosy picture of plenty and universal joy, or a somber one of mounting misery and inequality, or a critical analysis capable of unveiling its less obvious mechanics.

The question is: could the notion of globalization go beyond its ideological underpinnings? Could it be a truly hermeneutic category, a tool for knowledge? What does globalization name? Is it a synonym for globalism? And what about globality? Is globalization truly global? We are all touched by globalization –in the clothes we wear, in the images we receive, in the information we handle- but, whose lives are really global? And what does it mean to be global? What does it require? The CEO of McDonalds who decides the amount of beef in the burgers sold in Guatemala, or the youth of Indian descent who work and serve at the local franchise, or the ladino youth who pay highly for the prestige of consuming a Big-Mac? The corporate employee who lives aboard of an airplane, or the migrant worker who, sometimes, doesn’t even learn the language of the host country? The consumer who buys a shirt in Columbus, or the woman who sew it in a maquiladora plant in El Salvador? The TV star whose image inundates millions of screens around the world, or the millions of viewers who adopt, consciously or not, the TV star’s manners and looks?

There are many ways of experiencing globalization

Globalization is obviously lived and perceived differently according to the location of the individual. By location I mean, of course, the geographical location, but also the social status and the professional activity, the language or languages spoken, the ethnicity, the gender, and the age of the subject. Globalization cannot be experienced the same way in New York City, in the cornfields of Ohio, in Dakar or in the Bolivian highlands; it cannot be experienced the same way by a Quechua artist living in Paris and by a Quechua peasant living in the Andes; it cannot be experienced the same way by a bilingual Latino student at Ohio State University and her grandmother making tortillas in some village in Guanajuato. All this is very obvious. My point is that even though globalization pervades everything and touches everybody’s life, directly or indirectly, the experience will be absolutely different depending on where the individual is socially, ethnically and nationally positioned to enjoy its fruits or is condemned to make it possible. It is clear that for many, particularly those, like us, who live in the central economies, the famous triad of the US, Western Europe and Japan, globalization brings enriching experiences, but for many others, in fact the vast majorities of people in the periphery of capitalism, it is just, in many cases, the possibility of getting a job for 50 cents an hour, so barely beating the threshold of absolute poverty stated by the World Bank at $1.08 a day, in complete disregard of the actual costs of basic needs like food, which sometimes amount to four fifths of people’s income in the poor countries [Monbiot 2003].

Globalization: a new regime of capitalist accumulation

However, despite so many different ways of experiencing globalization, there must be a way to capture the economic, social and cultural processes occurring at a global level. What is new about globalization?

Globalization is one more instance in the constant, tortuous and increasingly accelerated expansion of capitalism that inaugurated Western modernity. Therefore, it is mistaken to affirm that begins in the Greco-Roman antiquity, or in the expansion of the great world religions, or with the Arab trading routes or the Chinese commercial fleet. It is also a mistake to reduce it to the opening of new markets and the expansion of world trade, as if it were a new form of mercantilism.

Globalization is a new regime of capitalist accumulation and its correlative new mode or socio-political regulation, or, according to Castells, a new mode of development which differs from previous industrialization in that the source of productivity lies primarily in the new information technologies and in the accumulation and reproduction of knowledge. It is also a new mode of production, characterized by profound transformations on the productivity of labor –from industrial manufactures to what is call "immaterial labor"- and in the productivity of consumption –consumerism, of course, and consumer society. It is also the last –and some would say the ultimate- time-space compression in the vertiginous and protracted history of modernity and capitalism, driven by the accumulative, expansive and creative-destructive logic of capital, ideologically reinforced by the belief in the inevitability and blessing of material progress. This logic explains the periodic time-space compressions brought about by the successive technological revolutions with which capitalism has tried to solve its periodic and endemic periods of recession. The corollary of reducing the time needed to move in space in order to accelerate and increment the rate of return has been the inevitable and ever-increasing shrinking of space, making distances shorter and the world smaller. The historical reduction of the ratio between time and space amounts, as David Harvey indicates, to a brutal colonization of space and objectification of time under the abstract logic of money and the commodity. Beginning with the extraordinary technological discoveries and territorial adventures of the 14th and 15th centuries, time has been money [266-7].

The ultimate time-space compression

The history of modernity –the modern history- has been thus regulated by cyclical and convulsive periods of retraction and expansion of capitalism, and by spasmodic technological revolutions which developed new regimes of accumulation, new modes of regulation and new eco-cultural formations. That’s why the history of modernity is the history of capital, the history of the colonization of territories and peoples, nature and societies, always in search of new markets and new raw materials, manpower and consumers, in pursuit of furthering accumulation of economic and cultural capital. Mercantilism, which began subsuming the sphere of trade and exchange, stimulated the colonial adventures from the 15th to the 18th centuries; industrialism, which took off at the middle of the 18th century with the first industrial revolution and reached maturity with the Fordist regime of accumulation at the beginning of the 20th, subsumed the sphere of production and labor, sponsoring the expansion of the imperial age. The crisis of Fordism and the Keynesian mode of regulation during the 1970s, when there were no more territories untouched by capitalism to incorporate, and the Bretton Woods accords of 1944, which backed the dollar with a fixed amount of gol were no longer tenable, put into question the neocolonial system under US hegemony and called for its substitution by a more flexible regime of production and accumulation and the neoliberal mode of regulation –actually, of deregulation- in place nowadays. Uphold by the marriage of convenience of the more abstract forms of finance capital and information technologies, this flexible regime of accumulation deepened and extended the global expansion of capital, subsuming all populations, all regions, and all forms of labor time and leisure time in the remotest corners of the world.

And here we are approaching our topic. Globalization involves such an extensive and intensive expansion of capital that it actually exceeds the strictly economic and strictly political dimensions to include the cultural as well, which now acquires a leading role… economically. We are amid another space-time compression, of course, and entangled in an omnipresent, omnivorous totalization that keeps subsuming the more insignificant, the more intimate aspects of everyday life under the logic of the commodity form and the forms of capital with the capacity to operate as a single unit in real time on a planetary scale, as Castells put it [1996, 92], that is, finance and speculative capital, the more abstract and essentially unproductive forms of capital. The development of new information and telecommunication technologies, the flexibilization of labor markets, and the segmentation of consumption, made possible the consolidation of a global economy under the undisputable dominance of the finance sector, undoubtedly the more mobile and flexible form of capital, and of the culture industry, specialized in the production of symbolic goods, that is, of culture in its strictest form. This is the most formidable machinery of production humankind has ever seen, an economy of plenty and waste which –paradoxical as it may seem- feeds itself in the more extreme forms of poverty and the more obscene forms of destitution and marginalization. Nearly 1.3 billion people, or over a quarter of the world population, live on less than a dollar a day, and close to 1 billion are malnourished, with an expectation of survival of 40 years of age. But also one person in eight in the richest countries is affected by poverty, long-term unemployment or some sort of deprivation [UNDP 1999, 22]. The latest figures released just last week by the Census Bureau indicate that 2.7 million more people went into poverty in the past year. Never, in the history of humankind, there has been such an accumulation of wealth, but never has wealth been so unjustly distributed.

The globalization of poverty

And this is so because this globalization involves a new international and global division of labor and consumption that implies, necessarily and structurally, the global reproduction of poverty, which, as Michel Chossudovsky says, is not a mere side-effect or an eventually reparable social cost of yet another modernization, but another input on the supply side, since capital demands a constant supply of cheap labor. In a nutshell, the reproduction of poverty guarantees the availability of the cheap labor needed for capital to maintain its rate of expansion.

Unquestionably, this is related to the flexible regime of accumulation that characterizes this global economy, whose main requisites are: the availability of instantaneous, reliable and confidential information, and the free flow of capital and commodities (although not necessarily of people). The question is, what is and where is the ultimate source of value in the global economy? Or said differently, where is wealth produced in the present world? This question can be answered satisfactorily only if we take into account that, first, being the economy of global scope, it has to be thought as a whole, as a flexible system in which multiple interconnected parts are combined for the production, circulation and consumption of material and symbolic goods; and second, that this regime of accumulation operates on two platforms. On the one hand, by extracting the productivity of labor, in particular the surplus value of cheap labor, from women, children and people of color in the periphery, where most manufactures and material goods are presently produced, but also by controlling the net flows of capital from peripheral economies to central economies, either in the form of interests paid for external debt, royalties and dividends, or capital flight [Hoogvelt 88-9]. On the other hand, by extracting the productivity of desires, which is done by inducing nonstop consumption and the culture of consumerism, particularly in the central economies and among the affluent sectors in the peripheral economies. In other words, by means of a flexible regime of capital accumulation that combines the exploitation of material labor (the production of material goods, for the most part done in the peripheries), with the exploitation of immaterial labor (service and intellectual labor, for the most part done in the centers), and the exploitation of consumption (the consumer culture prevalent in the central societies but that also includes the affluent strata in peripheral societies). How did this happen?

First of all, in the 1970s the fall of the rate of profit of the industrial sector in the central economies triggered the relocation of many manufacturing plants to the periphery, where salaries were cheaper, and the eventual expansion of the industries related to services, information, telecommunications and symbolic goods, spurred by a larger demand and the incentive of a higher rate of profit. This resulted in the advent of a "new economy" moved by finance capital and speculative investment, where value is located on the control of information, the privatization of knowledge, and the cashing of royalties. A "casino" economy in which the largest profits are made from fictitious capital, which derives money away from productive investments, and where "securities", a purely virtual form of future money, is put to make money [Hoogvelt 86-7]. Remember the burst of the bubble? Remember South East Asia, Russia, Mexico, Argentina? Remember Enron, Anderson and company? These are no exceptions to the rule, isolated incidents, or the good gone rotten; financial crises have become the logical consequence of the free flow of capital flows. They show the system at work, a system, though, whose existence is viable through the exploitation of cheap labor and the transfer of capital that chokes many peripheral countries’ possibility of development. Under the vigilance and the interference in national decisions of the institutions of global economic governance, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, the snowball of the external debt, the technological gap, and dependency from transnational banks, have become mechanisms of actual political intervention that impose to developing nations the privatization of national assets, the dismantling of social security systems (in complete disregard of local traditions and the fact that in weaker economies public provisioning of services by state institutions is more important than private income), and the deregulation of capital and labor, at the expense of the already diminished national sovereignties. Not to mention the subsidies and other protectionist policies to specific sectors, like agriculture for instance, with which Europe and the US undermine the sustainability of local production in many countries. A double standard that led to the collapse of the WTO meeting in Cancun.

However, this appropriation of the productivity of labor, particularly of cheap labor, is complemented by the appropriation of the productivity of desires, through the continuous expansion of consumer markets and the implosion of consumerism: the sustained creation, segmentation and absorption of new consumer markets and new consumers to the market through the intensive colonization of culture and everyday life. The novelty of this new regime of accumulation has to do with the central, critical role that the production, distribution and consumption of symbolic goods, and of culture in general have, thus reflecting a decisive convergence of the economy, politics and culture.

What is the role of culture in globalization?

There are basically two culturalist approaches regarding the role culture plays in global processes. The first one consists of defining globalization as a process in which ideas and behaviors, technology and information are exchanged and disseminated between different cultures worldwide freely. From this perspective, which de-emphasizes the economic side of globalization, or disconnects culture from economics, politics and power, globalization is understood as another case of cultural diffusion or hybridization this time at a global scale of, more often than not, positive consequences, such as promoting racial tolerance, cultural understanding, and social awareness toward difference [van der Staay, UNESCO 1998, 253]. In this sense, cultural globalization, understood as globalization of cultures, is equivalent to some sort of universal humanism.

The other approach consists of stating that cultural globalization, characterized by massive acculturation, worldwide homogenization, and ethnic annihilation, is an inevitable, though deplorable, side effect of the otherwise good economic globalization and its spin-offs, political modernization and global integration. This approach feeds two opposite positions, that of the globalists who believe that economic progress and modern institutions are worth the price of disposing of traditional and local cultures, and that of those who see in local cultures and cultural diversity the alternative for a globalization with a human face. The Human Development Report of the United Nations published in 1990 opens with these words: "The real wealth of a nation is its people. And the purpose of development for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives. This simple but powerful truth is too often forgotten in the pursuit of material and financial wealth" [UNDP 1999, 1]. And then it says, "The challenge of globalization in the new century is not to stop the expansion of global markets. The challenge is to find the rules and institutions for stronger governance […] to preserve the advantages of global markets and competition, but also to provide enough space for human, community and environmental resources to ensure that globalization works for people –not just for profits" [UNDP 1999, 2].

What are the main cultural effects of global processes?

1. The ideological effect

There are several cultural effects that I cannot consider here, such as the tremendous impact on the environment; or the obscene privatization and monopolization of knowledge through the enforcement of the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement which is nothing else than the legal silent theft of centuries of humanity’s knowledge by transnational corporations backed, politically and military, by the governments of the rich countries; or the many forms of underground globalization which apply neoliberal policies to the letter, from drug trafficking to money laundering, from human trafficking to slave migrants, from black markets to informal employment, which in Latin America provides 85 of every 100 jobs [UNDP 1999, 37].

The most obvious cultural effect is probably the pervasiveness of a neoliberal ideology which spreads the belief that globalization and the capitalist market economy are natural facts of life driven by some meta-historical force beyond human agency, thus masking the political decision-making –and the military interventions- that keep the economy going. Its main assumptions are that [see Robbins, 1999, 100-1]:

What I found more striking in this set of beliefs is the implicit assumption that what is good for corporations is good for society; that what is good for certain countries is good for the whole world; that what is good for producers is good for consumers; that what is good for capitalism is good for humanity, since human well being is measured by the increase of consumer spending. It is arguable whether competitive markets may be the best guarantee of efficiency, but it is undeniable that they are not of equity. "When the market goes too far in dominating social and political outcomes, the opportunities and rewards of globalization spread unequally and inequitably –concentrating power and wealth in a select group of people, nations and corporations, marginalizing others" [UNDP 1999, 2]. US multinationals account for more than a quarter of the US GDP and the sales of multinationals exceed the GDP of many countries [UNDP 1999, 31-2]. This ideology works thanks to the articulation of what Peter Sloterdijk calls "cynical reason", which gives otherwise informed and intelligent people the alibi to believe in what they know is not true, despite the fact that is not true, and because it is not true, thus freeing them to get drunk in the hedonistic enjoyment of consumption. What is lost from the picture is that for capitalism culture is just a means for economic progress. However, as the World Commission on Culture and Development has stated, "culture is not a means to material progress: it is the end aim of ‘development’ seen as the flourishing of human existence in all its forms and as a whole" [in Borofsky, UNESCO 1998, 72]. What is lost from the picture is the difference between "being better" and "being better off", between the pursuit of things and the pursuit of happiness.

2. The centripetal/centrifugal effect of spinning

Despite World Bank reports sustaining that absolute poverty has fell from 29% to 23% of the world population between 1990 and 1999, and many economists who affirm global inequality is falling, there are many other economists and social scientists who sustain exactly the opposite [see Fischer 2003; Wade 2001; Monbiot 2003]. Regarding statistics, in the end it all depends on the gathering of information and the manipulation of data. Despite widespread hullabaloo about the respect for difference, the benefits of ethnic diversity, and the "I’m feeling good" of multiculturalism, inequality and poverty –which comprises many more dimensions than lack of income, including deprivation of education and health services, social exclusion, lack of employment, all forms of discrimination, environmental degradation, personal insecurity, violation of human rights, lack of cultural expression, and the inability to make social and cultural choices [UNESCO 1998, 17]-, are more severe today at any level of analysis: between countries and within countries, between rural and urban areas, between ethnic groups and between men and women. The gap between the elites of the world population globally integrated and the remaining majorities of locally excluded, continues to widen. The income ratio between the fifth of the world’s population living in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest has gone up from 30 to 1 in 1960, to 60 to 1 in 1990 to 74 to 1 in 1997. The fifth of the world population living in the richest countries consume 84% of the world’s paper, 70% of the world’s energy, 75% of its metals, 85% of its wood, and 60% of its food. They also enjoy 82% of the world trade and 68% of foreign direct investments. The world’s 200 richest people more than doubled their net worth between 1994 and 1998 to more than $1 trillion, an income equivalent to that of 41% of the world population. The assets of just three super-billionaires exceed the combined income of all the least developed nations and their 600 million people [UNDP, 1999, 3].

As the Argentinean Martin Hopenhayn has said, while the few experience globalization as a provisional condition, which presupposes a diversified and sophisticated consumption, better access to information and technology, and the joyful abandonment to the seductions of an unpredictable and vertiginous life, the many live globalization as a precarious condition, characterized by labor insecurity, social violence, and poverty without hope. One of the most blatant effects of globalization is the disintegration of social cohesiveness, fragmenting communities, nations and regions, and the horrendous increase of violence, not only in poor countries, but in rich countries as well, from urban violence to social unrest, from political violence to military interventions, from terrorism as politics to the politics of terror. The many forms of urban violence, which is the result of inadequate incomes, overcrowded housing, job insecurity, racial and gendered discrimination, and lack of social services, is answered with more guns, more repression, more vigilance, more prisons, more private security, more spatial segregation and more empty cities, in a spiraling of the politics of fear which have taken over the life in the cities [Jelin, UNESCO 1998, 120]. In 1995 the illegal drug trade was estimated at 8% of world trade; money laundering is estimated to be between 2-5% of global GDP; the traffic of women and girls for sexual exploitation, which amounts to half a million a year in Western Europe alone, amounts to a $7 billion business [UNDP 1999, 5]. There is an alarming internalization, naturalization and conformism to the daily coexistence with violence, which so becomes a perverse mechanism of ideological control and political manipulation, at the local, the national and the international levels.

But perhaps the most sophisticated and perverse form of violence is the asynchrony suffered by the many locally excluded between expectations and achievements, between the ideological, symbolic and affective allurement into a way of life from which they are economically and socially forbidden. The attraction of goods continuously on display and the ostentatious display of luxury beyond reach generate frustration, anger, and hate [Jelin, UNESCO 1998, 119-120]. Peripheral populations are condemned to a systematic unevenness between the slow or even regressive pace of socio-economic integration (that is, in their capacity of consumption and living standard) and their accelerated ideological integration to the global market of desires and symbolic consumption [Hopenhayn 44-5]. This "disintegrative integration," as Hopenhayn calls it, aggravates the material and symbolic stratification between those who enjoy the banquet as full members of a transnational cosmopolitan elite, and those who, dazzled by transnational pop culture, are condemned to peep through the window. The economic and cultural promises of economic distribution, political democracy, ethnic and sexual tolerance, and cultural respect are not, and cannot be under the current global system, for everybody.

The best visual metaphor I have found for this sort of globalization is that of a spinning vortex, whose always-increasing intensity and velocity produces a dual and combined centripetal and centrifugal effect, keeping the people at the center in a sort of ecstatic, obsessive, paranoiac delusion, while pushing the people at the periphery into an erratic, hysteric, schizoid illusion. Therefore, globalization produces both, integration and marginalization, unification and segmentation, connection and isolation, homogenization and differentiation, concentration and dispersion, massification and individuation, entropy and stasis, acculturation and transculturation.

3. The cosmopolitan commodification of culture

A truly ecumenical culture is obviously the ultimate horizon of any humanist utopia, and perhaps this explains why we tend to perceive cultural phenomena as detached from economics and geopolitical powers, thus mystifying two different, though complementary, forms of cultural globalization: the global pop consumer culture produced by transnational corporations for worldwide mass-consumption, and a high tech, sophisticated, deterritorialized cosmopolitanism intended for a transnational corporate and academic elite, according to Brazilian Renato Ortiz. Despite the indisputable increase of worldwide interconnectedness, the narrowing of cultural differences, and the globalization of local cultures, the fact is that only a tiny fraction of cultural goods produced outside the US culture industry, deemed by transnational media corporations to fit into "global" standards, become global. This is the case of the carefully selected musicians, whose art, promoted as "world music," is produced and marketed for the consumption of the "cosmopolitan" segments of the European, US, and Japanese markets [Throsby, UNESCO 1998, 203]. The truth of the matter is that the only truly global culture is the US pop culture spread through the overwhelming power of media networks and the spousal of the cosmopolitan lifestyles and esthetic tastes of mega-stars, globalized by the omnivorous power of transnational corporations and the asymmetrical interdependence of global cultural flows. The single largest export industry for the US is entertainment. Hollywood films grossed more than $30 billion worldwide in 1997 (Titanic alone more than $1.8 billion); more than 80% of the world music markets is controlled by the so-called "Big Six", Sony, Polygram, Warner, BMG, Thorn-EMI, and MCA [Jelin, 1998, 110; García Canclini, UNESCO 1998, 169; Throsby, UNESCO 1998, 195-6].

The notorious worldwide imbalance between cultural production and cultural consumption barely reflects, actually, the monopoly of knowledge, information and culture held by central countries (In 1993, just 10 countries accounted for 84% of global research and development expenditures and controlled 95% of patents [UNDP 1999, 3]. While Latin America accounts for less than 1% of the world cultural exports, 70% of Latin American television programming is imported, with 62% being from the US [García Canclini, UNESCO 1998, 165-6]). Nevertheless, the truly ideological character of this cultural globalization, driven primarily by the pursuit of profit, lies in the unidirectional and, for this reason, ultimately non-communicational and disinformational mass media [Baudrillard 1997, 33-4].

This is related to a paradox, which springs from identifying globalization with access to high tech information and gadgetry, and implies that cultural globalization is only possible in the centers while peripheral peoples keep dwelling into their local cultures. Obviously, economic globalization is based upon high tech, and the access to information technology gives evidence, in part, of the degree of cultural globalization. But this partial truth mystifies the fact that with the exception of the cosmopolitan few, the majority of the population of the US –unquestionably the driving force behind economic globalization- clings to a staunchly cultural insularism (easily translated in xenophobia and jingoism according to the circumstances), and that what is "global" for the rest of the world, for ordinary Americans is simply "American." In this sense, cultural globalization is tantamount to the global acculturation, particularly of the youth in the rest of the world, to US pop culture, with all the implications in the shake up of social habits and consumer desires, family structures and patterns of living [Mohan Rao, UNESCO 1998, 39], a process that many consider an overt Americanization. Cultural globalization (again, not to be confused with the globalization of cultures) is not solely dependent upon the accessibility to high tech, but more importantly, on the relational value that global pop culture and the integration of the world populace to the global imaginary acquire in specific milieus. To watch the Emmy Awards or the latest video by Britney Spears in Columbus doesn’t have the same cultural value as it would to watch them in Prague, or Nairobi, or Buenos Aires.

What is the cultural reception of an exotic but now blond Shakira’s mumbled English in the US or in Latin America? TV programs, pop music and Hollywood films produced for the US market make up the lion’s share of cultural consumption around the world, but how many foreign films are annually screened in a city of more than one million, capital of an important state, like Columbus? Hence, while non-US publics get globalized via the commodification of global pop culture, most Americans remain locked in an insular and nationalistic bubble that has even shrunk after 9/11, when the violence of globalization finally stroke back. Hollywood saturates every market: 70% of the European film market, 83% of the Latin American, 50% of the Japanese, while foreign films are less than 3% of the US film distribution market [UNDP 1999, 33]. While in the rest of the world peoples are challenged to change customs, tastes and desires, in the US these challenges amount to the cosmopolitan adventure to the "ethnic" restaurant around the corner and the elites’ acquired taste for expensive wines and flavored coffees. Although they become part of the landscape (not truly an ethnoscape, as Arjun Appadurai would wish), the millions of migrants who flood the rich North from the poor South are not part of the club; what is exotic ethnic cuisine for the few is plain homemade cooking for the many. These migrants, many times undocumented, indentured workers kept under some form of slavery, are the invisible hands washing the dishes, breaking cement, and picking tomatoes for us to enjoy. The experience of vertigo produced in the peripheries by the centrifugal dynamics of globalization corresponds at the center to some sort of centripetal stasis. Cultural cosmopolitanism is good, but it is not good for everybody, and the "profound dehumanization and systemic banalization of civilization" that it contributes to legitimize, is not at all the kind of humanism I envision.

4. The commodity effect

As we have seen, the process of expansion that led to globalization was facilitated by a dual and combined conversion in the regime of capital accumulation, from the exploitation of alienated work to the exploitation of alienating consumption, and from the industrial production of material goods to the cultural production of symbolic goods; a conversion that puts culture at the center of a system in which economy, politics, society and culture seem to be integrated into a single totality that blurs the difference between the material and the symbolic, the base and the superstructure, the real and the ideological, insofar as ideology is embedded now in the commodity-sign form, which permeates and regulates the system. Culture, in the form of information, know-how, software, patents, and so for, becomes one of the main sources of capital and a decisive mean of production, but more importantly, because the economy is increasingly moved by consumption, and particularly by the consumption of symbolic goods and cultural services, culture becomes the engine of the "new economy" as well as its main indicator.

However, consumption has not just become the economic mover, but it also has a primordial political and cultural function. Because we do not consume objects, we consume something else, even more important, in an economy of plenty where objects abound. We consume messages, symbols, meanings, which tell us how much we are worth and who we are. Consumption –and particularly cultural consumption- works through the production and reproduction, creation, incitation and manipulation of desires, constantly pushing the threshold of pleasure, stirring as a result additional consumption and reinforcing consumerism as a "natural" way of life. It defines a system in which commodities are produced primarily as signs and signs are produced as commodities; a system in which everything that can be exchanged (objects, services, bodies, sex, information, pleasures) has a symbolic value and consequently can always be translated to the ultimate sign, money.

But consumption is also a field of political struggle, not only for the direct access and the social distribution of goods, but because consumption –and particularly the symbolic value provided by both material and cultural goods- creates the illusion of having a democratic effect, when it actually is highly stratifying and discriminatory. Moreover, with the erosion of the nation-state and its institutions, and the crisis of legitimacy of politics and politicians, consumption subsumes, under the commodity form, the role, the rights and the responsibilities of citizens. In effect, nowadays, citizens are more and more supplanted by consumers, the same way identities are configured more and more in consumption: Tell me what you consume and I will tell you who you are. At last the cultural becomes political and vice-versa.

And this is so, in the end, because consumption is the place where desires –the desires that drive the political and the libidinal economy- are produced and supposedly satisfied, and I said supposedly because satisfaction is pushed always further, and the subject, as consumer, becomes the sublimated pursuer of an impossible object of desire. Providing a satisfaction that is never enough, consumerism conforms subjects that can never be fulfilled. This explains the profound instability of social identities and political as well as ethical values in a society where everything is for sale, where everything is relative, translatable, interchangeable, where everything is a simulacrum of a simulacrum, and where we cannot resign ourselves to play the role that we have been assigned in this reality show where everything that is solid seems to melt into the air.

Let me finish with some words by Mahatma Gandhi: "I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any." [UNDP 1999, 4].


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