Four Faces of Global Culture

Four Faces of Global Culture

Mini Teaser: If one is to heed Huntington's call for a dialogue between cultures, one must pay as much attention to the manner in which the different processes of cultural globalization relate to each other as to their relation with many indigenous cultures.

by Author(s): Peter L. Berger

The term "globalization" has become somewhat of a cliché. It serves to explain everything from the woes of the German coal industry to the sexual habits of Japanese teenagers. Most clichés have a degree of factual validity; so does this one. There can be no doubt about the fact of an ever more interconnected global economy, with vast social and political implications, and there is no shortage of thoughtful, if inconclusive, reflection about this great transformation. It has also been noted that there is a cultural dimension, the obvious result of an immense increase in worldwide communication. If there is economic globalization, there is also cultural globalization. To say this, however, is only to raise the question of what such a phenomenon amounts to.

Again, there can be no doubt about some of the facts. One can watch CNN in an African safari lodge. German investors converse in English with Chinese apparatchiks. Peruvian social workers spout the rhetoric of American feminism. Protestant preachers are active in India, while missionaries of the Hare Krishna movement return the compliment in Middle America. Both hope and fear attach to these facts.

The hope is that a putative global culture will help to create a more peaceful world. If a global culture is in the making, then perhaps a global civil society might come into being. Ever since John Locke re-emerged from Eastern Europe speaking with a Polish accent, a great amount of hope has been invested in the notion of civil society, that agglomerate of intermediate institutions that Tocqueville saw as the foundation of a vital democracy. Civil society depends on a consensus on civic virtues, and that, after all, is what a culture is supposed to supply. The French sociologist Danile Hervieu-Léger (in her contribution to the forthcoming volume The Limits of Social Cohesion, edited by me) speaks of an "ecumenism of human rights." The same idea is conveyed in a much cruder form by the advertisements of the Benetton company. Whether the idea is couched in sophisticated or crude terms, it too has an evident factual basis. It is also reasonable to hope that a world in which there would be a greater consensus on human rights would also be a more peaceful world.

But there is also fear attached to the prospect of cultural globalization, fear of a worldwide "airport culture" in which the rich diversity of human civilizations will be homogenized and vulgarized. This fear has been vocalized in the rhetoric of "Asian values" that has attained a certain political significance in recent years, as well as in the rhetoric of the various movements of Islamic resurgence. Similar fear, in less virulent form, can be observed elsewhere, for example in the worries about cultural homogenization among Euroskeptics. One of the arguments made by those who opposed Austria's joining the European Union was that Austrians would no longer be able to refer to potatoes as Erdapfel, a homey word that was suddenly imbued with the genius of Austrian identity, but would have to use the High German word Kartoffeln. Of course this was silly. But the desire to preserve distinct cultural traditions and a distinct cultural identity in the intense economic and political pressure cooker of the new Europe is not silly at all. The fear, like the hope, is not without foundation.

A more nuanced understanding of cultural globalization will have to take account of both the homogenizing forces and the resistances to them. Benjamin Barber made a move toward such an understanding in his book Jihad vs. McWorld (1995). Most recently, and in a more subtle way, Samuel Huntington has discussed the same issues in his Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), a book to which the present observations are greatly indebted. Huntington, whose view of the contemporary world cannot be accused of being overly optimistic, ends his book with a call to search for commonalities between the contending civilizations, a dialogue of cultures. One need not agree with every aspect of his analysis to agree with his conclusion. A dialogue between cultures, however, presupposes a clearer understanding of all the processes at work, both those of cultural globalization and of resistance to it. It is proposed here that there are at least four distinct processes of cultural globalization going on simultaneously, relating in complex ways both to each other and to the many indigenous cultures on which they impinge.

Davos: From Boardroom to Bedroom

First is what Huntington nicely calls the "Davos culture" (after the annual World Economic Summit that meets in that Swiss luxury resort). This culture is globalized as a direct accompaniment of global economic processes. Its carrier is international business. It has obvious behavioral aspects that are directly functional in economic terms, behavior dictated by the accoutrements of contemporary business. Participants in this culture know how to deal with computers, cellular phones, airline schedules, currency exchange, and the like. But they also dress alike, exhibit the same amicable informality, relieve tensions by similar attempts at humor, and of course most of them interact in English. Since most of these cultural traits are of Western (and mostly American) provenance, individuals coming from different backgrounds must go through a process of socialization that will allow them to engage in this behavior with seemingly effortless spontaneity. This is not always easy. A growing number of consultants in "diversity management" are making a good living advising corporations on how to affect this sort of socialization as smoothly as possible.

But it would be a mistake to think that the "Davos culture" operates only in the offices, boardrooms, and hotel suites in which international business is transacted. It carries over into the lifestyles and presumably also the values of those who participate in it. Thus, for example, the frenetic pace of contemporary business is carried over into the leisure activities and the family life of business people. There is a yuppie style in the corporation, but also in the bodybuilding studio and in the bedroom. And notions of costs, benefits, and maximization spill over from work into private life.

The "Davos culture" is a culture of the elite and (by way of what sociologists call "anticipatory socialization") of those aspiring to join the elite. Its principal social location is in the business world, but since elites intermingle, it also affects at least the political elites. There is, as it were, a yuppie internationale. Some years ago, while the apartheid regime was still in power in South Africa, a friend of mine had lunch with a representative of the African National Congress at the United Nations. To my friend's surprise, this individual spent most of the lunch talking about apartment costs in Manhattan. While this yuppification of a representative of what then still understood itself as an anti-capitalist revolutionary movement might have had an ironic aspect, it was a cultural trait that turned out to be very useful a few years later. A number of people from both sides have reported how, when they first met, young ANC exiles and young Afrikaners were surprised by their similar lifestyle preferences and personal values. These were certainly not derived from their respective historical traditions; rather, they were, precisely, commonalities rooted in the "Davos culture." There have been similar reports about the first meetings between young Israelis and Palestinians leading up to the Oslo agreements. Whether one is edified by this spectacle or not, it may be that commonalities in taste make it easier to find common ground politically.

While cultural globalization facilitates interaction between elites, it creates difficulties between these elites and the non-elite populations with whom they must deal. Many moral and ideological conflicts in contemporary societies pit an elite culture against a resentful mass of culturally accredited and economically underprivileged people. As Huntington points out, these resentments may lead to the emergence of a nationalist or religious counter-elite. Also, individuals who participate in the "Davos culture" with reasonable success vary in their ability to balance this participation with other parts of their lives. While some, as previously pointed out, may allow yuppie behavior and values to inundate their private lives, others seek more complicated compromises. On my last visit to Hong Kong I happened to stray into a Buddhist temple and came upon a truly graphic vignette: In front of an altar, facing a large statue of the Buddha, stood a middle-aged man wearing a dark business suit over stocking feet. He was burning incense and at the same time talking on his cellular phone.

Faculty Club International

Both critics and advocates of contemporary global capitalism mainly think in terms of the "Davos culture" and its ramifications in popular culture ("Davos" in interaction with "McWorld"). Yet there are at least two other quite different types of cultural globalization going on. One of these is what one might call the "faculty club culture." Essentially, this is the internationalization of the Western intelligentsia, its values and ideologies. To put it graphically, if the "Davos culture" tries to sell computer systems in India, the "faculty club culture" tries to promote feminism or environmentalism there--a rather different agenda.

While this culture has also penetrated the business world (and in turn has been penetrated by it), its principal carrier is not business. Rather, it is carried by foundations, academic networks, non-governmental organizations, and some governmental and multinational agencies (such as development agencies with social and cultural missions). It too is primarily an elite culture, though here again there are those who aspire to it from the lower echelons of cultural enterprises (say, schoolteachers or social workers who read the books and periodicals that reflect the views emanating from the great cultural centers).

More importantly, the "faculty club culture" spreads its beliefs and values through the educational system, the legal system, various therapeutic institutions, think tanks, and at least some of the media of mass communication. If this culture internationalizes the Western intelligentsia, it also internationalizes the conflicts in which this intelligentsia has been engaged on its home territories. James Hunter has written very insightfully about the American "culture wars" (first in his 1991 book with that title). These conflicts can now be observed worldwide, though always of course subject to local modifications.

A good example of this second process of cultural globalization is the anti-smoking movement, arguably one of the most successful movements in developed societies over the last twenty years or so. Before then it was a small, marginal sect, hardly noticed in public discourse; today, especially in North America and Western Europe, it has largely achieved the goal proclaimed early on by one of its spokesmen--to make smoking an activity engaged in privately by consenting adults. The reasons for this stunning success need not concern us here. The point is that this movement, clearly a product of Western intellectuals, was disseminated worldwide by an alliance of governmental and non-governmental organizations. In a series of conferences, the World Health Organization propagated the anti-smoking cause internationally. At one of the early conferences the travel expenses of all participants from developing societies were paid by the Scandinavian development agencies (the conference was held in Stockholm). These participants, mostly from health and education ministries, came from countries with horrendous health problems and the campaign against smoking was not high on their list of priorities. As was to be expected, they re-ordered their priorities given the incentives to do so. Ironically, the concepts of neo-Marxist dependency theory, which have not been very good at interpreting the transformations of advanced capitalism, fit rather well in the globalization of the "faculty club culture." Here there is overwhelming "dependency", with an indigenous "comprador class" carrying out the agendas devised in the cultural centers of the "metropolis."

There are obvious tensions between the first and second processes of cultural globalization. Clearly, the anti-smoking movement collides with the interests of the tobacco industry. More generally, both feminism and environmentalism collide with notions of economic efficiency held by the international economic elite. At this time, the most visible conflict is between the "ecumenism of human rights", carried out by a multitude of non-governmental organizations, and the belief of the "Davos culture" that all good things, including human rights, will eventually result from the global establishment of successful market economies. And of course there are also tensions between the "faculty club culture" and various indigenous movements of cultural revitalization. The recent women's conference in Beijing pitted mostly Western feminists against an odd alliance of Islamists and the Vatican. Most significant politically, the Western-centered human rights community is meeting with strong opposition in a sizable number of non-Western countries.

The McWorld Culture

Third, of course, is popular culture. Here Barber's term "McWorld" fits best. And it is this culture that is most credibly subsumed under the category of Westernization, since virtually all of it is of Western, and more specifically American, provenance. Young people throughout the world dance to American music, wiggling their behinds in American jeans and wearing T-shirts with messages (often misspelled) about American universities and other consumer items. Older people watch American sitcoms on television and go to American movies. Everyone, young and old, grows taller and fatter on American fast foods. Here indeed is a case of cultural hegemony, and it is not surprising that others, such as French ministers of culture and Iranian mullahs (not to mention the now defunct Soviet Komsomol functionaries), greatly resent the fact.

These critics of "cultural imperialism" also understand that the diffusion of popular culture is not just a matter of outward behavior. It carries a significant freight of beliefs and values. Take the case of rock music. Its attraction is not just due to a particular preference for loud, rhythmic sound and dangerously athletic dancing. Rock music also symbolizes a whole cluster of cultural values--concerning self-expression, spontaneity, released sexuality, and, perhaps most importantly, defiance of the alleged stodginess of tradition. The consumption of American popular culture has, as it were, sacramental character. Paraphrasing the Book of Common Prayer, these items of consumption are visible signs of an invisible grace--or curse. The hegemony becomes clear by the asymmetry of consumption. Mexicans eat hamburguesas, Americans eat tacos. But the Mexicans are consuming whole chunks of American values "in, with, and under" the American hamburgers; the Americans are certainly not absorbing non-culinary aspects of Mexican culture by eating tacos.

A couple of years ago, I met a representative of Hallmark greeting cards for the Chinese province of Guandong (a market of some sixty million people). He was happy to report that his product was selling very well. When asked which greeting cards were most popular, he said Valentine cards. "You see, young Chinese men are quite shy with members of the opposite sex. It is difficult for them to express their feelings. It is much easier to send a Valentine card." I did not know what to say to this and mumbled something about how there must be a lot of work translating the texts into Chinese. "Oh no", he said, "they want the cards to be in English."

The people in charge of the globalization of popular culture are, of course, members or aspiring members of the "Davos" elite. The aforementioned Hallmark representative evinced all the characteristics of a successful, with-it yuppie. But the consumers of these cultural exports are a vastly broader population. The indigenous reactions once again vary from complete acceptance to complete rejection, with many degrees of compromise in between. Complete acceptance generally leads to a conflict between the generations, and presumably an important motive for such acceptance among young people is to outrage one's parents. Complete rejection is difficult, even under repressive regimes (the Komsomol functionaries, after trying repression, finally had to compromise by inventing something they would call "Soviet rock"). There are many and complex degrees of compromise, some of them puzzling to the outsider.

A few years ago I visited the Meiji Grand Shrine in Tokyo. I was in the company of my hosts, who were pious adherents of Shinto. When inviting me to go to the Shrine with them, they asked me solicitously whether my religious feelings would be offended by their venerating the Meiji Emperor; I replied courteously (and perhaps rashly) that this would be quite all right. I then stood with them, holding incense sticks in my hands and bowing to the deafening accompaniment of drums being beaten by a row of Shinto priests lined up behind us. I re-emerged from the Shrine somewhat dazed, reflecting that I had just been praying to a dead Japanese potentate. Outside the Shrine was a large park filled with hundreds of young people, fervently dancing to rock music blaring from numerous portable radios. I had noticed some young people inside the Shrine and wondered whether they were now joining the crowd in the park. I asked my hosts whether they saw any contradiction between what was going on inside and outside the Shrine. They were actually puzzled by my question. Certainly not, they replied after a moment of reflection, "Japanese culture has always been successful in integrating elements coming from abroad." One of the most interesting questions about contemporary Japan is whether my hosts were correct in their sanguine view about the absorptive capacity of Japanese culture.

Evangelical Protestantism

Fourthly (though perhaps not finally), a distinctive process of globalization is provided by Evangelical Protestantism, especially in its Pentecostal version (which accounts for something like 80 percent of its worldwide growth). Its globalizing force is best seen by comparing it with the other dynamic religious phenomenon of our time, that of the Islamic resurgence. While the latter has been limited to countries that have always been Muslim and to Muslim diaspora communities, Evangelical Protestantism has been exploding in parts of the world to which this religious tradition has always been alien, indeed, mostly unknown. The most dramatic explosion has occurred in Latin America (it was magisterially described in David Martin's 1990 book, Tongues of Fire). But the same variety of Protestantism has been rapidly growing in East Asia (with the notable exception of Japan), in all the Chinese societies (including, despite repression, the People's Republic), in the Philippines, the South Pacific, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. There are recent, as yet vague, accounts of an incipient growth in Eastern Europe. And while the origins of this religion are in the United States (the "metropolis"), its new incarnations are thoroughly indigenized and independent of foreign missionaries or financial support.

Evangelical Protestantism brings about a cultural revolution in its new territories (in that respect it is very different from its social function on its American homeground). It brings about radical changes in the relations between men and women, in the upbringing and education of children, in the attitudes toward traditional hierarchies. Most importantly, it inculcates precisely that "Protestant ethic" that Max Weber analyzed as an important ingredient in the genesis of modern capitalism--a disciplined, frugal, and rationally oriented approach to work. Thus, despite its indigenization (converts in Mexico and Guatemala sing American gospel songs in Mayan translation), Evangelical Protestantism is the carrier of a pluralistic and modernizing culture whose original location is in the North Atlantic societies.

It is not clear at this point how this startlingly new phenomenon relates to the previously enumerated processes of cultural globalization. It certainly enters into conflicts with indigenous cultures. Most of the persecution of Christians recently publicized by human rights organizations--notably in China, in the Islamic world, and (sporadically) in Latin America--has been directed against Evangelical Protestants. What is clear is that this type of Protestantism is creating a new international culture, increasingly self-conscious as such (here the relation to American Evangelicals is relevant), with vast social, economic, and political ramifications. While the new Protestantism should not be misunderstood as a movement of social protest or reform (its motives are overwhelmingly personal and religious), it has large and unintended consequences. These are decidedly favorable to pluralism, to the market economy, and to democracy. It should be observed here that there may be other globalizing popular movements, but Evangelicalism is clearly the most dynamic.
Four faces of globalization: each is distinctive, each relates to the other three in complex ways. Yet they have important common features. The two perhaps most important features have already been mentioned--their Western, principally American, provenance, and related to this, their relation to the English language.

The Western provenance of these processes has given credibility to the frequent charge that they are part and parcel of Western imperialism, with the United States being the core of this malevolent phenomenon. The charge will not hold up. The "Davos culture" is today fully internationalized. It is centered as much in Tokyo and Singapore as it is in New York and London. One could more plausibly speak of an imperialism of the global capitalist system, but that is simply to attach a pejorative term to the fact of an immensely powerful global reality. The concepts of neo-Marxist theory simply do not fit it. As already mentioned, those concepts are somewhat more apt in describing the globalization of the "faculty club culture." Feminist or environmentalist agitators in Bangladesh can indeed be described as agents of a Western-based "cultural imperialism", but it is difficult to see how their activity benefits global capitalism. Multinational corporations do indeed make large profits from the distribution of popular culture, but there is no coercion involved in their success. No one is forcing Japanese teenagers to enjoy rock music or young men in China to express their emotions in terms derived from American romanticism.

Claudio Véliz (in his 1994 book The New World of the Gothic Fox) has made this point very tellingly in his description of the collapse of Latin American tradition before the onslaught of "Anglo-Saxon" values and lifestyles, notably those connected with a pluralistic society. He has used a good metaphor to denote this process, proposing that "Anglo-Saxon" culture is now in its "Hellenistic" phase. That is, it is no longer diffused by means of imperial power, British or American; rather, it has become a cultural force in itself, with large numbers of people clamoring to share it. As to Evangelical Protestantism, both leftist intellectuals and Roman Catholic bishops have portrayed it as a gigantic CIA plot, especially in Latin America, but a look at the empirical evidence presents a very different picture, one of a vital, autonomous movement no longer dependent on support from the outside.

If cultural globalization today represents the "Hellenistic" phase of a civilization originating in the northern parts of Europe and America, the English language is its koiné (the "basic Greek" that served as the lingua franca of late classical antiquity and that, among other things, became the language of the New Testament). We live, as Véliz puts it, in "a world made in English", and he points out that no other language appears to be a viable successor to English in the foreseeable future. By now there are very straightforward practical reasons for this hegemony of the English language. However much this may enrage intellectuals in certain places (France, for example, or Quebec), English has become the medium of international economic, technological, and scientific communication. The millions of people learning English all over the world do so in order to participate in this global communication, not (with few exceptions) because they want to read Shakespeare or Melville in the original. However, one does not use a language innocently. Every language carries a freight of values, of sensibilities, of approaches to reality, all of which insinuate themselves into the consciousness of those who speak it. It makes sense to assume that the attractiveness of English, especially in its American form, is due at least in part to its capacity to express the sensibilities of a dynamic, pluralistic, and rationally innovative world. This is even true of Evangelical Protestantism, which mostly expresses itself in languages other than English, but whose leaders and young people learn English in order to be in touch with the Evangelical centers in the United States. In doing so, they may get more than they bargained for. The road from the Christian Broadcasting Network to Oprah Winfrey is disturbingly straight.

The picture I have sketched is huge and exceedingly complex. There are many aspects of it that are not yet fully understood. There is a very large research agenda here. But one conclusion can be ventured: If one is to heed Huntington's call for a dialogue between cultures, one must pay as much attention to the manner in which the different processes of cultural globalization relate to each other as to their relation with many indigenous cultures. This then will not just be a dialogue between "the West and the rest", but a considerably more complicated enterprise.

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